From September 11, 2001
Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. … The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change. …
I added this quote on September 29, because I’ve been noticing how people talk about the attacks on September 11 with this confused, inadequate intensity that may be the closest we can come to comprehension. I’m scared that in the collective imagination, these events will become another big event, like a movie opening, or an election. That I don’t know how to think of something so enormous any other way, and that none of us does. We diminish things with the glamor of drama.
I did hear a huge boom around nine in the morning, but I didn’t think much about it. Usually what sounds like an explosion is a big truck passing on Henry Street or Atlantic Avenue. Then my Mom called to check if I was okay and I turned on the TV and saw that it hadn’t been a truck I’d heard.
I called my brother Barney who lives down near the South Street Seaport, on the other side of the financial district from the towers. He was home, and okay. While we were on the phone the second plane hit the second building. (At least, I thought we were. He says he was outside watching when that happened, so maybe it was a replay. Memory is funny.)
There was a plume of dark smoke in the sky behind the brownstones across my street. Big as it was, it was a narrow band compared to what happened after the towers fell.
My camera happened to have a new roll of film, so I put on a hat and went up the hill to the Promenade, which sits on the East River below the Brooklyn Bridge and overlooks downtown. It was packed with people. Staring, pointing, gesticulating. Strangers recounting what they’d just seen to each other.
Both towers had thick rolls of charcoal-colored smoke streaming out, straight up and then to the left, the south, over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The image was horrifiying already: enormous pieces of the tower walls were missing or blackened, in jagged scars that (for whatever this shows about how things work here in the U.S.) made me think of the covers of sci fi books, the fallen city underwater in “Waterworld,” the brutal, jarring feeling you get when you see the Statue at the end of the original “Planet of the Apes.” That feeling that something you know and count on is over.
People were quiet. But not reverently silent like they were in the streets the day after Princess Di was killed (I was in Ashland, Or.). It was silent like at the street corner scene of a terrible accident. Most people were staring in disbelief and fascination. Many were talking. Some just clamped their hands over their mouths or foreheads. One woman in her 40s was quietly crying in a group of 3-4 other people. Why do people naturally bring their hands to their faces in shock? Is it an atavistic shielding instinct? Many also had their palms to their cheeks, like Jack Benny.
At this point the dark smoke was confined to the air immediately around the towers. I took pictures of the people also, and of other people taking pictures. People pointing. Hundreds of people, some dressed in suits, some for jogging, some in workmen’s clothes. Parents and nannies with strollers. All looking in the same direction together. A few moving into or out of the crowd, talking hurriedly with each other.
I was facing away from Manhattan and a woman screamed “Oh my God!!” in a high, bizarre tone and I looked back. The left tower, with the bigger gashes in it, was tilting forward at the top, carrying smoke and its visible beads of flame with it, bowing east and falling forward. And it did move like it was in slow motion, which I guess is because it was so big and so far away.
People were screaming—though it was really more calling out. More “Oh my Gods!” and “Oh shit!” and “Jesus!” And a couple of stunned people saying simply. “It fell over!” Some were saying it into cell phones, which were still working at that point, “One of the towers fell down!” “The south tower is gone!”
It was surreal and impossible to believe. Now a lot of people began weeping. Several different women who looked like they’d been out running before heading in to work at law or finance-type jobs. Carrot hair, tank-top, sleek walkman, and a stricken look you don’t ever really see. Holding their housekeys in one hand and trying to clutch both eyes with the other, crying. A guy in a suit was wiping his hand back and forth across his forehead repeating “This isn’t real. …” A couple of people just turned and ran away.
One of the most jarring things was the sky south of the Battery, out over Ellis Island and New Jersey, where anyone near Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan can always see planes circling Newark Airport. You don’t really think about them, but they’re always there. Today they weren’t. No planes in the sky at all.
The smoke started to appear. A light cement-colored cloud now, growing and unfurling upward from spots on the skyline blocks away from the towers. Too far north. Tough to imagine that the smoke shooting up somewhere around Canal Street was from the Word Trade Center. It was like watching weather move in fast-motion. Patterns that have no relation to the usual scale of things. The building fell and the smoke began. And we heard the boom of the building hitting the street. And dozens of birds in the trees near the Promenade suddenly burst out over our heads and flew toward the river and turned south.
I started to go forward to the rail, to take more pictures. I was cautious and polite at first. I moved through the crowd the way you do at a big spectator event or a long line for something—you don’t want to bother anyone or push them away. But it occurred to me I could have muscled and shoved as much as I wanted. There was no jockeying for position. Once the first tower fell, it stopped being a spectacle. Everyone was just stunned. I could have broken every convention of crowd behavior. It probably wouldn’t have mattered. A business-looking guy in his 20s was striding along, talking in a loud angry Italian-American accent: “Get your uniforms on, boys! Somebody’s gonna pay for this. Just show me who I gotta shoot!” Nobody tried to egg him on or quiet him down.
One woman at the rail told her family “We should get out of here.” All the smoke was spilling out between the buildings in clouds 20, 30 stories high, overwhelming the Seaport and FDR Drive, spreading over the water. It was less than ten minutes after the collapse and lower Manhattan was almost gone in smoke.
The smoke was moving toward us. Slowly more and more people started leaving the Promenade—not everybody though. It was just smoke. I left too eventually, and while I walked east I saw dozens of people still coming to look, some rushing to see, some walking. Pockets of people everywhere, stopped. The same words everywhere, “One of the towers fell down.” “The radio says a building collapsed.” Strangers grabbing each other to ask.I walked toward home and when I looked back two blocks toward the Promenade, the view west was completely blotted out by the smoke and dust. No Jersey, no Statue, no river even. You’ve all seen the pictures of Manhattan with the plume of smoke spilling back out over the harbor. It took me two days to realize that the swath of smoke reaching along the horizon like that reminded me of the pictures of the fires in the Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of paper were wheeling through the smoke, flashing in the sunlight like glitter.
The air in Brooklyn Heights began to have a thin haze in it and a smoky smell set in which lasted until about nine the next morning in Brooklyn, and is still everywhere in lower Manhattan.
Back home I was on the phone with Barney again as the second tower fell. The newscasters narrating as we watched didn’t even know what to say. “Look at your screens,” the woman on CBS was saying. “If you look at your screens right now, you can see the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsing.”
It was around 10:30 then, I think (there are chronologies published everywhere by now, of course). And the game of “Hide the President” had started. First he’s in Florida, reading a stilted, prepared statement that was not reassuring at all. I think that was the one where he called the terrorists “the folks who did this.” Then he’s flying to “an undisclosed location.” Then he’s in Louisiana reading from his cards again. Then he disappeared for another 4-5 hours.
Meantime, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rushes down to ground zero, is nearly killed in the first collapse, is trapped for several minutes next door to the fallen south tower, and still manages, upon his escape from danger, to address the City regularly for the next several hours. In each appearance, Giuliani is forthright, firm, reassuring and more deeply human than he has been at any other time in his public life—in statements which all appeared unprepared and from the heart. How sad and compelling that the president embraced by the religious right and the military can only trudge through prepared prose, while the prosecutor known best for his unapologetic insensitivity can reassure the entire City with plainspoken feelings and straight talk. The next day, Senators Clinton and Schumer spoke with the same sober, dignified eloquence. Hillary had clearly listened to her husband’s oratory all those years. But it’s the mayor who has moved me the most. More than ever, I believe leadership is about command, humanity and empathy. How we long for it and need it.
UPDATE (15 years later): Politico has posted this oral history from the people who were there with President Bush, in Florida and in the air later, debating whether to land and speak to the nation or stay safe in the air longer. I don’t know if I believe every word of it, but it is fascinating and informative either way.