Hey, Spork. I'm surprised I never told you about my day. (Yeah, I know I'm outing myself.) Since we don't see each other very often, and since I hate talking on the phone and generally lack the patience to write long emails, I guess I never got around to it. Was that McSorley's trip the last time we hung out? (I know we haven't been to McSorley's since then. We're long overdue, my friend.)
I'm always hesitant to relate my experience that day. I'm alive, I didn't lose anyone close to me, thank God, and, although I didn't know it at the time, I was never really in danger. So, in a way, I feel like my experience isn't important enough to dwell on. So many people had such worse days. But since I never told you, I'll tell you now (in this intimate public forum you've sponsored). Sorry I'm days late.
As you know, my office is about 8 or 10 blocks south of the World Trade Center site, at the very southern tip of Manhattan, right next to Battery Park. I was on my way into the city from Long Island that morning, on the second leg of the trip (Jamaica, Queens, to Brooklyn) when everyone on the train suddenly sat up and looked out the windows at the smoke pouring from one of the towers. I think most people probably thought maybe there was a fire or, at worst, a reprise of 1993. Rather than turn around and go home when I got to Brooklyn, I took the 4/5 subway up to Bowling Green, which is right near my office. (It's amazing to me now, now that we comprehend our enemies' objectives and the nature of this war, how unconcerned I was at the thought of another 1993-style attack. It was off to work for me . . . la-di-da.)
When I walked up the subway stairs and stepped out into the public plaza at Bowling Green, I looked up and to my left and got a closer look at the damage -- smoke pouring forth, debris raining down. But I continued the block-and-a-half walk down to my office building. When I got to my building, the security and maintenance guys had a radio playing in the lobby and that's when I first learned what had happened -- by then, the second tower and the Pentagon had been hit (I'm not sure about the fourth plane) and there was hysterical speculation about additional targets. Everyone was nervously milling around outside the building, debating whether to go home or go upstairs (it still hadn't sunk in somehow, even though, by now, no one thought this was an accident), how to get home (no one wanted to go back down into the subway; they might have even been taken out of service by then). People were naturally horrified by what had happened, by the thought of people in the towers, but it wasn't mayhem. Yet. Everyone was trying to remain levelheaded and come up a plan.
I stepped back into the building lobby to see if I could get to a pay phone. (I figured my wife must have heard what had happened and would be in a panic, and I wasn't carrying a cell phone in those days). The phones were all being used and the lines were ten deep, so I started to walk back outside. Just then, the building started to rumble (even so many blocks away, it felt like it was right there) and people started screaming that one of the towers was collapsing. I ran outside and, within seconds, ash and dust were raining down on us, the sky was filled with black smoke and now it was total mayhem. People were panicking. It was difficult to breath. Our mouths and lungs were filled with smoke and ash. We were sure we heard airplanes overhead but we couldn't see anything through the clouds of smoke. If there were planes (now I’m not sure), they must have been fighter jets, but we didn't know it at the time. Now we felt like we were under attack, and we were just waiting for our building, which is right off the water and therefore totally exposed, to be hit. At least that's what I was thinking.
No one had any clue where to go, but it seemed like a good idea to get as far away as possible. A throng of people started walking toward the old ferry terminal and up the FDR Drive. The weaker leaned on the stronger for support. As we walked, the air eventually started to improve a bit and people started to calm down. Then, a new rumble -- we witnessed the second tower collapse and new hysteria ensued. One of my colleagues with whom I was walking was 6 months pregnant. Someone had the presence of mind to flag a police officer, who hailed a charter bus that just happened to be inching its way up the FDR at that moment. The officer put her on the bus and she wanted me to go with her because she lived on Long Island, too. At first, I didn't want to get on because I thought that I'd be taking up space that should be put to more appropriate use (like other pregnant women or disabled people), but she insisted, so I joined her. (At that moment, I felt like the captain of a ship, pushing aside women and children to get into the life boat.)
The bus took us up the FDR and then switched to First Avenue at some point when the driver started to feel uncomfortable about being up high and exposed along the East River. After numerous tries on her cell phone, my colleague was finally able to get through to her husband (a doctor at one of the Long Island hospitals), who was able to call my wife to let her know we were safe and trying to get out of the city. We got stuck in traffic in front of the U.N. building (which, at the time, seemed like a possible next target) but finally got to 59th Street, where I asked the driver to let us off. We then walked across the 59th Street Bridge with thousands of others, which was rather frightening -- as we looked to our right, down the river, we could see lower Manhattan burning and we all just held our breath, waiting for another plane to appear out of nowhere and take out the bridge as we were walking -- excruciatingly slowly -- what felt like a few hundred feet above the river.
When we got to the other side, we were in Long Island City, Queens, and we settled at an outdoor plaza at the big green glass Citicorp building. All around, people were helping one another, telling horrific stories of having witnessed victims jumping out of windows (we hadn't been close enough to see them). After my companion's husband was unable to rescue us (he tried for an hour and a half to get to us, but the Long Island parkways to the city were closed), my father-in-law, who had a business in Ozone Park, Queens, was able to find us. We finally got back to Long Island at about 5:00. Coincidentally, my traveling companion's parents lived 5 minutes from my in-laws' house, so I drove her home after we got in. In retrospect, I was very glad that I'd gotten on the bus with her because she might have been stranded alone in Queens for the evening. I was also happy to have had her company -- I was very impressed with her strength and stamina and generally positive outlook throughout the ordeal (despite the obvious discomfort of being pregnant, including having to pee frequently). Whenever I hear stories about her son, who will soon be 2, I think of that day.
I was extremely grateful to be back home with my beautiful wife and beautiful daughters, who were then 4 and 1. I remember feeling relieved that they were so young that I wouldn't have to explain any of it to them. That it would never directly impact their lives and cause them nightmares. They'd learn about it someday in history class the way we learned about Pearl Harbor -- a piece of ancient history, with no direct impact on their lives. And I remember that relief later melting away as I realized that this was just the beginning of a long war, that someday, without a doubt, I would find myself having to face and answer two lovely and innocent children's questions about a world where people want to kill them because they are free to go to school, express their opinions, address boys as equals, wear pretty barrettes in their pony tails, and play with Barbie dolls. My girls are now 6 and 3. I still haven't had to answer those questions, but I know I've only gotten a temporary deferral.