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September 11 Attacks When the Future Changed

Horrors No One Ever Expected to See

Close Up and Far Away

You all know exactly where you were when you heard about the September 11 attacks, right? You may even remember what you were doing. It changed everything about us.

I've felt shy about writing of being so close to the disaster in 2001. Maybe it's because I was lucky, a witness, not a victim.

But I walked through my stunned, adopted hometown, shocked at a safe distance in a wounded city.

I decided to share my grain of history, what it was like to get through that day and the strangeness of those that followed, to add it to the record.

On a Terrible and Beautiful Late Summer Morning

Early on the morning of September 11th, 2001, a day without the slightest foreboding, I was ready to get going with a busy schedule, pulling things together in the office I shared with my friend Elliot at our company headquarters on John Street, a few blocks east of the World Trade Center.

Our building shook.

"What was that?" Elliot asked.

A sonic boom or some activity in the construction that was going on all around Wall Street those days, that was our consensus. Then something really strange happened. Scraps of paper began floating by our window, out a beautiful, clear blue sky.

Close to Broadway and its Canyon of Heroes, we'd seen paper - full sheets, replacing no longer used ticker tape - drift by our 10th Floor window before, tossed by people celebrating the Yankees' World Series wins from the sky high towers around us.

But this was different. The papers were tinged with burn marks, and a sickening smell and smoke drifted with them.

The first of the September 11 attacks had blasted the papers out of offices in the top floors of the World Trade Center as the first jetliner slammed into and almost through the North Tower.

Just Another Day Becomes Unforgettable

World Trade Center Tower Collapse

World Trade Center Tower Collapse

A Mystery Filling the Sky with Smoke and Flame

As rumors started about what was going on, consensus being that a small plane had accidentally hit the tower, Elliot and I took the elevator downstairs and walked the three short blocks up John Street to Broadway.

All the way, we could see the top of the North Tower burning like a tortured candle. The intensity of the flames was really striking.

Weird what you remember, but my practical side observed the extent of the fire so high in the sky, guessing at about the 90th floor, and wondered if they would rebuild all of it or just repair it as a shorter tower.

The cops were not letting anyone cross Broadway, just a block from the tower, and the crowd we were in was thickening with the curious and awestruck.

Then a screeching sound tore through the narrow streets around us, echoing in all directions, just before a huge plume of pinkish smoke filled the entire plaza in front of us, billowing out from the South Tower toward its twin, already burning.

Any doubts we had about the origin of the first fire were erased instantly. The crowd turned away and ran back down John Street toward the river. I think we all shared the same instant insight - this was a terrorist attack. We were on the fringe of Wall Street and who knew where the next bomb or whatever it was would go off.

While it seems a little odd now that Elliot went back upstairs in our building, given the extraordinary situation, but we did.

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When we got there, our office manager was on her knees with some coworkers, praying. It was surreal. A couple of doors away from hers, my boss was considering whether he should go out on an appointment scheduled nearby. He nodded silently when I told him I didn't think he'd get much of anyone's attention today.

My wife called and told me she'd watched the second jet crash into the South Tower live on Good Morning America. Charlie Gibson thought something was awry with the control tower at LaGuardia and planes were being directed into the World Trade Center.

Yes, surreal. Nothing like it. Nothing making sense.

I called Yuki, my contact at a company in midtown where I had an appointment to bring in an IT help desk candidate. I had to cancel. She understood, of course, but then one more strange thing happened.

The young man I'd planned to introduce, a Japanese native speaker with limited English skills, walked into our reception area. He'd boarded a subway train on a sunny morning in Queens and unexpectedly got off next door to hell.

I picked up the phone. "Yuki," I said. "We'll see you in a half-hour."

In The Middle, Almost - A City Shattered

Dust Covered 9/11 Victims

Dust Covered 9/11 Victims

The Impossible Becomes Possible

When things get extreme, my first instinct is to get into a regular routine, if one's available.

What I could do was get Joe, the job seeker I'd recruited from Seattle, on a train up to Midtown to meet Yuki.

The Chambers Street Station on the 7th Avenue IRT was just a block and half up John Street, and we entered with smoke billowing two blocks ahead of us like out of the mouth of a volcano. There were more people on the street as businesses and especially the government agencies were evacuating, sending their workers home.

On a crowded #1 train, a state worker told us about looking from their windows across Broadway while people leaned out the windows for air before jumping out of the North Tower to escape being burned alive.

Surreal, because it could be nothing else.

Our train went exactly one stop before stopping. The doors opened and closed, each time accompanied by the same safety warning. They opened again.

An announcement was made that our train, normally express, was going local. Then after some more door closings and openings, they announced it was going express.

A sense that panic was setting in was hard to avoid as was an awareness that we were a block away from the fire and stuck underground.

Finally, the train got moving, going express after all. Later, we found out that the first tower to collapse had fallen into the tunnel a hundred feet behind us.

Transferring to the Shuttle at Times Square, I overheard a woman tell a friend that the World Trade Center had fallen.

"Just a fire, lady," I thought derisively. One-hundred story buildings don't fall down from fires in the crown.

I led Joe through along the passages that led from the Shuttle stop in Grand Central to Yuki's building. By now, they weren't allowing any visitors upstairs.

Yuki came down to meet us. She walked across the elegant lobby where lunchtimes were normally treated with live piano music.

"Someone on the subway said one of towers came down..."

"It did," she interrupted, "and the other one just fell too."

The September 11 Disaster in Books

The magnitude of the September 11, 2001 disasters spawned a market full of books that explain, show and analyze.

The Streets Of New York To Pennsylvania And Washington - Never The Same After The Terrorist Attacks on 9/11

Firefighters At The Pentagon

Firefighters At The Pentagon