I was in New York City on 9/11 (OP-ED)
I was there. Front and center in Manhattan on that horrid Tuesday morning, 14 years ago this September 11. How my city responded is still a source of pride. This is my firsthand account.
8:46am. I was watching local morning news and learned that a plane had apparently flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Immediately I started filling in the blanks. It must have been a small plane, nothing to be concerned about. These things happen. 9:03am. Then another plane hit, this time the South Tower. Coincidence. Nothing to be concerned about. Now, to this day, I marvel at how no suspicions were aroused in me. Friends and colleagues will say how they knew right away it was a terrorist attack. I didn’t. Until the Pentagon at 9:37am. Now it was war. America was under attack.
I live in Hell’s Kitchen, which is near Times Square, and that I figured would certainly be the hub of activity. After all, it was the site of the zipper where headlines flashed throughout history. I grabbed a camera and as I walked down Broadway the mood was controlled confusion. You notice little things that take a while to process. I saw people who normally wouldn’t share an obvious camaraderie talking to each other. Young African-American kids speaking with construction workers, hipsters with the elderly, Mexican deliverymen talking. With anyone. Just reacting. And the phrase that I heard repeatedly, and I apologize for its coarseness, was “What the f___?” WTF indeed, but in its most brutal and abject of confusion. What’s happening? This can’t be. And the word that I have used since that describes it best is “surreal.”
Sirens. I never heard more sirens in my life. New Yorkers have an incredible sense of withstanding noise and the background music of the country’s largest city. But imagine every siren on every car, truck and vehicle from every borough, city and state. All running simultaneously. But when you’re paralyzed and walking zombified, you hardly notice. And that walk. People walked on cruise control, autopilot. You floated. Because, as I repeat, this was surreal. This was not supposed to happen.
The local news media were spectacular. I am usually wont to laugh at and ridicule, as I call them, the ‘Ted Baxter’s of news’ but during this horror, every news reporter, anchor, correspondent, name it, was at the top of their game. And the requests they made were most unique. One anchor, I’ll never forget, announced that if you want to help, emergency workers needed bottled water, mobile telephone batteries and baby booties. Baby booties?! Did I hear that right? Yes, for the emergency rescue and cadaver dogs whose paws were being shredded by the broken glass and sharp shards of metal they had to walk over. New Yorkers headed downtown and wanted to help. Restaurants and delis, bodegas and shops, all opened their doors and their hearts. I saw one bodega owner take his cash tray out of the register and hand out coins to people who didn’t have a cell phone and were trying to find a working payphone – in many areas; cell phone availability all but disappeared.
That night at a corner park in my neighborhood, a group of people assembled. They all had candles that had been situated over paper plates to catch the dripping wax. Someone handed me one and we all just stood there. No singing or statements or prayer. Nothing. Just simultaneous and coordinated silence that said it all.
And then the most spectacular scene. As I moved to 57th Street that traverses the island of Manhattan, in every storefront, in every doorway, in front of every business as far as the eye could see, there were New Yorkers holding candles. Miles of candles. Everywhere. It just happened spontaneously, automatically, reflexively.
Days later, the smell. I thought at first that there was a short in my building’s elevator. That acrid, metallic electrical smell. But it wasn’t. It was Ground Zero. It had wafted uptown and it hung in the atmosphere. For days, weeks. In our neighborhood Irish pub, anyone who ventured in with a lavaliere security ID tag, anyone in uniform, any cop or firefighter or construction worker, anyone whom we suspected of helping to sort through the horror that was Downtown could pay for nothing. They were heroes. Everyone you sat next to was greeted with, “Did you lose anyone?”
And then, a most remarkable thing. If that’s even possible. There was no honking. Let me explain. To the uninitiated, honking is the language of the city. The horn accompanies all vehicle locomotion. Accelerator, brake, horn. It’s been said that the definition of a New York second is the time it takes for the light to turn green and the car behind you to honk. But there was none of that. Polite silence. Courtesy. Calm, understanding. Even in the subways, the usually jammed and crowded cars that shuttled the short-fused straphanger were like a church. Quiet, polite. Respectful. I had always believed that whenever American society is met with tragedy or loss, we lose our minds. We loot or riot; we just react and explode. But not here and not now. I was never so proud of my city.
And finally, the saddest thing I saw, and that’s saying a lot. For weeks after that horrible day, there were handmade signs with pictures of missing loved ones posted and plastered all over the city with the phrase “Have You Seen ___?” They included a recent photo, their name, date of birth, a “last seen” location and even a nickname. It was as though they were just lost. Perhaps confused and walking around dazed, as if you might encounter them and recognize them from their poster and direct them home. They weren’t dead or killed. They were just lost. Just think of that. Of course, they were dead and gone. They vanished. But that reality couldn’t be appreciated or processed. To think that was to give up hope. There was no rational thinking during this irrational and unnatural horror.
New York City was always magnificent in my mind.
I stand corrected. New Yorkers are.
Lionel, for RT
Lionel is an Emmy Award winning lawyer, legal analyst and news decoder.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.