In New York City, the day of Sept. 11, 2001, dawned with brilliant blue skies and a crisp chill in the air. It was primary election day, and I stopped by the senior center at West 68th Street and Columbus Avenue to cast my vote for mayor before heading to the gym. It was a beautiful day, and I had a skip in my step.
When I came out of the locker room dressed for work, the world had changed. The gym was silent except for one overhead TV, providing the sound for about 15 sets all tuned to CNN. No one moved, all eyes were on the screens. Something bad had happened downtown, right where I was headed.
A plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center’s two towers. At the time, it looked like an accident. People were stunned but not yet alarmed. I boarded a subway headed south to Scholastic headquarters, where I was executive editor of a variety of print and online national news publications for kids. I still thought it would be a regular workday.
The train stopped at 23rd Street, and we were told a second plane had hit the second tower and all trains were now out of service. Someone stuck his head in the open subway door shouting the news: “It was no accident. We are being attacked!”
I climbed stairs to the surface, and, by some miracle, a taxi pulled up and took me all the way to work, where panic was in full swing on the streets. A woman with six young girls in maroon and white school uniforms grabbed my cab door as it opened, begging the driver to take them to Brooklyn. We all thought that was still possible. It was not.
I raced to the 12th (top) floor of the Scholastic building, which looked out over downtown and the two towers of the World Trade Center. Instead of two silver columns, smoke blotted out the skyline. As I watched from Scholastic’s outdoor deck, the second tower collapsed into a mushroom cloud of rising dust and debris that billowed out and fell like a blanket over blocks of downtown New York City. Days later, when I visited the site, the entire area was covered with a thick layer of gray that coated the streets, the fire escapes, racks of clothes, tables of jeans, and souvenir displays in stores with their front windows blown out. I walked through one storefront after another, a visit to the apocalypse. Thousands came to see. No one touched anything.
On the day of, at my desk in a building 15 blocks from the World Trade Center, I began to make calls. Cellphone antennas went down with the towers, but our land lines worked if you dialed out. No one could call in. Randomly, I would pick up the phone and say “hello.” Sometimes, a caller answered back. One time, it was my worried mother.
Occasionally, I would go stand in the 15-foot-high windows that looked down on Broadway from my fourth-floor perch. I saw a moonscape of gray zombies, many with briefcases in hand, walking, stumbling slowly uptown, away from chaos. My brain computed it as a movie set. It could not be real.
I called Lee and Dan Alvey, lifelong Marble Falls friends who owned The Picayune and the River Cities Tribune (now DailyTrib.com), and they asked me to tell them what was going on in an email.
“Send us a picture,” they said. “Send us words.”
I didn’t write that email until two days after the attack. The picture ran on the front page of the Sep. 14, 2001, issue of the Tribune. The email was published as an op-ed on page A7.
Here is part of what I wrote, though now, 20 years later, I long to edit inelegant phrasing and clunky transitions. I was raw with exhaustion and shell shock when this was hurriedly composed.
INSIGHT FROM THE FRONT
I went as close to the site as I could yesterday (Sept. 12). Walked for miles with a camera and notebook looking for kids who were helping bring in water to firefighters. Other buildings started falling and they shut down the area again so we only got as close as Canal and 6th Avenue. Not ground zero, but about ground and a half.
The air is thick with smoke and particulate. Even in my neighborhood at 70th and Broadway by Lincoln Center, it is smoky and smells burnt. That’s five miles away from Ground Zero.
Walking through the streets is like walking through a ghost town. No traffic. Very few people. Signs are posted all over the city, including my building, telling you where to go to give blood, to volunteer, to donate money, food, water, have you seen this person? Tables are set up downtown by rescuers who are handing out face masks to filter out the bad air. I have a cough today from being so close yesterday. It gets in your nostrils, sits in the back of your throat, and makes your skin feel sunburned.
Ambulances are lined up around the downtown area, but they have nothing to do. Only three people were rescued yesterday. People who get to ground zero, whether reporters or rescue workers, come back looking stricken and changed.
The New Yorkers who still can, go to sleep at night and pray thanks for having a bed to sleep in and a God to pray to. And that’s about all I can handle right now.
First Presbyterian Church of New York City, where I was a member for 15 years, lost eight congregants in the attack, one a friend and fellow usher who usually sat two seats in front of me. A dear friend at work lost her brother, who had gone to work for CantorFitzgerald only two weeks earlier. The floor where he worked took a direct hit from the first plane. Every employee — 658 of them — was killed. Another congregant was a police officer, one of the first responders, those brave men and women who ran into the building as everyone else was running out. It took more than a year to hold all 403 funerals, each and every one reported on the news, bagpipes keening in the background. I still tear up when I hear a bagpipe play. I see the bumper stickers occasionally, dark blue and ragged with age: 9/11/01 — Never Forget. It’s been 20 years. I don’t think I ever will.