Friday, September 12, 2008

9.11.08 - Seven Years On

I always find this day a tough one to get through, and, seven years later, those feelings haven't gone away. I just want to share my own recollection from that day in September, 2001.

People who write recollections of terrible events usually start out with something along the lines of "It was an ordinary day."

September 11th, 2001, for me was very much an ordinary day. It was a workday, and I was on my way in to work. I was running late for a meeting, and was a little sour about that. I had decided not to stay in NY City overnight the previous evening. We'd been working on a large project, and Monday night the 10th was the last working night before the project went into effect after the meeting on the morning of the 11th. I was regretting my decision to instead, go home that Monday night and skip the hotel.

About 8:30, my ferry into NY landed on the dock. I was hurrying to get from the East Side over to the World Financial Center, just west of the World Trade Center. I was using a Blackberry device to communicate with a partner of mine who was at the meeting and who had agreed to cover for me.

Then around 8:40 AM, he sent me an email to tell me that all was well, and that I should just head right to work at the Exchange, and meet him there. Everything worked out fine, so my mood was a little less hostile when I got to the Exchange.

I stopped in the office coatroom and hung my suit jacket. I put on my work jacket and headed upstairs. As I reached my work area, a large group had gathered around one of the large TV monitors that we had installed. They were watching CNN.







Apparently, at around 8:45 AM, an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The plane had smashed into the north face of the building, at the higher floors of the building. The reports were early, but there was a video crew on location already, and images were being broadcast. We could see the building burning, and heavy smoke coming from the building.

I turned to one of my partners and he asked if I wanted to join him outside for a smoke. Two of my brothers were working at 4 World Trade Center, which to those who might not know, are those black buildings we could see at the base of the larger towers. I suggested we walk over to the WTC as it was still early, and I could see that my brothers were OK.











Kevin and I began to walk north on Nassau Street toward the Trade Center. As we walked, huge amounts of paper were floating down from the sky. A good portion of these papers were charred on the edges, but we could see that they were mostly letterhead, computer printouts, and the like. The street was already fairly covered by the paper. I reached down and picked up some of the paper as we walked. The letterhead was printed with familiar company names, but I felt as though I shouldn't be reading what was printed on it, so I dropped it. There was a pretty heavy smell of smoke in the air, but we were far enough at the moment that it wasn't a real problem for him or me.





As we got to Liberty Street, we got a clear view of what had happened. There was a large, gaping hole in the side of the building and large amounts of smoke pouring out. People were milling all about, not quite sure what was going on. We watched the building as we walked closer to the site, and the smoke became thicker as we approached.

We walked together, looking at the building. We could see burning debris falling from the sides of the North Tower, and the noise from the responding emergency vehicles filled the air. People were heading in both directions, toward and away from the towers.

A few minutes later, as we got closer to the South Tower, it was apparent that this was a lot more than a small-aircraft crashing into the building. The damage was too widespread for it to have been anything less than a commercial airliner. Unfortunately, as we got closer, we could also see that among the debris that was falling, there were also people who had jumped from the higher floors. We weren't quite close enough to actually see who they were, but we knew what was going on.











We were a few hundred feet from the actual base of the South Tower at shortly after 9 AM. He and I had stopped in a rather empty area and were standing quietly. There was a Burger King restaurant to our left, and people were standing in front of it, and the adjacent firehouse.

Suddenly, there was a very loud sound and a large explosion over our heads. We didn't know it that moment, but a second plane had flown in and crashed into the South Tower. As it sunk in, very quickly, people began to run toward Kevin and me. We turned and began to run as well, as debris and smoke began to rain down.

I remember as we reached the corner of Liberty and Nassau, he and I stopped next to a large white truck to catch our breath. Kevin looked at the truck and said, "We might not want to be standing next to this truck."

That was actually the first time that thoughts of anything sinister going on passed through our minds. Up to that moment, this was all one big, horrific accident.

We caught our breath, and joined the crowd of people running south on Nassau toward Broad and Wall Streets. As we reached the Exchange entrances, the first sets of doors had their gates pulled down. We continued to the south end of the building, which was also locked.

He and I found an alcove another block down and stopped there. It was next to a Timothy's Coffee Shop, and offered some resting space off the street. The crowd thinned somewhat by that point.







I took my Blackberry device from my belt and began to read emails from various people. The partner who had attended the meeting was in the Trade Center Plaza when the first plane struck the north tower. He had run toward Albany Street and was on the other side of town from where we were now. He and I exchanged a few messages for the next few minutes. I also began to receive emails from my brother, who was working in Jacksonville, Florida, and who was watching the news on CNN. He began to send me updates. Among the first was the revelation that the media was declaring this an act of terrorism, and that the country was under attack.









I emailed Kevin's brother to find out where he was, and to let him know that Kevin was with me and we were ok. A number of people stopped and asked if I would send emails on their behalf, to check in with family, etc. One woman told us that she had gone in late that morning, and was due at an office in the North Tower. She asked if I would email her husband.

In the meantime, a number of my friends were sending me messages, telling me their whereabouts and inquiring as to mine. We were exchanging whatever little information we had, trying to not only make sense of what had happened so far, but trying to figure out what we should be doing next.





At one point, my brother's emails increased in frequency and urgency. Kevin and I were still standing by the coffee shop when I got one that said there had been another attack, this time at the Pentagon.

It's hard to remember exactly what I was thinking or feeling in those few minutes. I was grateful to have the Blackberry device, as apparently all the cell phone service, as well as the land lines, had been knocked out of service, yet this Blackberry continued to stay connected. I was exchanging emails with anyone who could write, and learned that quite a few of my coworkers were still inside the Exchange. Kevin and I could not get inside, so we holed up right where we were.









About 10 AM, my brother emailed me again. This time, he was borderline frantic.

"Look, they confirmed an attack on the Pentagon in Washington. There are rumors that the Washington Monument was hit, as well as Camp David. CNN said there are more planes unaccounted for. Get the hell off Manhattan. Get off and be safe."





I began to read this message out loud to Kevin and a couple of people who were standing with us. I was interrupted by a very large rumbling sound, followed by what sounded like something crashing. Kevin and I reacted the same way: "shit, another plane is crashing!" As I stepped out onto the street, a huge black cloud blew at us, and I immediately thought that a plane had crashed, and this was the fireball. Instinct said, "run." As the cloud hit me, that's exactly what I did. I got a couple of lungs full of this smoke, dust and debris, and ran coughing and choking back toward the building.

While we later learned that it obviously wasn't a plane crashing, but rather the South Tower collapsing that was plunging us into terror, we didn't have that knowledge at that moment. We didn't know what was happening at all.

It isn't lying to say that we were in utter panic. This all happened a lot more quickly than I can describe in writing. He and I ran into the building that we'd been standing in front of. We ran inside, and without speaking, decided being inside was not what we wanted to do. We both ran to the east entrance to the building, opposite of where we'd been standing. The glass doors were locked, and I ran for the fire extinguisher I'd spotted. We were going through that door one way or another. But luckily, a guard ran over and unlocked the door, and we ran out onto New Street.











The wisdom of that choice was quickly questioned by both of us. We ran right into a stifling cloud of smoke and dust so thick we actually couldn't breathe. I made the futile attempt to filter the air with a handkerchief as I ran, but quickly discarded that. The smoke was so thick, I could no longer see Kevin as we ran.

There was a NY City Traffic Agent running with us, and she was as scared as I was. We ran south, as it turned out, but I couldn't tell where I was. It occurred to me that Kevin was no longer with me. Nor was the traffic agent. I looked around a moment and yelled for him, but he was gone. As I made my way south, I spotted the familiar sign from a restaurant I knew. I headed toward that, and got inside. A very kindly gentleman was working the counter, and as people ran in, he offered large cups and bottles of water. My eyes were burning and swelling some, so I took one of the cups of water and stepped outside with two NYC policemen, and we proceeded to pour the water into our eyes. As we stood in the street, one of the officers wandered a few yards west to check things out. He turned and came running back toward me and the other officer, and he was yelling, "Run, run, get down, get down" and in an instant, the narrow street filled with the unmistakable sound of another jet engine, moving quickly and toward us. The streets in that area are very narrow, and the tall buildings make the area cavernous, so it was extremely loud.

People panicked and ran. I remember standing frozen for a moment or two, trying to get bearings as to which way to run. Suddenly, a woman ran up behind me, screaming and wailing, and literally jumped on my back as I began to run. She'd wrapped her arms around my face and caused my nose to bleed from the force, and she was screaming in my ears as I ran. I hollered at her to hold on and stop screaming.

It turned out the jet we'd just heard was actually military aircraft moving into the area, but we didn't learn that until days later.

There was actually a comical moment at this point. As I turned the next corner and began to run through the smoke, I ran, literally, head-on into a pole from scaffolding that was erected on the building. To this day, I am amazed that I didn't go down, or at worst, drop my passenger, who finally stopped screaming. I'd opened up a pretty good gash on my forehead to add to the bloody mess that was going on in my face.







I ran west after that, and entered South Street. For a few minutes, the air had cleared, the woman had stopped screaming and we could both breathe. I asked her to climb off a minute so I could gather myself a little and figure out what to do. She got off, and simply ran toward the north. I didn't ever see her again after that.

The East River was across the street from where I was standing. Through all the chaos, here I was standing right where I'd started the morning off at 8:30.

I worked my way across to the Ferry landing. There were a number of people from my job standing there on the pier. A group of young children, along with their mothers and teachers, were standing there as well. Apparently, they were all on a field trip to Manhattan from New Jersey that morning, and had gotten caught up in the chaos as well. Another gentleman named Kevin, who also worked with me, was standing next to me now, and he had a large handkerchief over his nose and mouth. He was looking at me rather intently, but not saying anything. I forgot about my bloody nose and forehead. One of the women offered me some tissues and I used those and my water bottle to wash off a little.

Then we heard the same rumbling crashing sound again. It wasn't as loud this time, but it was distinct. The North Tower was collapsing now, and the dust spread out and covered the entire Lower Manhattan area. As we watched from the pier, the smoke, dust and debris cloud blew out at us from between the buildings. I remember that there was no panic on the pier at that point. A few of us gathered the children and mothers between us and moved them toward the actual dock where ferries could tie up, just in case the ferry companies decided to send help. But other than that, we stood engulfed for only a few minutes until the wind from the river cleared the air again.









We lucked out over the next half-hour. A ferry company called SeaStreak sent its whole fleet to Manhattan shortly after the situation and the need for evacuations became obvious. The boats were there in a very short time, and the crews aboard them worked very quickly to get people on. the mothers and kids from the field trip were the first on board, and they moved to the inner cabin, while the rest of us moved to the upper two decks. I wound up on the top, outdoor deck with some other fellas from the Exchange. It took only a couple of minutes for our ferry to pull out and as we pulled back and began to turn around into the channel, we could see the entire skyline covered in a huge cloud of smoke and dust. There was a brief moment where I urged the ferry on; it was time to get out of there.

But we were now safe for the time being. I remember talking to one gentleman as I tried to get my cell phone to connect. He asked who I was trying to call and mentioned that my brothers worked in the trade center. He walked around the top deck and returned to me with a working phone and told me to make my calls. He then took a look at my face to see where the blood was coming from. It was mostly dried blood now, as the bleeding had mostly stopped, but I would wait until I got off to try and clean up. With all the smoke and dust on my face, it didn't much matter.





After 45 minutes or so, the boat docked in Highlands NJ. As we disembarked, we could see that the parking lot was jammed full of emergency vehicles, doctors, policemen, firemen, nurses, EMT's etc. It was quite a scene. As I walked off, a nurse approached me to help, but I assured her that I looked a lot worse than I was. She looked at me a minute and said "OK."

The next Lady wasn't going to be convinced. She took my arm and lead me to a waiting ambulance where she sat me down. The took out a few bottles of what I assume was saline solution. She flushed my eyes, nose and mouth, and I have to admit that it felt very good. She cleaned up the cut on my forehead, noting that the scalp bleeds like crazy, even from small cuts. She cleaned me up nicely, and checked my eyes with that little light they use. She suggested I go to the Emergency Room on that ambulance, but I assured and convinced her that I was ok, and that people a lot worse off than me would be coming in on the later ferries. I had to sign a medical release form and they let me go.

I realized that I'd left my car keys and wallet in my suit jacket at the Exchange. A friend who had been off from work that day happened to come looking for us to see if we needed a hand with anything, and he offered to drive me home. That was a nice lucky break, since it was at least 12 miles to my apartment. When I climbed into the front seat, his wife and kids were in the back. The kids were very curious as to why this man with dirty, dusty, bloody clothes was in there car. We decided not to go into details with them, obviously.











I remember the moment my cellphone went back into service. The first call I received was from my friend T., who had been the family babysitter at one time, but who was now like family. She was very upset on the phone, but at the same time very happy to be talking to me. I was just as happy to talk to her. We were brief, as I needed to get in touch with my kids and the rest of my family, but there are some things you never forget, you know? A friend was looking for me to be safe.

The best part of that week was the moment I laid eyes on my kids. It took some doing because I had no car for a couple of days, but eventually, all was right again with my family.





My brothers were fine. My older brother never got off his train from the lower level of the Trade Center. The Transit command told the train crew to keep the doors closed and go back to NJ. My younger brother was at work in 4 World Trade Center, but at the first sign of trouble, the entire division there was moved out of the building. He was actually standing a few hundred feet from me when that second plane flew over our heads, but he evacuated to Brooklyn.

You never quite forget seeing the loss of life that took place that day. I saw people choose to end their own lives because the conditions were so horrific in the upper floors of the towers. Those are memories that never leave you.

I think about how fortunate I was that day, seemingly being in the right places at the right time, or rather not being in the wrong places. I saved some items from that day, including the shoes that served me well. I also think about the decision not to stay overnight at the hotel as I had for 2 nights the previous week, the hotel being the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, which was destroyed in the attack. Who knows what time I'd have gotten up, or when I would have been in the plaza, or countless other "what-if's". I just count my blessings.

I didn't lose any family members that day, but I did lose some friends.







Lt. Stephen Bates was a NY City Fireman. I was friends with him from a local neighborhood hangout in Queens, as well as some time spent during summers in the Hamptons. I attended his memorial service in October 2001.



Eustace (Rudy) Bacchus was a friend from work. He was among the group of people that trained me when I first entered my industry. He had become an independent contractor, and was attending a meeting at the Windows on The World Restaurant the morning of September 11th.







Alvin Bergsohn was another friend I had made when I began my career. He was a mentor to me during my early days, but also became a good friend with whom I shared a lot of laughs on the Exchange over the year. Al eventually left the Exchange and was working at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11th.

7 comments:

  1. I want you to know that I always think of you on this date. I always think to myself what is JP thinking right now. It's never a fun day is it? Hope you will have a happy 9/12 and beyond. Luv ya!

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  2. Oh my, you were right in the middle of all that. What awful memories.

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  3. Anonymous2:53 AM

    I have read many accounts of that day, your's being the one that bought it all back to me. Hopefully we will NEVER have to live through that again.
    Gaz

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  4. On Christmas Eve/Christmas Day in 1974, Cyclone Tracy devastated a Northern Australian city called Darwin. Twelve years later in 1986 a TV mini-series was released recounting the event. A few friends I had who had lived through Tracy couldn't bring themselves to watch the series. The memories it brought back were just too scary and painful.

    I can't imagine what it's like for you when this anniversary rolls around each year. I'm so sorry that you, or anyone, had to go through that.

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  5. Hope you know I thought about you and hoped you were doing ok. I know how hard this day is on you.

    ::hugs::

    ~Lily

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  6. Aha! I found you! Can't believe AOHELL is shuttin' us down. ::sniff:: Anyway, I am here along with many others! I will actually come back and read the actual entry and comment on it as soon as I can. Still transferring things. Followed their instructions for transferring my journals, deleted my photo journal. Will start it over from scratch. I've missed ya!

    Blessings!~

    Susan
    http://countrylivingsouthernstyle.blogspot.com/

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  7. Living in Nebraska this did not impact me personally but on this day I always think of you and your story. The lady who jumped on your back always gives me a chuckle in such a sad story.

    LYB!!
    XX

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