I was never one to listen much to well-intended advice — or to take orders — that conflicted with my view of a higher sense of purpose or mission. One of my innumerable shortcomings.
So, of course I ignored his entreaties to muster in the church square and pointed my internal compass south towards the burning WTC. I had just recently undergone emergency reconstructive ACL surgery on my left knee — the cause of my awkward gait. I was wearing a full-leg, soft, yet restrictive, immobilizing cast. I couldn’t bend my knee easily and must have resembled the pirate, “Peg Leg”, as I hobbled south down Church Street. Wow! This is crazy, I thought. The pungent smell of burning jet fuel and acrid smoke. The masses streaming uptown and away from what would later be called “Ground Zero”.
Holy Shit! Is that…? Could it be…?
Human forms cascading out of the upper stories of the North Tower?
My unbelieving eyes following the dark, ant-sized forms as they cascaded down, tumbling end over end, plummeting one after another, in a free-fall, awaiting an impossible to avoid destiny with the pavement some one-hundred stories below.
My God, yes…
I abruptly halted my strained hobbling south and quickly waved down a businessman fleeing uptown. His tie was askew, his white dress shirt drenched in perspiration, and there appeared to be a small laceration along his scalp that oozed a trickle of red blood. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand, and continued north.
Finally, a woman stops. I begin to question her, as multiple clusters of frantic folks continue to stream north on Church Street. “Were you in the Towers?” I implore her? Her eyes are blank, distant. Her sluggish movements akin to the effects of someone in the early stages of shock. She shook her head and turned to head north with the crowd.
I turned and started to head south again. I was struggling a bit as I limped along. I was slowed by the cumbersome cast on my left leg. My movements were halting and anything but smooth. Why, I asked myself repeatedly, had I agreed to participate in that Sunday morning pick-up basketball game a few months ago. I had stepped on an opponent’s foot, twisting my knee awkwardly, and the ensuing ACL surgery would take some six to nine projected months to heal from. Why had I played in that damn game? Why?
I hobbled along, constantly stopping to readjust the Velcro straps that cinched my leg brace tight. The delays were annoying and time-consuming…
But those annoying delays ultimately saved my life.
It was just before 10:00AM.
I couldn’t see the Towers, having just ducked onto a cross street between Broadway and Church, attempting to use my FBI-issued Nextel to phone my supervisor and advise him that I was alright. He knew I was an early arrival guy and he knew I would’ve been headed to the sound of the guns.
And then, that sound!
This sound wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before. I felt it before I actually heard it. The tremors, and then the pancaking floors meeting level after level and gathering momentum as the weight load rapidly and inexorably increased.
It was the South Tower.
And it had just ceased to exist.
I turned and ran — best as I could — north, away from the Trade Towers site. The cloud of pulverized concrete dust didn’t engulf me, being just far north enough to clumsily “sprint” (kind of) through the labyrinth of lower Manhattan streets; a maze I knew like the back of my hand. Winded and sweating from the exertion, I arrived back at the appointed FBI muster site, the courtyard between the SDNY and St. Andrews that the guard at 26 Fed had directed me towards. I saw friends and colleagues with shocked looks on their faces. We stared at one another in abject horror and utter disbelief. Some of us embraced. Others wept. A somber pall settled over us.
I turned and bumped into two of my C-11 squad mates, a married couple I was close friends with. She was an FBI Agent, and he was an NYPD Detective. They were covered in white dust, appearing as if they’d had a cut bag of flour dumped over their heads. They described being in the shadows of the tower as it collapsed. They were lucky to be alive. They had been just a few blocks further south than I had managed to get to…
Timing, as they say, is everything.
We lost an FBI Agent in the Trade Tower collapses on 9/11. He was a former Marine and an FBI Bomb Technician. His name is Leonard W. “Lenny” Hatton. He worked on a squad adjacent to my own. He was another with a typically early arrival to the criminal squad areas. He perished inside the buildings while attempting to aid in the evacuation. It assuredly could’ve been me. It should’ve been me. Lenny’s bronze plaque is the third FBI martyr’s tribute that adorns the 28th floor in the New York Office. The second belongs to SAC (Retired) John O’Neill.
They both died a hero’s death on 9/11.
I reflected, momentarily, again, on timing. Without the planned dental appointment, which I suddenly realized I hadn’t cancelled — stupid, arbitrary, nonsensical thoughts in an in extremis moment. Without the blasted cast on my leg, I would’ve been MUCH faster to the site. I let my mind drift to what should have happened to me.
Why…? Why not me?
And, God’s plan.
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