On my way to an early-morning meeting, I had a few minutes to spare before catching the PATH commuter train that runs under the Hudson River to the World Trade Center. I took the opportunity to walk to the end of the public pier adjacent to the station to enjoy the view of downtown Manhattan and the cool, pre-dawn quiet. As I often did, I counted the floors down from the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower, and saw that there were lights on in my old office space - I had worked for 14 years on the 103rd floor. The unusually calm surface of the Hudson that morning produced a nearly perfect reflection of the towers, and I regretted not having a camera. It was September 11, 2001.
On the 22nd floor of 7 World Trade Center, we were well into our second hour when we raised our heads at the sound of jet engines, loud and close. A split second later, there was the sound of a crash. “A plane is down,” I said. It was 8:46 am.
We heard people in the hallway shouting that a plane had hit the Trade Center. As my colleagues went to see what had happened, I called our building’s security desk in the lobby. The woman who answered the phone said that they had not declared an emergency for our building, and recommended we stay in place. I went out to our main corridor to let people know what I’d been told, but many of our staff were leaving the building, especially those who had been in our old offices after the February 1993 bombing. From the looks on their faces, I knew I should see for myself.
But first, I wanted to contact my wife, Carolyn. We had missed each others’ phone calls in 1993, and I knew this had only added to her anxiety as she waited to hear from me. So I wanted just to tell her I was OK. I called the American Cancer Society office where she does volunteer work, but nobody had arrived yet. I realized it was before 9 o’clock, so I decided to try again in a few minutes.
Our cafeteria overlooks the World Trade Center Plaza, so I made my way to that side of the building to see what I could. When I arrived, I took a quick look at the Towers and saw the impact zone with its thick, black plume of smoke. I was shocked to see the impact point so high, as I had assumed the crash was an accident involving a plane climbing out of La Guardia airport.
I turned my attention to a co-worker who was very distraught and sobbing. I was eventually able to understand that she had just ridden in to work with a friend who worked on the 107th floor, and she feared for the worst. In a few minutes, she managed to compose herself enough to leave the cafeteria.
I went back to my office to call Carolyn again, but couldn’t get through. I heard a colleague shout from an adjacent office that a second plane had hit the South Tower. I knew at that moment it was a terrorist act. Our chief operating officer made the decision to evacuate the building.
Between dialing Carolyn, a call came in from a colleague aboard a plane that had just taken off from Newark Airport. He had seen the smoke from the Trade Center, and wanted to know what had happened. I told him it was terrorists, and that we were getting out. I left my desk to spread the word to evacuate and to search for stragglers. While I was away from the desk, Carolyn got through – a repeat of 1993. Our COO told her not to worry, that everyone was OK, and that we were leaving the building.
We were telling the staff to gather at a baseball field in the green space a few blocks north and west of the Trade Center, figuring we’d determine what to do next when we got there. A few of us stayed behind to forward some telephones to our New Jersey office and to check once more for stragglers, and then we left. It was about 9:20 am.
As I exited the building, I looked over my shoulder at the Towers. There was not a cloud in the sky, and every feature of the buildings was visible. The black smoke and orange flames stood out so clearly that they looked artificial, like a movie scene. I remember thinking to myself that I knew I should feel anger, but I just felt numb.
When we got to the ball field, it had already been taken over by dozens of people in FBI and ATF windbreakers. About 100 of our staff gathered. A few critical staff were asked to try to get to our Jersey City office; the rest were asked to go home and stay by the phone. The police on the scene were urging us to “keep moving north - it’s not safe.”
As we made our way north along West Street, the main thoroughfare on Manhattan’s West Side, we could see a stream of emergency vehicles speeding down from uptown, lights flashing and sirens wailing. It was hard to talk over the din. The fire engines, ambulances and police cars just kept coming, in groups of two and three.
A small group of us had made about half a mile when, backs to the Towers, we heard and felt a rumble. Turning around, I saw a cloud of smoke or dust billow across West Street toward the World Financial Center. I thought it was a bomb blast. It was just after 10 o’clock, and we had just witnessed the collapse of the South Tower.
All the way, I was trying to get through to Carolyn on my cellphone, but connections seemed impossible. On a hunch, I dialed the home number of our company president, who was out of town on business. Surprisingly, I got through to his wife. After telling her that everyone was safely out of the office, she told me, “The Tower is down, and they’ve hit the Pentagon.” I heard it, but I didn’t comprehend it.
Four of us convinced a limousine driver to bring us up West Street to the midtown area where two of us would try to get a ferry to New Jersey, and two others would head for Penn Station for their homeward-bound Long Island trains. On the way, we chattered about our plans, but nobody said a word about what we had seen.
As my colleague and I waited in the crowd for the ferry, we heard aircraft noise. The entire crowd cringed, very visibly. Then someone said, “Relax. It’s an F-14 rolling around up there.” I looked, and he was right. The U.S. Navy was on patrol.
After getting on the ferry, I looked back downtown. I kept wishing the smoke would clear so I could see the Towers. I wondered if I was just at a low angle, with the rising smoke just obscuring the buildings. I wasn’t processing the facts I had: the Towers were down, but I couldn’t comprehend it.
It took us nearly two hours to get from the ferry landing in Weehawken to Jersey City by bus and foot. On the way, we stopped at the Hoboken train station to see whether the PATH link to Jersey City was in operation, but no luck. As we walked from the station, we were threading our way through ranks of ambulances from nearby communities, parked and waiting for casualties. I have a vivid recollection of a petite, red-haired woman in hospital scrubs, with a stethoscope draped around her neck. She stood completely still, with a look of pain on her face. Her hands, in bright blue gloves, were extended toward the Trade Center, waiting.
We got to Jersey City about 1 o’clock, to find that the authorities had ordered the evacuation of our building, two blocks from the waterfront and the PATH station. I talked the police officer into letting me in, just to retrieve my car from the garage. I drove three of my colleagues home, and headed home myself. In the car, I was able to reach my parents, and ask them to let Carolyn know that I was alright, and that I would be home soon.
When I did reach home, I spent the rest of the day ordering the company’s financial affairs as best as possible from the kitchen table. I was on the phone with my COO a little after 5 pm. He was in his apartment in Jersey City, and had been watching our building burning for much of the afternoon. We were on the phone together when it collapsed at 5:20 pm. Although I was occupied calling family, friends and co-workers until nearly midnight, my clear recollections of September 11 seem to end at that point.
* * *
Four people I knew or had worked with perished at the Trade Center that day. I mourn their loss, and grieve for their families. They were innocent, chance victims of a horrific act. I grieve as well for the heroes of September 11, the firefighters, police and emergency medical workers who responded, and gave their lives in service to others. There are no words.
Having worked in those buildings for 14 years, I caught their spirit. The concept, the idea of the World Trade Center was - and is - much bigger than the buildings themselves. I feel their loss. Not the metal and glass. The idea.