Monday, July 09, 2007

September 11, 2001, Part 1

I’ve thought about writing this for several years, long before I started the blog.

I met a friend after work the other day (he was stuck for awhile in Toronto) and the subject came up. He said “don’t wait for an anniversary, write it.”

My point in writing this is not to make a point, other than a small one that I will relate to you later. My point is to put down, in writing, what I saw and a bit of what I felt.

On September 10, 2001, I had a flight from Atlanta to Newark at about 7:00 p.m. I went to the airport and found out there were equipment problems, whatever that meant; and, that they could put me on a flight at something like 10:30 p.m. or I could book a flight the next morning at about 6:30 a.m., arriving at Newark at 8:30 a.m. I chose the morning flight.

I had a deposition in Midtown Manhattan that started at about ten-thirty in the morning. Back then, I was going to the City a lot. I had learned that flying into Newark was better than JFK or LaGuardia. I could get on a shuttle at Newark and get into the City for not much money, and as NYC goes, pretty quickly.

We got on the ground right on time. I wasn’t quite sure where in Midtown I was going and decided to get a cab rather than take one of the shuttle buses. That will prove to be a small pivotal moment in this story.

I got in the cab and said “Lincoln Tunnel to Midtown” as I fumbled in my shoulder bag for the specific address. The cabbie pulled the flag and we pulled away. A small aside. when I went home the night before, I’d taken out most of what I’d packed because I was now going to be on a day trip. My scheduled return was on the 11th at about seven at night. I always get a late flight so I'm sure of getting home; but, I usually go standby earlier if I get done. Not that day. With me, in a shoulder bag, I had the file for the deposition, toiletries, a pair of gym shorts and a tee shirt that were always in the bag and that was it. I was wearing a white shirt, a tie and a suit. Black with faint white pin stripes, as I recall.

The radio was on either WNBC or WABC. I’ve since heard some of what I heard that morning on TV. I could look up the numbers of the highways we were on, but they aren’t significant. While on the last one before we took a right, East, to the highway that led to the tunnel, the newscasters were talking about reports that a small plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Lots of back and forth. I remember one woman talking to the newscaster saying that she was a few blocks away and that it wasn’t a small plane. It was an airliner and it had slammed into the tower.

More back and forth on the radio as we inched our way to the tunnel. We inched and we inched. Just after we turned on to the highway to the tunnel, the radio announcer said that the Lincoln Tunnel and all of the bridges into the City were closed. As we heard this we were at a dead stop. The cabbie, an African, I’m sorry I don’t know his nationality, turned and said “what do you want to do?

At that point, I had not really processed what was happening. But, I tend to revert to coldness when things get difficult. By that I mean that I don't react to what's bad, I ignore that and decide what needs to be done in the moment. What I said to the cabbie was “we aren’t going in to the City, can you get off this and get back to the airport?”

He said there was an exit before the tunnel that would put us on a road that traveled South along the Hudson River and we could get back to the airport from there. I told him to go for it.

You have to understand that while reading this description you are not getting a true sense of time. We sat and we listened to the radio. As we listened we heard sketchy reports about Washington D.C., the Pentagon and what turned out not to beaccurate, the White House. I don’t remember much, if anything about Pennsylvania.

We inched some more. Then more, and finally, moved right on to the exit.

All the while, think about Fox News and CNN at their worst, or maybe their best. The newscasters were for the most part measured, fielding reporters and plain people calling in; but, as what was happening became clearer, their voices developed some stridency.

I’m not sure when in this cab odyssey the second tower was hit, I should have written this down some years ago, but by the time we got to the river road, heading South, it had been hit. As we turned on to the road, there to our left was Lower Manhattan. There was billowing, black smoke from both towers.

The cabbie pulled over and stopped by the side of the road. We sat and didn’t say anything. We watched what was happening a mile or so away and listened to the radio.

The radio didn’t tell me . The cabbie did. “NO! WHAT?” Slow motion. I say that now; but that isn’t what I saw or felt. I had no reference to understand what I was seeing. The cabbie had more perception than I did.

As I watched and listened to the cabbie, I remember seeing and hearing and thinking “what is he yelling about?” My eyes knew, but my mind wasn’t yet willing to think it.

The smoke was at the top of the tower. The tower didn’t seem to fall. It was more like the smoke “fell down,” covering more and more of the tower.

At a point that day, and in the days following, I heard which tower fell first. To this day I can’t remember which it is. I don’t know if I’m right, but I can tell you, indelibly in my mind the tower to the left, what would be the North Tower, was the one going down. I’m not going to research it. Remember, this is about what I saw and felt.

There were other cars stopped on the road. Some people were standing next to their cars looking across the river. I was numb. The cabbie was quietly, not crying, not sobbing, something a bit less.

After awhile the cabbie put the car in gear and we went in search of a hotel as by that point the radio had announced that Newark Airport was shut down.

We turned on to the airport “hotel row.” I told the cabbie to pull into the first hotel. I started to pay him and he said he’d wait and make sure I got a room. No luck. We did the same thing at the next four hotels along the street. I got lucky at the Sheraton and got a room for $200 a night. I love New York.

I walked out with a smile, which the cabbie returned. I pulled out money to pay him. The original fare to Midtown was a flat rate of about $40.00. At this point it was somewhere between eleven and noon. I can’t remember the exact amount I gave him, it was something like $120 or $140. He actually said that was too much. I reminded him we’d just spent the last three hours together and the amount was fair. He gave me his card and told me to call if I ever needed anything. He had a big smile as he drove over to the airport to see if he could get a fare from one of the couple of thousand stranded people.

In a few days, Part 2, Life at the Sheraton Prison.


SonjaB said...

Wow, I can't wait until part 2. We had a bunch of cops from NYPD here at the college for training. It was really hard on them because they couldn't get home, couldn't call home and had to concentrate on the training they were doing.

Dave said...

Hey Sonja, I had some of that at the other end. One of the stranger weeks in my life.

Keith said...

Wow! What a story. I'll be waiting for part 2 my friend.

Life Hiker said...

You should print this post for your grandchildren or whoever...

I hate this Iraq war, and I don't understand Islamophobes who have no ability to discriminate between normal people and nutcases. But what you saw is all about nutcases who want to kill you and me.

We need to go after the terrorists and after those who can't discriminate. We all know who they are, and one of them is known as "Rush". Anyone who likes him and his ilk is a nutcase not too different from the guys who flew the planes that generated the dust clouds you unfortunately witnessed.

Hedy said...

Amazing story, Dave. I'm surprised you haven't written about it 'til now. Looking forward to part 2.

Kvatch said...

To be so close to the tragedy...truly astounding. Our view from here on the Left Coast was somewhat surreal. Aside from everyone assuming that the Transbay Tube would be next, most people reacted as thought they were stunned. The city just stopped. I watched TV for two hours getting madder and madder, remembered I had a job, and then called in to send my engineering team home for the next two days.

emmapeelDallas said...

I'm looking forward to reading more, and I'm glad you didn't wait for the anniversary.


Debo Blue said...

I've been keeping journals since the age of 12, 9-1-1 took a lot of space on one journal. I should note it online too.

Hurry for the next one, please!