I did not think, could not have thought, that we would make it to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 without having had a major terrorist event in this country. Yet here we are.
I find that I have no interest in thinking big thoughts about the meaning of this day. I’ve done that, and written about them, on most of the past 9/11 anniversaries. I have nothing useful or interesting to say. Maybe you do. Consider the combox an open thread for your 9/11 thoughts.
On this day 10 years ago, I woke up in my apartment on Hicks Street in Brooklyn, right across the harbor from lower Manhattan. I was a New York Post writer who was preparing to cover local elections that day. The way our apartment was configured, we had no windows overlooking the harbor, so we did not see the fire or hear the explosion from the plane hitting the north tower. We learned about it from my father, who phoned us from Louisiana as he watched it unfold on the Today show.
“Go look out your front door,” he said. “The World Trade Center is on fire.”
And so it was. The wind was blowing over our neighborhood from the fire. I’ll never forget the amazing arc of office papers strung out between the north tower and our neighborhood. It was raining paper on our brownstones. I went down to our basement living room to eat quickly and gather my things so I could go cover the fire story. As I sat in my desk chair putting on my sneakers, I heard a shout from the street, and then an explosion that rocked our building.
“They’re saying on the street that a 747 hit the other tower!” Julie called from upstairs. I ran upstairs annoyed at the people on the street, thinking that they were panicking and seeing things. As soon as I opened the door and saw the south tower on fire, I knew that it was all true.
“This is terrorism,” I told Julie. “I’m going to get as close as I can.” I kissed her and ran out the door, headed for the towers.I stopped at an Arab-owned bodega near my home to buy some bottled water. Customers were dazed and confused. The man behind the counter, who had been displaying some militant Palestinian propaganda behind the counter, was weirdly upbeat. As I made my way to the Brooklyn Bridge, I stopped on Montague Street to use a pay phone to call Julie — the mobile phones were down — to tell her it might not be a good idea to keep her doctor’s appointment in Manhattan today. I tell you this to indicate that one still had no idea of the magnitude of what was happening. As I stood there waiting to use the phone, a woman said to no one in particular that she was supposed to be in those towers at that moment, but her toddler had, for some reason, spent the morning crying inconsolably, which made her late. Which may have saved her life.
I moved on. On the bridge, a steady stream of shocked, sobbing refugees made their way across to Brooklyn from lower Manhattan. I stopped and interviewed some of them. Before long, I made it over to the pillars on the Manhattan side of the bridge. I ran into a Post colleague who was out for a bike ride before her afternoon shift. “We’ve got to get down there,” I said to her.
“Don’t do it,” she responded. “Those things are coming down.”
I looked at her like she was an alarmist, and told her they weren’t.
About 30 seconds later, there was this sound like a Niagara of glass, and down came the south tower. It felt like electric charges jolted my knees, and I nearly fell. I remember a large black woman in a dress grabbing the railing on the bridge and dry heaving. Another stout black woman, this one with short hair, threw her arms into the air, looked to heaven, and shouted, “And every knee shall bow and every tongue confess! This ain’t over, people.”
I had to decide quickly whether to run down toward the approaching dust cloud before cops closed access to Manhattan, or go back home to check on my family. I knew that if I went back home, I would miss covering the story of my lifetime. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my wife and son back at home in Brooklyn. Would I die in Manhattan that day, leaving her a widow and him fatherless? More importantly, were they in danger in some way?
I turned and joined the crowd headed towards Brooklyn to protect them. Today I regret that decision, but can’t say that I would have done any differently today, knowing what I knew then.
When I got back to our neighborhood, I stopped at the muffin shop on Montague Street to get Julie a croissant or something. I figured she had been glued to the TV, and hadn’t had breakfast. I was in a kind of shock, and that kind of mindless routine was something I did on autopilot. I ambled down Hicks toward our apartment. I didn’t know it then, but the north tower had collapsed. You couldn’t see anything across the harbor for all the dust in the air. When I reached our block, my phone sprang to life. I answered the ring. It was Julie. She shouted, and then ran out the door with Matthew in her arms.
She had thought I was dead. All she remembered was my having said, “I’m going to get as close as I can.” And then she couldn’t call me.
Later that morning, I stood in line at Long Island College Hospital to give blood. They sent us all away when they realized there would be no need. You either survived the event relatively okay, or you died.
That afternoon, Julie went to the Key Foods to stock up on supplies. She put on a surgical mask to filter out the dust. A wild-eyed man stopped her on the street, demanding to know what she knew about what was in the air. He was panicking. Nobody knew anything.
That night, we lay in bed with the airspace over New York as silent as the grave, wondering what kind of world we were living in now. And that was the first day.