This was originally posted here on September 11,2005. It describes what I saw eleven years ago today.
Walking through the lobby of my apartment building and on my way to the corner deli to grab a coffee and bagel I ran into crazy-assed Pat with her scrofulous miniature poodle.
“Get some sun glasses on that pretty face of yours Gary Cooper cause it’s one of those one in a million days and I wouldn’t want to see those pretty eyes of yours get ruin’t.” She said as we passed each other going in and going out.
As I walked onto Christopher Street headed toward Bleecker I could see that Pat was not exaggerating, it was truly a “one in a million day.” The sun was bright, the air crystal clear, the sky was an incredible blue and the temperature was, well, perfect. It was the kind of day in New York City that changes people’s moods for the good as soon as they throw themselves out into it. Even the tragic old Korean queen deli owner who had been on the same spot running his business for as long as I had lived in the city and treated every customer who wanted to give him money for his goods as somehow imposing upon him was in high spirits from the morning and the quality of the day.
“You go to Ramble later, maybe pick up boy in Central Park for fuk fuk? Gooood weather for it.” He said leering at me with his missing teeth smiling at me like caves. The perv!
“No, I’m too old for that.” I said over my shoulder and thinking what a good idea as I left the store and headed back to my building across the street. The Ramble might be fun later that afternoon if AOL didn’t prove productive that morning.
Wow, it was good weather though, that was for sure. You could see it in the faces of the people you passed on the street. Everybody was just digging it and loving being out and about on as perfect a day as this in New York.
I got back up to my apartment where all the doors and windows were open to the terrace and I dumped my coffee from the cardboard cup into a mug and was pulling myself together to head out on the terrace to water the trees and plants when I heard what initially sounded like a band saw cutting through a piece of hardwood. Wood like rock maple, real hard wood. I listened for a couple of seconds more when I realized it was getting closer and as it got closer it started to sound more like the sound that you used to get when you take a clothes pin and pin a playing card to the front wheel of your bike and let it smack against the spokes as you ride real fast. It was then that I knew exactly what I was hearing for I had heard that same sound before. It was the sound of a radial engine driving a big propeller, like the kind they have on old World War II fighters like the P-47 Thunderbolt or even “the Cadillac of the skies”, the P-51 Mustang. A big assed engine spinning a big four bladed prop and by the sound of it the plane attached to that engine and prop was going to do a flyby really close to my apartment in about a half a heartbeat.
Living on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Greenwich Village for almost twenty years had gotten me really attuned to the traffic in the air over New York City. Something that a New Yorker without access to a high roof or terrace is generally unaware of. I had seen blimps by the dozen, B-1 and B-2 and B-52 bombers, jet fighters of every stripe and even a flyby of a 747 with the space shuttle humped up like a horny mutt on its back. My apartment, which sat almost 200 feet off the ground with unobstructed views in all four directions, was in the middle of the final landing pattern for three of the busiest airports in the world and I never got tired of all the planes that buzzed my home and this time was going to be no different since it had been years since I had been able to see a WWII vintage fighter actually do a flyby.
I set my coffee on my desk and headed out the terrace door from the living room and as soon as I got outside I looked north and saw it heading my way. It was at about 14th Street or about 7 blocks north of where I was. It was heading south and following a line right down the middle of 7th Avenue south toward me and it was barely 500 feet above the ground and moving fast. Way too fast. As I stood there on my terrace it blew by me and when it did it was less than 600 feet from where I was standing given my height on my terrace and my apartment’s very short distance from 7th Ave and it looked like I could reach out and touch it. It’s engines were winding out at what must have been full power given it’s incredible speed and the hundreds of blades of the big twin turbofans were ripping through the thick air at sea level like the blades of a big ship’s propeller cutting though seawater and that was what was making the sound that I had heard just a few seconds earlier and was hearing now but really loud.
It was polished silver and as close as it was to me I could see that it was really big and probably moving as fast as a plane like that is capable of moving. As it shot past my apartment from where I was standing I could clearly see the faces of it’s passengers looking out of the planes starboard side windows as the City of New York flew past them at almost supersonic speed.
As the plane went past I followed it and ran the fifty feet from where I had been standing down to the corner of my terrace and then ran I around the corner to the bedroom side which faced directly south to watch the big plane as it passed by my apartment and flew on to the southward. It took less than five seconds for it to cover the distance from my apartment to it’s final destination after it flew past me, maybe even less than 3 seconds, I’m not sure, and as it raced toward that finish I saw it clearly from behind as it lifted gently up just a bit as if it wanted to gain some altitude and then, right at the end, the big plane tipped it’s silver wings slightly so that as it finished it’s flight the port wing was somewhat lower than the starboard wing.
The building had stood there on land created just for it from the old river bed along with its twin sister for 30 years and it had, with its twin, and for good or for ill, become an icon of the New York skyline. On days like this, when the early autumn morning sun was just so one could see that the building and it’s southern sister were not four sided towers but were, in fact, eight sided structures. The corners of both buildings had been beveled by its architect Minoru Yamasaki and those corners were not at 90 degree right angles but at 45 degree angles thus giving both buildings eight sides. So, on days like this, when the sun came up over Brooklyn, and the sky was a perfect blue and the air was clean and amazing the beveled edges on the east side of the building caught the light of the rising sun perfectly and shone like laser beams straight up into the morning sky.
As I stood and watched, the building was positively glowing in the morning sun and looked every bit as perfect as the morning itself. And then the big plane flew into it.
The plane, in it’s last 8th of a second, dipped it’s wing in order to destroy as many supporting floors as possible and to involve as much of the building as possible in the conflagration that was going to ensue once the 200,000 pounds of JP-5 jet fuel on board ignited. When it hit, the plane simply disappeared into the building as if some magic door had opened. Or maybe it was more like the building ate the plane since the ragged hole that was formed by the impact looked very much like a crooked mouth, smiling at some sick and twisted joke.
There was a fireball, but most of it was initially directed immediately to the south although the enormous amount of fuel instantly exploding caused a huge concussion that reached me several seconds after the impact. It felt like someone had just blown a soft breath at me. But it was hot breath and as it hit me it staggered me back from where I was standing. I stood there against the terrace wall for what seemed like hours watching first a thin trickle of smoke and then more and more oily black smoke start to pour out of the grinning mouth like gash of the North Tower where the plane had disappeared.
I honestly don’t know when I started screaming, perhaps I had been screaming the entire time. I can’t say, but there came a time shortly after the impact and explosion that I realized I was screaming as loud and as viscerally as I have ever screamed in my life. I was screaming from my soul and also for the very first time in my life I had absolutely no idea what I should do about what I had just witnessed.
So I called 911.
I got through immediately, which surprised me for I was sure that the 911 police phone center would have been inundated with calls about a catastrophe of this nature but in retrospect I realized that I was probably one of a small handful of people on the planet who had actually seen the entire thing happen from start to finish. And from my vantage point it had all unfolded like a bad movie being seen from really good seat in a movie theater.
Then the 911 operator argued with me.
After telling her that I had just witnessed an American Airlines 767 fly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center she dismissed me and said they had already gotten the report “thank you very much” and FYI it was not a big plane but a single engine Cessna and that everything was under control. I shouted at her and said I saw the entire thing from less than a quarter mile away and I fucking knew a 767 from a Cessna 152 and I could guarantee her that there wasn’t a Cessna in the world that had American Airlines colors on it or that sported General Electric turbofan engines but of course, she knew better. I mean, why wouldn’t she? She was at a phone center in a basement somewhere on Northern Boulevard in Queens or out on Long Island somewhere and I was all of a quarter mile from the crash site and had seen the entire thing. So I hung up assuming they would figure it all out shortly, and shortly they did.
Within a minute I heard the sirens coming from just around the corner on Tenth Street which told me that Engine Company 18 was on its way. These were the boys from our local firehouse and over the years I, like many of my neighbors, had come to know many, if not all of the firefighters assigned to the firehouse.
From my vantage point high above the city I could clearly see the big red pumper truck made by Seagrave with the gold and silver number 18 on it’s side as it raced from it’s firehouse and down 7th Avenue toward the World Trade Center. Those boys will do us all proud and take care of this mess I thought as I watched the truck make it’s way through the traffic on the avenue, honking it’s air horn and using it’s siren to move cars and pedestrians out of it’s way.
That moment, that single moment watching that lone truck with those men in it and hanging off of it’s back, holding on to the side rails while at the same time adjusting their gear and getting ready to do battle with a conflagration of unknown proportions and rescue human beings in dire need of rescue, watching them disappear down the wide, empty avenue toward the World Trade Center on that brilliantly beautiful morning will be seared into my mind for the rest of my life and it’s a moment that I have frequently cried over and will be one that I do so again and again for the rest of my life, God willing for I never want to forget it.
Because in less than an hour all the men on that lone firetruck would be dead.
Now, more and more sirens are joining the call as the emergency services of New York City move into action. I watch police cars and fire trucks in an unending stream heading down to the World Trade Center from all the avenues and side streets east and west that I can see from my perch and at the World Trade Center there is still, looking north and directly at me, that sick demented smile, the torn face of the building where the big plane flew into it and now it is belching out thick black oily smoke so heavy that the top floors of the building are obscured.
People are gathering on the building roof just a floor above my apartment with cameras and binoculars and people are down on the streets standing and staring and pointing in the direction of the twin towers. There are people above me on the roof who are crying and I’m sure there are people on the street crying because I too am crying and have been for I don’t know how long, but a long time I am sure.
And then we all, all of us watching from the safety of our distance and from our expensive building in Greenwich Village or from the shelter of the streets and safe from the horror unfolding in front of our eyes collectively winces and draws back as if we have been punched in the stomach. As a group we gasp and then call out in horror, we cry out “Oh my God!” “What just happened?” “What was that?” “Did you see that?” “Look at that, look at those flames!”
And there’s been another explosion, only now, the south tower is the one that is in flames. And I stand there on my terrace, as I did twenty minutes before, with an open mouth and absolutely no thoughts going through my head. I see the explosion but it does not register, in fact, I have actually seen the plane that has flown in from the south over the great expanse of water that is lower New York Harbor, over the Statue of Liberty, and I have watched it disappear behind the twin towers only to explode into a fireball in the south tower and all I can do is stand there with my mouth open and my hand over it and tears streaming down my face with my mind screaming, “NO NO NO NO NO Please God No!.”
Soon my phone rings and it’s my brother Ken. He works in an office building on Canal Street and Hudson just a few blocks from the World Trade Center and he has just stepped off the subway after his commute to work and after a one hour ride down from the northern tip of Manhattan where he lives and he has absolutely no idea what has been happening.
We exchange information, me of a macro sort and he of a micro, as in what’s happening right near him right then, and he tells me that he’s going to head downtown closer to the towers to see what’s going on. I tell him to be careful and that I love him. He calls back a few minutes later to tell me that he’s in the shadow of the twin towers and that it is absolute pandemonium there, people are running through the streets and the police and fire department are every where and things are falling off the building and crashing to the streets.
I can hear the sound of cataclysm through his phone while I watch from my terrace which is almost as close to the towers as the towers are tall. And then there is noise, lots of noise, and it’s a noise like a huge piece of paper ripping slowly in two and then becoming the sound of a freight train moving down the tracks but picking up speed faster and faster over Ken’s phone and I can hear people screaming in panic and Ken yells at me,
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, something’s happening Scott.”
And I look up toward the World Trade Center from my terrace as I listen to my younger brother Ken on the phone and I see that the top of the South Tower is beginning to collapse, smoke and fire is billowing out, and the tower is slowly dropping down through itself but picking up speed quickly and just then I hear my brother over the phone scream,
“Oh my God it’s coming down.”
And I can hear the sound that I now know is the sound of the building falling and destroying itself in it’s final death throes through Ken’s phone and now it’s like a tornado ripping through a mid-west evening and I’m screaming at my brother through the phone in my hand,
“Ken, Ken run, run for your life the building is falling, get out of there now!” And I’m crying and crying oh my God I’m crying.
As I watch, the South Tower collapses upon itself and a huge almost mushroom like, but not quite mushroom cloud billows up from the building’s new gravesite and begins to cover lower Manhattan heading out to the south and east where just a few short minutes before the sun had been making for a one in a million New York morning.
My younger brother is still on the phone as he drops it and and starts running, running for his life, and I can hear people screaming in the background over his phone as the building finishes dying and I’m screaming at him,
“Ken get out of there RIGHT FUCKING NOW!” and I throw my phone on the floor hoping, I guess, that by my no longer having the phone in my hand my brother will no longer be able to defy me and remain in harms way. Then, I pretty much lose it I guess, if it is even possible for me to actually lose it any more than I already have.
Within ten minutes my brother Kenneth has run all the way to my apartment with thousands of other people fleeing downtown Manhattan. He comes into my living room covered in dust and panting for breath and with a look on his face that tells me he has been forever changed by what has just happened to him and before we hug he stops and stares at me with tears in his dirty eyes and dust falling from his thick hair and says,
“This changes everything Scott.”
I hadn’t a clue then about how right he would be.
After pulling himself together Ken and I head back out onto the terrace to watch the horror unfolding just downtown from where we are. The south tower is gone now and is nothing more than a huge thick column of smoke and the North tower is in flames above the 83rd floor.
Our line of site to the disaster is so clear and close that we can see curtains billowing out of broken windows of the tower, papers fluttering to the ground from smashed offices and we can even see the people in those offices with the broken windows and the smoke pouring out standing out on the nonexistent ledges of the World Trade Center almost a quarter mile above the ground struggling to breath as the smoke and the fire move ever closer to them.
Now things are falling, falling off the building above the impact zone where that first plane hit. Lots of things. From where we are they look like…. Well, I don’t want to think what they look like. But below us, on the terrace in the apartment on the next floor down, the family that lives there have their binoculars out and their five year old daughter is watching the things that are falling off the building through a pair of binoculars and I hear her say to her mother,
“Look at the birds flying off the World Trade Center Mommy.” And then,
“Look! The birds, they’re burning!”
I look again, through my high powerd binoculars, to the south toward the burning building that has but a few moments left to live and I see that the little girl downstairs is only half right, the “birds” that she sees that are flying off the building are indeed burning, but they aren’t birds and that is where my brain shuts down for a while.
Black and white images taken by my brother Ted and me from my apartment’s terrace using a Canon SLR.
Editors note: I’m going to use this tenth anniversary to make this the last time I post about 9/11 during the life of this blog.
As a nation we’ve wasted and corrupted anything good that might have come from this horror and the annual rolling out of the tears and hand ringing and rending of garments on this date have simply become too much to stomach.
The people who died ten years ago today in New York City, Washington D.C and Shanksville Pennsylvania deserve to rest in peace and to be mourned and remembered by their families and loved ones. But this country no longer has any right to use them as its own national martyrs.
We forfeited that right long ago.
“The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.
A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?
The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.”