Friday, September 10, 2004

 

9/11

In one way, it began the afternoon before for me. The weather was quite dreary that Monday, and a nasty cloudburst was coming down around 3:30pm. We were sitting in a top-floor conference room in one of the towers of the World Financial Center, with an expansive panorama of New York Harbor, and the sturm und drang of the weather momentarily distracted us from the meeting, which was dragging horribly. We made idle chit-chat about the weather and wearily turned back to business, when someone idly mentioned, "You know, we really should start planning for disaster recovery and business continuity for the project". We made the usual morbid jokes, and set an action item for it later in the week. I silently murmured the police and fireman's prayer, "Dear Lord, not on my shift", and started finishing up for the day.

As I packed up, I realized I didn't have an umbrella with me, but remembered that on previous rainy days an umbrella peddler could be found at the foot of the south pedestrian bridge across West Street. I pushed through the turnstile at the security barrier and headed for the footbridge, and to my consternation at the bottom of the steps on the World Trade Center side, there was no peddler. The rain didn't appear heavy, and I knew there was a news stand further up on Liberty Street near the fire house where I could certainly buy an umbrella. I decided to make a dash for it, but sure enough the heavens opened up and by the time I got to the news stand, I was completely drenched, including my shoes and socks. I endured some ribbing from my train kaffeeklatsch as we headed back out to Bridge and Tunnel Land, as the dazzling urbanites refer to it, but I got a few zings of my own in and wearily returned home.

I was actually looking forward to Tuesday. The project itself was getting quite bogged down into a lot of fingerpointing over interdependencies, and my counterpart at the client and I had a meeting set up to cut through the bullshit and get everything back on track. We had a great working relationship, and could easily resolve the gordian knot that the discipline heads had created out of the many facets of the project. In about two hours we could get things moving, and then get back to real work instead of creating the infinite justifications and reports demanded by every person with a minor stakehold in the project. I had one minor BS conference call unrelated to that client scheduled for that morning, but that one would require little effort on my part, so I decided to bite the bullet and just listen in. I laid out my clothes for the morning, and seeing that my shoes were totally soaked, pulled a new pair out of the box, groaned at the thought of breaking them in, and hit the sack.

Tuesday dawned beautifully, and even our jaded train clique commented on how spectacular the day was. We all quickly got down to train business of snoring or yakking, and all too soon we got into Manhattan and headed downtown. For some reason the subway was horridly slow that morning. As anyone who rides the IRT knows, the express trains are anything but during rush hours. A ride from Wall Street to Grand Central that normally takes about 10-12 minutes during off-peak hours can take as long as 3o minutes, depending on congestion, with express trains languishing in the tunnel two local stops before each express stop, while the local trains make their appointed rounds in a more deterministic manner (although getting horridly crowded along the way). I emerged from the Wall Street station, and headed down Liberty Street. I pretty much ignored the Trade Center, unless there was a huge crowd coming out of the PATH train, which there wasn't at that particular moment that morning and I continued down Liberty toward the south bridge. I passed the firehouse, and glanced in at the firemen, as I often did. It seemed like a perfectly ordinarily morning, albeit with spectacular weather. At the foot of the south bridge, there was usually a coffee vendor and a fruit vendor. I was in the habit of buying coffee and something for breakfast from the coffee cart, and this morning was no exception. For some reason the fruit vendor wasn't there that morning.

I made my way up to my office, which faced the Trade Center. I began upacking my briefcase, plugging in my laptop and settling in for the morning. I pulled my Palm Pilot out of my jacket's breast pocket, set it on the desk, and waited for the computer to boot up. I glanced at my watch and it was around 8:45am. I opened the lid on my coffee, took a bite out of my pastry, and saw the login screen appear on my laptop. At that moment I heard the sound. It was a buzz at first, then a roar, and I looked out the window. I saw a large twin engine jet heading south at a very low altitude heading towards us. The only thought which went through my mind was that something was really, really odd here, but then I saw the plane deliberately bank and aim right for the North Tower. It really couldn't have been more than five or ten seconds from the time it registered as a roar and deciding to look out the window until the plane impacted the tower.

I screamed out "Oh my God" when the plane hit. We saw immediately that the opposite side of the tower had been breached, and I knew there was extremely serious structural damage. My first reaction was to call my wife and tell her I was alright, though. I got her on the phone (this was less than thirty seconds after the impact, so the lines hadn't jammed yet) and told her that a plane had just hit the Trade Center. She asked what kind of plane, and I said that it was a twin-engine jet, possibly a 737 or an Airbus (I had only seen the plane from the front, and couldn't tell anything other than it being a twin jet). She asked what had happened, and I was at a loss for an explanation. I momentarily considered it being a bizarre takeoff or landing accident, but quickly discounted that possibility.

If you think about the air traffic patterns around New York City, the only commercial traffic that moves over that part of Manhattan generally moves northbound (more or less). Traffic heading for LaGuardia's runway 4 will descend over Brooklyn, Maspeth and Astoria. Traffic for LGA runway 22 coming from the west will occasionally turn left at a point approximately over the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge, head along the river up until approximately over Yonkers, then head east out toward Long Island Sound where it can line up for 22. Traffic approaching LGA runway 31 generally comes in over Brooklyn, as well. Traffic heading for Newark obviously is routed southbound over Bergen and Essex counties miles inland from the river. Seeing something southbound at such a low altitude and high rate of speed discounted the possibility of a landing accident, knowing the takeoff patterns discounted that, and the simple logic of knowing that a good pilot would do anything he could to minimize collateral damage from an aircraft incident totally eliminated any thought of accident.

My wife asked me if I could come home early as a result, and I said I'd try to get out as early as possible, although I told her I'd likely be dragooned into keeping systems available if the business guys demanded it. I made a mental note to myself to get out early, possibly as soon as lunch, and as soon as I could be sure I wasn't going to interfere with the emergency workers, who I could see already were going to have their hands seriously full. My office unfortunately had an excellent view of the proceedings, and it quickly crowded up with people looking at what was transpiring across the street. Then we saw the first jumpers. We didn't know what it was at first, we thought that people were knocking windows out with furniture and that was what was falling, but then we realized they were people. It was almost too much to look at, and I quickly called my mother to let her know I was OK, but I quickly broke down while leaving a message for her, saying how horrible it was to watch people committing suicide before your eyes. I fled my office, and found one of my coworkers in the hallway, near the secretary's desk. He was crying badly, as he used to work at Cantor Fitzgerald, and fearing badly for his friends, and the realization that had he not moved to this job recently, it might've just as easily been him in that horrid position. We tried as best we could to talk and reason it out, with a few other coworkers joining us and leaning on each other for support when we heard another explosion.

Someone called out, "Another plane just hit the South Tower!" and all hell broke loose on the floor at that time. No one thought anything about keeping things running or any sort of normalcy, we knew the shit had hit the fan, and we were running for our lives. I took one look at my desk, decided it was better to lose one's laptop than one's lap, and headed for the fire stairs (the bureaucracy associated with replacing a lost or stolen laptop was horrendous, and actually brings an amusing coda to the story). The traffic on the stairs quickly bunched up, and there was a lot of shoving and cursing going on. The opposite staircase was virtually empty, and some people bounded over the gap between the stairs to try and get down faster, but it was too dangerous in my eyes to attempt. The sudden horrid realization hit us as we shoved and screamed for people to move and get off the stairs ahead of us was that they might be going for financial institutions or related firms. We reasoned, Cantor, Morgan Stanley, and Lehman in the Trade Center, the World Financial Center had American Express, Dow Jones, Merrill, Deloitte; we were a pretty attractive target for the bad guys. I never prayed so hard in my life while I was in those stairs. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, we hit the exit at the bottom of the stairs, and bounded down the now stopped escalators and headed down to the street level. I reasoned that the Boat Basin would be a reasonable rendezvous point, and sure enough I found several coworkers there. We quickly counted heads, and after a brief heartstopping moment for one coworker looking for her husband (they fortunately found each other quickly) we began exchanging phone numbers to call each other when we got home (the implied "if" weighed heavily on us). It was rather amazing how people were mesmerized just looking at the towers burning, one poor lady was in shock, and I went over and said, "Lady, you're going home to your children now. Start walking, and get home". I quickly realized that there was absolutely no good that could be done by my lingering waiting for anyone else there, and hooked up with my coworker and her husband to walk north to the commuter rail stations. My friend who formerly worked at Cantor told me to come home to Jersey with him, and he'd figure out how to get me home, but I didn't want to be on the wrong side of the river if things were going to get really bad. It was about 9:30.

We started walking north past the NYMEX, every security guard directing us away from the vicinity looking scared but trying to be calmly brave. We finally ran out of Battery Park City and had to start trudging north on West Street, watching the emergency vehicles head southbound. My coworker and her husband were getting scared about getting home to their kids, and were worried about whether their will was in place and the insurance enough in the worst event. I silently worried the same thoughts with them, but just concentrated on what we needed to talk about, how to get to the commuter rail stations as quickly as possible and to stay out of the way of people who needed to respond to this thing. We constantly glanced back at the burning towers, and we discussed the structural damage we'd seen. None of us were structural engineers by trade or education, but we knew there was severe damage.

At Franklin Street, we decided to turn off West Street, and find a route uptown towards Penn Station. We walked along the side of 388 Greenwich, the Travelers/Citigroup building, and we finally were far enough away from the proceedings that we could make a nervous joke about things. I drily said, "Hey, if they're going after capital markets, the least they could do is go after Sandy (Weill, the Citigroup CEO)". The chuckle was drowned out by bloodcurdling screams. We looked to the south and saw the South Tower imploding. We ran like hell at that point. We heard fighter jets as we ran past the Holland Tunnel entrance, which was of course closed by that point. About the next thing I remember was my shoe coming untied somewhere along lower Eighth Avenue, and being so flustered that I couldn't even tie it. My coworker bent down and tied it for me, and we stopped in a bodega to get some water. Radios were blaring and people were hungry for any bit of news they could get, but it was really very chaotic, rumors that a plane had been shot down were rampant, we didn't know what had happened at the Pentagon, all we knew was that we were under attack. We were further up on Eighth Avenue, up near a restaurant we'd gone to on a couple of special occasions, when the North Tower collapsed.

We got to Penn Station, and found the entrances blocked by police, We reasoned that perhaps it would open if things normalized, and we agreed to call each others families whenever we reached a working phone to let them know we were all right. I wished my friends bonne chance, and headed to Grand Central, zig-zagging through the street grid to avoid any potential targets. I got to Grand Central and found it closed as was Penn Station, and despaired for a few moments. My new shoes had grown seriously painful over the four plus miles I'd walked already, but I resolved that if there wasn't a train, any train getting out of Grand Central in a little while, I was going to start walking until I hit a highway in the Bronx or Westchester, then start hitchhiking. By the grace of God, the doors opened at Grand Central and I put myself on the first train out. It took what seemed ages to get out of the Park Avenue tunnel (it was about a half hour, later on I read that they were being careful in case there were bombs in the tunnel). The train was completely packed, worse than a Tokyo subway train. The train stopped at every station along the way, including the very local stops in the Bronx that no train ever seems to stop at. Because the train was so long, it had to discharge passengers, close the doors, move forward and discharge more passengers at several of the smaller stops. It took a very long time to get to what I considered a safe distance from the city.

Toward the end of the ride, someone tried his cell phone and couldn't reach his boss. His traveling companion asked him why he was trying to call his boss, and he sharply replied "To tell him I'm moving to North Dakota!". My cell phone couldn't get through anything, until I was in my car a couple of minutes away from home. My cell phone and pager started going off madly. I dragged myself home and gratefully kicked the painful new shoes off. There were abrasions on my feet, and my knees were killing me. My family welcomed me home, and I pulled out a bottle of single malt Scotch, put it next to a chair in the living room, put my feet up, and didn't leave the chair until bedtime. The bottle was empty by then.

The phone rang off the hook throughout the afternoon, and I managed to get an e-mail out to my friends and coworkers from my personal account just before going to sleep. Being the good little corporate drone, I reported the laptop's status the next morning, and had an unbelievable conversation with the petty little bureaucrat responsible for such things.
"You lost it?"
"No, I know exactly where it is, room xxxx in Y World Financial Center"
"Why don't you go get it?"
"It's across the street from what used to be the World Trade Center"
"When do you think you can get it?" "
"Ask the New York City Fire Department"
"Did you file a police report?"
"I think the New York City Police Department has better things to do today than to take a missing laptop report"

She finally agreed to get me a loaner after considerable oaths and incantations upon my part. (unbelievably, I managed to get the stray laptop back a few weeks later when my friend, the ex-Cantor fellow, got up into the building to recover various important things).

That same morning, we received a call from one of my kids' teachers, asking us to come in for a quick discussion at lunchtime over his behavior (he'd gotten frustrated the day before and broken, gasp, a pencil). The teacher was giving us her spiel about teaching kids to respect property, and she reprimanded me for not paying attention to her. I told her precisely where I was the morning before, and that I had other things on my mind. I then told her that I'd pay for the fucking pencil, and that if she bothered me again with such a trivial concern in such momemtous times, I'd address it with her in a more ahem, substantive way.

Things slowly returned to their normal absurdity. New York City was too polite, too measured, for weeks. Then one morning, crossing 6th Avenue in Midtown, a cab, another motorist and a bicycle messenger got into a classic knock-down, drag-em-out brawl over a minor traffic incident. Lots of present participles of Anglo-Saxon oaths being used as adverbs in the discourse. Every 4, 6, 7, 10 and 12-letter name was being used. And all of us commuters watching this spectacle, of every rank and station, race and religion stood there and broke out laughing, as we finally saw a slice of normalcy back in our lives.

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