Retired and Single
What the Class of 2011 Knows

The World Trade Center - One Person's Memory

[EDITORIAL NOTE: With some minor edits to bring statistics up to date, this is a repeat posting from last year’s anniversary of the World Trade Center attack.]

category_bug_journal2.gif In the late 1950s, there was an excellent television drama titled The Naked City set, of course, in New York. The show's tagline was, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them." And so it is today on Time Goes By, one small story among millions.

In the late summer of 2001, I was 60 years old, unemployed since the overnight demise, 13 months earlier, of the dotcom where I had been vice president of editorial and interactive.

The stack of printouts and folders on my desk had reached a height of two inches – more than a year’s worth of email and snailmail job applications, cover letters, lists of potential employment contacts, headhunters, notes of telephone conversations, rejection letters, follow-up schedules and spreadsheets tracking it all.

As everyone in the world would soon know, the morning of 11 September dawned gloriously cool, bright and sunny - a good day, if you were not working, to go to the park or bicycle down the urban path toward the World Trade Center or just walk the city. But not for me. The wolf had been scratching at my door for many weeks and on top of that stack of job search detritus was a list of contacts I intended to call as soon as offices opened.

By shortly after 8AM, I had been at my desk for a couple of hours working on a design for what would, before long, become my first blog (not this one). I only half listened to CBS News Radio88 in the background, the usual litany of national and local politics, deliberate and accidental death, and celebrity stories to fill in the blanks between commercials.

Then the breaking-news alert sounded. I remember groaning; it would be just another fender bender or commuter traffic snarl breathlessly reported as though it were the start of World War III. But instead, the news reader said something about an airplane and the World Trade Center. I dashed to the bedroom to turn on the television and saw to my horror that perhaps it was, this time, World War III.

It’s the little things in life that can turn me into a crazed harridan. When the big things happen, I am calm and rational, running potential next steps through my mind and then taking action, if any is needed. My lifelong broadcast career training kicked in; I needed to get to the office right away to help cover the story. But I had no office to go to. So, I phoned a journalist friend who was recently retired from full-time work.

“It’s like the Empire State Building years ago,” he said. “Some pilot lost his way.” “Not a chance,” said I. For three years, I had worked in an office on 11th Avenue overlooking the Hudson where I had watched planes large and small move up and down the river all day. I knew that 1: no planes are allowed to fly over Manhattan and 2: pilots are taught to ditch, when something goes wrong, in water and there is plenty of that around Manhattan. “It’s a terrorist attack,” I told my friend.

As soon as we hung up, the phone rang - my upstairs neighbor. His wife took the two boys to school in Brooklyn each day by subway and then returned home. She was late, he said. He just knew she had stopped to shop, as was her habit a couple of times a week, at Century 21 across the street from the World Trade Center. She didn’t have a cell phone with her. He was terrified.

My Greenwich Village apartment was half a block from the intersection of Sixth Avenue, a major north/south artery, and Houston Street. For 20 years, it had been my private ritual, as I left home each morning, to look north for a view of the Empire State Building and then south to check the twin towers of the World Trade Center. If they were there then all was right, I believed, with my world.

A second, less uplifting ritual – mental exercise, really - that began following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, was my now-and-then attempt to calculate, should a Trade Center building fall over northward, whether the top of it would crash into my townhouse. My conclusion had been that it didn’t matter. Even if it didn’t reach as far as my block, the concussion would probably kill me. You shrug in the face of such potential catastrophe you can't control and get on with life. But my mind wandered back to it from time to time.

On that morning five years ago, my upstairs neighbor and I sat watching television near his phone waiting, hoping, silently praying to all the gods the world has ever worshipped to let us hear from his wife. We took turns joining neighbors at the corner of Sixth and Houston, staring south to the fire and smoke and, before long, the collapse of the buildings.

Within an hour or so, my neighbor’s wife telephoned from a friend’s house in SoHo and soon, sitting on our stoop together, we saw her, covered in soot, walking toward us. Later, she told her story:

Yes, she had been shopping at Century 21 and was just entering the stairs to the subway in the lower concourse of the World Trade Center when there was a tremendous noise above. The entire building shuddered. Debris was raining down as she and everyone raced out and away, not looking back. She hadn’t known what had happened until she reached her friend’s house.

I heard many more stories that day. I spent much of it sitting on my stoop and as thousands of survivors walked north on Sixth Avenue toward their homes, some turned into my street. The first time, I was surprised when a stranger in a dusty business suit, carrying a briefcase plopped himself down beside me and wept on my shoulder as he told me his story. When he had collected himself enough to head home, another stopped, and another, sometimes two and three at a time. We wept together for the dead, for ourselves and for our city.

That evening, the journalist friend I had spoken with in the morning came by and we walked Greenwich Village looking for a place to eat dinner. Hardly any restaurants were open and those that were, were crammed with people, most of them strangers to one another just wanting to be with other people. We joined them and then wandered over to Washington Square Park where thousands of others had gathered too.

The next morning, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood, but by then, sadly, it wasn’t necessary and I was turned away. Home-made posters with photos of the missing were tacked on many buildings in the neighborhood. Spontaneous memorials with American flags, candles, flowers, prayer cards and notes had appeared on street corners.

The authorities shut down traffic except for emergency vehicles below 14th Street for the next four days, and we used the winding Greenwich Village streets as the cowpaths they once were, ignoring street lights and crosswalks, walking where whim took us.

During those days, knots of people – sometimes neighbors, sometimes strangers – gathered here and there. The first question, carefully worded, was always, “Is everyone you know okay?” Sometimes they were; sometimes they were not. Often we just stood together silently for awhile, stunned still by the events of that terrible day.

Three weeks later, at last, I was offered a job and a week after that, I was on a plane to Florida for a week-long conference. Planes approaching New York travel up the Hudson River and then turn toward LaGuardia Airport. On my return from Florida, I deliberately chose a window seat on the Manhattan side of the plane because although I had seen the aerial photos of Ground Zero, I wanted to see it "for real".

The size of the devastation was shocking. I'd had no idea that much of downtown was gone. A big, ugly, open sore on the city, much larger than any photo or video had conveyed.

The first anniversary of 9/11 hit me as hard as the first anniversary of the deaths of loved ones I’ve buried. I mourned for the dead, for the kind of world we had come to live in now, and for the damage done to my city.

It disturbs me still that from the day of the attack – and still – when I have stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, I can’t remember which buildings the World Trade Center towered above when I looked south each morning. It feels as though my lack of attention all those years to their exact location in the sky is a betrayal and I am sorry for that.

Today, it is six years later and now we, the American people have been betrayed. The president used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to launch a war with lies that have been proved to be so beyond doubt. More American soldiers have died now than died that day at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Almost 28,000 more have suffered injuries they will live with until the end of their days.

And what have we gained?

Columnist Frank Rich’s summing up in The New York Times [subscription required] at last year’s anniversary still pertains:

“…so here we are five [six] years later. Fearmongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but no one can argue that we have moved ahead.”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Grannymar tells of the time, on a dark and stormy night, a stranger (or was he?) appeared at the door in The Caller.]

Comments

I have lived in California for the past 15 years, but I will always be a New Yorker. I received a call from an East Coast friend that morning who said to turn on the TV, the world might be ending. I remember trying to process the meaning of the event as I watched the horror and confusion from 3000 miles away. I was sure this would lead to global war and the end of our times.

Many months later I visited Ground Zero........I was overwhelmed with sadness and despair.

Thank you so much for this. I will put a link on my blog and refer my readers here. You say so well how I feel this day...this birthday, this day of shock, this day of continuing anger at Bush.

That account brought back all the horror, even though we watched from a distance (in a gite in France.)
We were sitting in front of the tv, absolutely stunned and anxious for the people we know and for all those we didn't know.

I learned about the attack in a remarkably indirect manner. My daughter had been an intern in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2001. By September 11, she had finished the internship and returned to college in Massachusetts for her senior year. Her uncle Ron, however, was stuck in a hotel because his flight home had been canceled. The horror he saw on the news made him start to worry about his niece.

I was at home alone that morning, without a radio or TV turned on, enjoying the autumn sunshine. When the phone rang, I was surprised to hear Ron's voice. His question struck me as supremely odd: "Is Elizabeth still in Washington?"

"Of course not," I said, "she's gone back to school. Why do you ask?"

"Because the damn world is ending!" he said, "Don't you own a TV?"

I clicked the remote was swept up in the drama that consumed us all. After about three days, however, I needed to do something else. I remember saying to my wife something like, "I just can't watch those towers fall again."

Ronni,

My husband and I were in Florida waiting for friends to arrive from England. We were to have a holiday together.
I turned the TV on and when I saw the World Trade Center, I thought they were rerunning a film of the 1993 attack. When I realized what was really happening, I was devasted.
Then I was worried about my friends and family in New York.
I knew my sister would be at work in the Time Life Building but could not get through by telephone to see if she was all right. I knew she was far from the WTC but it could have been more widespread than I thought. Thank God for Email because I was able to get through to her that way. She told me she was watching the evacuation of 30 Rockefeller Center across and down the street. Then her building was ordered to evacuate while they could still use the elevators.
My friends in England called that their flight ,and in fact their whole trip, was cancelled.
Another close relative of mine worked at Morgan Stanley in the WTC and was almost to the door when the first plane hit. He ran with all the others into the park ,trying to figure out what to do, when the second plane hit. He walked all the way to Grand Central Station and took the train home to Connecticut.
These are, as you said, just a few of the 8 million stories in the Naked City.

My son boarded a United airplane at 8 that morning in Boston. Unexpectedly he was needed in Philly and not San Francisco that day, but for several hours we thought he could be on the fated flight. He realizes that he was in the waiting area with those very travelers who lost their lives.

I agree with all you said about the horrific war we're stuck in. I sometimes feel like Osama must be thinking he won. I voted in our state's primary elections today, and it reminded me that we can have a voice. I wish everyone would use it.

I was working at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Ave in DC on the morning of September 11th, 2001. From my office window I saw the black smoke coming from the Pentagon. I left work and got on the subway home. When usual subway etticate is to never look a stranger in the eye, everyone was talking and rumors were flying. I arrived home in time to see the 2nd tower fall on TV. I will never never forget that day and the incredible shock and extreme sadness.

In October 2004 I made a trip to New York City for the first time. After visiting the Statue of Liberty, Greenwich Village, and other sites, we reserved our last day in NYC to visit the World Trade Center site.

When I first saw the huge hole where the towers once stood, I was stunned to see how very large the area was...and my eyes filled with tears. There was much construction going on, and the PATH train had recently started running again with a new station. The train cars would run on a track right at the bottom of the huge hole in the ground. I wondered how those commuters must have felt, looking at the windows riding that train, in that big hole where the magestic Twin Towers once stood.

I was tired and not in very good shape, but I had to walk around the entire circumference of the World Trade Center site, stopping often to wipe away tears. I guess it was my personal way of honoring the victims of that terrible day.

The tragedy of this day is seared into the memory of every American who was alive then. Sadly, it was only the beginning of our national catastrophe. We are now more vulnerable to another attack due to the terrible mistake of the Iraq war. We are still not safe after six years of mistakes and our Army and National Guard are stretched thin far away. It is all so depressing.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)