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Manhattan Sinks – A personal account of September 11, 2001

Every so often, I share this piece.  I wrote it the night I got home from Manhattan on September 11, 2001.  I worked in Manhattan at the time, about ten blocks north of the World Trade Center.  The train I took from my home in Jersey City, New Jersey, would arrive beneath the World Trade Center, and I'd walk from there.  I cleaned up the piece a few days after I wrote it, but this is pretty much what I remember.

I also remember how we used to refer to what happened on that day.  We called that day "Tuesday" for the first week, because that's what it was.  Then "last Tuesday," once next Tuesday came around, and then "the eleventh".  I don't remember hearing the term "9/11" until almost a month later.  I've never liked the term, and I still refer to it as "September 11".  This might seem like a picayune point, only of mild interest to linguists, but I think it shows how we were trying to sort out what had happened.  It was a tragedy, to be sure, but the immediate reaction from everyone was not the same.  Not everyone thought it was an act of war, not everyone saw the events through the same filter.  Before too long, the narrative that it was war (with someone) and that they (whoever it was) were out to get us became dominant.  At this writing, it's been 17 years since, and there's still a tug of war over what that day meant.

What follows is what I saw, and went through on that day.  I did not suffer like some did, but my city got a scar that day, a gash right through it, one that still leaves a mark.  I am not from New York and I don't live there anymore, but I still think of it as my city.  Below are my thoughts from that day, as they came, as fresh as possible.
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"Surely God wrongs not men, but themselves men wrong."--The Koran


September 11 was a good day to be on time. It was a gorgeous day, one of those sweet September days where you feel the coming coolness but you don't yet sense any of the bitterness of fall. As usual, I walked up the hill to Journal Square to catch the train from Jersey City to New York. The trains were running right on schedule, and were pretty thoroughly packed: nothing was different about the train I took to the World Trade Center stop, the same one I took every day. It pulled in and I moved with the rest of the crowd toward the bank of escalators that climbed roughly three stories, from the train station to street level. Seeing the throng of commuters has always stirred me; I've always loved to watch and be among the thousands all moving in unison, each with his or her own place to go.

I skipped out of 5 World Trade Center and across the street to that large Federal Post Office facility, then around the corner to the shiny brown structure with its address embossed above its front doors: 7 World Trade Center. Then it was up Greenwich Street, past the dog-walkers and the nannies with children and the crowd of children at the Catholic school with the elaborate garden in front of it. Parents dropped their children off at the school, often walking them in through the front doors. This was my first day back from vacation, and the first day I'd seen the kids going to school this year. I had a new shirt and pants on, like many of those kids probably did, too.

When I got to my office in the north end of the Financial District, I started sifting through my papers and checking the dozens of emails that accumulated over the five days I'd been away. After a few days on the beaches of Virginia, I was ready to get back to work, doing telephone technical support for the investment firm of Salomon Smith-Barney. The first call I received was from a woman in Kentucky, who had a routine kind of question for us techies-the beginning of another normal day at work. While I was looking over her problem, she says, "Oh, my God. The World Trade Center's on fire." "Really?" I say. "Yes," she responds. "It looks like a plane crashed into it." I tell her that I'm going to have to look into the issue she called about, so I take down her name and number and head over to the side of the building where you can see the World Trade Center.

Sure enough, there it is, with a couple dozen of my coworkers gawking at the gaping hole in the north building, which was less than half a mile away. The side of the building where the plane crashed faced us, and you could see the flames licking out of the hole and what looks like the fuselage of the plane sticking out. This was terrible, and I wanted to know more, but I figured surely someone had things under control and I'd seen all there was to see, so I should probably get back to work. I walked back to my desk where Andy was telling us how he saw the plane crash into the World Trade Center while he was walking toward the office. Jeff said, "A plane crashed into the World Trade Center?" "Yeah," I said. "You can see it over there," and I led Jeff to the side of the building where everyone was watching, and decided I'd take a second glance. While we were walking over to the window, we heard people suddenly screaming, and a woman was crying. We got to the window to see that the second plane had crashed into the other Twin Tower.

"Why is this happening?" a woman said. Jeff and I then walked back to our desks to report what had just happened. We told our coworkers, and they went over to look. I don't know if they got a chance to see before Jeff called out, "Kurt! C'mon! Don't bother to shut down your computer! Let's go!" and we headed toward the stairs. Everyone else on the sixteenth floor was crowded around the stairwell. A woman looked toward the elevators and said, "I wonder if we can take the elevators?" "I'm not taking the elevator," I said, and she also continued toward the crowded stairwell. Everyone on sixteen was crowding in, along with everyone from the twenty floors above us. Some people were sobbing. Some people were trying to place calls on their cell phones. Everyone was calm and collected, though; no panicking, no pushing, no screaming. It was slow going, getting down those stairs, but everyone was willing to put up with the wait.

We emptied out on the west side of the building, on the West Side Highway, next to the Hudson River. There you could see the towers in plain sight, each with red and yellow around their gaping holes, almost like someone had drawn them on a photograph of the towers with glossy fingerpaint. It just wasn't real. There it was, but it just couldn't be. Andy, Jeff and I stood there for a while, looking for other people from our department, but we couldn't find anyone, so we decided to follow the thousands of other suddenly displaced Financial District workers and head north along the highway. "Welcome back," Jeff said. "How was vacation?"

We walked north, with no idea what to expect. There were plenty of other tall buildings around; was ours next? If not, what? Landmarks, probably: the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center… we speculated on what the next one could be. What else was there to do? As we headed north, a couple of guys were riding their bikes against the crowd. One of them was shouting, "It's the Jews! The Jews!" As he passed, I bellowed an expletive at him. He then stopped his bike and started yelling at me, making all kinds of threats, which I ignored. In retrospect, the guy wasn't worth any attention, but I really hate crap like that, and I wanted to do something. Maybe I should have pushed his bike over? I don't know.

We stopped for a while, hoping to see some people we knew moving in the crowd. While Jeff and Andy waited, I darted ahead to look for a pay phone. I wanted to call my parents to let them know that I'm okay. I couldn't find a working pay phone, but I did find a van with a radio playing loudly enough for all to hear, so I could finally get some news. I learned that the United States had been declared a no-fly zone, and that we still had no idea who was behind this. We still saw no one from the office that we knew, so we headed north. I eventually found a pay phone and was third in line for it, and four others soon lined up behind me. It took a while to get an operator for the collect call, and I felt bad about holding up those behind me who were waiting. I called my dad in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, and asked him to pass it along that I'm fine. "They just hit the Pentagon," Dad told me. "And there was a car bomb in front of the State Department."

"They hit the Pentagon," I told Jeff and Andy, and we continued our trek northward. Jeff figured we should go to the 34th Street offices of the company, which are maybe four miles to the north and well out of range of the chaos, so we could check in to let someone know that we're all right. We started walking again. We weren't walking for very long when a guy in front of us turned around and shouted, and the rest of us looked, too: the first of the Twin Towers was crumbling. I seized up inside. I couldn't cry, I couldn't yell, I couldn't say anything. We watched the smoke and the dust clouds kicking up all over downtown Manhattan and then started toward 34th Street again. Someone pointed up at a plane in the sky, which was unnerving, especially at this point. Then someone said, "It's an F-14!" It helped to know that, but still I muttered over and over to myself, "It's an F-14, it's Air Force, it's an F-14, it's Air Force…"

En route to 34th Street, we had to turn down some streets, which took the World Trade Center out of our range of vision. We didn't know that the second tower had collapsed until we got to 34th Street. On our way there, we passed the Midtown Post Office, a huge building that processes most of the mail for the city. It's a huge Roman temple sort of building, and it had cops swarming around the front of it. We had to walk on the other side of the street because of this. Maybe this building was next? Who could guess what was next?

At 34th Street, I called my Uncle Roy, who lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York. Uncle Roy can see the entire Manhattan skyline from the balcony of his condo. He'd seen the whole thing from afar. We swapped stories: I told him what I'd seen, and he told me about CNN. I learned about the plane crash near Pittsburgh from him, and we talked about how he was under the World Trade Center in 1993 when a previous terrorist attack happened that partially damaged the towers. He was glad to hear that I was all right, and said to me, "Now get back to work!" That was nice to hear, though there was no chance of getting back to work that day.

After we checked in at 34th Street, there was nothing else to do that day. Problem was, we couldn't go home, since all the bridges and tunnels were closed. No one was getting into Manhattan, and no one was getting out. There's only one thing to do in situations like this, so Jeff and I decided to head to a bar. We walked to 23rd Street (the subways still weren't running) and he went to his wife's office to let her know everything's all right. I waited outside her office building for him. While I was there, I ran into Stephan, the director of the Berlitz School, where I teach English as a second language in the evenings. Stephan was walking to Rockefeller Center to find his girlfriend, and then to his apartment, which was 150 blocks to the north. That's one hell of a walk. Stephan told me about his morning. He'd taken the train to the school, just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center. The train was stuck in the tunnel for over an hour, he told me, since it was nearing his stop soon after this whole mess started. He told me that the people inside were praying or chatting. One favorite topic of conversation among the trapped passengers was a nervous-looking Arab, who got to enjoy not-so-subtle finger-pointing and hushed whispers. (I hate to say it, but I fear worse than that is yet to come.) Once the train was able to move and let its passengers out, Stephan emerged on the carnage. He saw the dust and the rubble, the bodies in the street and people strolling around, dusty, bloody and dazed-a condition that under normal circumstances would get immediate medical attention. However, if you were able to walk around, that was good enough for the time being: there were plenty of others who needed the attention more. Stephan then told me that he couldn't get a line on his cell phone, and needed to call his parents in Belgium who think, that he actually works in the World Trade Center, and not simply to the south of it. If I had a cell phone, I would have let him call Belgium, and damn the cost. I asked him if he wanted to join us for drinks, but he said he had to get going, and that was that.

Jeff came out with his wife, Jen, and she came along to the bar with us. We went to Dewey's Flatiron, just a few blocks away, ordered beers and watched CNN. There was lots of conversation in the bar, and only one subject. I don't think bars usually do so much business at noon. Most of the other patrons were apparently others who suddenly had the day off. CNN had lots of pictures which they kept showing in an endless loop. When they showed the first tower collapsing, we could see the cloud of dust and debris that it kicked up blowing right past our building, up Greenwich Street, past the Catholic school and over its ornate garden in front, past the dog grooming places, along the sidewalk where campaigners were busy encouraging voters for today's primary elections for mayor of New York. (We later learned that today's elections were canceled. Go figure.)

A woman at the bar sobbed and collapsed into someone's arms. I didn't know her story, but I could guess. And if I guessed wrong, well, I'm sure there were many others whom that guess would be right about. I looked away and my eyes started to get dewy. CNN didn't tell us much we didn't already know. It didn't dispel the rumor about that car bomb in front of the State Department. It didn't dispel the rumor that the terrorists had managed to bomb the Capitol. It did tell us that President Bush was leaving Washington for an "undisclosed location". Then we learned that he was going to Shreveport, Louisiana. Then we again learned that he was going to an "undisclosed location". Then we learned that he was on an Air Force base in Nebraska. Then John McCain spoke from the Capitol, saying the regular stuff about what a reprehensible act this is, et cetera. Bush spoke, stating that these were terrorist attacks, and that we weren't going to stand for it. One person clapped, most were silent. Someone said, "It's about time he showed up." Someone else said, "Since when is Shreveport the capitol of the United States?"

By four o'clock we'd learned that there were some train lines out of the city. There were also ferries to New Jersey, so Jeff and Jen went their way and I went mine. There was a long line for the ferries, but seeing how the only other option was to swim, I waited. The city was calmer, and I noticed that everyone was pretty much in good spirits. I heard a sour old crone say, "We should just send all the Arabs back." I didn't say anything this time; filth like this will always be heard. There's not much you can do about it. Anyway, was an Arab group responsible? No one knew at that point (as if that would justify hating all Arabs in the first place.) But after that earlier rabble-rouser and his anti-Semitic tirade, I decided I'd had enough confrontation with small, weak minds for one day. My time could be spent in better ways.

Despite the long line, the wait wasn't much. I chatted with a Hoboken-bound woman while waiting, and in all everything was pleasant. On the ferry we were still chatting when a man points toward the city and cries, "Another one!" That was the lovely, shiny, brown 7 World Trade Center collapsing due to collateral damage from when the Twin Towers fell. Others on the ferry said they'd heard the building was in danger, so it wasn't much of a surprise. Anyway, it had long since been evacuated. One passenger said he worked at 7 World Trade, and had just gotten a promotion that would send him to 1 World Trade (one of the Twin Towers) in two weeks. Yeesh.

The ferry landed in Weehawken, where buses carted us to Hoboken. Trains were running from Hoboken to Newark and home to Jersey City, so I headed for the station. In the city bus station next to the train terminal, a triage of sorts had been set up. Blankets, water, medicine, surgical tools, cots-they were ready for something big. There weren't many sufferers there, but you couldn't be too ready. Manhattan and Hoboken alike were crawling with people wearing medical garb; if hospitals had reservists, then this could be considered a draft.

I caught the train home and got off at the usual stop. I walked home to find the phone ringing and a full answering machine and, later, lots of email to answer. I've told this story to well over a dozen people on the phone already. Friends and family were anxious for news, but were also anxious to know whether I was all right. I was glad to tell them. My friend Rich, back in Hermitage, told me his uncle works in a post office in Manhattan, and that he was concerned because he hadn't yet heard from him. I was able to tell Rich that no post office was in range of the initial blast and besides, he would have been evacuated before he would have been in harm's way. His uncle was probably having a hell of a time getting home to Long Island, which is very reasonable to assume. It wasn't much, but by providing an insider's view on that day's transportation nightmare, at least I was able to help someone out, somewhat.

The New York Stock Exchange was to be closed the next day, which meant a day home from work. There's no way I could have gotten near the office, anyway. Since the Stock Exchange has been closed this whole week, I haven't gone to work since that Tuesday morning. I understand the police are using my building as a base of operations, since it's relatively close to what's become known as Ground Zero, and it still has electricity. I've had these past few days off, but they've been anything but restful. My coworkers at Smith-Barney are all right, but I still have no way of knowing about my students, some of whom worked in the World Trade Center. I have no idea which floors any of them worked on, so I can't even begin to speculate on whether they're all right.

As appalled as I am by the subhuman monsters who drove those planes into these crowded buildings, I'm equally impressed by everyone who has been working to neutralize the damage they wrought. Any stories you hear about the dedication of the emergency personnel are true, from what I can see. I've walked around Manhattan since the attack and I'm impressed to see not only New York City's police and firemen all over the place, but patrolmen and firemen from New Jersey, Connecticut-even Ohio! And if professionals have been coming in from farther away than that, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. Further, I've been touched by the concern of my family and friends. I've received calls and emails from everyone I know in New York, and across the country, and around the world, just to make sure I'm all right. Frankly, I'm still pretty shaken by this, and here it's been four days already. I'm sure I'm not alone, and I'm sure of this because what's clearly one of the worst acts in history has brought out what's clearly the best in so many people.

Kurt Kaletka
Jersey City, New Jersey, USA
September 15, 2001

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