Our experience in NYC

Date Submitted: 09/07/2002
Author Info: Chris (Brooklyn, NY - USA) 
Occupation: Government/Military
Lived in NY on 9.11.01?: Yes
Knew someone who perished?: Yes

(This is the text of a letter we sent to our family & friends the day after the attack)

To all who‘ve asked how we’re doing, thank you for your thoughts and concerns. To answer your questions about what’s been going on here in New York, we thought it would help to go through what we ended up doing yesterday and today.

I left home in Brooklyn Heights (about a mile from the WTC area) at about 8:40 AM to drop off a check for the garage and then vote in the Mayoral primary election before going to work. On my way to the polls, while listening to a local radio talk show, I heard a brief report about a hole in the side of the World Trade Center and a possible plane crash. I called Erika, who was still at home, to tell her to turn on the TV to see what was happening, then went off the polling place. What was in my mind was the possibility of a small prop plane accidentally hitting the side somehow.

While waiting to vote, I began to hear more details/rumors/etc. about what had happened, including the idea that the crash had been deliberate rather from other people in line. Voting was quick, and when I entered the subway to go to work in midtown Manhattan, nothing seemed amiss. I decided however to get off at Bowling Green (the first stop in Manhattan) to see if I could observe what had happened.

I came out of the subway at 9:03 (thinking for a moment about when I would eventually get to work given the detour, but deciding it wasn’t a concern since I’d been to a public meeting the night before until 8:30 PM.) As soon as I got to the street, I saw a massive plume of brown smoke filling the sky and large numbers of people milling around, and a block away, staring north towards the WTC towers. I also noticed that every public phone was in use with long lines waiting to call.

Rounding the corner of a street leading up to the WTC, I was presented with a scene unlike anything I’ve seen before. Both towers were on fire (the second crash had apparently occurred while I was in the subway) about 2/3 of the way up, and the metal grill structure of the building was clearly ripped open at the corner of the buildings. After taking this in for a few minutes, I turned back to the subway, looking a phone to call Erika (again all busy) to see if she was watching the unreality of the scene and to tell her not to come into Lower Manhattan (while I was not worried about her safety, I felt her office area was likely to be closed).

With no phones available I got back on the subway to midtown – for some reason, the idea of returning home didn’t occur to me – and waited with a few others for a northbound train. While waiting, I found a phone with only one person on line, and was able to get one call in before the next train arrived, but got no answer. On the ride north to my office, the crowd talked about what they had seen or heard (including the fact that one or both hits had been by a jet plane), and what they though we should do about it.

Walking the two blocks from Grand Central to my office, my radio filled in additional details about the situation, including reports of one or more hijackings. Arriving in my office, I found everyone in the conference room huddled before a TV with a flickering picture of the chaos (only channel 7 was broadcasting over the air – every other station used a transmitter on top of 1 WTC), now enhanced by the explosion at the Pentagon, with further unconfirmed reports of explosions at the State Department and a fire at the Washington Mall. People either talked, or stared silently or tried to phone home. I got calls from my father in Bronxville, my Mother stuck in a hotel outside of Washington, and my sister in a nearby office. I called Erika’s parents in Seattle to let them know that Erika was (as far as I knew) all right, so they didn’t wake up to the story without knowing how we were, but was still unable to contact Erika at home, while her office number rang without answer.

People continued to talk and watch the TV, when suddenly an explosion occurred and one of the buildings collapsed. Most stared silently, while some in the room started crying out loud. Nobody knew what to do, and train service out of town had reportedly been cut off, as well as all bridges and tunnels closed. I continued to try to call Erika, worrying more about whether she had made it into the disaster zone, or was stuck in a subway tunnel.

I also felt that, notwithstanding the uncertainty and the reported closures, the best thing I could do was get out of Manhattan and worry about the rest later. I decided to try walking to the Queensboro Bridge – if I could across I could eventually work my way south to Brooklyn Heights while avoiding the chaos.

As I pondered whether to strike out or wait for the situation to be clearer, someone called to say that my phone was ringing, and that Erika was on the phone. Relieved I talked about what I was going to try to do. Erika asked if she should try to pick me up in our car, but I thought the last thing we should do was get out on the streets, much less try to figure out where to meet each other. At best, a subway line that bypasses Manhattan would be running; at worst, I could walk the distance. She said she’d probably be going to an adjacent hospital to donate blood. I then headed out with an office-mate who lived nearby.

We started out up Madison Avenue, but decided to switch to Park because the sidewalks were packed with people waiting for buses out of Manhattan. At the same time, I thought it best to stay a good distance from the UN, Citicorp Center or any other prominent building. We checked the subway at 53rd Street, but discovered all lines into and out of Manhattan were closed. Working our way east, we arrived at the Queensboro Bridge, onto which thousands were flooding through the empty inbound lanes. While walking, we were passed by endless trucks and vans, all full to brim with riders or hangers-on looking for a quick ride out of Manhattan. To the south, the plume of smoke from Lower Manhattan drifted up and to the east (into Brooklyn where we were headed).

As we walked across the Bridge, a dull rumbling in the air was heard, causing people to look up and around for the source. Thoughts flitted to another plane, or another explosion in Lower Manhattan.

We arrived in Long Island City, Queens, which was festooned with posters from the election, which, I correctly guessed, had been cancelled. We turned south, checking for subway service and looking for buses, but finding only intermittent services. Other than the smoke, the day was beautifully sunny and warm. People on the street were surprisingly calm, walking and talking on phones, watching or listening to news reports at local stores. With no transit coming, we continued south for an hour, until I found a working pay phone and called Erika to say I’d made it out of Manhattan and was continuing home.

The southbound route took us through Greenpoint (Polish), North Williamsburg (a rapidly developing art district) and Williamsburg proper (Hasidic Jewish). Passing the Williamsburg Bridge, we noticed larger crowds flooding out of Manhattan. Along the way people had put out cups of water or hoses for the pedestrians – extremely thoughtful in the hot weather. Again, people were calm everywhere; some chatting, evening laughing at times, some playing handball in an adjacent park.

Periodically, aircraft rumblings were heard. Finally, I was able to locate the source – a fighter jet patrolling over the sky. We passed a Brinks company building, which was surrounded by guards toting rifles.

Finally, after about 3 1/2 hours, we made it to downtown Brooklyn. Hundreds of emergency vehicles and police were being marshaled at the foot of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. On one corner, a triage center had been set up for injured peopled brought over from Manhattan.

I finally made it home, to find the house empty. A note scribbled on the kitchen table said that Erika was volunteering to drive patients home from the hospital to make room for emergency cases. I took a brief minute to catch up on events, then headed out to a blood center I’d been referred to by a passing policeman. When I arrived, signs on the door said that they had no donation forms left and to come back in the evening. At the local hospital, I was also turned away, with a note that no more volunteers were needed. The outpouring of people trying to help was reassuring, but not being able to “do” anything was extremely frustrating.

With nothing else to do, I went to the store to pick up some extra groceries and took them home to watch events unveil on TV. Finally, about 4:30 PM, Erika came home.

Erika’s day

As Chris said, I was at home when he called, some time before 9 am. I turned on the TV and saw the north Tower with two big holes punched into it, on the north and east, and heard people being interviewed saying they had seen a plane fly into the north Tower. At that point it wasn’t clear whether what had happened was an accident or not.

I then went to vote. While I was waiting, I heard someone say that there were two planes. I thought what had happened was that the two holes I’d seen in the north Tower were caused by two planes. What must have happened instead was that the second plane flew into the south Tower after I left the house. It was obvious, though, that it was terrorism and not an accident.

I went into the subway to go to work. While I was waiting for the train, a man came along, looking very upset. He said to those of us waiting on the platform “don’t go to lower Manhattan, it’s a war zone.” Apparently he’d just come from there. I thought about it and decided it might be a good idea to hold off going into work for a while, since I could make do for a while with voice-mail and e-mail from home.

As I came out of the subway station, I saw the man again, together with a woman. I went up to them and asked them what they’d seen. The woman was almost crying, saying she’d seen people jumping from the Towers. I decided to go to the Promenade (which has a great view of lower Manhattan) before going home.

There were hundreds of people standing quietly on the Promenade watching the Towers burn. Initially I still thought only the north Tower was damaged, but then I saw that the south Tower was burning too. A great plume of gray and black smoke was rising from the area of the Towers and staining the sky as it was blown towards an area of Brooklyn to the south. Every now and then a rumor would pass through the crowd – one of the planes was hijacked, the Pentagon had been hit too. Another Cleary lawyer came up to me and we talked for a while, commenting about the likelihood that no one would want to work in the World Trade Towers after this and wondering about how our office was doing and whether our colleagues were ok.

Then, completely unexpectedly (to me, since I still didn’t realize that a plane had flown into the south Tower), the south Tower just collapsed, pancaking down in a tremendous cloud of smoke. I can’t forget that image; for me that was the end of something. I can’t believe that on Sunday and Monday I walked to work over the Brooklyn Bridge, looking as usual at the downtown skyline with the Towers towering high overhead, and that I’ll never see that sight again. The buildings were ugly, but they were THERE, always there, and they meant that at one glance you knew you were looking at lower Manhattan and nowhere else in the world. Family gave Chris some old photos that his grandfather took years ago of the lower Manhattan skyline, taken from Brooklyn, for his last birthday, and they are standing against the wall as I write, showing a profile that now doesn’t look so different from what we will see now.

The smoke then spread through all of lower Manhattan – what I was seeing must have been the dust cloud that one sees on TV spreading – and then beyond, towards midtown and towards us. I stayed a few more minutes, but it was hard to see what was going on. Someone nearby commented that the cloud would be reaching us in a few minutes and those of us in the area all headed away. As I walked home, the air, which had been gorgeously clear and sunny, gradually became a yellowish gray, and my eyes and lungs were affected by gray particles in the air. It is so unreal, the day was a mildly cool, clear, wonderful day with sun shining through the leafy trees of our brownstone area, with this one gaping wound in the way the world is supposed to be.

I closed all of our windows and doors and watched TV for a couple of hours at home. I saw the second tower fall. I also called Mom & Dad to let them know I was ok, and talked to Chris, who said he was going to walk over the 59th Street bridge and then home. I kept watching to see if I could get any idea what had happened to our office building, since it’s right across the street from the World Trade Center. (I have since heard that some of our windows on the west side were damaged but that the building otherwise is ok. The building was evacuated after the second plane hit, and as far as I know while some people were caught in the gray dust cloud when the first tower fell no one has been seriously hurt. I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back into the building or get access to our computers – our servers are still all down.) I waited until Chris called me again after getting over the bridge (I wasn’t sure he’d be able to do so and wanted to wait until I knew for sure what he would be doing), and then I went down to our local hospital, thinking that I perhaps could give blood.

There was a sign on the door of the hospital telling blood donors to go to a nearby corner. I went there and a volunteer standing there told me and about 10-15 other people that a shuttle would come and take us to Metrotech center in downtown Brooklyn to give blood there. Just then a woman came by on a bicycle and said that she’d just come back from the center and that there were 3 hour lines and the center had run out of forms and was asking people to come back in the evening.

I went back to the hospital and up to a room where they were registering volunteers. While I was waiting, a staff person came and asked any volunteer with a car to come with her to a certain conference room to take patients home. When I had registered I went to the conference room and spoke to a staff person (for some reason I was the first volunteer to get to the room), and they asked me to take a woman home.

I went home, left a note for Chris, got the car from our parking garage, and drove the patient home. She told me that she had been scheduled to be discharged Wednesday, but that injured people were being brought in and that her bed was needed. It took me a couple of hours to drive her home and get back, for various reasons including that it was very difficult to get across one major avenue because of the hordes of people walking south to get home and that some streets were closed by the police. There were police everywhere, mostly directly traffic. They really did a great job – notwithstanding all the disruption, they kept order and mostly things flowed smoothly if slowly.

As I drove back towards Brooklyn Heights, I could see again that plume of smoke in the air. As I said, it was a beautiful day otherwise, with a completely clear sky except for that gray column running from the lower right of my sightline to the upper left. I came back on some smaller streets, and at one cross street a couple walked by, and the woman was laughing. I couldn’t understand how anyone could laugh that day.

As I got back into the neighborhood next to Brooklyn Heights, I reentered the gray cloud of particles, which lasted until evening. I got back to Brooklyn Heights around 4 pm and discovered I couldn’t get back in front of the hospital because the police were only letting emergency vehicles through. I told a policewoman that I was a car volunteer for the hospital and asked if there was somewhere I could park so that I could see if the hospital still needed me. She waved left and said “I don’t think we’re giving out parking tickets today.” So I parked in the first spot I saw, near a hydrant, and walked two blocks to the hospital. They didn’t need me any more, so I returned the car and went home. Chris was home by that point.

Following our reunion, we continued to watch the news, including the collapse of 7 WTC, and warnings about the condition of 5 WTC (directly across from Erika’s office building). After a quick dinner, we walked back to the blood center to again try to donate; however, the center now was now closed, with a new sign asking people to return the next day. Rather than go home immediately, we walked to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, which on a clear day provides a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. Tonight, the sky was sooty, and in the middle of the lit buildings and boats on the river was a zone of darkness, broken only occasionally by emergency lights. We slowly walked home, stopping at a restaurant where patrons and people off the street were crowded inside watching the President’s address. With darkness, there was little else to watch that hadn’t been seen before, so we sat down to capture on screen what we had experienced.

We woke this morning to a bright clear day, that would have been wonderful to spend outside – except for the layer of dust and soot on everything in the back yard. We both planned to stay home – Erika’s office was inaccessible and I had been told there was no point coming to midtown. After breakfast we again returned to the Blood Center, and found a line stretching around the block, with a volunteer saying it was unlikely we would be able to donate before the Center closed in the evening. Frustrated, we headed back to home, stopping on the way to buy cell phones (we have managed to avoid joining the wireless revolution for years, but situations like this point out the desirability of immediate accessibility). Erika will be meeting with other tax lawyers this afternoon to begin to figure out how we can start getting back to work even if we can’t get back in our building for a while, and has invited a French colleague who happened to be in New York and is more or less trapped in a hotel in SoHo, which is in the restricted zone, to stay with us or perhaps just come to dinner. Chris expects to go to work tomorrow.

Nb: We seem to be able to receive phone calls, but long distance service from here continues to be spotty.


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