Death at the World Trade Center

On September 11, 2001, I witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center from the safety of my 21st floor apartment many blocks away. Five days later, September 16, I wrote the following essay documenting what I witnessed that morning and in the aftermath. I’m publishing this essay now, 15 years later, as a reminder of the horror that occurred that fateful day.

“Damn, I’m late,” I mumbled to myself as I rolled over in bed to escape the bright sun. It was a beautiful clear morning, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 8:15 a.m.

I was committed to be at a meeting in 45 minutes. There was no time to spare, but I could make it. I’d flown to New York on a red eye the day before and as I often do my first day back in the Eastern Time zone, I’d stayed up to late that night. The combination had left me a zombie. This had become a familiar feeling. I’d been making the Seattle to New York commute since 1998 when I was appointed as president of Publicis Dialog. To accommodate my New York based job, I kept an apartment in Manhattan’s World Wide Plaza and returned to Seattle whenever my schedule allowed.

I stood at my twenty-first floor bedroom window to see what awaited me out in the world that day. Facing south from 50th St. and 8th Avenue I had a nearly unobstructed view of the World Trade Center. The skies were blue and the air free of humidity. That day the Twin Towers seemed to glisten. I was always in awe of the power and energy of the two 110 story Towers that comprised the most famous part of the World Trade Center. Even from my mid-town view they were magnificent, dominating the horizon. They were the Mount Everest of New York City.

Once, a few years ago on a cold winter day, I stayed at the Marriott across the street from one of the Towers. I awoke to the sound of what I thought were windowpanes crashing to the street below. But it wasn’t breaking glass, it was huge sheets of ice falling 110 floors to the ground below. I remember thinking that wouldn’t be a good place to be if the Towers ever came down.

I turned on the television in the bedroom as I got dressed after a quick shower and shave. I was facing my closet with my back to the window when the TV made a loud static sound. I instinctively looked out the window. It was 8:45 a.m. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The North Tower of the World Trade Center had a gaping hole near the top. Black smoke was rushing out but I couldn’t yet see a flame. I opened the window expecting to hear the sounds of a city in crisis. But it was eerily quiet — no sirens, no helicopters in the air. I realized that something horrific had happened and the world didn’t know. The news anchors on MSNBC droned on about something, I don’t remember what, but they were oblivious to the scene out my window. I called my wife, who was just starting her early morning exercises in Seattle. “The World Trade Center is on fire!” I said with a shaken voice. Then, just as orange flames began to leap out of the building the news broke to the world, but still I hadn’t begun to fathom the immensity of what was unfolding. I quickly continued to get ready, worried about the welfare of the 300 New York Publicis employees who would just be arriving at work.

“I saw a jumbo jet fly over me and into the building,” said an eyewitness interviewed on television. It was 9 a.m. Just as I was beginning to comprehend the significance of those words, a big jet appeared making a sharp turn to the left, toward the South Tower, as it flew in from the North over the Hudson.

It was flying low and fast. My first naïve thought was that it was a fire-fighting plane. Help had finally arrived. But in that instant the jet tilted and crashed into the South Tower in a huge ball of fire. I screamed out loud thinking of the thousands of people dying as I watched from the comfort of my apartment. My phone went dead. I watched alone.

Now there were sirens, lots of sirens. Terrorists were obviously to blame. I wondered what would come next, feeling vulnerable standing in front of my window. Were there chemical weapons on the planes? Thankfully the wind was blowing the billowing black smoke away, to the south. I couldn’t understand how this could have happened. Where was the Air Force? Why wasn’t someone watching over New York? Both towers were in flames. With my field glasses I could see objects falling. I wondered how anyone above the crashes could survive. The second crash was much lower than the first, potentially trapping two-thirds of the building above the flames. Then I heard on television that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon and that two or three others had been hijacked and were unaccounted for. I looked nervously to the sky wondering which target was next. Still there was no sign of the military. “Could this be it?” I wondered. “Is a nuclear bomb next?”

In the next hour both towers imploded and came tumbling down. It was a spectacular and terrifying sight. From my perspective, it was like the end of a fireworks display. Planes had crashed. The two tallest buildings in New York City burned uncontrollably and then they fell down. The show was over. All I could see now was smoke. The World Trade Center was gone. The Manhattan skyline was forever changed. No more Mount Everest!

I guess I was in shock. I finished getting ready for work and walked outside to a stunned New York below. It was a surreal sight as I walked through Times Square. There were no taxis. Traffic was in gridlock. Crowds of people were watching the big screens above Broadway as the news proclaimed that the twin towers had been toppled. I stepped out in the street to avoid the hoards of people choking the sidewalks, walking 15 blocks to the new Publicis offices at Herald Square, across from Macy’s. As I approached our block I heard the roar of F-16s circling Manhattan. It gave me an odd sense of security but I was also angry, because I knew we weren’t really safe. I knew when we had needed protection we were left defenseless. As I stood in front of our offices I looked up at the Empire State Building that looms over Herald Square. “I hope they don’t get that one,” I thought.

Most of our employees were still at the office. The subways and trains had stopped and all bridges and tunnels in and out of Manhattan were closed. People had nowhere to go. We gathered and talked about what had happened and speculated about the future. There were a lot of tears and hugs. I wrote “Bomb Kabul” on the white board in my office. A colleague, Gary Palermo, and I went shopping for American flags at a tourist store nearby.

We kept the offices open the rest of the week, but not much work got done. The next day there was the first of several bomb scares in our building. We took it seriously. A colleague and friend, Kevin Carlesimo, and I ran through our ninth floor offices yelling to everyone to get out now.

Some people cried on the crowded street below. Uncertain if the Empire State Building was designed to implode like the WTC, we ushered everyone to Bryant Park, eight blocks away on 42nd Street. I wondered which way the majestic Empire State Building would fall and if eight blocks was far enough. My innocence was long since gone. I knew everything around me was vulnerable. The bomb scare turned out to be a cruel hoax.

I’ve found it difficult t o concentrate in the days since the tragedy. It doesn’t help that even now, five days after the attack, smoke covers the horizon as a vivid reminder.

When I first visited New York twenty-one years ago, I was intimidated. I thought New Yorkers were tough and hard, and the city seemed overwhelming. In the years since then I’ve learned that the New Yorker stereotype isn’t accurate. The people here do tend to be tough, but they’re also caring, friendly and proud. What I’ve seen the past few days makes me appreciate New Yorkers in a different way. Like me, people tend to be in shock over what happened and what so many witnessed firsthand. But I haven’t heard anyone say, “Why me?” People didn’t wait to be told what to do. They showed up to volunteer by the thousands. There was no whining or bitching. In fact, the most common thing I hear people talking about is rebuilding the World Trade Center — and, of course, killing Osama Bin Laden.

The evening after the attacks I walked as far south as the police allowed, to Houston Street. The cops were no nonsense and grim as they blocked people from going further. I saw a procession of at least 50 ambulances racing to area hospitals. I stood outside of St. Vincent’s, the hospital nearest to the WTC. Strained looking doctors came out into the street for fresh air and to talk to reporters. Cops joked nervously. Each time an ambulance arrived, people cheered. I walked to the West Side Highway and watched an endless stream of rescue and military vehicles racing south toward the smoldering ruins.

Today is Sunday and I walked to Canal Street. Street vendors are hawking all things patriotic. American flag bandanas were the big item. In Washington Park and other parks around the city there are candle vigils and crowds of mourning people milling around. Posters of the missing cover every lamppost, telephone booth and storefront. The pictures of the victims make me feel mortal. They’re normal people…like the people I see every day on the street…like me.

The newspapers reported that some of the victims jumped from their office windows rather than be consumed by fire. I wondered what I would have done.

I think I would have jumped.