As was typical for me, I made it to work at the company’s 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 by train and bus. That fact, coupled with me being an early riser, meant that I’d always get into the office before just about anyone.
I was a recent Massachusetts transplant, having taken a temporary year-long transfer to the NYC office to do my part to help turn the under-performing practice around. I was put up for 4 months in a corporate apartment in Battery Park City (the southernmost tip of the island of Manhattan, only a quarter mile from the site of the World Trade Center as the crow flies) 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 a lot. 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 noggin touching the building’s foundation, and take a night shot straight up the length of building from that vantage point. Never got around to that but that would have been a pretty cool photo. I never made it to the top of the skyscraper. One night when friends were in town and we were roaming the city we had entered the lobby to ride up to the Windows of the World, the fancy restaurant at the top of the building on the 107th floor. The lines were so crazy, even at 10:00 at night, that we decided to do something else.
Fast forward a little bit. I moved out of Manhattan over the Summer of 2001 and became an out-of-town commuter — taking the train, subway, and bus to get from my rented house in the ‘burbs to the company’s office 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. I’m a country mouse.
It was a fluke that I was back in the New York City office the morning of September 11, 2001. 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. And what a day to go into the office. Following the dreary, rain-drenched day prior on September 10th, the 11th was a beautiful sunny day with hardly a cloud in the sky.
When I get into work I do 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 as the morning progressed, 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 two and a half miles away. 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, it dawned on us to make it over to the giant south-facing windows where we 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 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 was now 9:03.
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 (again, this is the early 2000’s) and I drifted in, numb, to hear if there was anything to learn. The news was going on about terrorist attacks and reporting that a number of commercial airliners were still in the air (thankfully false, as it turned out). Some reports were trickling in out 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.
No one talked about it but I’m sure people besides me were wondering when we as a country might be back to “normal”. It wasn’t hard to imagine that this was a scar on America’s timeline. There was America before, now there was an America after 9/11/01.
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. I was fine. Isolated on the island but two and a half miles away from Ground Zero. I couldn’t shake the morbid dread thinking about the people in the thick of the chaos. How would the people above the impact get evacuated? How do you put out a raging jet fuel fire 3/4 of the way up a skyscraper? At the time we were shaken but hopeful that it was indeed possible.
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.
I remember 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 I was too shaken up to eat.
Back at the office someone had pulled out 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 literally in view right 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. It was now 10:28.
We spent the afternoon wandering around, unsure of what to talk about. We were in a strange new upside-down world and were were all in shock trying to process it all. Eventually, 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 home. In the train, in the seat facing me, I saw dusty people who had been much closer than I was. The evidence of the attack was all around the train in the dirty clothes and the shell-shocked 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, Facetime, and Instagram. It was the digital Stone Age as far as interpersonal communication was concerned. I imagine how different that day would have been if we had these things back then. I threw a blank VHS tape in the machine and just hit record to capture the reported chaos of the day.
Life goes on and the next day was a work day. Strange now to think about it and even stranger back then when you were getting ready the next day to head into town. The train was a little quieter than usual and everyone drifted about their work tasks like they were sleepwalking.
On the way home that night I grabbed a few newspapers in Grand Central Station on the way to get my train. Over the coming weeks I also bought a few magazines that I still have pressed between some books on my bookshelf in the office:
Among the magazines on the shelf, I also have a 2001 NYC restaurant guide with the somber entry for the Windows of the World at the top of the WTC:
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 41 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.
No wonder either. This is a satellite photo from 9-12-2001 showing the smoke plumes from space:
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. For several weeks, if the wind blew northward, you’d get a whiff of the smoldering fires still burning.
When you passed people on the street, instead of them throwing a shoulder down to plow past you, you sometimes got eye contact for the first time. For a brief moment in Manhattan’s history, and one that unfortunately 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 semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. America’s 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.
It was a stressful time. Living where I did, in Cortlandt Manor, I was just down the road from the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Peekskill NY. There was concern around that being a target and what it would mean if that ever became a target. As local residents, we were concerned about how vulnerable the power plant was. It didn’t take an active imagination to envision a plane flying into the facility and causing another major incident. Thoughts like these were natural given the freshness of the WTC attack and the stories in the news of anthrax powder mailings popping up around the country. The world seemed to be coming apart and there were bad guys seemingly everywhere in the shadows.
Very soon after, I purchased a DVD of the event but couldn’t bring myself to watch it. For years it sat on a shelf in shrink wrap. Eventually the memory wasn’t as raw but the film remains unwatched. I’ve since seen and sought out hundreds of other video clips, photos, and documentaries but something about the tie between that physical DVD copy and the event remain linked and it seems wrong or sacrilegious to open it at this point.
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. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to cash that check. I knew that if any money came of it that I would donate it to charity. I couldn’t live with the idea of profiting off of pictures taken of a terrorist attack where almost 3,000 people died.
These are the photos I took with the disposable camera:
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 appear much further off in the distance than they appeared to us at the time or in our memories today. This will give you an idea. Here’s a picture someone else took of the Twin Towers, with the Empire State Building in the foreground:
Interesting note about photography and some perspective on my vantage point. I’ve told people who’ve seen my photos that the WTC was much closer than it appeared in them. I had a hard time pinning down the photographic phenomenon for that though. The best I could manage (despite being an avid photographer) is that the plastic lens in the disposable Kodak distorts the perspective and makes distant objects appear farther (technical, I know). Anyhow, my work building was in between the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers (you don’t see the Empire State Building in my photos because it’s behind me). So, looking at that photo above, you can get a good idea what a different lens does. I was in front of the Empire State Building and that view you see of the WTC above was much closer to what we experienced than the distant sense you get in my photos.
I came to find out much later that the landing gear from one of the planes landed a street over from where I lived (the arrow is my old apartment where I used to live, the circle is where the landing gear landed).
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. More than 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.