I first became aware on September 11, 2001, that something was up, so to speak, while waiting for a B train to Rockefeller Center at the 59th Street Station in Manhattan. I was getting a slightly late start on the day, having just come from voting for Mark Green for Mayor to replace Rudolph Giuliani. I was feeling pleased with myself for doing my civic duty and confident that my vote would count, which, after election 2000, I didn’t take for granted any more.
The trains were moving through slowly that morning, which is not too terribly unusual. The southbound platform in particular was not moving at all; trains sat there with doors open, confused commuters standing half in, half out, and no sign of any chance for movement any time soon. I heard an announcement to the effect that no trains were going to Brooklyn because of–I wasn’t paying close attention, so I don’t recall if the phrase was “police action” or ” incident”–at the World Trade Center. It was probably the latter, though, perhaps, the word might even have been “emergency.” That would have been an unusual phrase to hear over the MTA intercom, and you’d think it would have stuck in the mind.
For a moment, I did think back to the 1993 WTC bombing, the after effects of which, in the form of a sickly-looking black cloud of smoke in the wintry white air above the Towers, I watched through the window of my office at the time on the 20th floor of a building on West 34th Street. But as I say, subway lines in New York stall for various reasons fairly regularly and once I was on my way going in the opposite direction from the logjam, I put the Towers out of my mind.
I must have returned to the Broadway local, but in any case, it wasn’t too long before I was walking south on Sixth Avenue. Passing the Fox News building, I noticed an unusually large crowd of people staring at the red-letter news zipper running around the building. I gleaned quickly that one of the World Trade Towers had been struck by a plane and was on fire. I was shocked, of course. I imagined a single-engine private plane, like the one that had famously struck the Empire State Building in the 1940s or the White House in the late 1990s. But I am sure I was thinking “accident” at the moment.
I had a specific chore to do for my job at a vendor’s just south of there on Sixth Avenue, which I took care of quickly. But in the time it took me to do that and walk back to the Fox News building, the crowd, which had swelled in that time, was now reading, as I was reading, that a second plane had struck the second tower. Terrorism was suspected.
We all must have been standing there slack-jawed and silent, struggling to comprehend this bizarre news. I could not have been alone in thinking of the sickening scenes at the sites of impact. They were dying and suffering now, I was thinking, just a few miles away, in buildings I had just wandered beneath with my wife and five-year-old daughter the very weekend before to watch an end-of-the-summer ethnic music festival–a lot of people, wiped out, in a flash, just like that.
I made my way over to Fifth Avenue to catch the train to Queens, where I was then working. I was still thinking this was something contained to lower Manhattan. Terrible, yes. Near, too. But not much I could do about it, so, might as well continue with my life.
As I approached the avenue, I saw the sidewalk lined with well-dressed office workers and shoppers all staring in shock and amazement toward the south. I turned and looked myself. There they were: the Twin Towers, pouring out billowing black clouds of smoke and great red waves of flames. It was too unreal an image to grasp all at once, those familiar columns, in the same sky that was over my head, in the same air I was breathing, unmediated by any media, being consumed by flames. Sort of like watching a faithful old pet being hit by a truck. How on earth were they going to put those fires out, I wondered. How would they (whoever “they” were) repair those massive holes? I assumed someone–the ones who maintained the dull, steady beat of status quo, whoever they were–would find a way.
It slowly occurred to me that there had to be people in all the floors above the flames. The more one looked, the more one saw nothing but horror.
I should have, perhaps, known at that moment that it would be fruitless going to work. I went anyway. The Queens-bound E train, which has a terminus at the World Trade Center, was filled with silent, shell-shocked people. A stricken looking middle-aged African-American man in business attire noticed my anxious, questioning face and seemed to read my mind. He said, “They’re sending everyone home from lower Manhattan. I can’t get my car. It’s in a garage near the towers.” I asked him if he saw the collisions. He said he felt them and mimicked the sensation. “We’re at war,” he said. Then I heard the first rumor of the day: “I heard the Empire State Building was hit. Someone said St. Patrick’s Cathedral, too.”
I took a town car from Roosevelt Avenue station to my office on Astoria Boulevard near LaGuardia Airport. The Sikh driver was listening to the news, of course. His stunned eyes were reflected to me in the rearview mirror. We learned that the Pentagon was struck. More rumors: the Capital and White House may have been hit, too, it was reported.
“These are acts of war,” I said, feeling nauseated and unsettled and trying to process the larger picture. “We’re under attack.”