I would imagine that almost all of us remember exactly where we were the moment we heard the devastating news.
For me, Tuesday September 11th 2001, began as just another work day, catching the 6:45am bus from my home in New Jersey, to the Port Authority in New York City…a daily trip that would usually take just over an hour, and I would usually arrive around 8:00am, grab a cup of coffee at one of the thousands of breakfast carts that dot the city, and rush to my office which was located off of 5th Avenue at 37th Street, and I would be at my office no later then around 8:15am.
My son Jayson who had just recently moved back home from California, also worked in New York City and his office was about 6-blocks from mine, at Madison Avenue and 43rd Street.
I would usually begin my day checking messages from the night before and getting a handle on the day ahead.I recall I had several meetings that day scheduled for
mid-morning and a scheduled early morning call to one of my clients who was in need of a Web Designer, and I had began the process of going through my database of candidates, when Ashia my recruiting partner came into my office and announced that a plane had just hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center Complex.
I recall that my first reaction was one of disbelief, in that it was a spectacular sunlight day, with not a cloud in the sky…a beautiful sparkling day, and therefore surprised that an airplane would hit a skyscraper, let alone a towering skyscraper. I recall we immediately went to our conference room that had a panoramic unobstructed view of lower Manhattan and in particular the World Trade Center, and although we were about three miles away it was obvious to me by the amount of damage caused, that whatever hit the North Tower wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a small aircraft. There was a gaping tear ripped into the building and a tremendous about of black smoke bellowing out.
I recall thinking at that moment of the visual contrast between the dark gray/black smoke against the sun drenched blue sky, and it reminded me for a moment of a beautifully colored painting that someone had accidentally smudged.
I recall casually chatting with several coworkers that this was indeed an event, and that by the amount of damage inflicted there had to be a substantial loss of life, and as I was conversing I heard my name over the intercom announcing I had a phone call, I recall quickly moving around the conference table towards the huge picture window that in effect was the center piece of the conference room and designed to showcase the breathtaking view of lower Manhattan. I quickly sat in one of the high back leather chairs and swung around facing the window overlooking the city, and I began speaking casually on the phone to one of my clients, who had not yet heard of the “accident”.
I began detailing the events that were unfolding before me, and I remember describing to him in-a-matter-of-fact way, what was taking place. I recall referencing to him the amount of smoke bellowing out of the Tower, and of the debris that was cascading down on to the street below. We must have been chatting for awhile when I began to notice other aircrafts far off in the distance moving slowly towards the Towers, I surmised that these appeared to be helicopters that are always an intricate part of the City’s landscape, and I assumed that they were either news and or police helicopters moving slowly towards the Towers.
However I soon began to notice another aircraft moving much faster far off the horizon and I once again assumed that this must be some type of emergency aircraft and I recall detailing the movement of the aircraft as it passed the Towers in the distant background and then it began to quickly bank around towards the Towers flying dangerously low and I instantly recognized it as a large winged aircraft gaining speed and I recall exclaiming something into the phone at the moment of impact, as it momentarily disappeared into the South Tower…what followed to this day is perhaps the most stunning visual that I will ever experience.
Within the blink of an eye a huge orange fireball erupted exploding, cutting threw and out the opposite side of the Tower, spewing debris within its wake as cascading droplets of fire began raining down on the street below. I recall hearing a collective gasp within the room and then an eerie silence; it was as if the world had stopped momentarily and the carnage that we just witnessed had yet to be processed within our brains.
We had witnessed perhaps the most violent act that we’ll hopefully ever see in our lifetime, a giant passenger plane crashing into a building and yet there was no sound no explosion, no rattling of windows…nothing but an eerie silence within the sound proofed conference room…and to this day the disconnect I felt in witnessing the visual violence of an explosion and the expectation of sound that never came…still troubles me.
I recall the confusion and fear that gripped us, as we tried to understandwhat had just taken place, and I recall babbling into the phone trying to grasp what I had just witnessed… gripped by emotion I was unable to speak, and I simply hung up the phone.
Within moments a primal fear overwhelmed me as I began to realize that what we just witnessed was a premeditated act and that America was under attack, and my instincts immediately turned to survival and to my son.I recall the chaos that erupted within our office, the crying, the shouting, the fear and the anger all coming in tandem within moments of one another.
However, in spite of the momentary chaos and confusion, we soon realized that we were in the shadow of the Empire State Building, and therefore another potential target, and we needed quickly to evacuate, however before leaving I needed to contact my son I wasn’t sure if he had heard what was unfolding, however I needed to get to him, and we needed to get out of the city.
I recall hurriedly speaking to him on the phone and that I’d meet him in front of his office building within a few minutes, and I recall walking back into an empty conference room, walking towards the huge picture window and for some strange reason I took my thumb and placed it in front of my eye blocking out the burning Towers, as if trying to erase what had just taken place, and for a brief moment I marveled at the pristine beauty of the city’s magnificent landscape, and then I once again looked at the burning Towers… I didn’t know it at the time however, that this would be the last time I’d ever see them standing.
5th Avenue was a virtual sea of humanity, as pedestrians and autos merged into one another, the sidewalks became so clogged with bodies evacuating buildings that they overflowed into the streets, bringing traffic to a stop. I recall standing in the street on 5th Avenue within a mass of humanity and looking south towards the direction of the Towers and seeing a huge gray cloud and I thought it odd that a cloud of that size would suddenly appear on a beautiful pristine clear sunlight day, and I wondered why I couldn’t see the black bellowing smoke any longer.
Of course, I like hundreds of others around me didn’t know that what we were seeing was the destruction and collapse of the South Tower, however as I stood in the center of the street leaning against a taxi looking south the news slowly began to filter through the massive crowd, information being relayed from one stranger to another that the South Tower had collapsed.
At this point the rest of the morning became a blur, however I do recall getting to Madison Avenue in front of my sons office building where we were to meet, and he not being there. He recalls that we met in the bar at the foot of his building; to this day I still have trouble piecing this moment together. However for some reason we either separated or I couldn’t find him…whatever the case we were both on our own.
Obviously rumors were flying fast and furious, one account had another plan hitting the Statue of Liberty and of course I was anticipating that the next target would be the Empire State Building and so I began moving quickly from Madison Avenue towards the Port Authority, in all the confusion and chaos I hadn’t yet called home and I was sure that Judy had already heard the news, again this becomes a blur, however I believe I tried calling home at this point, however as I later learned the second Tower had also collapsed and all communications were down and Manhattan Islandfor the first time in its history was cut off from the rest of the world, nothing moved, no subway, no buses, nothing…I along with millions of others was imprisoned within the city.
I recall walking aimlessly around, looking for familiar faces, and I finally ended up at Bryant Park, it must have been around , and strangers soon became companions, gathering snippets of information. I was frustrated at not being able to call home and wondering about my son, and if he was alright. I hung around the Port Authority for awhile hoping that they would resume service. I had no way of knowing that almost all of the Port Authority Police and emergency responders were lost…ironically the outside world had more information then I had, and I was in the midst of it.
I recall spending most of the afternoon walking to and from the Port Authority and then back to Bryant Park. I finally realized that getting home in all probability would not happen and I finally decided I needed a place to stay. And I began walking south down 8th Avenue towards my friends studio and the smoldering Towers and that huge gray cloud that hung now like a shroud over Lower Manhattan.
I remember walking along 8th Avenue with hundreds of other people in mid-afternoon on a beautiful sunlight day and thinking to myself that I should be at work, and once again wondering where my son was, and of course concerned that I couldn’t call home, and random thoughts pieced together by snippets of information gathered throughout the day, and every rumor passed along by strangers brought another level of anxiety.
It was now about 2:30pm when I arrived at Union Square, this area of Lower Manhattan on any given day (or night) is always crowded…however on this day it was simply chaotic, as I began to witness for the first time, what can best be described as a retreating army of both uniformed and civilian causalities, some covered with grayish ash, bewildered and aimlessly walking north, and as this converging mass of humanity mingled, it reminded me for a moment of a B-horror movie, and I will never forget as I passed these causalities looking into their faces and seeing for the first time their personal devastation and what they had experienced…and selfishly thinking to myself, thank Godthat it wasn’t me.
My lifelong friend Hugh Bell who I’ve known for well over 35 years, had a studio near Union Square and of course he welcomed me, and although he’s a well known photographer who could have easily gone down to the World Trade Center to photograph and cover the unfolding tragedy, he refused, and I recall this was the first time, that I was finally brought up to speed with what had actually taken place after the initial attack.
We stayed in the studio most of the afternoon watching New York 1, a local cable station, I recall watching the Mayor trying to comfort the city. Except for a cup of coffee I hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day, and around 6:00pm we headed out looking for a restaurant, and I recall the incredible contrast in that only hours before this area was teaming with people, now it was a virtual ghost town, and almost all of the restaurants in the area were closed, and I remember walking west towards one of our favorite waterholes, a well known and iconic place called Pete’s Tavern.
Surprisingly the restaurant was open, and it was a beautiful evening and we decided to eat outside, and if one didn’t know of the tragedy that had unfolded, one would think it was simply a holiday weekend in Manhattan. The atmosphere within the bar was a contrast between those that were greatly affected by the tragedy and those that for whatever reason seemed somewhat oblivious to the events of the day. My sense was that they drank themselves into a state of disconcert.
We lingered at the restaurant for well over two hours and by the time we left we had done some serious drinking; we arrived back at the studio sometime after . Bell had converted his studio years ago into a duplex, and his living space consisted of three rooms above the studio, and I would finally catch a few winks on a small leather couch in an alcove that would usually be reserved for his clients…all in allnot a very comfortable place to crash…however we both didn’t sleep for long, perhaps a few hours.The constant sirens, bells and emergency horns racing towards the smoldering site made it impossible to sleep.
It was the wee hours of the morning when we decided to leave the studio and “take a walk”. I recall the moment I ventured out into the street facing Broadway and the continuous stream of emergency vehicles passing by. It again reminded me of a sci-fi flick with both military and police vehicles racing towards the smoldering site. However what impressed me was witnessing the number of emergency responders from all across the eastern seaboard converging into the city from, Conn, Pennsylvania, Road Island, Delaware, New Jersey, and Mass.
We walked south towards the smoldering site, following this steady stream of responders, and I recall thinking to myself; that this night of 9/12/01, had instantly turned into day and there must have been every imaginable type of emergency vehicle, with pulsating and flashing lights, and I began reading emblems of fire trucks from as far away as Mass. and I once again became overwhelmed by the magnitude of this event.
With no destination in mind, we found ourselves at Canal Street, and I recall the unmistakable scent of burnt rubble and what appeared to be an eerie bluish glow of flood lights off the horizon. We were immediately challenged by several police officers who were busily erecting up road blocks, and we were told this was as far as we could go.
I recall Bell and I hanging around for almost an hour watching a procession of emergency workers coming in and out of the area, and of course that awful scent that I can still recall to this day…these are my personal recollections of that faithful day and of the evening that followed, I’ve written them down, as a reminder to me, that life as we know it, can change within the blink of an eye…God bless all who lost their lives that faithful day, and never forget.