"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse." --John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873)

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Dispatch From The War Zone

Posted by Hello

On September 12, 2001, I wrote the following e-mail to friends and family, many of whom we were unable to speak to by phone, as service was unreliable.

That grim morning, I knew immediately who was responsible and what the implications were. While crossing the bridge, I looked back at the smoking WTC site and muttered to myself, "F---ing Osama bin Laden. . ." The original subject line of the e-mail was "Dispatch from the war zone", but Samantha convinced me that was too dramatic, so I changed it to "Message from Nick & Samantha".

It is also interesting that I was already calling the site "ground zero"; I don't remember whether it occurred to me to use that term or whether I heard it on the news. It seemed fitting, as the devastation was so great, it might as well have been a nuclear attack.

The e-mail is now part of the September 11 Digital Archive, a joint project of the City of New York Graduate Center and George Mason University. The URL is http://911digitalarchive.org/.

Hello all,

Because so many have called over the past 24 hours, and we continue to have difficulty making outgoing calls, I thought I would put into writing the events of the past day.

A few minutes before nine, I was walking up the stairs of the Fulton Street subway station. It was a morning like any other--until a man in a business suit started running down the stairs, against the flow of people, saying, "The World Trade Center just blew up." When I got up to the street, people were lining the sidewalk, their necks craned up at the Twin Towers a few blocks to the west.

There were flames visible on some of the high floors, smoke billowing out of the windows, and gaping holes in the skin of the north skyscraper. A man on the street told me that he had seen a flash of silver before the explosion--he thought that an airplane had struck the building. I mentioned a similar incident back in the '40s, when a military aircraft hit the Empire State Building. I was thinking it likely that this was an accident, although it seemed somewhat strange that a plane would collide with the tower on such a clear day.

I walked west to my office, which is located one block east of the WTC complex. When I got to my desk, my coworkers were somber, especially one whose father died in the terrorist bombing of Fraunces Tavern in the '70s. I walked over to the west side of the floor. Through the large windows, I could see the damage up close, the flames raging inside the north tower.

Suddenly, my building shuddered, and an enormous fireball rose above the south tower. Someone screamed, "Get away from the windows!" and people began running toward the stairs. At that point, it became clear that this was a terrorist attack. One woman was crying hysterically and had to be helped from her chair. We walked down the 12 floors to the street, no panic, very orderly. When I reached Broadway, there were crowds on the sidewalks, milling about, not knowing what to do, mesmerized by the smoke and flames above. The streets around the perimeter of the WTC had already been cordoned off.

I started walking north up Park Row. Some construction workers, amazingly, were going about their business, and they dropped a large plank on the sidewalk. People screamed, startled by the sudden loud sound. I cut west through City Hall Park over to Broadway, and walked north. My intention was to get away from the area and try to find Samantha, who works several blocks north of the WTC, on Greenwich Street in Tribeca.

The street outside her building was jammed with office workers. Many people had chosen to stand on the sidewalk underneath the big steel Travelers umbrella, perhaps drawn to it because it was a symbol of safety. I walked completely around her building, fruitlessly searching for her. When I reached the back side, I could see the towers clearly down the West Side Drive, helicopters circling above, smoke pouring out to the southeast. I made my way back to the Greenwich Street side and stood for a time with everyone else, numb and in shock. It seemed that every other person had a phone to his or her ear, trying to dial out and reassure loved ones.

Then, a collective gasp swept through the crowd, as debris rained down like silver confetti from the south tower in the distance. It was apparent that the building had collapsed, and clouds of dust rose and rolled down the narrow streets. As people grasped the enormity of what was occurring, they became even more upset, many women crying, embracing colleagues. I became very concerned that Samantha may have gone south, looking for me at my building. I tried many times to call her wireless phone and to call our home, but the circuits were busy. People waited patiently for payphones, offering change to those who didn't have it.

I was walking north toward Canal Street when I saw the north tower collapse, its giant radio mast sinking behind buildings in the foreground. I then walked east through Soho, my intention now to cross a bridge spanning the East River. I walked south down the Bowery, through Chinatown, expecting the Manhattan Bridge to be closed. To my surprise, it was open, and they were allowing pedestrian traffic on the roadway. With a river of humanity, I walked like a refugee across the bridge to Brooklyn.

I felt vulnerable, especially at the middle of the span, drawing some comfort from the Air Force fighters flying overhead. A plume of smoke, pushed by the wind, flowed from the WTC across the river to Brooklyn, directly toward our neighborhood. I hoped that our babysitter Winie had the good sense to keep Kitten inside. The smoke made me uneasy, as I imagined that it may have contained toxic fumes or biological or chemical agents.

When I reached the far end of the bridge, I gratefully accepted a cup from an Orthodox Jewish woman who has handing out water. The sun was strong, and many people were exhausted from the walk. A secondhand furniture store had placed all its chairs out on the sidewalk in the shade so that people could rest. I walked down Flatbush Avenue in my undershirt, periodically breathing through my dress shirt, as an acrid-sweet smoke descended over Brooklyn.

As I reached Park Slope, I was taken aback by how people seemed to be going about their daily business. It was a world away from the mayhem of Manhattan, except for the ominous cloud of smoke above our heads, blotting out the sun. I arrived home, and Kitten ran into my arms, happy to see me although she had no idea what had occurred.

A short time later, Samantha arrived, having made the Manhattan Bridge crossing slightly behind me. She had, in fact, tried to walk south to my building but was stopped by police. Had she made it, she would have been caught in the falling debris. From her vantage point, she had witnessed victims jumping from windows to escape the fire.

Samantha told me about the difficulties she had placing calls on her wireless phone; she had been able to get through only to my parents and to our babysitter. She was befriended by a man named John who, seeing her frantic dialing, calmed her down. He also lives in Brooklyn, and they crossed the bridge together.

Later, we watched the television news reports, recognizing landmarks from our daily lives--a hardware store, a restaurant--amid the devastation of lower Manhattan. Video showed my office building surrounded by debris from the collapse. We heard that Samantha's office had been turned into a temporary morgue. We are grateful that she no longer works at Merrill Lynch, at the World Financial Center, which is right next to the Trade Center. When we put Kitten to bed last night, there was a strong smell of smoke throughout our house.

We heard a reporter say that someone had written a message in the concrete dust on a burned-out car at ground zero: "THIS WON'T STOP NY" A sign on our street today asked residents to put out their American flags, and they did.

Thanks to our friends from all over the world who have called. We are shaken but OK.