Monday, September 11, 2006

My Day, Five Years Ago

Some of you have either heard or read my story of September 11. It is not some glorious, heroic tale, unless you consider frozen in place in terror as heroic, compared to trying to escape a city under seige.

About a quarter to nine on September 11, 2001, I was answering some emails. A friend was travelling in from Staten Island for an audition, and I was giving her directions, and making arrangements to meet for either lunch or drinks afterwards.

I heard this high-pitched, soft whine go past my office window, which faces a side street just off Park Avenue. It didn't sound like much of anything, nothing like the F-111's that streamed past the windows one Veteran's Day, flying low over Fifth Avenue, rattling the furniture and my teeth.

My immediate thought was, "Oh no, not again!" You see, two weeks before, some numbnuts had parachuted onto the Statue of Liberty, managing to get hung up on the torch, and wreaking all sorts of havoc in the harbor (imagine that happening today!) My first assumption was that this jerk, who got a very light slap on the wrist for that stunt, was determined to try again, maybe with the Empire State Building, just a flew blocks away.

A few moments later, I heard a ruckus in the hallway, someone shouting the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I have a nice view of parts of lower Manhattan, but not that particular direction, but some of the floor does, so I wandered to the offices in the center of the floor, and gazed out.

"Hm, small hole," says I, not realizing the scale I was looking at. For all the fire and smoke and flames you see on TV, up close thru the camera lens, in real life, from five miles away, it looked like nothing more than a small Cessna had plunged into the building. A few flames licked the sides of the building facing me, more like the type of flame you see in a campfire that has collapsed to embers and coals. Some idiot got drunk or had a heart attack and hit the Trade Center. Kind of like Payne Stewart earlier, the plane continued in a nearly straight path and into the building.

It must have been some psychological defense mechanism, because I know the scale of those buildings. Each floor was an acre, easily, and in hindsight, I see now what my eyes and mind at the time couldn't accept.

When I watched this for a few minutes, I realized I had to make some phone calls: one to my friend to tell her not to bother coming in, since there's no way in the world the ferry was going to be bringing more congestion to what was clearly going to be a tight fit, rescuing people. Others to people who I knew were also going to have a tough commute later.

I worked on Wall Street for the first attack in 1993. I remember how the police shut down lower Manhattan that day in order to pack the area with emergency responders. I remember walking for miles until I found a subway that was still running. I figured it would be nearly as bad, if not worse.

As I was on the phone, I heard yet another commotion in the hall, this one louder, much more panicked. As soon as I could get off the phone, I charged down the hall to see what had happened. The second plane had hit. The second tower was on fire. Only this time, because I was on the exit side of the wound, I could see how bad it truly was. Flames licked the side of the building. Columns of smoke curled up and over the top, creating a smokestack effect.

I ran back to the phones: where's my daughter? Is the school answering? Is it under attack? I found an old radio that I got for free, and turned it on and started listening as I dialed her school frantically. Rumours flew faster than locusts in a swarm: another plane was headed for the Empire State Building; the subways were filled with cyanide gas; all bridges were shut down; the police were locking down all major venues. Some of these were true. Some were patently false.

Calls were blocked, lines were overburdened and that sickening bleating of a phone system gone awry filled my ear. I finally got an answering machine. The school was asking parents to pick up their children, or to please wait at their bus stops, if they took buses. Fortunately, mine took a bus to her home, and had someone home to wait for her. Her mom was stuck in Brooklyn, and had to take four buses to get home. The subways were shut down. I couldn't go get her.

As I hung up the phone, I heard a wail and cry in the hallway. I couldn't imagine what could have been worse than what we'd seen already.

As I wandered down the hall, I could see the smoke and dust filling lower Manhattan. As inconceivable as it was, the building had collapsed. In its place was a smoke ghost. The smoke had taken the general form of the building, a grey rectangular cylinder. I realized I had calls to make to let people know I was OK. See, I have lived in the city for all of my 48 years, barring some temporary detours, but my relatives still hadn't learned that Midtown was not downtown, even tho they grew up here or had lived a lifetime here.

I finally get through to enough relatives to know the word will be spread, when I hear a terrified scream of dozens of people. My heart sank, and I knew the second building had collapsed. It was over, even though it really had only begun.

Images of that day filter through my head as I think back: walking on Park Avenue at lunch time, trying to find an open restaurant, and seeing streams of people wandering, blank expressions, covered in dust: smoke ghosts of buildings, smoke ghosts of people. Finding an open restaurant and discovering the owner was a real estate lawyer who was supposed to attend a hearing in the Trade Center that very morning, serving a man whose dark grey suit had a coating of pale white ash on it. That man had been an adversary in a different hearing, and had found this the only bar open on his entire walk up from the Trade Center. Hearing the trains were running, and summoning up the courage to leave for home that afternoon, after having pulled some overtime, spent in blank contemplation of being and nothingness.

The awful emptiness of the sky, save for the occasional F-16 or F-15 flying overhead in a too-late defensive pattern. How blue the sky was all day, contrasting the billowing smoke and ash. How little rain we received until the following Spring, as if God was hiding his tears from us.

Staying up for three straight nights, watching the local newscasts, and thinking of the reporters, doctors, and nurses, all waiting for casualties outside the hospital in a makeshift triage. And none arriving.

Wondering if I knew anybody in the building. Wondering if I'd ever stop being scared.

The closest I came to knowing anyone was Lt. McGinn, whom I profiled here today.

And no, I never stopped being scared.

May God bless you, Father Mychal Judge