It’s a cliché but five years ago today was a beautiful day. I was living in Weehawken with William and my usual routine was to hop on a bus, go through that tunnel and walk only a few blocks to work. I wore a charcoal gray Bill Blass pinstriped suit, nice black silk tie, white crisp and starched French cuff shirt, braces, tnt otc socks and some new shoes that weren’t quite as broken in as I would’ve liked. I didn’t care much about the new shoes, I was working behind a desk and wasn’t going to be doing much walking as I was working in a small office.
I was sitting at my desk, waiting for Gerri to come in after dropping off her kid at school. I was friendly with the FedEx guy who asked me if I heard anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. My first reaction to that was, ‘Get the fuck out of here’. He said to go check and I got up from my desk and walked around the corner and looked out the window. My initial thought before I looked out the window was a Cessna or a Piper Cub had struck the tower, then I saw a giant bite taken out of the north tower, as if Godzilla had eaten. I figured it had to have been an accident. Something obviously went wrong.
I walked back to my desk thinking that it couldn’t be that bad, it was early, maybe a lot of people weren’t in yet. I also remembered walking my bicycle with a flat tire through the World Trade Center plaza a week before, looking to get a subway uptown so I could meet Claire and Julio who continued on their bikes to Central Park. It was a Sunday and it wasn’t that crowded. A few weeks before I had a job interview across the street at Deutche Bank that I didn’t get due to my lack of a driver’s license (I was being looked at as a driver for a big wig in the bank) and my preference for Jazz cigarettes.
Here it was, weeks later and a plane had just hit the North Tower. I didn’t have a radio or any speakers on my computer and there was no television in the office so no one really knew what was going on. I sat at my desk and tried to do something, anything. Minutes later, high pitched screams from where I was just looking out the window send me running in that direction, just in time to see a large fireball spreading around both towers. A second plane just hit the South Tower.
I stood there thinking that I had to get up and go to work, I was sleeping late and this has to be a really terrible nightmare. I just stood there. There was no waking up, I was awake and watching this disaster happen a few blocks north of the Empire State Building, a few hundred feet east of the Public Library and a block or two south of Grand Central Station. Three possible targets in midtown Manhattan. If there were more targets on the agenda, I was in the middle of three of them.
Gerri showed up and didn’t know what was going on, she had been on the subway, even more detached from any information. My coworkers and myself quickly filled her in and I kept telling her to get her kid from school and go home. She didn’t know how serious things were getting and stayed in the office. We all just stood there, me and Gerri and about twenty other employees. One of them, Chris Caproni had a brother in one of the towers and was understandably worried. We stood and watched.
No one knew what was going on, even after someone found a radio. I called my sister in California (it was around 6AM PST) and my brothers in New Jersey and told them, leaving messages on their answering machines what was going on and though I didn’t know if I was going to get out of Manhattan alive that I loved them all so very much. I also left a message for Bill on his voice mail pleading with him to get in touch with me. Bill was starting work for a new bus company that week and there was a chance that he might’ve been driving down by the World Trade Center for the morning rush hour.
Time froze on the twentieth floor as we stood there watching at the tragedy unfolding listening to reports of planes attacking Washington DC, strafing the Washington Mall, blowing up the White House. Though I didn’t care for the residents of the White House I didn’t want to see anyone harmed. The one true fact that came out of the Washington DC tragedy was that the Pentagon was hit by another plane. More people killed or injured. No one knew what was next. No one could conceive of it.
Everyone started to scream as the South Tower shook a bit, and we could see it shake from a distance of two miles, thankfully not able to see the many souls who jumped out of the building to certain death to escape the hell of smoke and fire and rising temperatures. In a second, the South Tower started to pancake and fall floor by floor into a gigantic cloud of dust and fire. I don’t recall anyone screaming though someone must have been. I was not there I was out of my body, detached watching this happen.
The South Tower soon was gone, leaving its twin nothing but rising smoke, dust and fire. No one knew what to do, no one could do anything. We stood and watched. I went back to my desk and had a cigarette. Tobacco. It was totally against the law, against office etiquette, but the world was falling down around us. I went back to the window and minutes later the North Tower fell. I was gutted. Everyone speechless. Chris Caproni was stunned. He might have just watched his brother die a few miles away from him and there was not one thing he could do about it. Richard Caproni died that day.
We had heard about the plane crash in Pennsylvania and no one knew anything about that. What was in Shanksville? The story of Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and the rest had yet to be revealed. No one knew anything about what was happening at that moment. Gerri and I left the office together and took the elevator down to the lobby. The 39th street entrance to the building was filled with people running towards the 40th street entrance, saying something about a bomb.
We go out to 40th street directly under a glass façade and find a panicked mob headed in our direction, away from the Library. It turns out the fighter jets had arrived and created a sonic boom which was terrifying to hear and causing a stampede. I grab Gerri and we press against the building backs against the wall, when I look up and see that we’re underneath a lot of glass and could wind up getting sliced up should they crack and fall. We went back into the office and told who ever was still there what it looked like on the street.
After awhile we all left the office, to figure out how to get home. I stopped off at an ATM and took out around $300.00 thinking that if this is life during wartime then it might be good to have cash on hand just in case. I called up Rita to see if she was ok and if it would be alright if I stopped by. I was walking across town off the main thoroughfares to Rita’s apartment when I found myself under the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Another landmark, another target. I hightailed it out of there and on Ninth Avenue I started to see a few people covered in dust, having fled the World Trade Center area.
I walked past Rita’s building on 12th Avenue and walked across the highway and saw the line stretched out about a half a mile and about 10 people deep, all trying to get out of the city via the ferry. All lined up in the beaming hot sun, and me, being in dark clothes decided to go to Rita’s and wait it out for a while. I got to her apartment and hugged and cried some, and sat and watched TV hearing and seeing what I had only heard about or didn’t even think of. Stories of people in wheelchairs being left behind to wait for help that might not have arrived and if it did, they might not have made it out. A story about a woman waiting for a bus on the street when she was destroyed by a shower of burning jet fuel. Stories about trying help someone and running with them to escape the debris hand in hand and suddenly finding that all they are holding is someone’s now disembodied hand.
I was plugged in and started hearing what the rest of the country had been hearing. I couldn’t believe it at all. Finally, I heard from Bill. He wasn’t near the towers, he was driving somewhere else but saw it all happen as well. He made it back into the city and over to Rita’s apartment. He needed a moment to compose himself in private so I checked in on him after a minute to find him totally at a loss for words, incomprehensible with emotion. I hugged him and kissed him and let him know I was glad he was alive and with me.
After a few hours, Rita actually had to work. There was probably going to be a demand for cosmetics with all these people unable to get home, she was pissed but she had to go. We hung out with her boyfriend Jerry and her brother Ron. Julio called me on the cellphone and couldn’t understand why I was still in the city. He sounded worried as he screamed at me to get out. There was still a long line of people and I was in good company. I assured him that I’d be back in New Jersey soon enough.
On the roof deck of Rita’s building, Jerry, Bill and I stood looking at the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center when we saw 7 World Trade Center collapse. We were all to numb from the previous events to really say anything about it. We figured that most of the people hopefully were evacuated from there, after all it had been hours since the initial attack and final collapse of the Twin Towers.
I remember leaving Rita’s when the sun had gone down and it was still quite warm. Bill walked me over to the ferry. The hundreds, or thousands had long since sailed back to New Jersey. Bill and I kissed and he went back to Stuyvesant Town and I sailed across the river to home. On the ferry there was a group of guys talking shit about who they thought did it, the Arabs. I felt empowered enough to say that no one knew anything and after the Oklahoma City attacks a few years before, everyone thought it was because of the Arabs when it actually turned out to be homegrown. It shut them up, but then again it seems they were right. I went home and talked to my roommate William about what had happened and he related his own story. We stayed up talking to each other, and I talked a lot on the phone with my sister and brothers. The president made a speech from some undisclosed location and I actually believed him. For that moment in time I was plugged in with most everyone else, all feeling the same pain and anguish and hurt and confusion. I wanted something to be done and hoped the president was up for the task. Well we all know how that turned out.
But for those few days, people were actually kind to each other, faces that you saw almost everyday but never spoke to became approachable and talkative. People were nice to each other and looked out for each other. I remember a few days later when it was deemed safe enough to go back to work, there was a tremendous rainstorm. Really coming down hard. I was soaked and felt the best thing I could do was go to Modell’s and find some cheap boots and a dry shirt. As I was leaving, wearing my purchases I saw this guy attempt a rather large leap over a gigantic puddle. He made it but took a spill when he hit the sidewalk.
I asked him if he was ok and he gave me the weirdest look as he got up off the sidewalk. A look that said, ‘This is New York. We don’t talk or help each other here…’ but then a look of appreciation came over his face and he said, “Yeah, I’m alright”. That is one of the positive things that happened in the face of such negativity. I truly miss that.
Last night Bill and I watched ‘9/11’ on CBS. We have the DVD but we got sucked into it and were spellbound, like a gruesome car crash. There was an addendum added that’s not on the DVD and one of the Firemen is saying, ‘When I hear a low flying plane, it’s 9/11 all over again. When I hear sirens, it’s 9/11. When there’s a clear blue sky, it’s 9/11. It’s always in my mind’. I can relate to that.
It was such a beautiful day.