Remembering September 11, Ten Years After

25 years before I started this blog, I started sending out an annual holiday newsletter to my friends at the end of each year.  Here's what I wrote at the end of 2001, about my experience in NYC during 9/11, after a bit of time to absorb and process things.

The WTC

I’m fortunate to have never been through a war, but I can only imagine what we experienced in the city September 11th was something close to it.  I was at home alone during the attacks (as I detailed in the email I sent out on the 11th), had a clear view of the towers on that otherwise beautiful day, and watched them burn.  But after the collapse, there was literally nothing to see, except a noxious cloud that filled the sky; the wind blew the dust directly over my neighborhood.  It was like a volcanic eruption—there was ash all over my block, two miles from the site, and the beautiful sunny day changed quickly into a gray overcast.  I was wondering about chemical and biological weapons (or at least asbestos and burning PCB’s from the towers) so I initially sealed my apartment up, and packed up camping gear and my water purifier in case I had to flee the city.  My cell phone was useless, and while local calls and email were getting through, it was basically impossible to call out of the city.  The only sounds were fighter jets and helicopters in the air, and the nearly continuous wail of sirens, something I last remember from the first WTC attack in 1993.  Of course, we are used to hearing sirens in NYC, but when you hear one after another after another, and this goes on for hours, you know something horrendous has happened.  My next-door neighbor, who had just moved to the city, had his door propped open.  I didn’t even know his name, but we ended up hugging and trying to make sense of it all.

The dust cleared a bit, and after being overwhelmed by the constant TV replays of the collapses, I went out to see what was going on.  Remarkably, while there was obvious confusion, shock, disbelief, and anger in the streets, there was no chaos.  There was no panic.  There was no rioting.  There was no mass exodus from the city.  It was amazing.  I rode my mountain bike down by the school (which had closed by that point) to see what was going on.  I watched as tens of thousands of people, many covered in WTC dust, quietly and calmly streamed over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.  Some just kept walking, some of them for miles, all the way home.  Others waited for buses or got on the subways in downtown Brooklyn.  The city’s anti-terrorism plan had been quickly implemented, and the Fire Department command center, a few blocks from school, was soon surrounded by orange sand trucks to repel any truck-bomb attack.  Armored money trucks, normally out collecting cash and tokens for the subway system, encircled the MTA command center, a couple blocks the other way.  That unforgettable smell, a combination of smoke, burning chemicals, and dust, was everywhere.  I rode down to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to look at Manhattan from the south.  The skyline was utterly transformed.  I rode over to visit neighbors Charles Scott, my department chair, and his wife Norma Chartoff.  I just needed to connect with people somehow. 

From my window, I couldn’t see down into the site, but I could see the hole in the sky where the towers were, the lights from the rescue workers, and the smoke cloud, which changed color depending on what was burning.  I kept thinking about people possibly trapped alive in the rubble.  I’d awake from a nightmare, and look out the window, to see the lights still bright at 3am, and think the same horrible thing again.

We were back at school on the 12th.  Some of our students made it in—the subways were running, but extremely slowly due to all of the diversions.  We attempted to run classes, and tried to get somewhat back to “normal”.  I went up to the roof of the building to take pictures of the new skyline and David Smith, Charles Scott, and I eventually walked a few blocks over to give blood, only to discover that the waiting line was four hours long.  We have students from 160 countries in our university, and so many of them come from difficult circumstances, so they handled this amazingly well.  Of course, they, like us, were shocked and disoriented, but they basically took it all in stride and got back to work. 

On Thursday September 13th, two days after the attacks, all of lower Manhattan was “frozen”—you could not drive or walk below 14th Street or in over any of the Brooklyn bridges without ID proving you lived or worked in lower Manhattan.  However, I wanted to get in and get a better sense of what had happened, and, surprisingly, I discovered that the subway was running right in to just above Canal Street.  So, I took my mountain bike in on the subway to meet my friend Mark Napoletano.  Emerging from the subway station on the lower east side, I was immediately lost—I had always used the towers to get my bearings when in an unfamiliar neighborhood. 

I rode right down the middle of an eerily quiet Canal Street, normally jam packed with traffic and people, and then rode north to meet Mark at 23rd street.  We rode over to the west side, which was the primary access in and out of the site.  It was an unbelievable scene.  There were hundreds of people marshalling goods and food for the rescue workers.  Up and down West Street, normally a six-lane, major highway, was an endless stream of rescue and construction vehicles from all over the country.  On the northbound side were countless people with American flags and signs cheering every vehicle coming out, and this was hard to watch without getting choked up.  We rode as far south towards the site as we could, and then rode back north and cut over towards the east side.  Mark lives on 8th Street, so he had a legitimate reason to get below 14th street, but I didn’t, so I told them I was staying with him.  After a few tries at various intersections, we both got through.  With virtually no car traffic, it was strangely calm, and we rode our bikes the wrong way down major avenues normally bustling with taxis, cars, and trucks.  The pungent WTC smell was everywhere; there was dust all over the streets.  People were trying their best to go about business as usual, and things mostly looked normal, but nothing was. 

We rode down to Canal Street, below which was totally closed off except to residents.  Neither of us had an ID to get further south, but Mark had a friend near Ground Zero on whom he wanted to check, and we both wanted to get as close as we could.  So we rode off towards the east side down Canal Street, and found a street that had no security through an apartment complex, and rode straight through.  We rode over to a supermarket parking lot near the East River, which had been turned into a food preparation point for the rescue workers.  There were hundreds of stunned looking cops, who didn’t even seem to notice us.  Up and down the streets here under the FDR highway were smashed and burned out cars, towed out of the ground zero site.  We rode right down the East River bike path, through a deserted South Street Seaport (normally a bustling tourist point).  Just below the Seaport, we noticed fighter jets in the air, and then saw a series of military helicopters coming in—a trial run for the President’s arrival the next day.  We watched that for a while, and then proceeded south.  It was unnerving to see platoons of National Guard guys in camouflage mustering on the streets of NYC.  We kept riding south; no one ever told us to stop (if you ever want to be a terrorist ride a mountain bike).  We rode down and turned west on Fulton Street, and rode to within two blocks of Ground Zero (the recently opened viewing platform is only a couple blocks further down that same street).  It was getting dark, but we could see a building at the end of the street silhouetted by the lights at the site, with some debris on its roof.  Only when I went back to the same spot later did I fully comprehend what we had seen—what I thought was debris on top of a building was in fact the debris pile looming behind a burned out 6-8 story building shell.  We rode back north and out, and I rode home over a lonely Brooklyn Bridge.  While it was an unreal experience, I actually felt somewhat relieved, because I could finally, somehow, in some small way, comprehend the scope of the devastation and get an idea of just what the hell had actually happened. 

For days after the 11th, every thing just seemed surreal—I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think it had all been a bad dream, but I’d smell the smoke or look out the window and think about those trapped in the rubble and realize it was all, sadly, real.  When Bush came on the 14th, the fighter jets stayed and circled over Brooklyn for many hours at low altitude—low enough that I could clearly see the air-air missiles on the wings.  On the night everyone was supposed to light candles, I walked home from school in a daze, and ended up near an Arab restaurant right at the appointed candle-lighting time.  The fighters were circling, and all these sad people were standing, quietly devastated, in the street with candles, and I felt as if I had been transported to Beirut.  I wandered over to a memorial in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for our local FDNY rescue company, Squad 1, which lost 11 guys. 

I was late, but somehow ended up near the front of the sad and silent procession.  The organizers probably expected a few hundred people, but I think more like 10,000 showed up—Seventh Avenue in Park Slope was full of people with candles as far as the eye could see.  People just needed to be together.  I ended up right by the firehouse (see photo), where all they had was a bullhorn with dying batteries.  A priest spoke and prayed, and then a young girl sang Amazing Grace.  No one seemed to know what to do, and so, later, she sang it again.  The crowd spontaneously sang God Bless America.  A ladder truck from a neighboring company had parked on the street nearby, and it got called out to an incident.  When it turned on its lights and siren, the mammoth crowd cheered in support.  It was amazing.

It was basically impossible to volunteer for anything, unless you had special skills or were part of some organization with some sort of command structure.  So I was happy to get a call from a Production Manager friend from Yale, Tom Bussey, about working on a possible memorial service in Central Park, on the stage we use in the summer for the Met Opera and NY Philharmonic.  That didn’t work out; for security reasons the event ended up in Yankee stadium.  But the Metropolitan Opera decided to have a benefit concert on September 22, which sold out and raised millions of dollars for the victims.  Because the house was sold out, Joe Volpe, the Met’s General Director, decided to put a giant video screen on the front of the Met, and relay the concert live to the Lincoln Center Plaza so that it could be experienced free by anyone who wanted to come.  Scharff/Weisberg donated the video projection, the Met shops put up the screen and an enormous American flag, and PJ Volpe (head of sound the Met) called me to help with the sound.  PJ, Rob Gorton, Kevin Cavanagh and I cobbled together a system out of borrowed and loaned pieces to bring the sound out onto the plaza.  All the labor was volunteered and all the equipment was donated, and the event was a huge success. 

It felt great to get involved in something positive which helped in some meager way.  But it was probably even more satisfying to be part of a large, outdoor, public gathering, less than two weeks after the horrible tragedy, only miles from the scene of the crime.  There was a palpable sense that we—crew and audience alike—were defying the terrorists, and it felt great.  Anyone who ever questions the purposes of arts organizations only needs to be present at an event like this to see the critical role they serve in a community.  It was yet another beautiful evening, and Rudy Guliani, a long-time opera fan, spoke (see picture) and came out to the plaza at intermission.  At Met Opera or NY Philharmonic summer concerts in the parks, some of the audience had always booed Rudy.  This night, however, he was somewhat stunned as several thousand people gave him a standing ovation.  One lady ran up and hugged him.  After striking the sound system, I had dinner with PJ, Joe Clark, and Joe Volpe, which was an interesting way to cap off an amazing couple days. 

Outside the financial district in downtown Manhattan, things today are pretty much back to “normal”.  We have a new mayor, who’s been doing a great job so far.  Tourists are coming back.  Some subways are still affected by the disaster, but the bio-terrorism scares, which were delaying trains on a daily basis, have subsided.  Most TV and radio stations knocked off the air have gotten back up on alternate transmitters on the Empire State building (once again the tallest building in the city), and have gotten back to a more or less normal schedule.  Driving in from New Jersey, you now see the Empire State building first, instead of the WTC towers.  Driving in over the Verrazano Bridge for the first time several weeks after the 11th, I really felt as if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Boston.  But then I saw the Statue of Liberty, and the Empire State Building, and I realized that the city is much stronger than just a couple really tall buildings.  In the days after the 11th, I was in touch with New Yorkers who were out of town on that dreadful Tuesday.  Surprisingly, without exception, each said they wish they had been here.  Oddly, I can’t really imagine having been anywhere else. 

The Real New York

The classic image of New Yorkers is the gruff exterior, polished hard from countless interactions with every imaginable variety of humanity, good and bad.  But anyone who lives here long enough comes to know the side of the city that has now been seen by the rest of the world: when that hard veneer cracks, New Yorkers are quick to open their hearts wide, and will go to almost any length to help each other out.  I remember, years ago, seeing an elderly man fall on the sidewalk.  Immediately, several people, of a variety of races and ethnic backgrounds, who would have never otherwise said a word to the man or each other, rushed over to help, called 911, and waited with him until EMS arrived.  I’ve seen the same thing time and time again after car accidents, medical emergencies, etc.  When you really need something, New Yorkers are there and ready to help. 

And, by and large, people get along.  A couple weeks ago, one of the verdicts from the Crown Heights riot 10 years ago (which was tame by Los Angeles standards) was unexpectedly overturned.  Amazingly, the streets in those neighborhoods stayed calm; the two groups involved in the riots—African/Caribbean-Americans and Orthodox Jews—have little in common, but have worked out enough of their differences to ensure peace in a difficult time.

Those rescue workers who rushed into the WTC showed the rest of America the best that New York has to offer.  Not the Manhattan glitterati, or those depicted in the fake worlds of Friends or Seinfeld.  The true heart and soul of the city is those regular New Yorkers from the boros, the ones you’d only be likely to see depicted as extras on Law and Order.  Recently, after working a long day at an event, I had dinner in upscale Brooklyn Heights with two of my students.  As we ate, these kids talked and joked about the insanity of their upbringing: the bullets flying down their streets; the friends they had lost to drugs or drug dealing; the gang warfare in their schools in the Bronx.  All of this was literally unimaginable to me—I grew up in a stable, supportive, two-parent family in a small, rural town.  The dinner conversation was “colorful” (to say the least), and at the end, a woman from the next table—the last of her group to depart—sarcastically said, “Thanks, we really enjoyed all your foul language.”  Of course, one of my students smiled and shot back, “No problem, come back any time for more!”  It struck me that this woman, an outsider like myself, was reacting to the medium and not the message.  She was hearing the language and shutting down, and did not listen to the amazing lives these kids had lived, what they had overcome, and what amazing spirit they have. 

I was drawn to the city by the bright lights myself, chasing a career and cultural diversity.  But in my almost 12 years here, I’ve come to know and admire a wide variety of remarkable people who grew up in the city: businessmen, stagehands, Wall Street workers, students.  Perhaps it’s because of their background; perhaps it’s because of what they’ve experienced and overcome; but once you break through that tough shell, these are the most optimistic, helpful, positive, and happy-go-lucky people I’ve ever met.  One NYC native told me that, growing up here, it’s difficult to, “figure out who you are”.  Of course that’s true for everyone, everywhere to a certain extent.  But here it seems especially true, where there are so many temptations of every variety (which accounts for the wild periods in many of these natives’ lives), and where everyone is exposed to the best and worst of nearly every culture from around the globe.  Coming from a small, homogenous town, I was shocked and amazed when I first heard native New Yorkers joking with each other, to their faces, about racial, religious, and cultural differences.  But the fact that those differences are acknowledged and out in the open makes it pointless to whisper about the differences behind backs.  This is not to say, of course, that every group here likes every other group, but, somehow, they’ve all figured out how to get along.  That’s what makes this place amazing on a daily basis.  Somehow, it holds itself together, with so many people from nearly every country and culture on the planet, all jammed into such a small space.  As I wrote in an email to friends on the 11th, "Before the collapses, I watched the towers burn from the bridge over the Gowanus canal, with a group that included orthodox jews, hispanics, italians--a microcosm of the world.  Someone had parked their car and had the news radio on, and all were listening in stunned silence.  Tomorrow, we'll all get back to work."


Other pictures from past years include pictures of the WTC from a kayak in the Hudson, and pictures from the base of the Tribute In Light and from lights we shined on the towers in the 1980's.