Five years ago today, I worked in lower Manhattan, about a block and a half from the Twin Towers.
It started out as a perfectly normal day. The weather was extraordinarily nice for a September morning - clear, warm and bright. It was also a primary election day.
I had moved from one house to another in Brooklyn about a year earlier. For whatever reason, I never bothered to change my voter registration from my old address to the new one. However, I wanted to vote in the primary and so I went to my old polling place and cast my vote. From there, I went off to the subway, getting on the F train and switching for the A at Jay Street.
My train pulled into the Fulton Street Station at about 9:04, right after the second tower was hit. Since the A train travels through a tunnel under the river, no one on the train had any idea that anything was wrong. I certainly had no idea as I got off the train at Fulton Street. At that station, there are three levels - a subway level, a mezzanine level and then the token booth level. I had just finished climbing the stairs from the subway level to the mezzanine when I saw a crowd of people running toward me. Not wanting to get trampled, I ran with the crowd for a bit until it passed by. My first thought was that there must have been a shooting near the token booth and that everyone was running from the scene. Once the crowd passed me, I turned back and headed toward the token booth level. Along the way, I met people who were crying and some with light injuries. I tried to ask several people what happened, but no one seemed interested in answering my question - everyone was too distraught, it seemed, to even process my question, let alone give me a straight answer.
I looked around the token booth area for the shooting victim (or stabbing victim, or whatever) but could not find one. Figuring that I was wrong about the shooting, I figured that I might as well go and get to work.
I climbed up the stairs to the street level and exited the station at Fulton Street right to the east of Broadway. The place looked like a war zone. There was broken glass everywhere. Papers were all around. People were crying, some bleeding. Everyone was distraught. I still hadn't looked toward the towers.
I started walking up Broadway toward my job. As I walked up Broadway, I saw a bunch of people standing at the south end of City Hall Park looking up at the towers. That's when I looked up and realized that the world had changed forever.
Both towers were on fire. From my vantage point, I could only really see the north tower clearly... most of the south tower was eclipsed by it's brother. I asked someone what had happened and was told that the buildings were struck by planes. It seemed as if my mind had refused to accept what my ears had heard and asked for a clarification. Again, I was told that the buildings had been struck by planes.
I used to be an EMT at one time, and actually considered going to the towers and offering my help. In the end, however, I didn't - for one, my certification had expired. For another, I didn't have my ID on me. And I didn't think that they were going to let me, without any proof to having been an EMT, into the area. To be honest, however, there probably was a measure of cowardice involved as well. I can sometimes be heedless of danger, but the area around the towers seemed like just too much for me.
I went to the building where I worked on Park Row. Once there, some co-worker and I simply waited and watched the news and listened dumbfounded at the things we were hearing (some of which turned out to be unfounded): two planes hit the World Trade Center, other explosions in lower Manhattan, a plane hitting the Pentagon, a bomb going off at the State Deptartment, reports of up to eight hijacked aircraft, and on and on.
I worked on the seventh floor of a building on Park Row that faced the towers at the time. From the window I couldn't see the top of the towers, nor could I see the bottom. I could, however, see most of the affected floors. I could see the facade burning and the people in the windows using towels and sheets to try to get the attention of rescue workers on the ground. I could actually see the facade getting worse and the steel (or whatever the outer surface was) beginning to buckle from the heat. And yet, stupidly, it still didn't occur to me that the building could actually fall.
A few co-workers from the eighth floor came downstairs to join us. One friend, in particular, was grief stricken. He told me, in a broken voice, that he had seen people jump or fall out of the towers. There was little I could do for him - I simply gave him a hug. What else could I do?
I remember at several times frantically trying to get a call out to my wife to let her know that I was OK, but phone service was very spotty. I kept trying to call someone, anyone to let them know that I was OK. I sent email to my father's wife (not even knowing if the email would go through). I phoned other relatives several times. Finally, I got through to my sister and let her know that I was fine. She begged for me to leave the area, but I knew better than to go down to the streets during the chaos that was going on out there.
Eventually, I heard and, more importantly, felt, a large, low rumble. The entire building shook as if there was a small earthquake. I quickly got up and went over to the window to see what was going on. While I couldn't see the south tower (which had just collapsed) from my window, I could see a cloud of dust and debris coming down the street toward us. With my brain finally working for once that morning, I quickly went to all the windows on that side of the building to make sure that they were shut. I'm still not sure how I managed to get to all the windows in time before the debris cloud got to us (except for one window at the end of the hall, but we did manage to shut the door to that room), but we did. As the cloud overtook the building, it got as black as night outside. We were seven stories up, and it seemed like someone had just blacked out the sun.
At that point, I was with my boss, a gentleman named Hugh, and two other co-workers, named Jim and Isaac. We were the only ones left on the seventh floor when the towers came down. We huddled in an inner room on the floor, watching the coverage on Channel 2 on a TV in the office (Channel 2 was the only one still broadcasting... they had a backup antenna on the Empire State building. All the other broadcast channels were out that day... and for quite a few days afterwards). We continued huddling there while the second tower came down as well and another loud, rumbling earthquake ensued. Despite all the dust in the air, we managed to stay fairly calm. We remained there until about noon when the police came and evactuated/evicted us from the building.
I was fortunate to have a Walkman on me that day, and I spent quite a bit of time listening to it as we left the building and headed toward the Brooklyn Bridge. As we were walking across the bridge, I had one earphone in one ear listening to the news and the other listening to some of the people in the crowd. Some were covered by soot and debris from head to toe. Some had some light injuries. One person was still unaware that the attacks involved hijacked planes until I informed him. As we walked across the bridge, we continued scanning the skies for planes, looking for futher incoming hijacked flights. Of course, if one had hit the bridge, there would have been little any of us could do about it -- it was just too croweded to consider running anywhere.
As we walked down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, there were people on both sides of the sidewalk offering water, juice and other refreshments to those who were fleeing Manhattan. There were quite a few frum Jews among those doing the offering. If there was one bright spot that I saw on that day (since I didn't see the firemen and police rushing into the building), it was how people came together to help one another on that day - regardless of what race you were or what religion you practiced or what school of thought you belonged to.
The last encounter I had that day was in Prospect Park, which I cut through on my way home (there was no subway service anymore and the buses were just too jam-packed to even think of getting on them). As I was walking through the park, I saw a black man wandering around crying. He had a relative who worked in the towers and he didn't know what had happened to him. I tried to console him, but had no real information to give him. I simply told him that, it seemed to me, most of the people got out of the towers on time. What else could I tell him? He was near hysterical - hope, even if false hope, was the best that I could offer him at that moment.
I finally made it home at about 3:30pm, exhausted.
Later on that day, I realized that my life might well have been saved by the fact that I never changed my voter registration. If I had changed it, I would have voted in my neighborhood, not my old one. I would have then gotten on the D train (instead of the F) and switched to the N or R train (instead of the A). I would have gotten off the train at the Cortlandt Street Station, which is directly across the street from the towers. In addition, the combination of the D to the N/R ran faster than the F to the A by about two to three minutes. In other words, had I voted where I should have, I would have been exiting the subway across the street from the towers just about when the second plane hit. I could have had plane parts and jet fuel raining down on my head.
Do you want to hear something sick and funny? When I was younger, I owned a Commodore 64 computer (in fact, I still have it). One game in particular that I had was Flight Simulator. It was a cool game which gave you control of an aircraft and you could pilot it from any point in the U.S. to any other point. For some major cities, there were landmarks represted on the map. For New York, one of the landmarks in the game were the Twin Towers. And, God help me, every now and then I would purposely fly my plane into the towers - I guess as sort of a sick teenage joke with the game. I certainly didn't envision "killing" anyone in the towers... they just provided an interesting target. Funny how years later it no longer seems so funny.
For weeks after the events, I would be spooked whenever there was a loud noise... especially a loud rumbling noise. A truck going down the street to loudly would cause me to do a double take. During Succos that year, as we sat out in the Sukkah, very often trucks going down the street would cause me to jerk my head and assume a "ready to run" stance. Eventually those instincts subsided, but the emotional scars of the day still remain.