My World Trade Center Experience

Copyright 2001 by Joseph G. Leichter
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"I am become Death, destroyer of Worlds" --Baghavad Gita (11.32 - 33) as quoted by Dr. J. R. Oppenheimer


I stepped out of my N train--which had just passed underneath the World Trade Center (WTC afterwards)-- at the Rector Street station. I climbed the stairs and emerged at the Southwest corner of Church and Rector. I had just finished my daily recitation of my 30 or so Sanskrit verb paradigms while riding the subway, and was about to start on the nouns as I walked the rest of the way to work. Bit early today. I'll take the long way.

Deva - God - luminous being - in the nominative .. in the vocative ... accusative ... dative .. ablative ... genitive .. locative.

I walked past Trinity Church at the foot of Wall St. and looked up to see a tourist standing before the grave of Alexander Hamilton.

Phala - fruit - in the nominative.. in the vocative ... accusative ... dative .. ablative ... genitive .. locative.

I went on to Broadway made a left and was nearing the exchange, when I noticed what looked like confetti falling from the air.

Agni - fire -- in the nominative .. in the vocative ... accusative ... dative .. ablative ... genitive ..locative.

I thought maybe it was a promotion at the New York Stock Exchange for a new issue. They do that sort of thing. Release balloons, have truckloads of WWF wrestlers, dancing girls. I was also near the spot from which I watched the ticker-tape parade for the 2000 New York Yankees, and the Gulf War Victory Parade. Thus my spirits were made light by the sight of the paper.

Then I noticed the confetti was burnt. I looked up above the NYSE to see a monstrous plume of puffy white smoke -- emanating from seemingly nowhere-- from which the charred papers were raining down. I thought, "My god--what's there? Where can this cloud be coming from?" The crowd of people I was with---our mood turned from one of lightness to one of--horror. It was as if we all had the same realization at the same time that something---nescio quid--was horribly wrong.

Some folks began to run. I wasn't sure why they were running. Then I noticed that little bits of greenish debris were beginning to rain down, just as I turned south on Williams street. All the while the papers just kept floating to the ground. I ducked into deli across from Delmonico's to get cover...then realized that if the falling debris gets worse--this would not be a good place to be for very long. Picture windows. No phones.

There were a few construction workers in the street ( whom I later realized must have seen the crash). They've been there for several weeks now working on pipes or wiring beneath Williams Street. They were facing West and were backlit from the morning sun. I heard one of them say to a man in a suit "...the World Trade Center". I asked what happened. He said "A plane crash in the World trade Center". I immediately thought of a picture in a book my father had gotten me as a child of a gaping hole in the Empire State Building...caused by a 1945 plane crash into that building--a B25 , I think. Christ.

I saw people getting hit with pebble-sized debris. I ran down South William to my building...went right to the 11th floor where I one knew what was going on. I heard "Plane crash..plane crash at the World Trade Center". I thought and someone said " can that be? The weather is perfectly clear". The B-25 had hit in a thick fog. Someone had a radio..."Plane was plane crash"

9:03 a.m

We all looked up at the WTC to see one tower on fire. There was a ring of fire encircling the building one floor...near the top. The floors above the ring were enshrouded in thick black upwardly rising waves. Every second or two the fire crept lower--floor by floor---dripping like wax down a candle.

The thought of those people...they're being incinerated..there's no way to control that fire. Then a huge fireball--monstrous in size--shot out and up---like some horribly visible dragon's breath.(this was the fireball from the impact of the second jet--I didn't realize this until after viewing the footage of the attack).

Terror. Stupefied silent terror.

Then the word from the radio..There was a second plane --it crashed into the other tower. We knew. It was an attack. It had started. What would be next? The exchange? All Manhattan? Where is the air force? Aren't they supposed to prevent this? "There's a third plane...jets are scrambling now to intercept" "The CDC is involved" Oh fuck. Anthrax I heard someone say.

The phones were dead. Even the cell. The Internet was down. There was for a while. I managed to get through to my dad on my Sprint cell phone--called Sharon (my girlfriend).Her cell wasn't answering. I left a message for her. I was horrified for Sharon, who I thought took the PATH train to the WTC to get to , her new job is in Brooklyn, she takes the 33rd street train to 14th street to get the L train. Well north of here.

I said "Dad..I'm OK...please call Sharon let her know..please call Joanie (my sister) ..tell her I'm alive". Though I wasn't sure for how long. A woman came into the office..screaming...she had seen people leap to their deaths from the trade center..rather than being incinerated or suffocating...their bodies fell into the canopy over a stage between the two towers..where Sharon and I had spent many a pleasant summer-evening hour listening to the live sounds of the Big Broadway tunes...

9:43 AM

"The Pentagon, shit, they got the Pentagon" "The White House!" My dad said "Stay put..don't go out into that until you know what's going on..I'm a veteran of W.W.II and the police department know what I'm talking about! Stay put until you know what you're facing!"

10:00 AM

I went to the ground floor..I'm not sure why..the sky..not the sky..the atmosphere itself -the sky couldn't be seen- was a sickly gray. There was a slightly luminous disk where the sun had been only a few minutes looked like the sun that woman had painted in the Twilight Zone episode.

I went back upstairs....not sure even if I should use the elevator..I stepped out onto the 11th floor again..the building was as if it had been picked up 6 inches and dropped back down again...the lights dimmed..oh shit, DON'T EVER GET ON THE ELEVATOR! I looked down in the street.

People --all mummified in pasty white soot--were running--all in the same direction--running from something--it was like those old Godzilla movies...I looked in back of them --a huge wall of black-- a 50 -story tidal wave moving straight towards my building-at a rate of my god...40 mph or so.. .fuck...what is it..what's in the black? The tower? Poison gas? Are buildings being blown up in this direction? Fuck--a mushroom cloud? It became could smell it.

"Please go to the third floor", we heard. Without debating whether to use the stairs or the elevator, we all took the stairs. Circling down. Floor after floor. Shit! We're only on 10! only 8!

I got to the third floor...there's a few large conference rooms there. I heard knocking on from another staircase door---the door was marked-"NO RE-ENTERING FROM THIS STAIRCASE". I opened it to find a few people who rushed past me into one of the rooms. I propped open the door with its own "NO RE-ENTERING" sign to prevent such a horrid entrapment of people again.

There were stunned crowds of people in groups of 12 or so. "The basement--Don't stay here--go to the basement!". Yeah--right--and be buried alive if this thing falls. Shit, I want to at least have a chance of getting out.

I stayed on the third floor. The windows looked like they had been painted black. It became increasingly difficult to breathe. I'll die of smoke inhalation if this --whatever it is--continues. Should I go back up in the building to where the air is perhaps clearer?. But why did they move us down here..was the roof on fire? STAND UNDER A DOORWAY..I did..I made peace with my creator...people were starting to breathe through handkerchiefs..fuck, my great grandfather died from mustard gas in World War One...I tried to find a better place to breathe...found an airvent by a window..with just enough of a trickle of clean air to make things bearable..

"The tower collapsed..that was the tower collapsing!" . We huddled by radios....people were passing out donuts from boxes....Krispy Kreme... I reached for a chocolate and saw it shake in my hands..some of the workers on that floor let us use their office phones to call home..."dad..I'm still OK...thank Christ you told me to stay put..I would have been caught in that cloud of shit --(A cloud that I later learned suffocated many)"

"Please return to your work stations", we heard. Yeah, right. Fuck you.

10:28 AM

I wondered if the smoke and soot would ever clear up...even in our air conditioned building the unbreathable stench was starting to creep in---just when daylight began to push through the smoke, it happened again.....a second wave of black. I must have waited hours again for it to clear. It all seemed to have stopped.

11:00 AM

I went back to the 11th floor to my desk and looked out the wasn't there...just a tower of smoke. Got through to my sister and my 14 year old niece on my desk phone. They live just outside of Atlanta. "Uncle Joey..they let took me out of school when I told them about you...I've started making a scrap book... writing things down...just like grandma Doris did for Pearl Harbor". Pearl Harbor? At least a case could be made that had been a military least that was somewhat comprehensible.

I peered out my window again. Lower Manhattan looked like it had been covered by volcanic ash. I heard something on the radio about Guiliani telling people to get out of Manhattan. I waited till I could see the outside again to leave the building.

1:30 PM

It was time to go, I decided. There was only a thin suspension of shit in the air now. Thin at least by comparison. My boss...a usually Stoic man in his early-to-mid thirties told me not to forget to bring water..I would need it.

I filled 2 16 oz Styrofoam containers of ice water and put a plastic lid on each. I noticed each lid had a quarter-inch or so hole for drinking. The shit still hanging in the air will get in there. So I put a second lid on each at a 90 degree angle to the first. I got down to the first floor walked out into the Dust.

There were a handful of numb, ash covered groups of people--in twos and threes...making their way North. Faces covered in whatever rag could be found. Trudging in the Dust that was on everything. There were cars, trucks and cabs abandoned in the streets. One, I think, still had the motor running.

"Motherfuckers high-tailed it outta here ! " I heard. I could feel my breathing labor...go the river..the air must be clearer. Was it asbestos? No one spoke..there was nothing to say...language fails. The awnings on the stores on the North side of Maiden lane near South Street --the stores where I occasionally had lunch...were covered thickly in ash. There was a fully stocked lunch cart abandoned--and covered in the Dust.

I walked up the East side under the FDR towards the South Street Seaport... hoping to cross into Queens over the 59th Street bridge.

"We are evacuating Manhattan" The bullhorn said. The police were evacuating lower Manhattan by means of anything that would float, it seems. There were three tugboats on the pier..their deckhands were directing people to boats bound for Jersey City or a boats for Brooklyn. I saw a scrawled hand made sign on the command tower of closest boat: "Jersey City".

I walked on its metal plank towards the deck and in my numbness asked a deckhand "Where is the boat to Brooklyn?" "Right back there" he said, pointing to the next tug.. safety. The sea. Thalassa!

As I walked back on the plank towards the shore, a man with a dog asked if he was heading to the boat for Jersey City. He was 50-ish, disheveled gray casual..tan corduroy jacket. His eyes seemed stunned. I looked down at his dog's harness and realized it was a seeing -eye dog. Christ. To go through this Hell blind.

"Don't worry--she won't bite" he assured me. "Yes", I said "The boat for Jersey City..straight ahead." I asked if he needed help, but he declined.

I walked further along the dock and saw the Brooklyn Tug. The deck of the tug was about 8 feet below the surface of the pier. There was a ladder from this deck to the railing of the pier. On either side of the ladder was a deckhand. Knowing that I could not hold on to my precious water and climb over the railing and down the ladder at the same time, I asked with trepidation if they could hold my two cups. The one on my right took them both and passed them to a third man while saying "Don't forget these are his".

They held my cups of water for me while I climbed down the ladder onto the boat.. I was in the rear of the dark red tug...I looked around the rear of the boat till I found a pile of life jackets. I didn't put one on....I just wanted to know where they were in case there was another attack. I looked down. There was water sloshing through two foot-long oval-shaped openings at the bottom of the deck at water level.... we were told to climb to the upper deck of the tug to make more room for other people..

"I don't need to see that" I heard. I looked into the water of the East River--several feet off the port bow-- and saw a shoe floating. It was a workshoe. Floating tread-up.

I burst into tears.

I walked to the front of the tug and up another ladder. I saw that a blue-and-white police boat had docked ahead of us and was taking on the people from the Jersey City tug I had passed by. The police were putting life jackets on their dozen or so passengers, including the man with the dog. Shit. If their boat gets sunk, they'll all have life jackets, and we won't.

I looked up and faced the clouds of devastation: seemingly separate plumes of black and white. At first the wind was blowing to the South-east... moving the thick debris clouds south of us. Then the winds started to shift to the East..bringing us directly into the path of the Dust.. We became anxious as breathing became more difficult.

People shared towels, cloths. "When the fuck are we leaving?" I heard. I agreed with the sentiment---but changed my mind when I saw a few more people running to the boat.

The ship I was on faced West. We were docked at a pier which was perpendicular to the shore of Manhattan. We were facing into the island.

Then I noticed a slight clockwise rotation of the ship. It was pivoting around the bow--which still was touching the pier. I hoped were preparing to depart. We were. As we pulled away from the pier, I noticed that another other tug to Jersey City was named "Resolute". I felt comforted by the word.

We pulled out into the East River and turned slowly towards Brooklyn. Some gentlemen on the walkway of the tug's bridge with me noted that the skies over Manhattan were empty.....except, I noticed, for a seagull flying north over the FDR Drive--a white figure silhouetted against a black cloud. I thought of the pigeons at the end of "Failsafe".

We saw a Department of Corrections boat heading for the Seaport. These boats usually patrol the waters looking for escapees from Rikers Island. Now they were evidently joining in the evacuation.

We moved slowly under the Brooklyn Bridge to its base in the Borough of Brooklyn. There were a few -- maybe 7 or 8 people-- waiting under the foot of the bridge. They probably had heard from their loved ones by cell phone.

We looked up and saw a young mother with a child..maybe 3 or 4 years old.. she screamed the most joyous scream I've ever heard: "THERE'S DADDY-- THERE'S DADDY--he's safe he's safe!"

There was a collective, mild cheer from the other passengers on the boat.

The boat turned slowly south, and while a deck hand held a thick orange rope, the ship drifted in parallel to the shore. "Do I need the rope?" shouted the deckhand. "Yeah..tie it up!" "Don't worry--you'll all get off!.. .next Stop--Bay Ridge". We filed towards a spot on the port side, where two deckhands were helping people off the boat. The tug's deck was level with the edge of a cement wall--about 6 inches across--that stretched down into the water.On the other side of the cement and level with its top was dry ground. I knew I'd be a bit unsure of my footing as I disembarked... that I'd need the help of two deckhands on either side of me to get off... so I left one of my cups on the deck of the ship. There's alot left. Someone will find it and use it.

There was a railing --about 4 feet high--on the cement wall. I walked North along it for about 30 feet till I found a portion of that was made of chain-link. Lower and easier to climb over. Still some battery left in the cell. "I'm in Brooklyn, Dad, I'll try to get back to Queens somehow now". I started to walk up a slightly inclined road...away from the East River. I noticed a 40-ish, slightly graying man and 30-ish woman talking. Both business casual. The man wore glasses. They were trying to find their way to Queens, I heard. I didn't want to go alone. I didn't want to be alone. I started talking to them. John, he said his name was. The woman excused herself and ran off at the sight of a pay phone to our right. We asked a small group of people who were standing in the street about a block East of the bridge how to get to Queens from here. They didn't know. We walked further up this slope and found a policewoman. She told us there were shuttle buses going in the direction of Queens--in fact, one just left. "Can I walk to Queens somehow?". No. Not really. As she spoke, a regular city bus pulled around from behind a building. She signaled the driver to stop. As we stepped on, John, who was now behind me, asked me if they were collecting the fare--he didn't have his Metrocard. There was a black plastic trash bag over the fare box. No fare today. The driver told us that his bus would take us to an A train station--we could probably find our way from there.

We were on the bus for maybe a minute when I saw a black sign for a subway stop. It had two blue circles on it. One with the white letter "A" with "C". This was it. We get off here. There were several police officers at the top of the subway stairs. Blue uniforms with orange reflective vests. "Yes..the A train is don't know how to get to Queens...ask the clerk downstairs."

John and I talked as we walked down the stairs. The A will take us to, it won't. It didn't really matter. I didn't really care when or how we got to Queens. As long as we were the fuck out of Manhattan. When we got to the landing where the clerk was, there were a few people exiting the turnstile. Yes. The train was running. These people had just gotten off of one, it looks. Two or three others were lined up to ask the clerk --a rather plump, smiley black woman in her early thirties --questions about how to get where from here. When it came my turn, she answered: "You can the A back into can't....just go downstairs and ask the policemen on the platform if the G is running. If it is it will take you there."

The two of us descended further to the platform level and saw four or five officers at its West end. They seemed to be hovering like phantoms in some sort of cloud....they were wearing face masks. Shit. It was here. The Dust. Oh fuck. The A runs right under the WTC. The shit must have traveled through the tunnel under the river. Please let there be a train. Can't stay here. "Yeah--the G is running..take the next train to Hoyt-Schermerhorn." In a second or two, a train pulled out of the leftmost of the openings in the tunnel and into the station. John and I ran to the conductor's window just to see if he could confirm that the G was running. It was.

We stepped in. Air conditioning. I could breathe. In my relief... and momentarily forgetting the circumstances under which we had met, I asked if nothing was wrong.. "So where do you work, John. "I'm a web designer right across from.." Something was wrong. No one was speaking. In the whole car no one was speaking. There had to be 100 people in this car and no one else was speaking. A few just looked up at us. "Jay Street", the conductor announced over the PA. "Shit, did we miss Hoyt?". "Yes you was back one stop" an elderly lady said as she left the train. "No..its the next stop..she must be confused" another woman said to us. She was trying to get to Queens, too. Now there were three of us. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and vowed to stick together. An attempt to repair the gaping rent in civilization.

John and the woman talked. Couldn't hear what they're saying over the din of the train. "Hoyt Schermerhorn" The PA said. We filed off the train. In an attempt to avoid the crowds of people getting onto it, once we were on the platform, we squeezed through a small passage--maybe a foot wide--between the side of a staircase and a pillar, both white-tiled. John in the lead, then me, then the woman. "Just a trick I learned from years of commuting" John said.

The PA shouted ``There is no A train service into Manhattan...due to an earlier incident at Chambers Street, there is no...''. What? Earlier incident at Chamber's Street? That's what they say when a train has a stuck door, for Christ's sake! ``What do you want them to say? They all know what happened'' John said.

Now for the G. Where is it in this station?. There. On the next track over. Which direction is it going? North. To Queens. My head hurts. Can't think. I looked around the station and noticed that part of it seemed abandoned. There was a whole platform--with nice lettering on it. It was clearly no longer in use. I wonder why.

Damn. The G only runs every 20 minutes or so. It'll be a while before...its here! We got on the train and sat three-in-a-row: John, the woman and me. Across from us sat a smartly dressed young man. Dirty brown hair, white shirt. Christ, he can't be more than 22. He overheard us talking. Then answered to us the name of a building that John was trying to recall in his conversation with the woman. ``I work in Brooklyn. I'm going home to find out about some of my friends. They work for Morgan Stanley...they have 20% of the offices in the trade center''


What was it like, the young man asked. John answered ``Have you ever been in a car accident...and for a second or two you don't know how its going to turn out..if you're going to live or die..or be injured? see it coming..and there's nothing you can do to stop it? That's how it was'', John said. ``That's the best description I can give. Only continue that moment or two of uncertain horror for several hours''

I never take the G. We passed by stop after unfamiliar stop. Flushing Ave. Court Square. The young man got off. We wished him well. I felt a twinge at his departure.

I can go upstairs at Queens Plaza and take the N. No, it probably isn't running. It goes under the World Trade Center at Cortland Street.``John, How can I get to Flushing?'' she asked. Wait. I can switch to the R. The R will take me home. Shit. I can just stay on the G...I should know that. The G will take me right to Steinway Street. Why can't I think straight?

They both got up at Queens Plaza. We all said goodbye and wished each other luck. I stayed on the G. Now there wasn't just a twinge. I felt scared.

People piled on. Crowded car. Silent. Not even the usually obnoxious buzz of a Walkman playing too loudly.

4:00 PM

I emerge from the Steinway Street Station. Facing North on Steinway. The sun is bright and over my left shoulder, but without any warmth. It doesn't feel like any time of day..or any day of the week. Time is stopped. Its not here.

``Dad..I'm in Astoria...I can walk from here''

I make a left on 30th Ave and walk West. I pass by Athens Park. There's a statue of Socrates there...and Athena, in full headdress. I wonder if they'll survive this.

I went home and cried.

POST SCRIPT: Sharon watched the towers burn, then collapse from Brooklyn. She was distraught until she got the message I left on her cell.