Seven is supposed to be a lucky number, right?

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The entry below was originally posted on September 12, 2001.


This is what I was doing yesterday.

I was at home, getting ready to leave for work. The message on the internet was short and slightly irreverent:

BREAKING NEWS from CNN.com — World trade center damaged; unconfirmed reports say a plane has crashed into tower. Giant monkey unharmed.

I thought it was a joke. But I checked in to CNN.com, just in case. Staring me in the face was a simple picture of the World Trade Center, smoke pouring from one tower.

I flipped on the television. Every channel had that same, bizarre image on - a single tower billowing dark, black smoke. A thin dark line stretched across the face of the tower, possibly where the wing of the aircraft had hit the tower.

But the line was so big. Huge. If that really was the impact line, then it must have been a big airplane. A commercial airliner. Unthinkable.

On the television, commentators were chattering away, buttressing and then contradicting each other, their apparent confusion only making the matter worse.

I reached for the phone and called my mother.

“Mom, turn on the television. An airplane just crashed in to the World Trade Center.”

I couldn’t see the towers from the windows of my apartment, so I stood there, looking at the pictures, trying to wrap my brain around the impossible. I remembered that in the late 1940s, a B-25 bomber flew into the Empire State Building in the fog. Those images, of the bomber half-in and half-out of the old skyscraper, were bouncing around in my head. But it was a clear, sunny day. And the airplane - what kind of airplane? - had been swallowed entirely by the tower. I looked out the window, to see who was out on the street. And then I glanced back to the television, only to see a monstrous fireball emerge from the side of the other, previously pristine, tower.

“Oh my God, Mom, there was just a huge explosion in the other tower!”

Up to that point I had thought that it had been an accident. But then, the other explosion, the other tower. I at first thought that I had been mistaken, that there had been a second explosion in the first tower, or maybe debris from the first accident had somehow—someway—gotten into the second tower and exploded late. But there had been no marks on the face of that second, southern tower. And a little voice inside my head quietly—persistently—forebodingly said “This was not an accident.”

The smoke was now streaming out of both towers. I don’t remember if I stood - if I sat - if I paced around my apartment. I was flipping channels rapidly, the differing views from different helicopters of the two wounded towers providing an almost cubist experience; with a little imagination I could see myself flying around the towers. I wanted them to go back to the explosion, to look at it again, to see if you could see something - anything.

And then they slowed down the tape. And the shape was unmistakable. Blurry, pixilated, fuzzy, out-of-focus. But clear enough. A twin-engined passenger airliner. Heading for that southern tower. Dipping behind the first stricken tower. Emerging for only a frame or two in the gap between the skyscrapers. Vanishing again. And then that massive, horrible explosion.

Horror. Nothing but horror.

And they played it again.

The President of the United States came on the television, and gave a brief statement, confirming what had been an increasingly sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. An “apparent terrorist attack.”

Other reports started to trickle in. An explosion at the Pentagon. Airports closing. Amidst the confusion, the only thing that seemed clear to me was that nobody knew anything.

I asked my mother if she’d heard from my brother.

“No word yet.”

Stuyvesant—his high school—is less than five blocks from the WTC.

I sat down at my computer and fired off a quick status email to my sister: “I’m OK; Mom & Dad are OK; am assuming that William is OK.” I followed it with a quick email to my brother, betting on the slim possibility that he might be able to access his email. “William - report in. Email, cell phone, phone home, whatever.”

I slowly got dressed, and went downstairs to go to work.

The streets were empty. I walked down to 66th Street, looking for a taxi or a bus to take me to work. I found one on the corner, near the ABC studios. I told the taxi driver where to take me, and then he turned to me and said “One of the towers collapsed.”

“What?”

“One of the skyscrapers collapsed. The second one that got hit. It’s gone.”

I was thinking that perhaps the top of the building, above the explosion, had toppled, leaving a truncated, grotesque mockery of a once-proud building.

“No, it collapsed completely.”

Then he told me how he had been downtown only five minutes before the first plane had hit. He showed me his log book. I looked at it. 8:40 a.m., the intersection of Water and Wall streets.

The street outside of my office was jammed with people. It looked like half the population of the building had decided to spontaneously evacuate.

Inside, the building was eerily quiet; an uncommon hush had descended. It was a hush that would spread across the city. I found my boss, and asked him if there was anything that I could do. Nothing was the response. I asked him if we had had any people at the World Trade Center that morning. The news was not good. One of our engineers had been there and we hadn’t heard from him.

I checked my email, and responded quickly to a couple of “Are you OK” queries. No word from my brother. That wasn’t entirely surprising, as local phone line service at my house had gone out before I left for work, and my cell phone wasn’t working at all either.

I settled down in front of a TV, trying to digest what had happened—what was happening. The pictures made it clear that there was no more southern tower at the World Trade Center. Only the one was left. A shroud of smoke and dust at the base of the center made it difficult to tell how much—if any—of the southern tower was left.

The talking heads were saying that New York city schools were in “lock-down” mode. There were reports that there was a car bomb at the State Department. The Mall in Washington DC was on fire. No, there was no car bomb. Someone was saying that there was a third plane that brought down the tower. An airliner had crashed in Pennsylvania somewhere. A bomb scare downtown. Missing, hijacked aircraft. All air traffic in the United States had been grounded.

Then the second tower collapsed. There was no commentary as the top part of the skyscraper gently settled, with a gray skirt of smoke coming out around the tower where the aircraft had hit. And then in horrifying slow motion, but with sickening quickness, the rest of the tower collapsed upon itself.

There were more reports of schools still being in lockdown, but that some kids were being allowed out in the custody of their parents. An email came in from a senior vice-president, telling everyone to go home. On the television, lower Manhattan had been engulfed by a giant gray cloud.

I grabbed my bag and found my boss. There was nothing I could do at the office, so I told him I was going to try to find my brother. Miracle of miracles, the phones at work were working. I called my parents and told them what I was going to do. They still hadn’t heard from him.

I left the building and started walking down Tenth Avenue. It was a beautiful day out. Warm, but not too hot. There were far more people walking uptown than down. There was a strange in the air. I heard the roar of a jet fighter overhead, and looked for it. An F-15 over the Hudson. I never thought I’d see the day when armed interceptors patrolled the skies over Manhattan. Then again, I never thought I’d see the day when the World Trade Center would be destroyed in suicidal terrorist attacks.

I walked down to 15th Street, where Tenth Avenue meets the West Side Highway. Hordes of teenagers were making their way uptown along the bike path along the river. Someone grabbed one of the kids and asked them where they were from.

“We’re from Stuyvesant High School. They evacuated the school.”

I slowly started to pick my way down the bike path, scanning the crowds for my brother’s face. There was no traffic at all on the West Side Highway. I would later learn that Manhattan had been sealed off — no traffic either in or out. There had been a exodus across the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge as people made their way by foot across the East River, away from Manhattan, away from danger.

I was less than two miles from ground zero when the rest of the students from Stuyvesant had passed me. There were other refugees from lower Manhattan heading up, too — men, women, in varying states of griminess. A woman in a dark blue suit was crying in to her cell phone, saying she had seen people jump from the burning towers.

Ambulances would punctuate the stillness, full sirens on, heading north, heading for hospitals. Emergency vehicles — fire trucks, cars with sirens on them, cops on motorcycles — would appear out of nowhere, rushing somewhere, and then disappear.

And then people started running north, away from the disaster area. I heard cries of “Gas Leak!” I ran across to the east side of the street. There was a pay phone there. I picked it up — it was ten seconds until I got a dial tone. I got through this time, but they hadn’t heard from William yet.

I yielded the phone to a middle-aged woman in a tan suit. And then people started running again. A construction worker was yelling “Gas Leak!” again. I grabbed the woman, and told her to start running, to forget the phone call.

I cut inland, into the West Village, until I found another pay phone. My cell phone was still not working. I was in line behind a Chinese teenager who was giving a quick update to someone — her parents? a friend? an aunt? — in rapid-fire Cantonese. This time I got a dial tone immediately. My parents still hadn’t heard from William.

I walked back up Hudson Street, joining the human migration northwards. I stopped and looked for a bus. No sign of a bus.

As I neared 14th Street, a man on a bicycle passed me, his long hair dancing in the wind as he sprinted up towards Eighth Avenue. Across the back of his white T-shirt he had written “Give Blood.”

I stopped at Martin’s house on 22nd Street to see how he was doing. He was fine, as were Sandy and Kristina. His cat Floyd was pretty freaked out. Of course, Floyd is not exactly a normal cat. Called my parents again. William had finally called. We had missed each other somehow. I think that he had already passed me by the time I had gotten down to the West Side Highway. I later learned that he was in the process of evacuating his school when the second tower collapsed.

I made another stop along Eighth Avenue, at the offices of a production company that I do some freelance work for. The office was abandoned, save for a few people who worked a company that sublet space from my employers. I checked my email again, responding to the emergency “How is Everybody” emails that were flying around. I also updated my webpage, alerting any potential visitors that I was fine, as was the rest of my family (I took the time to fix an embarrassing error: for some reason, I’d been entering all the September entries with “August”).

Then I finally made it the rest of the way up to my parents’ house, spotting a few more F-15s keeping the peace along the way.

It is hard to explain the feel of the city now. There is an odd, stilted quietude; there are virtually no cars on the street, and people are hushed. It feels depopulated, as if the normal hustle and bustle of the city had been told pack it in for the night and go home. There were very few people out on the streets last night. It feels like the city as a whole has withdrawn because of the shock and the horror; as if it has paused for a moment of collective introspection. Walking home last night I passed a well-dressed blonde woman standing in a phone booth. She was crying into the phone.

The surreal quality of the city right now has been amplified by the fact that the prevailing winds have shifted today, and are now coming out of the south, spreading the fumes from the disaster scene across Manhattan. There is a faint smell of burnt rubber hanging in the air, even as far up as my apartment. And then there’s the , a sonic manifestation of the pensiveness that pervades the city; and the occasional sirens, not unusual in the usual urban symphonies of honks and squeals and assorted random noises, but unsettling in the slightly nervous calm that grips New York.

New York City is a tough city, and it will harden you.

But the response of the people of this city has been astonishing. Yesterday there were four and five-hour waits to give blood. Today, emergency centers around the city were having to turn away volunteers — total strangers, most without any sort of medical training, just New Yorkers willing to lend a hand in their city’s hour of need. I have seen with my own eyes hundreds of volunteers manning phones in emergency response centers, helping people try and track down missing and injured loved ones. Impromptu memorials have gone up in parks downtown. The Mayor was asked at a news conference if there had been any looting. He looked at the questioner as if they were from Mars.

(I don’t think that anyone would accuse me of being the world’s biggest Rudy Giuliani fan, but he has really distinguished himself, showing real leadership in this crisis. I won’t mention other people in leadership positions who did not distinguish themselves during this calamity.)

I don’t know who masterminded this attack.

I don’t know what an “appropriate” response would be.

There is that old cliche: “And at that moment, everything changed forever.”

I do know that a city has changed forever.

I do know that life has changed forever.

Things really never will ever be the same.

I am lucky.

I am safe. My family is safe. My friends are safe.

I can only hope that you and your are healthy and safe as well.

My thoughts tonight — and, I suspect, for many days and nights to come — are with those who have not been as fortunate or as lucky as I.

Good night.

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on September 11, 2008 9:14 AM.

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