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Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years

Five years
My brain hurts a lot
Five years
That's all we've got

- David Bowie

- I'd been in Lower Manhattan for several of the ticker-tape parades that have taken place in the "Canyon of Heroes" to honor the city's championship teams, as well as the Pope. So the sight of scraps of paper fluttering to a soft landing on the city streets was not an unfamiliar sight. But why I would be seeing that at 8:50 A.M. against the brilliant blue sky of September 11, 2001, upon getting off a bus at the corner of Wall Street and William Street, around six blocks from the World Trade Center, was hard to say.

The only explanation I could come up with was that it was some kind of marketing stunt, and that the scraps would contain the URL of the latest internet start-up destined for riches. But when a man in front of me yelped and brushed off a piece of paper that was in flames, it was apparent that there was a far more insidious explanation. "A plane hit the World Trade Center," I heard someone say. I think that only in New York City would I and those around me simply proceed into our buildings for a day of work rather than running like hell. In the South Tower, occupants returned to their offices when advised by security that everything was OK.

The TV news was on when I arrived in the 8th floor office; an eyewitness was confirming initial reports that it was a small Cessna-type plane. So I remember going to my desk; I suppose I was going through the motions of preparing for work. Payroll was due to be submitted that day. A couple of guys went out to walk over to the scene to take pictures. At 9:03, the sound of a huge explosion rocked the building, shattering any notion that there was anything innocent about what was occuring just a short walk away. We could not see the towers from our location, so we all went racing to the TV to see the second building in flames. At first, we thought that the fire in the first building may have somehow sparked an explosion in the second. The local newscasters were puzzled too until one of the station's weatherpeople called in to say that she thought she saw a plane hit the building; and the replays confirmed that fact.

The Assistant Head Chef, who in those early days of our relationship, had progressed far beyond Line Chef but had not quite achieved her stature of today, had a clear view of the towers from her bedroom window, and suggested that perhaps I should leave. The company president told everyone to stay put. And that seemed like a good idea. There were airplanes crashing into nearby buildings, and who knew what would be next. The New York Stock Exchange building, an obvious target, was practically around the corner. Then, when word came that the Pentagon was hit, no one doubted that we should stay put. I guess I never considered that the towers would collapse because I don't recall fearing that the building would topple over in our direction.

At 10:05, there was another sound of an explosion, but it wasn't quite that. It was a deep rumble that shook the building as it steadily increased in intensity. The company controller, Emile, was standing by the window that faced over Chase Plaza, in the direction of the towers. Hearing - and feeling - the rumbling, outside he saw the spreading dust from what neither he nor anyone else in the office knew was the collapsing of the south tower, accompanied by the sight of people running for their lives. Emile is one of those big burly guys with a deep, piercing voice that could shake a structure on its own, and when he bellowed, "EVERYBODY GET THE FUCK OUT!! GO GO GO!! GET THE FUCK OUT!!!," well, we got the fuck out. We raced down the stairwell, the women were screaming and crying like all the rest of us wanted to, not knowing if we were going to be blown up. We obviously were not the only ones who panicked at that point, as the stairwell was filled with people fleeing the floors above us.

A man yelled out that the top of one of the towers had fallen into the Hudson River, and that we should be calm. But panic occurred again when we got to the bottom, and we had seemed to reach a dead end. But we then realized that we had indeed reached the bottom and the front doors; but the white dust and smoke was so thick outside, that we had originally mistaken it for a white wall with nowhere to go.

We huddled in the building lobby. Several people covered in dust stumbled in, gasping for breath. One was an employee of our company, who told us that she had just gotten off the subway. They had sat between stations for an hour with no explanation of what was going on, and then were finally let out at the Wall Street exit without a clue! Thanks for riding the MTA, and have a nice day. We had to tell her that planes had hit the twin towers.

At this point, I specifically recall discussing leaving with a colleague. But there were rumors, a common occurance on Wall Street to be sure, of reports of planes that were still unaccounted for; plus there was the matter of the second tower, whose collapse we could only assume was imminent, as well as the poor air quality outside. Being inside the relative purity of an air conditioned office seemed the safer option, though the stench - that WTC odor that would become a familiar feature of NYC life for the next several weeks (even in Queens if the wind was blowing the right way), made its first appearance, seeping in through the windows and ventilation system.

We headed upstairs, back in front of the TV screen, without much of a plan as to what to do next. The Assistant Head Chef had witnessed the collapses from her window, and wanted me to leave. Then, at 10:29, what was for me the most memorably haunting moment of the day took place. I saw on the TV screen the sight of the north tower starting to topple. First the antenna at the top gave way, and - well, you all know what it looked like, I'm sure. But this time, there was no sound at all. Nothing. The north tower collapsed in absolute silence, at least in our office at 40 Wall Street. So, at first, I thought I was watching a replay of the first tower going down. Certainly, this massive structure could not possibly be imploding just six blocks away without a peep. But I heard the TV reporter solemly say, "And now the second tower collapses," with the matter-of-factness of a routine traffic report.

When I think back to that moment, the picture that comes to my mind is that of a silent movie. In slow motion, and black and white, complete with the little scratchy lines. But with no musical accompaniment at all. Someone warned those that were not watching, who were completely unaware due to the absence of sound, to be prepared for whatever would result outside. And what would result was darkness. Pitch black. As opposed to the white cloud from the first tower, the second tower collapse blackened the air so completely that it was as if someone had boarded up the windows with black cardboard. We waited nervously for the air to clear, wondering what would happen if we lost power, which certainly seemed like real possibility.

The air started to clear after about a half hour, and it was about another 90 minutes before the police came up to advise us of the evacuation route. We cut up some unused company T-shirts to use as masks, and put on colorful company hats so as to try and stay together. We walked through the dust and debris, and reached clear air as we moved east and north. And though it was a long, long walk to, and over the Williamsburg Bridge, into Brooklyn to the subway that took me back to Queens, at least I made it home. Compared to what others went through, my day was like a day at the races.

- Five years later, and, cruelly, the skies over New York are crystal clear blue, just as it was on 9/11/2001. Not long after that day, the French newspaper Le Monde declared, "We Are All Americans." Five years later, not only is that hardly the case throughout the world, but even us Americans aren't all Americans. We're Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, red or blue, for or (mostly) against the war in Iraq and the president. The damage inflicted upon this country, and the world, has gone far beyond what occurred that day. It seems ironic that with all of the brilliant minds that have populated this world, it's the words of a two-bit thief named Rodney King which come to mind today. "Can't we all just get along?" It was a simple and poignant plea for unity. On September 11, 2006, it's something that seems far, far beyond our grasp.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's quite a story Alan. It never occured to me that you were there for the whole thing, although i never really thought about it. And that's part of the problem in this country today, we DON'T really think about it anymore. I agree wholeheartedly that the country appears split, though that was an issue long before 9/11 rolled around. Republicans and Democrats (at least the ones in office) can't EVER agree on ANYTHING. If they did, it would be an admission that the other party is right. And God Forbid, we can't have that. In my opinion, that's the main reason we're still in Iraq. Because Bush (and by association, the entire Republican Party) won't just fess up and say "I made a mistake". I consider myself a Republican (at least i lean that way) and i'll admit that i wasn't opposed to the invasion of Iraq. It wasn't so much that i thought Saddaam was responsible, or that he had WMD's, but i figured that even if Saddamm/Iraq WEREN'T responsible for 9/11, they were probably in cahoots with the people that were. And we had to do SOMETHING, right? To me, we couldn't just sit on our hands and do NOTHING (like Clinton did when dead American soldiers were being dragged through the streets of Somalia). But here we are, 5 years later, and we're STILL there? And how many American's (not to mention Iraqi's) have died? Exactly what purpose are we serving over there? NONE, as far as i can see. And it can certainly be argued, that's been the case since Day One. But Bush won't admit he's wrong, so there we stay. But don't kid yourself. I doubt it would be any different if name-your-democrat was in office. Because THEY'LL never admit they're wrong either. That's what things have come to in American politics. What a complete and total disgrace. And i'm not sure how it'll ever change, short of every last incumbent being voted out of office, until they get the message. And that will never happen. At least not in our lifetimes, i'm afraid. This is why i try not to follow politics. It's just too damn frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the story.

With all of the talk about the great Godolphin, Darley, and Shadwell runners and the Sheikh's largesse today in Keeneland, I am reminded about his country's involvement with bin ladin and Al Qaeda.

Much of the financing for the attacks of 09/11/01 flowed through Dubai. Emirati Sheiks were also known to falcon hunt with bin ladin in Afghanistan. I do not know if Sheikh Mo or Hamdan or a sheikh from another emirate met personally with bin ladin, but in my book, F all of them.

While I respect their fine horses, I believe they had a relationship with bin ladin.

I know that Dubai is considered an ally of the USA and have read they cooperated with us after the attacks, yet it still pisses me off seeing the sheikhs in our country smiling, winning trophies, signing huge receipts, while 3000 people were killed five short years ago.

BTW, I landed at Phila Intl Airport at 9:15am on the day of the attacks. I think of that day all the time.

Alan H. said...

Case - I think your anger and frustration are directed at the wrong target. The Maktoums are investing in this country and other freedom-loving countries as well. They are providing opportunities for hundreds of famlies to live the American dream. They are part of a more cosmopolitan Islamic culture that wants to be part of the world society rather than destroy it. The Dubai World Cup and associated races are a way that they invite the rest of the world to come in and better understand their culture. I see the Maktoums as part of the global solution rather than part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,
Great post and well said. I actually (then and now) work on William and John just a couple blocks north. I never made it to the office that day. I was thankfully stranded at Courthouse Square in Long Island City, Queens when the MTA stopped the 7 train after the second plane hit. I stood with about two dozen people staring down Jackson Avenue toward lower Manhattan watching the burning towers in complete shock. I had a radio walkman on and relayed news of the Pentagon crash to the crowd. And then a few minutes later the south tower collapsed. There were a few gasps and then silence. It was eerie. A group of complete strangers just stood there and made a few quick glances at each other’s faces to validate that we had each indeed seen the tower collapse, but no one said a word.
And, sadly, you are right that unity seems beyond our grasp. I walked over to the site this afternoon (hoping for a minute of quiet reflection) and was saddened. Different mobs had staked out positions along Church Street as crowds of people walked around the site. The 9/11 ‘Truth Movement’ had a surprisingly large contingent of at least 100 people speaking with bullhorns and pamphleting the area. A small group of right-wing counter demonstrators tried to shout them down as traitors and terrorist sympathizers. A small pro-Gandhi pacifist contingent was nearby handing out flyers. The nutty Black Israelites were there with bullhorns. And a couple more people simply milled about holding up signs warning that “The End is Near.” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the anniversary would draw the lunatic fringe to the site but the scene there was unsettling. Whatever unity there was after 9/11 seems hopelessly lost.

Alan Mann said...

Thanks everyone for reading the long post, and for sharing some of your experiences and thoughts as well. For now, I'm going to stay out of the issue of any relationship between Al Qaeda and Dubai out of my lack of thorough knowledge of the subject.

But it's certainly sad to hear that, just for this one day, people couldn't just put away the signs and the flyers to recall and contemplate the events of that day, and to mourn the victims properly. There's a time and place for us to argue and debate - that's what our democracy is all about. But this day was not that time...and ground zero was certainly not that place.