After the Towers of Light went out following the First Anniversary of 9/11, NYC lost its best visual marker during air travel.
Ask anyone from my parents’ generation, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” and without hesitating they’ll be able to tell you their location, who they were with, even the clothes they were wearing. The event is that memorably visceral.
The same goes for 9/11. Practically every American with a functioning memory who was on this plane of existence 15 years ago can tell you their exact details as to where they were on that day, how the news was first relayed to them of the attacks, and of course, their reaction. When it comes to crises, especially of the life threatening kind, we can never be exactly sure how we’ll react until danger is directly in front of us in real time. Recalling my experiences of September 11th in their entirety has made me realize how many fundamental aspects each of us commonly share as human beings but also how vastly we differ from each other regarding our individualized reactions to extreme crisis.
Returning once more to that mid-September day in New York City 15 years ago…
It was a few minutes past 1030 in the morning and myself as well as an entire lobby full of people had been informed the second of the World Trade Center’s Towers had just fallen only after being told the other Tower had gone down roughly a half hour earlier.
To me, the Twin Towers were interchangeable with the city of New York, the gargantuan carbon copy buildings were a staple for those who grew up in the Greater Metropolitan Area.
If you were driving into the city and got lost – look for the Twin Towers to see how too far north or south you went.
If you were on a passenger plane and were flying in to La Guardia or JFK, spotting the Twin Towers meant you were home and just about to land.
In all honesty I never liked the two buildings that were so mammoth, they had their own Zip code. Their height alone was intimidating. When I worked as a temp on Wall Street the two times I ate my lunch in between the Towers resulted in severe indigestion. I can remember sitting outside and throwing my head back so my field of vision looked straight up along the outer façade of the South Tower. My vision became blurry due to what I assumed was an optical illusion of the gigantic building slightly swaying back and forth. Not too long afterward, I was told that was no optical illusion. Being so massively large with nothing remotely as colossal nearby, the Twin Towers served as buffers for high winds which blew within the vicinity of its uppermost floors, causing the book ended behemoths to slightly sway at times.
Even with that said, these modern marvels of construction were built and promoted on the premise that nothing in the known Universe could ever take them down or cause them to fall. If one approached any given New Yorker between 1973, the year of their construction and September 10th, 2001 and said to them “The Twin Towers will eventually fall.”, you would have abruptly been told that was simply impossible or that you had a nut loose (aka you were certifiably insane).
But that all changed on a morning in mid-September in 2001.
Returning once more to a corporate lobby in Gramercy Park….
As if things weren’t worrisome enough with some insisting World War III had officially begun and others vehemently arguing this clearly was the Rapture with the Four Riders of the Apocalypse soon to gallop down 5th Avenue any minute, after the lobby was informed the second of the Twin Towers had fallen, the building manager, still standing on a chair, proceeded to give his thoughts regarding what he believed was going to happen to the building we were currently in and the preventative actions he had subsequently taken:
“People, I’ve been told Washington DC has been attacked and there are numerous planes still in the air that have been hijacked (a reference to the plane that was soon to crash in Pennsylvania) should our building get hit, the flames from the plane’s fuselage would travel all along the elevator shafts killing people both in the elevators along with anyone waiting for them. All elevators are now officially out of service, with the fire escape stairwells being the only mode of movement between floors.”
To which the company Vice President still standing on his chair added: “Due to the circumstances, we will be closing early today. Get yourselves home and be safe.”
Living in Manhattan I always traveled light but not this time around. Besides my day job, in 2001 I was an up and coming opera singer. I had auditioned the previous Saturday for an obscure von Suppe opera to which the show’s conductor had provided me with one of its rare, no longer in print hard copy scores for me to both learn and sing from for a final audition that upcoming Saturday.
A hard copy no longer in print score that was sitting next to my desk on the 19th floor.
Unsure of what was going to happen to myself or the building I thought it best to trudge up the 38 flights of stairs (the building had intermediate flights of stairs in between floors) along with the other couple hundred people who also had left items at their desks they couldn’t part with in the very dim lighting of the fire escape stairwells which moved slower than a slug’s pace and repeated the same process going back down.
But the lugubrious motion of staircase slowness instantaneously disappeared upon stepping outside. The overall dynamic revved off the charts into that of a war zone. With the absence of cars, buses, and taxis, people were wildly running in every direction both in the streets and on the sidewalks. Matching the frantic pace of motion as I made my way out of the building I broke into a sprint but was brought to an immediate halt due to running directly into the chest of an exceptionally tall immobile man who was standing in the middle of 19th street. Although in a state of motionless shock, his long arm reached out and prevented me from falling flat on my back. When I regained my balance, I threw my head back to realize I actually knew the 6’5” giant whom I had just barreled in to. More like I knew “of” him – lead singing front man of the band that was my first live concert in 1984, The Cars’ Rick Ocasek who happened to live on the same block where my job was located.
Rick Ocasek – Rock Icon and 9/11 speed bump
Stepping back from that surreal moment of crashing head on into the chest of a Titan sized rock star in the middle of what seemed to be World War III, I remember the man’s face being one of terrified confusion. Looking back, I wish I could have provided some consolation by reassuring the talented musician he would be alright but since I was dealing with strictly the surreal, I simply said “Thanks Rick.” and sprinted away.
And that collision was nothing but “Emotion in Motion” compared to what awaited me just around the corner.
As I turned the corner of 19th Street to head south down Broadway, my sprint was abruptly stopped yet again…..this time by a sea of people, all moving in the opposite direction of where I was headed. For those of you familiar with the movie “Gone with the Wind“, picture the bombing of Atlanta scene where Scarlett O’Hara tries to make her way through the streets against the current of panicked townspeople fleeing for their lives, but add another ten thousand extras.
There was a mass exodus away from the World Trade Center and the Financial District. People were everywhere, some rushed and panicked, others dazed and stupefied. Most were normally dressed but a choice few looked as if they had a bucket full of chalk board eraser dust thrown over their heads. I assumed many had no idea where they were going with the only known definite was to get away from the destruction of the Towers by heading due north.
And here I was a lone guppy trying to swim against the tsunami of the crowds by attempting to head due south.
After 3 blocks of getting jostled, pushed, shoved, and lest we not forget elbowed by trying to make my way in a direction that was opposing thousands of people who were collectively in motion due to panic or fear, I was exhausted and paused to rest sitting on a garbage can. Thankfully a bit of reason came when I asked myself where was I going and why? The answer didn’t suffice of having to get home for the sake of being home because once there, I would be alone. And I was told long ago in times of drastic measure there was safety in numbers.
And nothing I had experienced could even come close as to how much of a drastic measure this day was turning out to be.
Realizing I was 4 blocks from a good friend’s place in the West Village, I got up from the garbage can, took a deep breath, and proceeded to swim against the tide of the moving masses but with a changed course far closer than my apartment.
My friend Paul lived on the top floor 2 blocks north of Washington Square Park in the West Village. He had just opened the door to his apartment when a sound occurred that, similar to the unison mass reaction I had heard in the lobby, was something I have never heard before or since. Oddly enough I categorically call this sound a “sky scraper” since it literally sounded like the sky was being scraped by some invasive force.
We were about to update each other with what each of us had experienced up until that point when the sound of scraping sky happened a 2nd time. Needing to know the source of this alarmingly strange sound, Paul and I ascended the small flight of stairs to the roof.
Our eyes had barely adjusted to the bright sunlight outside when the sky scraping noise began yet again but much much louder since we were out in the open.
Three military jet fighters speedily zoomed low and zipped over us. Amazingly, they flew together as if one single aircraft, their motion was that precise and in synch. These planes were so powerful and loud it felt as if they were mere inches above our heads as they passed directly over us.
From out of the sonic blast of the jet fighters flying overhead another sound was layered underneath – screaming. In an adjoining building a woman stood at her kitchen window uncontrollably screaming. We yelled over to her if she was alright to which she said “Was that the unaccounted for plane?” Word had yet to arrive that the plane intended to fly into either the Capitol Building or the White House had been overtaken by passengers and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania but from our perspective at that point in time a rogue plane was still out there poised to hit and destroy at any moment.
After reassuring her and two other people who had rushed to their windows that the culprit behind the rocket firing noise were jet fighters and not a rogue plane about to crash, my friend then informed me that every bridge, tunnel, and ferry in NYC was stationed with troops under lock down with no one being permitted to get on or off the island of Manhattan. Stories emerged of men jumping into the Hudson River in their business suits just to physically get off this island of a metropolitan citadel that lay completely surrounded by water otherwise known as Manhattan.
It appeared as if the 5 boroughs of the city of New York were under martial law.
Like myself, my friend was originally from Connecticut as well.
“I’ll call my father to could come get us.” he proposed. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“How?” I asked. “If no one can get off Manhattan, no one sure as hell is going to be able to get on.”
It was at that moment I made a vow to myself. If I got through this insanity, I swore never to be stranded on an island ever again.
Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.