September 11, 2001
Fifteen or so minutes before nine o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working in my office, when my next-door neighbor rushed in and asked me whether I’d heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I told him I hadn’t. I had noticed, however, looking out of my windows, that there were a larger number of people than normal gathered at the corner of Fourteenth Street and University Place. I decided to go downstairs to investigate.
Everybody was looking to the south, down University Place toward Washington Square and then two miles beyond to the twin towers of the World Trade Center burning in the clear, blue sky. When my neighbor had mentioned the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane, I had assumed that he meant a Cessna aircraft or even something smaller that had flown off course. I held this view, even though I should have realized that the towers were two miles away and that the amount of smoke billowing out of them suggested a much bigger aircraft. Yet it seemed impossible to believe that the casualties would be great, or that the buildings could collapse. “They’ll be able to evacuate them,” I remember thinking to myself. “Hopefully, not too many people will have been injured.”
I returned to my office and tried to listen to the radio, but there was no reception. The Internet connections were also down. My neighbor told me that another plane had struck the World Trade Center. I knew then that this was no accident and that these were jet planes. I called my parents in England. “You may not know this yet,” I told them, “but some planes have flown into the World Trade Center.” I was fine, I said, as was everyone I knew (my life partner was at that moment in Greenland, about to return to Denmark), and I asked them to give anyone who called them the news that I was okay. I hung up and went downstairs to the corner again to see what was happening. There was more smoke now, but somehow the event still seemed unreal, as though I was watching a disaster movie.
I went back to my office and called the colleagues I could reach and told them to stay where they were. I assumed that the authorities would want as few people as possible clogging up the subway systems or roads, so I decided not to try to go home to Brooklyn at that moment, but to remain where I was and to continue working.
I was in a copy center a block or so away from my office, printing out color prints of the cover of a book we were about to publish—When God Says No: The Mystery of Suffering and the Dynamics of Prayer
—when the first tower came down. The television was on in the center, and I watched in disbelief as one tower sank in on itself and a mass of dust took its place. Nobody said anything: What was there to say? I saw a woman sitting at the computer, crying: I did not know how to comfort her. As I gathered up my materials and left the center and walked toward University Place, I could see people staring downtown, gathered on the street, hands to their mouths, incredulous. As I approached University, a collective gasp perforated by screams rose, and I turned and saw that the second tower had collapsed, and a great cloud of smoke had risen above the buildings that hid our view of the true devastation.
I felt I had to do something. Since I possessed no medical or emergency skills, I figured that one thing I could do was to try to give blood—even though I hadn’t been able to give blood for several years because I was English and had eaten food in Britain for six months consecutively in the space of the previous seventeen years, and thus was potentially a carrier of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. When I arrived at the donor center, there were hundreds of people lined up around the block, while a woman walked along the line yelling out who was not eligible to donate. Sure enough, I was still one of them. As it turned out, none of their blood was necessary anyway.
Feeling hopeless, I returned to my office, trying to make sense of what had happened, while from my windows overlooking Union Square I could see people milling around, camera crews interviewing the distraught and the desperate, and people beginning to post photos of missing persons and lost friends and relatives. I walked among them, not knowing quite how to react, until that evening I caught the subway home and walked back through Brooklyn, a thin coating of ash lining the streets and the sidewalks.
Tomorrow, Part II