September 11, 2007

Going Downtown

The air was filled with the smell of burning plastic, the smell of a million melted computers.

(Warning: Real Life, Real World, Real Event Content. Strong Situations. Strong Language. Things Are Not Pretty. Real Life Is Ugly. This is the posting that got me "moderated" on User Friendly. You are warned.)

During the Vietnam War, U.S. pilots referred to attack runs over Hanoi as "going downtown."

Going downtown is what I did during the work week from October 1992 onwards. After I was laid off from a job as a technical writer (also in downtown New York, but in Greenwich Village), I eventually got a job as an administrative assistant with the "Value/Conservative Growth" style of investing at Kidder Peabody Asset Management. After Kidder Peabody shut down, we moved as a group to Cowen & Company, into their asset management division. Eventually Cowen was bought by Societe General, and we moved up a few flights to the 34th Floor of the same building, with a firm called Dominick & Dominick.

In the summer of 2001 I was an analyst and vice president with Value/Conservative Growth. I still worked with the same basic group of people, but we had recently added a new portfolio manager, Jack. I did research for Jack, and my original boss, Tom.

Most days blurred into one another, and September 11, 2001 was no different. I got up at 4:30 AM. The alarm usually started calling me around 4:15, but I would inevitably hit the snooze button one or more times. I took the dogs out for their walk, gave them their morning biscuit. I then took a shower, got dressed, listened to WNYC for the early news and walked out to the bus.

The bus ride was the usual, with traffic. My original plan for the morning was to get off where I usually got, one block away from the WTC, and go to Borders Books to shop for a birthday gift for my wife. However, we were running late and Tuesdays and Thursdays we had a group meeting at work among the portfolio managers. I was expected to bring a summary of news and analyst reports to the meeting and be prepared to discuss them. So, when we got to my usual stop at around 7:40 AM, instead of walking to Borders, I went to work. My only stop was at a Starbucks two blocks away from my office to pick up my usual morning ration of a large coffee and a scone (Maple Walnut).

I arrived in my office and logged onto my computer and started working through e-mails and morning news, looking for items for the morning meeting. I had the radio on, tuned to WNYC again.

At 8:40 AM I sent e-mail to a friend (and fellow commuter) who worked for a firm in the North Tower. I forwarded a report about the housing refinance boom and how it was powering the economy.

At 8:46 AM, the signal from the radio fritzed out, like lightning had struck. A few seconds later, I heard a loud "boom" and our building actually shook from the force of it. The signal came back, the noise died away.

It was obvious something had happened, but we did not know what. I looked outside, and saw smoke around the North Tower. I also saw a cloud of paper in the air, like confetti. I went to the trading room on our floor to get a better view. You could see more smoke, and could see a gash going partly around to the side of the North Tower that faced us.

Reports started to come in, on CNBC and other media sources. The initial reports were that a plane had hit the building by accident. We wondered about that, how that could have happened, given the beautiful blue sky that we had that day. Obviously, one very stupid small plane pilot.

I tried to go back to work, and gather more material for the morning meeting. But, it was soon a hopeless task. I watched from my window as the smoke got worse. When I went to the trading room again, and saw some close-ups of the damage, you could see people in the damaged areas. Live people. That's when the enormity of what was happening struck me. Financial people, overall, get to work early to try and get the jump on the other guy. That building was full of people who had tried to get the jump on others and now were stuck.

I called my wife, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she took our daughter to daycare and ran errands. By that point she was in the Stop & Shop, and because it was a metal-framed building I could not reach her. I left her a voice mail, telling her what had happened.

I then called my parent's. I knew that my mother's knowledge of the geography of downtown NYC was hazy at best, so if she was listening to the news or watching the news, she might be concerned for my safety. I reached her, and started to tell her what was going on, trying to be reassuring.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an airplane. I turned in amazement, thinking it was a sightseer.

Then the scale of the plane hit me.

It was a jumbo jet, twisting and weaving, so close to me that I swear that I saw the rivets on the side of the plane.

I screamed in general, and into the telephone, "Oh sweet Jesus, help them, what is that fucking idiot doing!?"

It then angled it's wings so that it would hit the largest number of floors, and it slammed into the South Tower.

I dropped the telephone as the entire top of the building was engulfed in flame and smoke and millions upon millions of pages of documents spewed out of the side of the building like blood from a slashed artery. A fireball expanded, growing so large as to encompass the North Tower as well. For a moment it appeared the tops of both towers had been taken off by the explosion. Our building swayed.

I could hear my mother calling from the phone I dropped. I yelled again what had happened, and she kept saying "You're joking!" I told her again, and she realized that I was not kidding, and she started screaming for me to get out of the building as fast as I could.

I hung up, and called my wife again. Again, I could not reach her, again I left a message. By now, the initial fireball was gone and I could see the damage to the building.

My first rational thought was something like "Well, given the fireball, any chemical or biological agents would have been destroyed." This was no accident. This was intentional. By who I did not know, but I knew we were at war.

I turned around and a few people, including our receptionist were standing there. Those in the interior offices had heard me scream and came to see what had happened. They were as stunned as I was.

I do not know how long I was in the office after that. I know that I spoke to my boss's wife at one point. She came in and worked on Tuesdays. I told her to turn around and not come in. I spoke to one of our other portfolio managers, a woman who refused to work in the office (she claimed she was allergic to the building).

Then the announcement came, we were to evacuate the building as quickly as possible.

My boss's line rang. I thought it might be his wife, so I picked it up. It was our office-allergic portfolio manager. "I really think you might want to leave", she stated. As usual, a dollar short and ten minutes late. "That's exactly what we're trying to do," I said. I grabbed my things (backpack, cell phone, etc.) and went around the floor in a counterclockwise fashion (away from the stairs and elevators). Jack was stunned. Tom was stunned. Others were crying. I came across one person who was on the telephone to a client. I urged him to finish the call, and pushed him out of his office. I swept around, past the trading room, waited for another person to gather his things, and then we all went down the elevator together. Yes, the elevators, we were told to get out as fast as possible, not to wait.

In the lobby people were milling around. There was no sense of organization, no roll calls, no checking that people were all out. Then the building management made another announcement that was even more amazing than "get out and use the elevators". We were told we could go back to our offices and retrieve personal belongings, if we wanted.

I left the building. On the street, I could see paper. Paper was floating down. Burned paper. Presentations. Printing instructions. Manuals. Trade tickets. Paper from the towers.

I looked up at the towers. I could see them clearly, both surrounded by a lot of smoke.

Then I saw a dot fall from the North Tower. And another. Another. I realized what they were. People. People who had gotten to the point of having two choices. A choice of death by fire or death by jumping. I stopped counting the dots after fifteen.

The streets were full of people, going back and forth, no single direction. Cars were abandoned in the streets. I remember being amused (!) at the sight of an abandoned UPS truck with it's back door open. Nobody was going to be looting anything today.

I went towards a subway station, the #2 and 3 line on Wall Street. It was a mob scene, no way I was going to get in that subway.

Looking at the towers, looking at the smoke, looking at the people falling, I proceeded on automatic pilot to the next nearest subway stop. I am, to this day, not even certain where I was. But I went down, to the 1 & 9 line. I swiped my Metro card (it worked!), and went to the platform. A half-empty train came shortly thereafter, going uptown.

We pulled into the stop under the World Trade Center. It was empty. It was silent. The doors opened. Then we heard the noise, the noise of a mighty wind (no movie jokes, please), the sound of a dozen jet engines, a hundred thundering locomotives. We thought there was another attack. People started screaming, "Go! Go!" and the doors closed and we pulled out of the station.

Later I found out that we were under the South Tower when it came down. I eventually saw a picture of a girder from the South Tower that had penetrated through the basements, etc., and ended up going through those tracks.

We went uptown. We stopped, not at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I was headed. The announcement was made, the subways are shutting down, get out.

I stumbled upstairs. The streets were filled with people, still going every which way. I tried calling my wife. No luck. Then I heard another rumbling noise, another attack? One person said that eight more jets were reported hijacked and were heading our way. Somebody said the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. had been bombed.

I tried my wife again. She was home. I said I was OK. She told me that the North Tower had just fallen. I realized what I had heard. Then I asked her about the South Tower, and she told me that it had fallen first.

Looking south, towards the tip of the island, you could see massive clouds of smoke rising.

What to do? The Port Authority was closed. All the tunnels and bridges were closed. The subways were not running. Eight more jets were (we thought) headed out way, what to do?

My wife suggested I go south (!) to where her sister lived, and wait there until things quieted down. I started to walk south, getting closer and closer to those billowing clouds of smoke.

I suddenly realized, at one point, what I was walking past. The Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world, now again the tallest in New York. Given what had happened, I realized how stupid I was being so close to it. I made a detour.

My sister-in-law's apartment is downtown, at the nexus of three hospitals. As I got closer and closer, I could see people clustered around cars, listening to radios. There even was one electronics store that had set up televisions outside, and people watched.

Overhead the sky was cracked by the sound of a sonic boom. I saw the plane, and recognized the profile. It was one of ours. Too little, too late. But, of some comfort.

Getting to the area of the apartment, I kept hearing more and more sirens. Ambulances. Fire trucks. Police cars. Cars going north covered with ash and debris. Sirens. Sirens and more sirens.

I reached my sister-in-law's apartment. She was not there. I met some of her neighbors, they had not seen her. I tried to call her cell phone, no luck. By this time you could not get a signal (the North Tower had the biggest cell tower in the city, plus there was major damage to the circuits that ran in the area). The only thing that worked, sometimes, was my "push-to-talk" feature on my Nextel cell phone. So sometimes I could get my wife, sometimes not. From her, I heard from my boss's wife that my boss had gotten on a ferry to cross the river. Of my other colleagues, not a word.

Eventually my sister-in-law turned up. She had been scheduled to work across from the WTC that day, but had worked until 2:00 AM the day before and got a late start. Lucky for her.

We got some food and stocked up on water. We watched TV, seeing the same clips over and over again. We listened to the sirens and watched the billowing clouds of smoke and ash.

Finally, they announced that trains would be running again. Subways were not. So I walked again north. The streets were deserted. I have never seen the city so empty.

I got to Penn Station and it looked like a scene out of a George Pal movie like "The War of the Worlds" or "When Worlds Collide". Hundreds upon hundreds of people waiting for trains. I got on one, not the first. No ticket required.

Pulling out of the tunnel, in New Jersey at last, you could see the open wound in the city. People sat in stunned silence on the train. Nobody spoke. People did not even want to look at each other.

My cell phone rang. It was a high school friend, who lived in California. He just kept saying "I can't believe it".

I finally got to New Brunswick and left the train. New Brunswick was also deserted. My father-in-law came and picked me up, my wife was at a service at our church and they were babysitting our daughter.

I got out of the car. I went inside my in-laws house. My daughter was there crying. I held her tight.

The next few days I was home. There was no power downtown, the markets were closed. The sky continued to be blue, except for a hazy stain. And even where we were, you could smell the burned plastic.

The sky was empty of planes. At one point my daughter asked, "Where are the planes?" Perceptive kid. She also asked at one point "Why is Daddy so sad?", as all I seemed to be able to do was to sit on the couch and stare into space.

On Thursday there was a thunderstorm at night. A powerful one. I woke up screaming, from a nightmare where I was trapped up to my waist in debris, as the world exploded around me. The dream has faded since then, but revisits with similar weather.

The markets reopened, but our building was still closed. A research client graciously offered us some space for a few of us. It was difficult. They were so nice, but I kept wanting to scream. I was shaking, working in a building that high (and it really wasn't all that high!). The number of bomb scares that got phoned into every building that day did not help either.

A few days later our building was opened. So, I went downtown again. We had to take a subway, and then walk several blocks. We went through several checkpoints, and had to show multiple ID's. We got closer and closer to the WTC, or what was left of it, a multi-story mass of wreckage.

The air was filled with the smell of burning plastic, the smell of a million melted computers.

I started walking to my office. Not far from where I saw the wreckage of the WTC, I saw a puddle of water, obviously from the rainstorm that Thursday before.

In the puddle of water was a congealed smear of red. Blood. From where? From when?

Awnings everywhere were covered with ash. The streets still had debris: Ash, papers, etc. Police and National Guardsmen wore masks, we had none and had to put up with the smell.

I got to my office. On my desk was my coffee and scone from over a week later. I threw them away, and sat down. I reached for my collection and business cards and leafed through them. I needed to find a name.

I found it. A friend, the person that I had sent that e-mail to about the housing refinance boom. She worked in the WTC. I burst into tears, because I could not remember if she had been on the bus that morning.

That weekend we went to church, our usual 5:30 PM Saturday "folk" mass. When we entered, we saw the front of the church closed off by yellow "caution" tape. The smell of burned plastic filled the air.

At church, they had set up a lectern with a notebook on it. If you wanted to, you could write your thoughts in the notebook. There was a candle burning nearby. An American flag stood nearby. The church had been kept open each day from 9/11 onwards for people to come and pray and think and reflect.

The night before somebody stayed in the church when it was closed and locked. He or she knocked the flag over on the candle, it caught fire as did the lectern and the notebook. As did the plastic tiles. Luckily the fire put itself out before it reached the first row of pews. If did had not, the whole church would have burned down.

So the place I went to for peace smelled like downtown. Another fire. My last refuge was taken from me.

As time went by, we tried to carry on. We tried to go back to the way it was. But you could not. There were constant reminders of what had happened. You got off the bus, and had to walk by the WTC. To get to the bus in the evening, you had to walk by the WTC. In your office you would look out and see the smoke. Those fires burned for six months. You would see birds over the site and then learn later they were turkey vultures, attracted by the scent of death. You'd hear about all the rats that had lived in the subway, and now were invading the area.

You would read a report in the paper about the air downtown. There would be the chemical breakdowns, all supposedly at safe levels. But then you'd see something like "organic materials" and a percentage of the total.

Organic materials. You know. People.

Then there were the bodies. No, I did not see any bodies as they were uncovered. But I cannot count the number of times I would be walking to or from the bus stop and see the sad procession going to one of the FDNY ambulances waiting around the site.

Then there was the sound of the girders. Huge trucks would take the twisted girders away from Ground Zero and bring them to river by our building. They would be picked up by a crane and dropped one by one onto a barge. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Occasionally it would be loud enough to make your windows shake.

Finally, it all caught up with me. One day in January 2002, I felt as if I was having difficulty concentrating. Then I had difficulty seeing, my vision kept getting blurred. As I left the office, and started to cross the street, I got dizzy. A pain went from my chest to my left arm and hand. I got tunnel vision. Somehow I got across the street, and eventually to my bus. By automatic pilot, I got on the bus. I felt better, but not great. When we got to East Brunswick, I asked the driver to let me off. I called my wife and told her what happened. She came and took me to the Emergency Room, where I told them I thought I might have had a heart attack. They ran tests, no heart attack. I had a follow-up visit with my doctor. No, no heart attack, just PTSD, another term to learn and live with.

When I went to the dentist, he asked: "When did you break your tooth?" I thought he was kidding. But, upon reflection, it was obvious when it had been broken. When the second plane went by my window, or when I was on the subway, or one of sixteen dozen other moments that day. I guess I got a little excited. At some other point that day, I must have gotten excited again, as a second broken tooth was discovered. (Both, together, came to several thousand dollars in repairs, none of it covered by insurance.)

Other problems have cropped up. Some are related to the PTSD. Others are related to the exposure to dust and other substances. My childhood asthma is back. I'm nervous in crowds, nervous in tall buildings, etc.

After my "heart attack", one of the things I did was to get counseling. I don't know if it really helped or not; eventually I stopped because it was expensive and I was unable to get financial reimbursement for all of it. One of the things that the counselor told me was that I "was a hero". Why? Because I did not panic. When we evacuated the floor, I stayed long enough to make sure that all others were leaving and forced a few to leave. Because one of my thoughts upon leaving the building was to go towards the WTC and try and help direct traffic, provide first aid, or whatever.

I do not feel that makes me a hero. The heroes were the ones who worked there and died at their desks. The heroes were the ones who helped others, although it was not their job. The heroes were those in the Fire Department, the Police Department, the Port Authority and countless other agencies who rushed in where others feared to tread.

Among those in the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" was the profile of one such hero. He was originally from the town I now live in, and was a classmate of my wife when she was in school. Here is the portrait of a hero:

John Collins
Future Fireman at Age 4

When John Collins was 4 years old, his father took him to a Bronx firehouse. That is when he decided what he wanted to do. It took a while, with entrance exams delayed because of a legal dispute, so he joined the Police Department first before becoming a fireman in 1990.

The oldest of five children, Mr. Collins, 42 organized family events, like two weeks each year on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, or a benefit concert on the aircraft carrier "Intrepid" in Manhattan, followed by a night on the town with his sisters and their husbands. He lived in the Bronx, lifted weights and brought groceries for neighbors who were down on their luck.

He never talked much about his work, his sister Eileen Byrne recalled, because he did not want to worry his parents. "We teased him, said he was the only fireman who never went to a fire," she said.

That is not how they remember him at Ladder Company 25 on 77th Street. On Sept. 11, he was supposed to go to another firehouse to fill in. It was called out before he could get there. When Ladder 25 was called, he jumped on the engine.

"We had seven firemen on the rig instead of six," said another fireman, Matt O'Hanlon.

I attended two services for John Collins. The first was shortly after 9/11, and was a memorial (he was among the missing) without a body. The second was the funeral, when his body was recovered. We have had a memorial each year, since then, and I've attended them all. I'll be attending the next one tonight.

"Into the Fire" (Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising")

The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

You gave your love to see in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

May your love bring us love

I would like to forget what I saw. I have tried to write this piece several dozen times, each time ending it because I could not get through it. But I wrote this because I cannot forget. I wrote this because I feel that people are once again becoming complacent. I wrote this because there are thousands of people like me, who were downtown that day. Our stories need to be told as well. Finally, I wrote this for my daughter. Someday she will be old enough to understand why her father is sad, especially in September.

(Originally posted on September 11, 2003. It took me two years to write this, and longer to write the postings that follow it.)

2004 Update: Out of work for one year, more or less. Signs that the lungs are having a bit of trouble thanks to all the crap that we all breathed downtown. At one point I had several links up from people who either were downtown NYC or at the Pentagon, but all those links have gone now.

2005 Update: The Dream Is Always the Same has been haunting me again, of late.

2006 Update: Still working part-time. Unable to get full-time work. Skating the edge of sanity again, thanks to stress. Almost no "civilians" at the local memorial, just volunteer firefighters. Have they all forgotten?

2007 Update: More health issues, some stress (PTSD) related, some breathing related. Same as it ever was. The Drean Is Always the Same has been back several times this week.

2007 Update, Part Two: I watched a bit of the coverage this morning. My daughter asked me what was going on. I explained in general terms what had happened. How can you explain something like this simply? You can't. Coverage was on the local stations on the way to work, it is hard to drive when you are crying.

2007 Links Update: My view was a lot closer than this, this represents the best rendition of what I saw. Victims List. Local coverage the next day. Front page of local coverage the next day. Photogallery. Commentary from 2007. NY Times coverage. NY Times archive.

Posted by Fred Kiesche at September 11, 2007 12:00 AM

Thank you so much for keeping this and re-posting it. As tough as it is, just writing and talking about it can make it easier to deal with.

Posted by: JohnL at September 11, 2007 07:29 AM

Should have commented here before... I agree that posting about 9/11 is an important step in recovery.
anti v

Posted by: vaughn at September 22, 2007 01:31 PM

I too, went to St. Matthias with John Collins. I graduated in 1972 in Sister Benjamin's Class. Who is your wife that went to school with John? Let me know. Denise

Posted by: Denise Durbin (Danby) at May 7, 2008 08:35 PM
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