This is our story. It is long but not fantastic, and
not nearly as frightening as many I've heard today from close
friends on the project.
If you have a REALLY fast connection, you can see some the video I took that day, here. (24.5MB)
You can also see the location of our building relative to the WTC here.
Our apartment building is about 900 feet from where the World Trade Center buildings stood, facing toward that direction. I was crossing the FDR at the time of the first attack. (The FDR runs alongside that site and in front of our apartment, and was our walking route to the towers, about 5 minutes' roundabout walk at an easy pace.) Anyway, the sound I heard was like that of a very near auto accident... maybe a semi ramming a wall. Not much more than that. So I looked along the road and it was a moment before I saw debris falling from World Trade Center. Looking up, I saw the gaping hole and huge fire that's been seen hundreds of times on television since. I immediately returned to the apartment to make sure Qiu Min was OK (she was), and turned on the television. They were saying a "small plane" had hit the tower and marveling at the damage. One CNN reporter said, "if you've been wondering how to fly a plane into the World Trade Center, this is how it's done." With that wonderful reporting effort taking place, it's easy to understand why I decided to again head for work.
As timing would have it, I was in the same approximate location when I heard a jet screaming at full power less than 1000 feet up, coming directly overhead. It was way too fast for me to see where it was coming from, but I saw it just as it made its leftward bank, presumably to increase the level of damage that would be done, then slammed into the building. I froze in place, in the middle of FDR, stunned by what, I realized, could not have been an accident. I don't know how long I stood there before some semblance of sense presented itself and I called my mother to let her know not to worry about us, but that she should turn on TV immediately. Then I went (OK, I ran) back to the apartment and waited with Qiu Min for any sense of order to begin.
At the same time, Qiu Min had happened to be on the phone to a friend in China when the first attack took place, so she had been watching the activities there and also had a horrifyingly clear view of the second attack from our 26th floor (again, this came approximately from over her head).
From our vantage point in the apartment, the view of those buildings was spectacular on any given day. They dominated the view, of course, and so were either the subject or the background of virtually all pictures we took from that location. We stared at those buildings, taking occasional photographs and video shots, discussing how they might ever get those fires put out, what might happen next, whether we should leave... and any number of imponderables that ran through our minds. There were dozens of explosions from that area as the heat found new fuels.
I don't know how long it was: minutes or hours before rumblings from the first building shook us to our very souls and we watched in horror as the first of the pristine towers crumbled to rubble. The wave of dust and ash rushed toward us so quickly! It was only a few seconds, with both of us rushing to close balcony, living room and bedroom windows, before the building was engulfed in white ash, then gray, then absolute darkness... that is, except for the television which continued to update us on the media's lack of information and amazing propensity for wild guesses. It was pitch dark for probably less than a minute (seems longer, looking back) and slowly as a sunrise, the light returned. (I did not have the presence of mind to video tape this nor the next building's demise.) From then, smoke and ash created a haze that showed a surrealistic view. Clarity was gone in more ways than one. The second tower's demise was no less frightening, with the same rumbling and shaking of the apartment, the same rush of gray, then total darkness, then levels of haziness. With it went our power, our link to the outside world. Telephone calls outside were impossible, although occasional calls came in. The cellphone and landline were both operational to a certain extent, but served primarily as decoration by this time.
Looking at the ashen streets and smoke-filled air, there was never any question that the best place for us to be was right where we were. We saw people wandering with no obvious direction. Perhaps they were lost or disoriented, perhaps they just couldn't screw their heads on straight (which was very much true for this narrator). We saw one person with a metal detector, presumably looking for some treasure to take home from this event. Thankfully, I never saw him hit paydirt, as he never once reached to the ground to pick anything up. We saw dust flying as emergency vehicles raced up and down the FDR on their goodwill missions. We saw fighter jets overhead... a number of them seemed to be combing the area. And we heard... nothing. There was an extremely unusual quiet about the scene. No sirens, no people shouting, no horns honking, none of the activity that had become so much a part of our lives over the past few months in downtown New York City. A dreadful silence had overtaken our world.
So when the intercom telephone rang, we jumped anew. We were told to evacuate immediately. We'd done some preparation for that possibility, so we gathered last minute items for the suitcase and headed downstairs. No elevators were running, so we traipsed down the 25 flights of darkened stairs to ... Heaven knows where. Just out. That's what we were told. Just go out the south door and don't look back. We were given masks to ward off some of the smoke, and pointed the general direction to the pier where "there will be a boat waiting."
We walked along Battery Park's promenade in this dead silent environment, the last two people left in New York City as far as we could tell. Dust and ash rose from each footstep, and by the time we reached the river on the east, we were both dressed in ash-colored clothes. There were no designated boats for us, so we grabbed a couple of chairs near a restaurant where the wind didn't seem to be stirring the ash too badly and tried to figure out what to do next. Others were there, too. Mostly firemen and police. Finally, we decided that away - any place away - would be better than breathing that air, so we talked to police nearby at a tugboat/ferry gathering about what we might do. We soon decided that Staten Island would be our best chance to find hotel accommodations so we, along with about six other people, boarded a utility ferry headed that way and awaited our escape.
Upon reaching the island, we sought out its only hotel and added our names to the others on the waiting list. We were #81. Most people left a name and phone number on the list then left for places unknown, thinking the hotel would call them if a room became available. We didn't feel like taking such a risk, and as it played out that was the wise choice. We had a room before the evening got late. We were exhausted as we turned in on this first day of our new adventure. Could it really have only been a dozen hours ago that we were able to admire that beautiful skyline?
Day Two brought distressing news: there were no easy routes back to Manhattan from Staten Island. The S.I. Ferry was shut down; bridges were opened intermittently, and traffic was at a standstill. So we wandered around and learned a little about our surroundings, but mostly sat glued to the news channels and planned to start finding a way back to Manhattan early the following day.
On Day Three, the difficulty in getting off the island progressed into an impossibility. The island was shut down, reportedly because a Federal agency had pursued a suspect car onto the island, and lost it shortly thereafter. The island remained "shut down due to police action" the rest of that day. So we did what any red-blooded American should do under these circumstances: we went shopping. We found the Staten Island Mall, where we wandered around until we couldn't wander anymore. Didn't buy anything but it was a nice release from all the madness that threatened to bring us down. Upon returning to the hotel, we watched a war movie (good choice? well, it was entertainment) and waited to see what the next day would bring.
When I checked my office voice mail on Friday, I was overjoyed to learn that my employer had delegated a person to work with us for accommodations and logistics. After a few exchanges with this delightful person, we were soon to be off the island, and situated at 45th and Broadway (the heart of Times Square) at a very nice hotel. We had guaranteed hotel arrangements and it didn't take long to find a car service that would take us there. We left at 6PM Friday and by 7:30 we were living at the Marriott Marquis. Things are looking up!
Saturday was mostly uneventful (I know this is true because I remember NONE of it), except that we decided we'd try the next day to get into the apartment. With authorization, of course. I'd been too long out of communication because my laptop was at work, and the key for the lock that kept it there was in the apartment. I knew I'd be able to reach work, but the apartment access was a mystery. Still we had to try, so on Sunday we rode the subway as far as we could, then walked two hours to the workplace. There was little trouble bringing in my guest, and we came to the office where my laptop awaited me - not locked after all, but free to remove. I packed it and we headed toward the apartment.
This turned out to be an interesting venture as each path toward that direction seemed to lead to mazelike blockades. Eventually, though, we found an area where people from our building (and several others in the area) were bunched, hoping to gain entrance... and it looked and sounded like that might happen. We were given masks and we asked how this would all work. We were told that National Guard personnel would escort groups, by address, to the apartment buildings, allow us "up to ten minutes" to gather things, then lead us back. Shop till you drop. :)
We only had to wait about two hours (some had been there MUCH longer, so we felt lucky) before they called 200 Rector Place into a specific area, and we were led to our building. One National Guardsman led, while another followed our motley crowd. The street beside that building---OUR building---MY building---is where they are stacking the longer iron supports, then torching them to smaller pieces to be transported out. Once inside our building, we were told we had 30-45 minutes from that time to gather things and go back. One elevator was running, excruciatingly slowly because they limited two persons per ride... so we headed up the stairs, me with a 500-pound (by this time) laptop on my back. Still, 25 flights went fairly quickly and though we arrived tired, we were thrilled to have arrived at all... and we set about the plan we'd pretty much agreed upon when making our way to the building.
We were absolutely amazed to learn that our refrigerator had been cleaned out, the entire apartment had been cleaned... walls cleaned, floor swept, furniture cleaned... even the balcony (which had about 1" of ash when we left) looked like new.
So we gathered our goods, as much as we figure we'll need in the next couple of weeks or so, watered the plants and made our way back. Our hugest suitcase was packed with electronic stuff (my fetish) and weighed just under 4 tons. OK, maybe it was under a ton, but not much. :) It was no big deal, being on rollers, until we got to the subway, where they've yet to learn the value of escalators. Coming out of the subway, there are three sets of stairs that had to be climbed to get out to the real world, and thankfully people who saw us struggling under our load helped us along our way. Exhausted once again, we returned to our hotel, unpacked our goods, and crashed.
Of course, in any life event there are things to be thankful to go along with the things to try to forget. For me, one of the greatest "gifts" that we've received from this experience (aside from the opportunity to continue living), is that Qiu Min has learned "what's the big deal about America?" She no longer wonders about my reasons for loving the Country, and I no longer have to struggle to find the right words: English, Chinese or Japanese to try to explain. She has seen us at our best when we are at our worst, and she knows now, she gets it. From the people who helped us cart that suitcase up the subway steps to the people who took the time to clean the apartment (something she insists would NEVER happen in China), to the brave rescue workers who have given their lives, and everyone in between, she no longer has any doubt of why a person would love this great country of ours.
visitors since July 8, 2008
Last updated: Nov 19, 2008 at 05:22PM America/New_York