A few years earlier, the subway doors had opened at Chambers Street, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, and I’d stepped off onto a crowded subway platform. People were logjammed into the stairwell and no one was moving. Sure, it was rush hour on a Tuesday morning, but this was too crowded.
A young white guy walked towards me, heading towards the open subway doors.
“A plane just ran into the Twin Towers,” he explained. His expression was nonplussed — he was going to be late for work just like he figured I was.
Except I’d already been at work. I’d just finished a graveyard shift. I was downtown to go to my second day of jury duty at 71 Thomas Street — the corner opposite the Trade Center.
The first day of jury duty had been a waste. For one thing, I wasn’t even on the jury — I was an alternate. So it was all I could do to keep my eyes open as the judge prattled on endlessly. But I heard words like “fine” and “contempt” and I walked out of the courtroom crystal clear on one thing — I was not to be late to jury duty.
So, I squeezed my way up the staircase and onto West Broadway where the streets were flooded with people. I followed their eyes and looked up at the towers.
Wow. I shook my head at the gaping holes. What kind of moronic pilot can’t see the Twin Towers in his way? He’d probably killed some people with his stupid flying.
This was all fascinating, but I had to get to court. The Hon. Flap N. Gums wasn’t going to slap me with a $500 fine.
I flashed my juror badge to the Marshal working the metal detector and headed to the second floor courtroom. I pulled on the door. Locked.
I checked the time and relaxed — I was early. About twenty minutes early. I looked around, but there were no benches nearby, so I plopped down on the floor. No way was I going to miss that door opening. Sure, it’d be kind of cool to go outside and gawk at the Trade Center, but it wasn’t $500 worth of cool.
Ten minutes went by. Twenty minutes went by. I hadn’t seen any other jurors yet. Or lawyers. Or paralegals or court officers or janitors. Where the hell was everybody? Was everyone planning on using the Trade Center accident as an excuse?
A court officer came up the steps and stared at me. He was old — probably late 50’s, maybe even early 60’s. Too old to be wearing the body armor he had on. Or carrying the shotgun in his hands.
“What are you doing here?” He seemed stunned.
“I’m on the jury.” I flashed him my badge.
He shook his head. “Court’s cancelled today.”
Body armor or not, I wasn’t taking his word for it. “Yeah, did the judge say that? Because he told us, no matter what, he was the only one that could excuse us.”
He swallowed a laugh. “Trust me. Go home.”
I made a mental note of his name and headed down the steps.
I opened the door to the street and saw something shocking. There was the defense attorney, pointing at the Towers and talking with one of the prosecution witnesses. Lights and sirens went off in my head. The judge had warned the entire court about exactly that kind of fraternization. What the hell? Was I the only one listening to the guy yesterday? I headed onto West Broadway to make damn sure I didn’t get caught up talking to someone from court.
I was tired and now had the day free to myself, so I started to pay attention to the Towers. As stupid as this accident was, there was no way this wouldn’t find its way into New York lore — like the Triangle Factory Fire. I mean this would probably be front page news in the Post tomorrow.
I gazed at the gaping holes and the debris tumbling down the side of the building. I thought of the times I’d been on the observation deck and wondered what it would be like to slide down the building. It was mesmerizing to watch it now. Man, this is going to be a bitch for someone to fix.
A small crew of Puerto Rican high schoolers nearby starting laughing and pointed up at the Towers.
“Sucks to be them!”
I followed their giggles and fingers…
That wasn’t debris. Those were people. Small, tiny, piked figures. Falling…falling…falling…until the smaller buildings blocked my view. Then, a distant smash. The sounds of shattered glass rippling away from the Towers.
Oh my God. I felt helpless. I looked back up at the holes in the Towers. I saw a tiny shirt-and-tied figure at the edge. Don’t. I could feel him looking down at us. So far away. I closed my eyes and began to pray. It was what I’d want if I was up there. Our Father, which art in Heaven…
He jumped. I prayed with him the whole way down. I guess I’ll never know if it mattered.
There was a shout. “They’re pulling the plane out!”
I looked up at the Tower. Nothing looked any different to me, but I wasn’t going to second guess anything at this point. A wave of “Oh, shits!” swept across the avenue. The crowd turned with one massive muscle twitch. There was an almost simultaneous thunderclap as cellphones and camcorders hit the ground and we were running. I glanced down at the Samsungs and Nokias littered at my feet. It looked dystopian. And unnecessary. These were expensive items. People would want them back. I slowed down just enough to scoop up one cellphone. I picked up another a few steps later. Then another. I looked up, half expecting to see their owners turn around to look for their phone. But no one was turning around. I threw the cellphones into my messenger bag. I’d figure out how to return them later. People flew up the avenue in a mad rush and I had the sudden realization that this was a real emergency. Just like I’d seen in the movies. Maybe I needed to stop saving people’s cellphones and start running.
And then, just as suddenly, everyone slowed to a halt. We all turned around to look back at the Towers. They looked just like they did when we started running. Except now, the streets were cleared up to Worth Street, where I was. Apparently, no plane was being “pulled out” of the Towers and, as I thought about it, I wasn’t even sure what that meant. But what I did know is that we all were expecting something bad to follow. And we were ready to scamper when it did.
I no longer felt like a gawker rubbernecking a disaster. Whatever historic tragedy was going to happen down here today, I was a part of it.
Windbreakered FBI agents began clearing the avenue. What was the FBI doing here? I stepped onto the sidewalk as FDNY trucks came screaming down the avenue. The FBI and traffic cops began to barricade us onto the sidewalk. One of the trucks slowed down, preparing its approach to the WTC. I watched the firefighter in the back of the cab as he looked out the window at us. He didn’t have his helmet on yet. He was mid-twenties, brown hair, looked Italian. For the first time, I thought about what that job had to be like. I was being barricaded away from the WTC just to clear the way for him to do what? Run up 80 or 90 flights of stairs to save people? With 40 or 50 pounds of gear? I’d spent my whole life in New York City and had never thought about how dangerous high-rise buildings were.
I looked at the Towers. One was fractured on a perfect fault line. The building was sliding. Holy shit, I’m still way too close to the building. I could feel bodies around me cursing, crying and sprinting. Instead, I stutter-stepped backwards. I didn’t want to take my eyes off the building. I looked at the fire truck heading down West Broadway. I looked back at the Towers as heavy steel twisted and torqued. The fire truck didn’t slow down.
The ash cloud gobbled up the truck. And kept coming. Time to move.
I started sprinting. Knees high, arms pumping. I was faster than a lot of others. But this wasn’t a race. This was about all of us. I started to shove people in front of me, pushing them faster. I wasn’t the only one.
A NYPD officer was being dragged backwards by several construction workers as he looked up at the Towers. An FBI agent stood in the middle of West Broadway.
“Slow down, people!” His face lifted up towards the Towers. “Slow…down…” His face was tragic, shocked, fatalistic. His job was to be a professional. To be cool, calm and collected. And even he wasn’t prepared for what he saw behind us. Suddenly, he was a civilian like all the rest of us. A scrum swarmed him and began pulling him along with us. We were all in this together.
I didn’t stop running until we hit White Street. I looked behind me and suddenly felt what Londoners must have felt during the Battle of Britain. When everything familiar is stripped of light and color and memory.
No one was laughing now. Tears streamed down faces, but no one was quitting this yet. There was one more Tower to go. We knew it would fall. We’d honor it until it did.
It felt like hours before I heard the often-replayed Crack. We didn’t need to run anymore. We were at the outer edge of the radius. We just watched the ash tumble and roll through the buildings, coating cars and shops. Hip cafes and upscale wine stores. Local pubs and tiny newsstands. Laundromats and restaurants. The ash didn’t discriminate.
This was going to be more than just a front-page story.
“Union! Union!” Construction workers began to chant. “Everyone with a union card, let’s go! We’re gonna get them out!”
I looked at the grey-coated buildings. Every skyscraper in the area seemed teetering and threatening.
“Folks, please don’t!” Cops with bullhorns shouted back.
I knelt down on the sidewalk and said a prayer for the fallen. I was a prison chaplain. My time was now. My skills were made for the aftermath of crises.
The construction workers and cops were at an impasse. The people around me were weeping. The Rastafarian bike messenger. The young, blonde, backpacking couple. The grey suits. The Puerto Rican secretaries. Demographics didn’t matter. We all felt the same horror and grief.
I finished my prayer and didn’t know where else I was needed. I guessed it was time to go home. The subways were shut down, so I walked uptown with all the other zombies, passing clusters of people in each neighborhood, clumped around parked cars, listening to the radios. I was on Greene Street in SoHo when I first stopped and listened to the news reports.
“Again, the Pentagon….” I tuned the rest out. What the hell were they talking about the Pentagon for? National news? The goddamn World Trade Center had just fallen and they’re talking about something with the Pentagon?
I thought I had just witnessed a tragedy. I now realized we had just been attacked. I pictured my buddies in the Marine Corps. Or the guys I went through ROTC with. They were gearing up for a fight. They were going to do something historic. They were going to go to war.
I watched two business suits on Lexington Avenue shuffle past me.
“Yeah. Might as well just get drunk.”
(Continued On Next Page)