As was customary for me, I made it into our Manhattan office at 23rd and 6th before everyone else on September 11, 2001. I logged into my computer at about 7:30 to start my morning, piping hot coffee by my side. At the time, I lived in Westchester County, the ‘burbs north of the City, and my commute was over an hour into the office in Manhattan. That, coupled with the fact that I have always been an early riser, meant that I’d always get in early.
I was a recent Massachusetts transplant, having taken a temporary year-long transfer to the NYC office to help turn the under-performing practice around. I lived for 4 months in a corporate apartment in Battery Park City (the southernmost tip of the island of Manhattan, right next to the World Trade Center) while I figured out where I wanted to spend the remainder of my year abroad. In those 4 months, I got to like Battery Park City. It was part of New York City yet not. It had all the conveniences and proximity to the “real New York City” but it is its own unique place, something “true Manhattan dwellers” found laughable. It was usually considered outside the City and its residents thought to be outsiders.
Every ride home from work I would hop off the subway a stop or two early to walk through the city; it was usually at night. I always found part of NYC especially beautiful at night. I’d walk through the shops at the WTC, meander some side streets, or walk through Bowling Green. As a history buff of the American Revolutionary War, I always found something of historical interest to see.
One of my favorite things to do at night was to stand at the bottom of one of the WTC towers and look straight up its length from the bottom. That was an impressive sight and something I never tired of. I always had plans to lie at the base of one of the towers some day, the top of my head touching the side, and take a night shot straight up the length of building from that vantage point. Never got around to that but I am convinced that would have been a great photo.
I moved out of Manhattan over the Summer or 2001 and became an out-of-town commuter, taking the train, subway, and bus to get from my rented house to the offices downtown. I didn’t mind the commute and getting out of the city every night was really what I needed to keep my sanity, mentally cutting the cord from the office on the long train ride. There’s nowhere more exciting to have a career than the city but I am just as happy to clock out and head out of it when the work day is over.
It was a fluke that I was back in the New York City office the morning of September 11th. Although NYC was technically my home base, I had been working customer sites in New Jersey for several months and was in our East Bridgewater location for my day-to-day office. As it happens, there was a bit of a lull in activity and I thought it might be a good idea to head into the city to catch up on things. The usual office tango: gather my pile of junk mail and trade magazines from my inbox, dust off my cubicle, clean out my spoiled food from the fridge, and see some co-workers I hadn’t seen in a while.
Around 8:50 that morning, a coworker arrived and was talking about his elevator ride where a fellow traveler was saying there had been a small commuter plane that flew into the World Trade Center.
Our office took up the entire 19th floor of the building and, to this day, I can’t really fathom why I didn’t go to the huge south-facing window of the office to take a look like anyone else would have. Being where we were, in the heart of Manhattan and on the lofty 19th floor, we had an unobstructed view straight down the island to the WTC. You couldn’t miss it. Anytime you were making it from one side of the office to the other and you found yourself on the south side of the building, you invariably looked out the window in that direction. Despite this, I heard this bit of interesting news and continued to sit at my desk.
Eventually, good sense took over and we made it over to the giant south-facing windows and saw the island of Manhattan spread out before us under a bright, sunny blue sky. The towers stood as they always had but the North Tower was billowing black smoke. We stared in disbelief but, rather than the fear that would grip us later in the day, we were caught up in amazement. “How could someone actually hit one of those things?” I recalled a nighttime harbor cruise I had been on in the Hudson River a year previous. As the boat passed the majestic towers lit up that night I remember the hush among the other passengers as we took it all in its sheer size. You’d have to be one heck of a bad pilot or medically incapacitated to hit these buildings with your plane.
After watching the North Tower and shaking our heads in disbelief for a few minutes, I thought it might be a good move to take a few pictures of the accident (note: not yet an ‘attack’). Important to point out: this was 2001 and, unlike today, where everyone over the age of 12 has a high resolution smartphone with video capabilities, the best we could do was a BlackBerry or a flip phone. You couldn’t whip your phone out of your pocket with practiced precision and snap a picture in seconds. To take a photo you needed an actual camera. Not having one handy, I went down the elevator 19 floors to the city street to the corner convenience store to buy a disposable Kodak one. As I left the store, on the sidewalk on the way back to the building, I noticed how deathly quiet the streets were.
I made it back up the building in the elevator but went up a few more floors to get a better view. The building we were in was pretty old and, incredibly, had windows that you could actually open. Unsurprisingly, a group of people were already clustered at the window, looking south and talking about what this could all mean. The prevailing opinion being that it was an out-of-control small commuter plane or even a private prop plane. Not one of us in the group at the time was thinking this was anything more sinister than a terrible aviation accident.
I moved in between a few observers and took a few pictures through the open window. As I held the cheap cardboard and plastic camera to my eye, inexplicably, I saw another plane approaching and heard the mood of everyone around me go quickly from interested to panicked. I spun the prickly wheel of the camera and clicked photo after photo as the second plane came in and hit the South Tower in a huge billow of flame. Although we were too far to hear the explosion we saw the impact clear as day. The absence of the explosion’s sound made it eerie. Our group was transfixed at the window.
It wasn’t long before thoughts turned from theories of an accident to proclamations of an attack. The mood changed dramatically and we experienced a move from morbid curiosity to fear and uncertainty. After a few more minutes talking and trying to figure it out, we were joined by a few more people, including a photographer from New York Magazine. He had gone up as high as he could to get some good shots. He asked us what was going on and it wasn’t long before one of the guys among us, a custodian, gestured towards me, “This guy got it with his camera”.
All eyes turned towards me and the photographer introduced himself to me, showed me his New York Magazine badge, and asked if he could develop the film and publish the pictures, assuring me that I’d get half of whatever money came out of it. No doubt hundreds of superior images would surface over the coming weeks but time was of the essence and the simple fact was that I had pictures of the event was good enough for him. I was too bewildered and discombobulated to really care and not in any frame of mind to negotiate profit to be made on photos, pictures of what had to have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people getting killed. That hadn’t been my intention. I numbly handed the disposable camera over to the photographer and he took my contact information.
Eventually, we dispersed from the window and I found myself back on the 19th floor with my co-workers. By and large, except for one person who had the sense to leave the city as soon as the events began to unfold, we were all still at work. Many of us were young, unmarried workaholics who didn’t have a family to go home to. Soon, all roads, tunnels, and trains would be shut down and we’d be essentially trapped on the island until things blew over — who knew for how long.
My boss had a radio on in his office and I drifted in to see if there was anything to learn. The news was chattering about terrorist attacks and reporting (thankfully false, as it turned out) that a number of commercial airliners were still in the air. Some reports were trickling in of Pennsylvania but nothing concrete. What we thought we knew was that being in the city, any building could still be a target. At the time, no one knew that there would be no further planes hitting buildings. Being on the 19th floor of a skyscraper in the city made you, at least in the panic of the day, a potential bulls-eye. More than once I thought about our proximity to the landmark Empire State Building and Flatiron building, both only a few blocks away, and what that could mean.
Cell towers were overloaded so it was impossible to get a message out to people that you were okay. I was able to launch an email to a friend with a request to pass along the message to everyone else that I was okay. I found out later that my then-girlfriend/now-wife was frantic trying to get news assumed that I was in more danger than I really was. My friend was able to get in touch with my mother at least, to pass along word that I was safe.
Minutes turned to hours and at some point my boss, ever the pragmatist, pointed out that it might be a good thing to pull some money out of his bank account before stuff really went to hell. I joined him and, once again, noticed the strange quiet on the streets. No sirens, no cars, and none of the usual street noises that are present during the day.
We passed by a shameless (but creative and entrepreneurial) homeless guy on the street who wanted to make people believe that the large, domed blue aircraft warning lights he had in his possession were from the top of the WTC, jarred loose in the attack, and could be ours for $15. Where he actually got them from on such short notice is beyond me. After we got some money from the ATM we got a slice of pizza from the nearby pizzeria but being too shaken up, I didn’t end up eating that much.
Back at the office someone had procured a black and white TV, plugging it in near the south-facing window. It was bizarre seeing the live footage on the TV on the screen and the reality outside the window immediately behind it. Side by side they seemed like different events entirely. One was some far-away news event on our TV screen, the other was a visceral tragedy unfolding outside our building.
When the first building fell it came down like a house of giant dusty cards and it was as profound and shocking as seeing the moon blow up right before your eyes. Something so huge, so ever-present, so part of your everyday life — just…collapsing. One minute it was there and the next, it was permanently gone. To say it was shocking is an understatement. I remember one of my co-workers yelling, “Nooooo!!!” and bursting into tears. Not long afterwards, the second tower fell, as we all feared it would, and it was just as shocking. All that was left was a massive billowing cloud of toxic black smoke pouring up into the sky.
Around the dinner hour, the city’s tunnels, roads, and trains were reopened and everyone who lived out of town (or chose to leave it that day) shambled out of the city in a daze. I made it to my commuter train to head back to the house I rented in Cortlandt Manor, about an hour away. In the train, I saw dusty people who had apparently been much closer than I was. The evidence of the attack was all around the train in the dirty clothes and the facial expressions of its passengers.
I made it to my house that night and dropped my stuff on the couch. I picked up the phone and started making the rounds, calling friends and family to tell them everything was okay. My then-girlfriend/now-wife was relieved to hear from me and we talked for a while about the events of the day. It was the first time we had been able to communicate with each other since the previous night. We take our constant contact for granted these days. Facebook, texting, Snapchat, and email. In 2001, we were in the digital stone age as far as personal communication was concerned. I wonder how different that day would have been if we had these things back then.
The weekend after the attacks, a friend came down to visit and we went to Bear Mountain State Park across the Hudson River from Peekskill, to get away from things and have a walk through the park. It was another spectacular weather day and as we climbed the highest point of the park we had a clear view of Manhattan off in the distance. The site of the WTC was about 60 miles away but, amazingly, we still saw giant plumes of smoke were still rising. It was quite some time before the fires were completely extinguished at Ground Zero and the smoke finally ceased. At the time we were blown away how this could still be and it brought back those fresh memories of that day.
It was a somber time in the weeks that followed the attacks. I returned to the office in Manhattan the next day and for a few weeks afterwards. America’s heart skipped a beat and we were all still in shock but, to keep things running in the world, the show must go on. For many weeks to follow it was very common to see long funeral processions winding their way through the city streets. Thousands of friends, family members, and acquaintances making their way to yet another funeral for a victim of the attacks. It never got routine. Every procession was tragic.
When you passed people on the street, instead of them throwing a shoulder down to plow past you, you sometimes got eye contact. For a brief moment in Manhattan’s history, and one that wouldn’t last, people became more humane to one another. The shared tragic experience brought everyone closer by an inch and it was kind of nice.
In the consulting industry, I did a fair amount of overnight travel and it wasn’t very long after the attacks before my next assignment had me boarding a plane to Atlanta. This was early October and, like everyone, I had jitters going through the airport, taking off, landing, and pretty much most minutes in between. It was bizarre seeing air marshals on the plane and soldiers walking through the airport with large automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. The age of innocence, it appeared, was at an end.
I had intentions of going to the site of the WTC to see it up close and to pay my respects but I was told emphatically by co-workers who had that it was a bad idea and I shouldn’t. I took their advice and haven’t been to Ground Zero ever since. The closest I came was for a Halloween party in Manhattan in 2001. As I drove into the city I kept looking up to that blank part of the sky where the towers had been. Like everyone else, it felt empty and bizarre and would take some time to fully absorb.
For a year or so, I didn’t hear from the photographer from New York Magazine. I chalked it up to his not being successful in publishing his photos, the camera not working, or him just running away with my pictures and shafting me. I really didn’t care about the profit (the thought of profiting off photos taken of that event turned my stomach) but I was more than curious about the images and if they actually did come out. Out of the blue one day I received a manila envelope in the mail from him (amazing since I had changed numbers and addresses and now lived in Massachusetts). He explained that the pictures had somehow found their way into the hands of a publication in France, owned by one Bill Gates. He said he was looking into legal action and was confident that I’d “get enough for a nice vacation” out of it. That was the last I ever heard from him and I never felt compelled to reach him out to learn of the outcome. Tucked in with the letter was a CD containing the pictures in both jpeg and TIFF format.
It was sobering to look at the photos for the first time. They took me back to that moment and brought back the awful memories of that day. Even your “higher end” disposable cameras were not known for producing photographs with anything you’d describe as razor sharp clarity. They have an almost aged quality to them and, due to some photographic phenomenon resulting from the cheap plastic lens, the WTC buildings seem to be much further off in the distance than they appeared to us at the time or in our memories today. All told, there’s only 5 good ones in the whole set but I choose not to parade them about on the internet. Frankly it seems morbid to me. Today, I looked on the photographer’s website and was relieved that he must feel the same as they are not on display among the rest of his work.
The confusion, anger, horror, and uncertainty of that day will never truly go away for anyone who was around back then. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. The buildings have been rebuilt, families have made their peace, America has grown up, and time has marched on. Fifteen years later the memories are still fresh. In some ways it feels like it was last week.
We should take a moment to remember those who lost their lives in this senseless act and value the freedom that we continue to have. Never forget.