Frozen Memories

Thirteen years ago, I stood on the corner of 20th Street and 5th Avenue and watched as smoke billowed out of the north tower like a giant stick of smouldering incense. I said to anyone and no one in particular, “that wasn’t a small plane.” I’d been on the M5 heading downtown when an announcement came over the PA: “Due to an accident — a ‘small plane’ had struck one of the WTC towers — all buses were being rerouted.”

Back on the street, moments later, I felt a strange mix of shock, confusion, and numbness as a giant fireball erupted. But it wasn’t the tower that already burned. The other one had just exploded. In the most surreal moment of my life, I knew something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

In abject shock I made it to my office and, paralysed by fear, tried to collect a few things and head home. I was afraid they would shut down the City. I spent most of my waking hours in Manhattan and this city was my second home. And it was the last place on earth I wanted to be at that moment.

I left the office and watched as some people stood in line to buy a slice or two at the corner pizzeria. I was hungry — I’d skipped my morning coffee and bagel—but these people were clearly not aware of what was happening? Now was no time to eat.

Crossing 6th Avenue, I heard a woman scream, and turning south I watched a giant cloud of dust erupt where the towers should have been. What couldn’t have gotten worse just did.

Panic was replaced with urgency. I ran to the PATH and made it on to a train. I was told later that the system was shut down only moments after. I expected another fireball to erupt through the tunnel at any moment.

Hoboken terminal was a madhouse. People, white with panic, or ashes and dust, stood around, turning aimlessly, unsure of what to do or where to go.

I boarded a commuter train — empty — that was supposed to take me home to the relative safety of my suburban house. Even the conductor was unable to tell me where it was going or when. But the sign indicted my line, and even Hoboken was too close to the city. I was happy to go anywhere, as long as it was closer to home.

The train slowly began filling up. More people covered in dust. Grown men crying hysterically. Women frantically trying to call home on overcrowded cellular networks.

No one really knew what was happening, and our conversations revolved around our journeys to leave the city. A woman finally said “Both towers collapsed.” A man, ashen, suddenly muttered “I’m not sure my friends got out…”

He lapsed into silence, staring at his phone and trying to get a signal.

I texted my wife and told her I was OK.

And then the train was silent. Riders became lost in their thoughts on a slowly emptying train rumbling slowly past idyllic suburban homes, distancing itself from two smoking craters and a city that would never be the same.

Photo: Phillip Capper — Lower Manhattan 1990

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