AUGUST 2011

9-11-01 Ten Years Later

On 9-11-01, I was walking to my office at One Broadway, when the first plane hit the N. tower. I had returned to New York from Santorini, Greece, the day before. My vacation was interrupted due to pressing matters that could not wait. I first noticed other pedestrians looking up. My eyes followed the direction of their stares, and I first saw the hole that had opened up in the side of the North tower. Flames licked the sky, leaping from the gaping wound. At that point, we didn't know it was an intentional act of terrorism. 

I proceeded to work, which was only a few blocks from the twin towers. As I neared One Broadway, a second commercial airliner blasted its way into the South tower. Even though I was walking on the street several blocks away on the opposite side of a high rise, I sensed the blast, burning paperwork drifted down around me from the offices impacted by the exploding air-fuel mixture released by the disintegrating aircraft as it merged with the office tower. A taxi stood motionless on Broadway, its driver transfixed to the radio. I asked him what had happened, and he explained that planes were crashing into tall buildings all over the city and at the Pentagon too. Although erroneous in details, this report made clear that our nation was under attack. 

I continued on my way. I took the elevator to my office on one of the top floors of One Broadway to collect some paperwork and to email friends and family that I was OK, because all the cellphone circuits were busy. I typed out a message, but just before I could click send, the first tower fell. A pyroclastic cloud of ash and dust entombed the financial district, turning day into night, made darker still by the immediate loss of electricity, phones, Internet and continued absence of cellphone signals. I stuffed my files in a red backpack that I normally used for law books; I was a full-time patent agent and legal intern, attending my last year of law school, at nights. 

Proceeding to the nearest stairwell, I met a panicked administrative assistant, calmed her and helped her to evacuate the building, nine floors down a dark stairwell in an historic building considered to be one of New York's first skyscrapers. The lobby guard had closed the entrance, afraid to let anyone outside in or anyone inside out. Pieces of fluffy flotsam drifted in the smoke, dust and ash that had once been a clear, late-summer sky. After waiting too long without information, I convinced the guard to allow me to leave, which also allowed some desperate tourists, probably from the Ellis Island tour boats, to find sanctuary in our lobby. 

Two disoriented tourists decided to join me on my expedition out of the financial district. The second tower came down before we made much progress, and a churning cloud of choking dust and ash advanced up one of the cavernous streets in our direction. My band took refuge in a bank lobby, just in time. 

After pausing in our refuge for a few minutes, the density of the dust dissipated enough to continue our journey, northward, towards the Brooklyn Bridge. All were now covered in a fine gray dust, in a surreal landscape that no longer resembled the busy streets of Manhattan. A makeshift first aid station passed out dust masks to passersby. A corner bodega passed out free bottled water. I rinsed my mouth of grit and took a sip of cool water.

Finally, when nearing the bridge, we emerged from the choking cloud of dust, for the first time. I turned to look in the direction of the twin towers. Stunned, I searched for any familiar landmarks to make sure that I was not disoriented, because the towers were no more. 

After directing my companions toward the bridge to Brooklyn and safety, I turned toward the West Village. It would take more than an hour navigating checkpoints and barricades before reaching my 350 square foot apartment. There, I showered off the thick coat of dust that matted my hair and caked my face. With a change of clothes, I ventured out and found an Internet cafe on Bleeker Street, which would become my office for the next couple of weeks. I sat down at a computer and let those concerned about me know that I was fine. 

In the weeks to come, I would become numb to the horror of so many faces of missing loved ones posted on bus stops and hospitals. The checkpoints and barricades eventually disappeared. Even the seemingly never-ending columns of smoke rising from ground zero eventually were extinguished, but I would never be the same. New York would never be the same. 

The pressing matters that drew me back early from my vacation in Greece, just the day before, no longer mattered so much.