It was 9 years ago on a Tuesday morning, the weather not unlike it was for me here this morning in central NC – high 70′s, not a cloud in the sky. I awoke to my cat, Madison, nudging me that it was time for breakfast. I sat up quickly from my half-sleep and noticed it was 8:20. I was going to be late. Normally on such a beautiful day I’d get my cycling clothes on and bike down Smith Street to downtown Brooklyn where I’d catch the Brooklyn Bridge footpath and ride over to Manhattan, usually crossing the City Hall complex through the gardens and then riding down Broadway to work at 1 NY Plaza.

But not today, I was late. I fed Madison, scrambled to get some clothes on and half walked, half jogged to the F-line subway station at Smith and 9th, about 2 blocks from where I worked. I figured I’d be about 5-10 minutes past my normal arrival time of 9:00. The subway went underground after the next stop and I fell into my normal routine of staring at the NYC subway map on wall so as to not make eye contact with anyone. About 10 minutes later the train pulled into Borough Hall station and I quickly exited and climbed the stairs to transfer over to the N/R Borough Hall station (they are not connected underground, but because I used a MetroCard the transfer was free). Another subway trip, this time the N/R line to Whitehall Street station which was right on One NY Plaza, where I worked. It was just a few minutes after 9:00 when the train pulled into the station, I got out and did my usual rush to get ahead of the crowd and started going up the stairs 2 at a time. I was about halfway up the last staircase when it happened.

New York City, especially lower Manhattan during the day, is a noisy place. Living there for a while you get acclimated to strange and loud noises. I don’t think my mind first noticed the extremely loud jet airliner noise but I do remember focusing and pondering for a second or so when I heard a massive boom that sounded not unlike a piano soundboard breaking. Yes, a piano soundboard. It’s a pretty unique noise, because all the strings snap at once and create this massive cacophony of both resonance and dissonance at the same time. A second after that, just as I was coming up to street level I heard what was clearly the sound of people screaming – not just a few people, tens of thousands of people screaming. I looked north, where the noise was coming from, and saw hundreds of people in the streets, moving south. I looked eastward toward the large, open plaza part of One NY Plaza and almost immediately saw a co-worker; Myung, and he looked scared. I can honestly say in the 4 years I had known him while working with him he had never appeared scared before. I quickly walked up to him and asked, “What’s going on?”

“F*cking terrorists, it had to be. They crashed a small Cessna into the North Twin Tower to get everyone’s attention, and then just now crashed an airliner into the South tower.”

I took that bit of news with about as much grace as anyone else would; my jaw probably dropped and I said, “What?!”

“Yeah, just now. 767 or something. It came from that way and slammed right into the twin towers.” He pointed South and drew a line through the air from the direction of Staten Island toward where the WTC would be if we had clear sight lines to it. I started walking toward Broad Street where I’d be able to look north and see the WTC. I didn’t get halfway across the plaza when I saw my boss and the other 5 members of my group. They had spotted me and were walking towards me.

Jim was my boss. He was only a few years older than me and was at first glance the perfect California surfer dude. He was tall, had perfectly spiked blonde hair, good looks, and was well tanned. I didn’t even have time to ask what was going on, when we were all within a few feet of each other he said, “We’re getting out of here, all of us, back to my place. We’re taking the ferry – it’ll be safer over in Jersey. I don’t think we should stay here or take bridges out of Manhattan. In fact, everyone in my group but myself and the other Netware/Windows guy, Phil, lived in central Jersey so it made sense that they’d all want to head back there. I thought about it for a moment and then told them that I had to get home to my roommates and to make sure my cat was safe if things got worse. I expected protest, even being ordered to go with them on the ferry to Hoboken, but Jim just nodded and said, “Ok, man, good luck. Keep in touch with the pagers.” Everyone in my department had two-way pagers with mini qwerty keyboards. Jason, my best friend at work, extended his hand, shook my hand and said simply, “good luck.”

I made my way through the crowd on the plaza to Broad Street and that’s finally when I looked up and saw the Twin Towers. The south tower almost completely obscured the view of the north tower, but I could clearly see the massive, smoldering hole where the 2nd airliner had hit. With the way winds are in lower Manhattan, this was the first time I could smell it too. Ever smell burnt electronics? It was pretty close to that, with a bit more of a sharp smell of metal burning. It was absolutely surreal to see a massive hole in what was the most iconic view of NYC for me. Jason had taken a few pictures of it before they left the 31st floor where I worked:


View from rooftop of One NY Plaza, looking north – note we were directly in line with both towers and you could only see the southern tower as it obscured all of the view of the northern one

 


View from 31st floor of One NY Plaza shortly after the first plane hit

 


A few minutes later, same vantage point

 


South tower after being hit by the 2nd plane

 


South tower just a few minutes before collapsing

 

I continued on up South Street, walking at a pace just slow enough that I could stare in disbelief at the WTC without bumping into anyone else. My plan was to take the Brooklyn Bridge footpath across and then walk down Court Street all the way home. It was about at South Street Seaport that I noticed a lot more than the normal clutter and mess on the street. The street was teeming with fairly fresh paper. I looked down and picked one up – it was a resume. I folded it up, put it in my pocket, and wondered if that particular person were still alive or not, or if they were even there. It could have been someone scheduled to interview next week. It could have been someone there for an interview that day. For all I knew in my state of disbelief and shock it could have been someone on one of the planes – I was always too scared to go back and look at that resume and see if the owner of it had died, and now I can’t find it after having moved from NYC. At this point police had started to organize the chaos a bit and there were more than a few of them directing pedestrian and vehicle traffic. I think it was at Beekman Street that I turned north-west and started to move toward the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge footpath. I moved up Beekman for a few blocks, past Pace University and toward Park Row. I was just going past the Downtown Hospital where there were quite a few police officers gathered and I overheard one of them saying to someone else that emergency crews were using the Brooklyn Bridge and all civilian traffic was being routed up to the Manhattan Bridge. I decided to double-time it at that point. I also realized at that point that my family and my girlfriend would be worried about me. My parents were in England on a long overdue second honeymoon so they had almost no way of getting in touch with me.

While on the few blocks from St. James Place to the Manhattan Bridge I pulled out my phone and tried a few times to reach my girlfriend, getting nothing but busy signals. I pulled out my pager and wrote up a simple text message – “I’m ok, walking home to Brooklyn right now” and sent it to her e-mail. She’d later tell me that despite the initial panic and dread of hearing the news and getting nothing but busy signals trying to call me, she almost immediately thought of checking her e-mail. My sister wasn’t so level-headed or lucky. She didn’t have an e-mail address that I knew of or remembered back then, so I sent her a text-to-speech message that would prompt her to press “1″ to listen as a computerized voice read off what I put in my pager. I would find out later that she must have thought it was some sort of automatic warning/emergency response and that they were calling her because I was injured or dead. I may be a pretty technical person, but apparently my sister isn’t.

It was almost 10:00 and I was a few hundred feet from the Manhattan Bridge on Bowery Street by that point and the smell was already making it uncomfortable but not hard to breathe. I had been pausing to look up at the towers every so often and did so right then. With Columbus Park and City Hall Park being a majority of the land between where I was and the WTC, I had a clear view right at that point, and was staring right at the South Tower as it began to fall. From my vantage point I could more feel than hear the rumble of the collapse and the steel girders rattling around sounded not unlike a massive set of wind chimes. It was such an unexpected noise that I remember specifically thinking that exact thought: “wow, that sounds like a giant set of wind chimes.” A large woman in her 40′s next to me screamed, “oh, God!” and stumbled as she tried running toward the bridge in shoes clearly not meant for running. The white cloud of pulverized concrete, dust, ash, etc came rushing out in all directions and while it certainly reached where I was standing it wasn’t nearly as bad as what many saw and videotaped. One of my co-workers still in One NY Plaza managed to look down and take a few pictures of what that looked like:


Here’s the view northward, pretty much the same direction as the previous pictures sans WTC

 


This is looking down at Broad and Water Streets, covered in 5-6 inches of concrete dust, ash, and who knows what else. If I didn’t know any better I’d say it was winter and the whole area was covered in dirty snow.

 

I moved across the Manhattan Bridge footpath at a brisk pace at that point. About the middle of the bridge my pager went off, it was a message from Jason saying that he had seen the tower collapse and heard reports that the Pentagon and a State Department building had been hit as well. I thought the same thing he did: that it was raining airplanes and someone had declared war on us. I think I broke into a full-fledged run at that point to reach the Brooklyn side. I was thinking the worst: there would be more planes crashing and a lot more panic would devolve into looting and riots. I was going over a mental list in my head of things to do when I got home: break out the cat-carrier and get Madison into it, get some bottles of water together, get my baseball bat and pepper spray easily available, and then bunker down and prepare for armageddon.

I didn’t know what kind of chemicals I was breathing in at that point, having been in the dust cloud that spread when the south tower collapsed. The smell of burnt metal/electronics was even more pungent at that point, so as soon as I got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge I went into the first corner store I found and went to buy a bottle of water; I was going to get my bandana out of my backpack and soak it in the water and put it over my nose and mouth so I could at least have a bit of a filter from the stench. I went to the cash register to buy the bottle and a very rotund man with a thick Brooklyn accent turned to me and pointed to a small TV in the corner and said, “Didja see that sh*t? It just fell. Crazy.” He saw me getting out my wallet to pay and said, “Don’t worry about it. Pass on the good deed to someone else who might need it. We gotta all stick together with sh*t like this happening.” I gave him as heartfelt a smile as I could manage and was able to say thank you without my voice cracking too much at the really kind gesture he had just made. I went back outside and started for home, just about 2 miles straight down Court Street. I walked fast. I was in my late 20′s and in good shape but was still walking fast enough that my legs were burning a bit. All over there were police with traffic stopped letting various vehicles through. At the corner of Court and Atlantic there were police cars all over and they had quite obviously commandeered a bus and were loading it with police to drive across to Manhattan.

I don’t quite remember when I got home, I have to guess just after 10:30, because when I walked upstairs to our third floor walkup my roommate Andy was there – I hadn’t heard a peep from him before I left that morning so I thought he had gone to work. Turns out he was taking a mental health day and had only woken up around 10:00, not having any idea what had happened. He told me he kept hearing sirens go by (we lived a block from the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn/Battery tunnel) and had half-slept through most of it, only turning on the TV to CNN when he saw the smoke coming from the direction of lower Manhattan out our back window.

“I saw the south tower fall. Collapsed.” I said to him.

“Both of them,” he said somberly. “North one just a few minutes ago.”

I got out both of my pepper spray canisters and set them on the kitchen counter. Andy didn’t seem too concerned, so I held off on my plan to get my baseball bat out, and picked up Madison and sat down on the couch to watch the news. Every few minutes I’d try calling my girlfriend and my sister. At some point that morning I sent a page to my co-worker Mohammed, a fairly devout Muslim, that said, “There’s going to be a lot of angry people today, and I’m praying that you and your family will be safe. I know that who you call Allah and who I call God are one and the same.” I was already angry that this had happened and I considered myself fairly rational and not the slightest bit hawkish – I could only imagine the epitaphs of “glass parking lot!” and “nuke ‘em all!” that were being muttered all across our country right now out of anger in the direction of Mecca.

The rest of my day was a lot less exciting. I got a response from my girlfriend telling me she’d call when she could get through. I got a tearful call from my sister saying that she finally figured out I was ok and would tell my parents I was ok. My other roommate Louis came home ok – he had been working on a construction crew that would have been driving past the WTC a few times that day. Andy’s girlfriend Penny came home from her teaching job looking like she had suffered at least 1 nervous breakdown. I sent a pager message to my immediate co-workers that I was home safe and got replies from all of them that they were safe as well. I personally knew at least a dozen people that worked in and around the World Trade Center and all of them were ok. A co-worker of mine had an uncle who died at the WTC, you might have heard of him. There was a man in a wheelchair in the North Tower who was being helped down the many flights of stairs by a few kind souls who ignored emergency responder advice to get out ASAP. One of the people helping him down who did not make it out was my co-worker Henry’s uncle.

Late Wednesday night I took my girlfriend’s parent’s car from NYC to North Carolina (where I live today). I drove through the night and ended up taking the long way through Maryland and West Virginia because I had heard DC would be near impossible to drive through. I had been planning that trip for a few weeks later anyway, but it seemed as good a time as any with everything that went on. We discussed seriously what had been discussed in passing many times before: we loved each other enough to want to (eventually) get married.

Funny that 9 years later and hundreds of miles away the weather would be almost identical.

[Editor's note: Photos courtesy of Jason Consorti. Check out Jason's WTC page. Click on images to see an enlarged version.]

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Zarberg is a member of The Political Observers, a sub-group of our writers who are devoted to topics that are political in nature. Zarberg provides a liberal viewpoint in his articles.

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