Rebuilding at the World Trade Center Site
It happens once a year - September 11th - but it hasn't been the same for any of us since 2001. That was a beautiful late summer day, the day that became ashen gray for those of us who lived and worked in lower Manhattan. The day we learned what hatred could truly spawn.
Peter, thankfully, was on the east end at home, and I was in our new apartment on John Street, just a few blocks east of the Trade Center. We had just moved in on the 1st of July and I was loving my new commute to the office - a seven minute walk. As I left for the office for an early meeting, I was struck by the sun reflecting off the twin towers - a blinding light, and I remember thinking that it would reflect differently and less harshly in the coming winter.
We were convening for a 9:00 a.m. conference call and when I reached the 21st floor of our offices at One Wall Street, people were lined up along the west wall looking up at the Trade Center. The first plane had struck the North Tower but the hole it created looked so small, we all assumed it had been struck by a small plane. We all attempted to return to work despite being morbidly fascinated by what had happened, and then ... the windows began to rattle and we could see the second plane flying due north straight for the South Tower. We couldn't believe our eyes. Needless to say, a dread set in, and we all began to file downstairs to the lobby, numb with disbelief.
When the South Tower collapsed around 10:00 a.m., we were in the lobby and first heard the shrieks of people racing into our building, running away from a mammoth gray-white cloud that appeared to be smoke and was rolling up Rector Street to our front door. We all thought it was the result of another explosion. The throngs forced us to the back of the lobby and on to a descending escalator, an escalator headed to New Street and the back door of the New York Stock Exchange. I remember looking at the Exchange wondering if it could be next, and then we were enveloped by the gray-white cloud and could see nothing.
Confusion reigned along with an eerily calm panic. We all went down two floors below street level to the cafeteria and waited for God only knows what. Some people had radios and we were surprisingly well informed. We heard that other planes were hijacked, we heard that the Pentagon had been hit, and we heard that fighter jets had been scrambled. What I don't remember hearing for quite a while was that that gray-white cloud was in fact not smoke but the cloud of pulverized concrete and gypsum which was once the South Tower. This was beyond anyone's comprehension; the towers were gargantuan.
As we were beginning to consider returning to the lobby to try to find our ways home, the North Tower collapsed, sending another cloud over downtown and the smell of smoke and fire down to our level. Throughout all of this, it's astonishing to me that we had access to land-line phones, jacks were in several locations and phones were brought out and connected. Organized lines formed quickly - everyone wanted to hear the voices of loved ones. There was an incredible feeling of being helpless, unable to do anything to change the events that were happening above us.
After what seemed like an eternity, in a basement that felt like it could become our tomb, we heard news that we were to be evacuated, south, to Battery Park where we would be taken by boat to New Jersey. Peter was 100 miles east of me; New Jersey was to the west. Friends were very kind offering me places to stay until we could figure out what was going on and how to get home. I queued up to use the phone, got through to Peter right away and learned that all public transportation in to and out of Manhattan was shut down. My choices were limited: evacuate to New Jersey or stay on this island. Our exchange was brief and we agreed to speak once more after he'd contacted a friend who lived in the 60s in Manhattan. Twenty minutes later, when I called Peter again, it was confirmed with our friend - the door would be open for me when I got there. When I hung up the phone, tears came to my eyes ... I was two floors below God only knew what hell with no idea if I'd hear Peter's voice again. When they demanded evacuation I felt glued to the floor, it took all my power and a few friends to get me back to ground level.
A young man from Canada had sought refuge in our building when the first Tower came down and his name happened to be Peter. This Peter had heard there might be buses driving north out of downtown from somewhere north of Fulton Street. As I said goodbye to friends heading south for New Jersey, I watched young Peter literally walk yards north and disappear into the gray white air. Everything was gray, the buildings, the street but especially the air - I'd never seen the world all one color. I called out to Peter, and he walked back out of the fog and agreed that we could walk north together. He was an incredibly kind young man and we held on to one another as we rounded the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, and began to descend the small hill toward Broad Street. The street was covered, at least an inch to two inches deep, with the remnants of the twin towers. You could almost conjure up the image of a light winter snow, but this was slippery unlike any snow we'd known.
What struck me most at this point was the silence. New York always has some noise even after a winter snow. The generators and ventilating systems are always humming, and even if they're not honking, the taxis are rumbling along the Avenues. This was total silence, in a world of total gray. As we walked down Wall Street, we saw a huddled group of four walking cautiously north along Broad Street, and shortly thereafter they disappeared into the gray fog-like air. Now there was no one else to be seen. Peter kindly agreed to stop at my apartment where I told him he could call anywhere in the world and talk for as long as he liked, while I collected a few things, got my contact lenses out, and changed my shoes. He spoke to his family in Canada and seemed comforted when he put the phone back in the cradle. Now for the walk north.
We walked east when we left my building on John Street, trying to veer away from the Trade Center site. At the corner of Pearl Street, people were handing out paper masks which we thankfully accepted. At Pearl, we turned north with the hope that we'd find buses queued up to take us out of this purgatory.
I will never forget this until the day I die. When we reached the corner of Pearl and Fulton, we jogged left to head toward the buses we saw parked just north of us. What caught my eye was color. In all of this gray heavy air there was color - lovely reds, bright yellows, greens and vibrant purples. There has always been, for as long as I remember, an outdoor flower market here on Fulton, and the woman who was caring for it that day, covered in ash herself, was washing off the flowers with a hose. Have you ever seen colorful flowers in a light fog ... that was exactly the effect. It struck me so poignantly that here, only hours after this disaster, this woman was bringing back her business, the best she could.
The buses, standing there ready and empty, wouldn't take us north; we were told we'd have to walk, so we did and were very shortly thereafter joined by another Canadian, David. Arm in arm, we walked out of lower Manhattan in shock yet relieved and looking north to a beautiful summer day.
China Town skirts the north end of the Financial District in Manhattan and by the time we got there the world was resembling one of those drama masks: light and comedic on one side, and dark and tragic on the other. To the north, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and everyone was wearing bright summer colors. South of us the world was dark, a cloud of smoke and debris shut out all light, and survivors were covered with gray ash and dust from head to toe. The contrasts were stark, and yet painfully real. Crowds of people were walking hastily south making us feel as if we were salmon swimming up stream. Peter and David tried to assure them that they didn't want to go there - that there was nothing that could be done.
David peeled off from our small band in the 20s and Peter headed to his apartment in the 30s. For the next 30 blocks, I was on my own. It was all so surreal. Sidewalk cafes were filled to the brim with people enjoying their lunch in the sun. Bar doors were open to the street to enjoy the summer air, but I did notice everyone straining to hear the news on the television - the one that should have been reporting sports scores. As I approached 41st Street I was struck by the jubilation of two young girls who were jostling one another with their shopping bags filled with pillows and bedding, obviously elated and oblivious to what was happening only blocks south of them.
I walked, one foot in front of the other, stunned by all that had happened and shocked by the contrasts I was seeing, when I noticed the shoes of the man walking in front of me. Like mine they were covered in ash. Sadly, I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit, one who would understand my shaky voice, if I spoke to him. When he stopped at a street vendor for something to eat, I did speak to him. He had driven in to the city for a meeting in the Trade Center - something he very rarely did. He got out in time and was now trying to figure out how he could get back home. We said very little to one another, not wanting or needing to share the details of where we had been. We found comfort in each other's company and were equally dazed by what appeared to be an unchanged city.
It took roughly two and a half hours to walk from Wall Street to 65th Street, and I was greeted warmly by my friend. Now I was able to see and hear the news for the first time, and to truly view what had happened ... in utter disbelief. How could anyone hate us this much? How and why did the towers implode, instead of fall over? How did and could we survive?
The following day our Disaster Recovery Plan for the bank went in to effect, and I traveled by train to Pleasantville, NY (that isn't a joke, it's real). The bank had a facility in which, in the days to follow, we would all build a temporary bank. What was, on the first day, just wide open warehouse spaces, became operations, communications, and client service. Simple folding metal tables and chairs, store-bought fax machines, and phone lines defined the functions we were accustomed to and our responsibilities for that day. We literally saw a bank rise from the ashes - another thing I will never forget.
We were blessed that the breezes on 9/11 and the two days thereafter carried the smoke and residue from the collapsed towers to the downtown area. There was a fresh northerly breeze that pushed it to the south and spared those north of it the stench of fuel, asbestos, and God only knows what. On the third day the wind changed and I physically froze, smelling what I hadn't smelled since that Tuesday and I was unable to make it to Pleasantville. Fortunately, Peter had found a way in to the city and he trundled me off to the east end on one of the first buses possible.
One week after 9/11, we returned to work in One Wall Street, only blocks from what was now being called Ground Zero, breathing the air "they" were assuring us was safe despite its smelling vile. The constant tick of the industrial air-detectors in every hall was not at all reassuring. In the days and weeks to come, we all adapted in our own ways to our new reality. No one would say it was easy to live or work downtown in that first year with the constant reminders all around us. The steel and debris from the 110 story towers now stood 7 stories tall and had to be meticulously removed to barges to be transported to Fish Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Being a resident of downtown, I couldn't wait for the remnants to be removed and my heroes became those who cleared the site in less than a year. I will always be eternally grateful to those brave souls.
Writing this, I've been astounded at how painful it truly is remembering the details of that day - my mind still has a hard time comprehending that much danger, hatred, death, and destruction. There are few residuals from that day in my daily life and until today the details have been tucked away in the deep recesses of my mind. The residuals that do exist all relate to planes. I stop in my tracks and my heart races whenever I see a plane flying low over Manhattan and I'm no longer comfortable flying which was something I used to love. Small prices to pay but still reminders that the world has changed forever.
Today is a day of remembrance for all of those who died, not only that day but those who have died since as a result of their unselfish efforts to heal and rebuild the city they call home.
We all remember and are forever grateful for those who were in our lives and for those who are. God bless us, one and all.