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On September 11, 2001 I was living in Manhattan, in the neighborhood called Battery Park City. It’s not really one of the well known neighborhoods like Midtown, or Harlem, or the Upper West Side. But on that day, it got a new name that is much better known… Ground Zero.
At that time, Battery Park City consisted of 8 high rise apartment buildings that were wrapped around the World Financial Center (WFC), directly across West Street from the World Trade Center (WTC) complex. The buildings were split evenly to the north and south of WFC, and contained about 10,000 people. I lived in the less fashionable northern half, on the 26th floor of a 42 story building, right next to Stuyvesant High School, one of the elite, limited entry public schools in the NYC area. It was a corner apartment, specifically the south east corner, with floor to ceiling windows running around the entire apartment, with the exception of the bedroom.
The building sits on a piece of land that juts out into the Hudson River, so with the 270 degree view, I could actually see the Hudson River looking from both sides of the living room. Starting at one side and following around, I could see the southern end of Jersey City across the river, the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor, to City Hall, the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building and all of Manhattan north of that. A million dollar view. Right in the middle of that view was the World Trade Center. Unless you saw them, live, from close up, you just can’t understand how truly gigantic those towers really were. Even though I was 300-400 yards away from the north tower (WTC1) and 26 floors up, they still loomed over me, as they did over the entire neighborhood. Understand that at that distance, standing in front of my building, I was closer to the front doors of the north tower, than those doors were to the top of the tower. The corner of the room pointed directly at the towers, and although there was another school building in between, it was only 5 floors, so I had an unobstructed view of WTC1 from the ground to the top. On the other hand, from that angle the south tower (WTC2) was almost entirely hidden by the north tower.
At the time I was commuting each day to a work site deep in New Jersey, driving the opposite direction from millions of normal commuters. I was leading a development team that was mostly based in Chennai, India, and because of the time difference I was working 12 hour days running from about 10:30AM to the same in the PM.
Waking up at 8:45, I had done nothing more than the morning pee before walking into the living room. Just at that moment, I heard a screech like every demon in Hell going past my window, with the most drastic Doppler shift I had ever heard. That was followed by an explosion loud enough to rattle my windows.
With those floor to ceiling windows, the early morning sun is not your friend; I was in the habit of closing the blinds every night before going to bed to keep the temperature down. I got to the window and tore open the blinds in time to see a fireball rising from an enormous hole in the north face of the north tower. I started pulling the strings to open each panel of blinds while I grabbed my phone and called my business partner and good friend, Richelle.
“Somebody just blew up the World Trade Center!”
“Somebody just blew up the World Trade Center. Or I don’t know, maybe it was a plane… it sounded like a plane, but that’s a mighty big [CoC] hole for a Cessna.”
She was stuck in traffic on a freeway over in Jersey, and by this time, she and everyone else were getting out of their cars because they could see the towers in the distance. After a couple of more minutes of disbelief, we hung up.
During this time, the first police car came tearing down West St., and screeched to a halt in front of the north tower entrance. The guys jumped out and ran inside. This was the pattern over the next several minutes, as more and more emergency vehicles arrived, stopped as close to the entrance as they could get, and then ran inside. This kept on as all of West St. was filled up like a jigsaw puzzle made of flashing lights. Somewhere during this time, I emailed the office and told them I didn’t see myself making it in that day. I also turned on the TV and looked for news, but nothing was on yet.
Suddenly there was another plane visible in split second flashes between the towers and the buildings around them. The last view I saw had the plane turned over almost completely on its side; truly a violent maneuver. That plane hit the eastern face of the south tower, and tore across the corner of the building, blowing out of the north face.
That was when the world really changed. Up until then I could believe that, even though almost 10 floors had been blown out of the north tower, it was all some kind of horrible accident. When the second plane hit, all such illusions disappeared. Somewhere in this time, word came of mandatory evacuations for everyone below 14th St. I didn’t hear any bullhorns or other notice on the spot, so I stayed in place while thousands upon thousands of people streamed by below.
I dug a pair of binoculars out of the box in the closet where they had been since I moved in. I was looking at the immense hole in the north tower, trying to figure out if I could see any firefighters, when something flashed by the hole. I scanned downwards and caught up to a falling man, who had jumped from one of the upper floors. He was buffeted by the wind coming down, flipping and tossing like a leaf in the wind, as I wondered to myself, “Am I going to watch this? Am I going to watch this?” Suddenly, the decision was taken away when, at my last moment to look away, he landed on top of WTC5, a 5 floor, cubical structure across the street from the north tower, instead of landing in the street. Even landing on a surface that hard, he bounced. From that point until after the towers collapsed, no one came to collect him, which, of course, made sense; there were others who were still alive. Although the majority of the jumpers went out of the other side of the building, I watched two or three others do the same over the next few minutes.
Just under an hour after being struck, the south tower collapsed. Everyone has seen the unforgettable video of the north tower collapsing, starting near the top of the building. That one came down about a cleanly as could possibly be hoped for from a controlled demolition of a building that size. But you probably haven’t seen much video of the south tower. That one came down ugly. It was hit at a much lower point on the building, and the fact that the impact had run across the corner of the building worked together with the massive weight of the floors above to create substantially greater stress on the structure. And when the building collapsed, I got the one and only view of the south tower I ever saw from my window, as a substantial chunk of the building was just shoved out directly over West St. In shape, that chunk resembled a bite taken out of a block of Styrofoam, but the sharp corner edge was about 20 floors high.
As I wrote above, West St. by this time contained a sea of emergency vehicles, and there were still many police, firefighters and EMTs on the ground among those vehicles. I did the math on it later, and the people underneath that chunk, a piece of building larger than most of the buildings in the city, had a little over 3 seconds to flee for their lives, before the bottom of that bite began to impact the street. And that is when the jigsaw nature of the parking became a problem. Allowing 1 second to grasp the situation, Jesse Owens at the ’32 Olympics couldn’t have escaped even with a clear path. Given that the people on the ground couldn’t run more than one vehicle length without turning sharply to dodge the next vehicle, none of them, not even those at the edges, had any chance at all.
It was about 30 minutes later that the north tower came down as well. Starting near the top, it simply disintegrated, with the spike on top remaining perfectly vertical all the way down until it was finally obscured by the dust cloud. Although local wind currents running between the canyon-like streets had blocked the debris cloud when the first tower went down, when the north tower fell, my building was engulfed and everything went dark. My air conditioner choked and died.
When the air finally cleared enough to see, there was six inches of debris on my window ledges, along with everywhere else on my street. The two towers had been reduced to a mountain of rubble, with gigantic shards sticking up like a giant’s Erector Set.
All through this time, and for hours afterward, I was in torment; there had to be something I could do. Remember at this time, news reports were speculating about tens of thousands dead. Over and over I resolved to go down to the street to see what I could do, anything that I could do, but each time I made the decision I would see someone else come out of a building, and be immediately swarmed by police, and forced to evacuate the area. Well, forget that. I decided that if I couldn’t do anything else, I could at least stand there and watch, so that at least one person would see it all.
Most of the rest of the day is a blur. At some point, a reporter did a live stand up where I heard the name Ground Zero for the first time. That reporter was standing on my street, just up the block from my building. Standing in the window, if I looked left I could see the reporter down on the street. If I looked to the right, I could see the reporter on my TV screen. Look to the left, look to the right; to the left, to the right. Given the story he was telling, it was surreal.
Just because the buildings were down, didn’t mean anything was over. Most of the buildings on the other side of West St. were on fire, along with a couple more on my side. I watched WTC5 gut itself, floor by floor, over the next several hours. On my side of the street, next to the WFC there was a Marriott hotel with one of the few surface level parking lots to be found anywhere in Manhattan. A third of the cars there were on fire, and over the next few hours that fire burned up one row and down the next, until hours later, one guy with one hose crossed the street to handle it, because of the danger that additional buildings might catch fire. Try to wrap your mind around that, if the parking lot was instead the lot at your local grocery store. Four hours later; one guy, one hose. On that day it was a perfectly rational allocation of resources.
More emergency vehicles were still arriving, and street a couple of short blocks south of me became a staging area for ambulances to deal with survivors as they found them. They backed them in, diagonally, on both sides of the street, filling up the entire block with a couple of dozen ambulances. And then they never moved, because they weren’t finding anyone alive. The high school next door was set up as a triage center, and I watched the docs stand around outside the entrance. I only saw one gurney come to the entrance there, and that one had a bloody sheet pulled all the way up.
At about 4:30PM, a window blew out of the short western face of WTC7, a 47 floor building shaped like a book standing on one end. A jet of flame shot out nearly horizontally for 50-100 feet, and then was sucked back into the building. That was followed by another smaller jet, also sucked back in. That repeated until there was no longer a jet. But based on the color of the window frame, cycling between dull red and reaching almost white, you could that the bellows effect was continuing. I realized then that WTC7 was also sure to fall. At 5PM, they shut off the power in the neighborhood; I found out later that the power station was located directly below WTC7. And then, at 5:30PM, #7 came down as well.
Just before dark, they started landing helicopters on a strip of grass along the river promenade about 50 feet from my bedroom window, which after the AC went out, was open like all the other windows in my place. They were going in and out continuously, up to three at a time. With the sun going down and the power off, the fires were lighting up the neighborhood like a scene out of Hell.
After that first call with Richelle, I had been unable get a signal through to call anyone else. Sometime in the afternoon, I got through to her again and gave her phone numbers to reach my family back in Ohio. Sometime after 8PM, I was surprised by a call from one of the bosses of the company worked for, offering me sanctuary at his house, that I could reach using one of the commuter boats in the area. But to reach the dock for that boat, I would have needed to cross lower Manhattan, which meant going through the entire disaster scene. I thanked him and declined.
Naturally, I didn’t have any food in the house; the only thing in the fridge was an almost empty milk carton. Even water was an issue. At that point, not only was it coming out almost black, but it was also pretty much chunky style. So I drank my cup of room temperature milk, and just about 12 hours after getting up, I fell into bed. It’s an indication of how much adrenaline I had burned standing in front of the window that, even with helicopters taking off and landing 50 feet away from my open window all night, I slept for 11 solid hours.
After watching out the window for a couple of hours, and noting that the fire department had run a bunch of hoses to pull water directly from the river, I decided I could get away with a very short, and very cold shower; it was down to just ice tea colored by then. I stuffed my laptop bag with underwear, socks, shirts, toothbrush and so forth, and then set off, walking north along West St., which was a parking lot of fire trucks from far and wide, including from multiple states away. There was a crowd cheering them, so rather than fight through the crowd, I moved inland a few blocks and walked through streets that were absolutely deserted, like in an end of the world movie. At 14th St. I ran into signs of life, and continued on to Penn Station at 33rd St. There I was able to get on a train heading to New Brunswick, NJ. They weren’t allowing people to come into the city, but leaving was free. As I rode along I looked around me, and realized that I was on a refugee train. The people were better dressed and had cell phones, but refugees is what they were. The entire American contingent of my team were at the station to pick me up. As we were walking out of the station, the Metroliner Express crossed an overpass bridge right behind me at speed, making a noise like all the demons of Hell. I whirled around, expecting to see the nose of an airliner coming straight at me.
The next day I was back in the office, being questioned by everyone when I didn’t really want to talk. I was pretty much useless until I gave up trying to work, opened up a Word document, put the title of “Witness” at the top, and started writing everything that I had seen. I only ever showed it to a couple of people, but the process seemed to purge me of something, and I was a lot better from that point on.
At the end of the day, I was lucky. Although I had worked in the trade center, for Marsh Mclennan, a company that was essentially destroyed that day, it was only for a few days and I hadn’t really gotten to know anyone, so I didn’t lose anyone close to me. Sometimes being anti-social works out. I was out of my apartment for a week, but once back it was almost entirely impossible to function with any normalcy. And that challenge actually made it easier to deal with the psychic damage. It also helped with the surreal experience of living inside an active crime scene for 5 ½ months. Of fires that burned for almost 100 days. And of the smell, a smell that I can never forget.
Originally published Sept. 11, 2016