My personal 9-11

I slept through 9-11.

I was up at 4:00am on the morning of 9-11 to call London in preparation for a trip I was making on about 9-20. After spending an hour on the conference call, I unplugged the phone and went back to bed.

About 9:45, someone was banging on my door. It was my business partner and he said ‘I just drove past the Pentagon and saw a plane crash into the side of it’. I said ‘bullshit’. He said ‘it’s related to NY’. I said ‘what’s in NY?’ We turned on CNN just in time to watch the building collapse.

After checking in with our London office to confirm we were ok, we decided to drive over to the Pentagon. It was eeriely quiet in DC, like a Sunday. We made it from Georgetown to just over the 14th Street bridge in about 9 minutes (Sunday no traffic time). But once we entered Virginia, we spent 2 hours going about .5 miles through Pentagon City / Crystal City. It was a mess. The only way we got out was because they opened an on-ramp onto 395 at the exact second we got to it and we were the first back on the major Interstate that went past the Pentagon. Driving up the ramp we could look down on the big yellow airport foam trucks pouring foam onto the Pentagon building. Helicopters were still on the ground below picking up the wounded.

It took us another hour of backstreets and whatnot to get back to Georgetown. At about 4:00 I went out to buy a soda, turning off TV and realizing for the first time just how stressed I was. Not having minute by minute updates was, for a brief moment, somewhat of a relief.

Anyway, I went to NY later that week to be with my wife (who lived in NY at the time). This was an email we drafted to send to all the people who sent us emails ‘are you ok’.

Dear All,

By now you have all heard of the terrible tragedy that has befallen New York City and the United States. I thought I would take a moment to write to you and bring you a first person perspective on the attacks.

First things first, I am fine. I was nowhere near the attack when it took place. In fact, I was actually safely asleep in my bed when the first plane struck the World Trade Center (WTC).

My alarm clock went off with news radio informing me that a “small plane” had crashed into the WTC. I wasn’t very awake and it didn’t register with me, but a few minutes later when I heard that a second plane had hit, I jumped out of bed to turn on the television. My instinct told me something terrible had happened and this was confirmed when I saw the television footage of black smoke coming from the towers. The reporter said “play the tape back” and that is when I saw the plane crash into the tower.

I quickly got ready for work, pausing a moment to call Andrew in Washington. Unfortunately, Andrew had just returned from a long weekend in New York and had turned off his phones for the night so he could sleep late.

When I got to my office, I noticed people coming out of the building rather than going up. I decided to head up to the office to use the phones and find out more about what happened. I found ten messages from friends and colleagues around the world, and I struggled to find out more information about what was going on. As I walked into my office, my secretary hastily ran past me saying “I’m outta here.”

A colleague came rushing in to tell me that the WTC was now gone. This hit me really hard, and I felt that something so familiar just couldn’t be destroyed. Andrew and I had just visited the WTC on Sunday, and it was something I saw nearly everyday. Unfortunately, I was then hit with the news that Washington had just been attacked. I frantically called Andrew, but was unable to reach him.

When I saw the news that passenger airlines had been used in the attacks, it made me sick to think of the innocent civilians who were doing nothing more than crossing the country on an airplane ride. It was a truly beautiful day in New York, and no one started this day thinking it would end in tragedy.

I took a few moments to send “I’m OK” notes to my friends, but then I heard that yet another airplane was still in the air heading to Washington. At this point, I basically freaked out.

I called Andrew again who (finally) was awake. (His business partner saw the attack on the Pentagon and rushed to wake Andrew, who is a former defense aide on Capitol Hill. The two of them later went to the Pentagon to survey the damage shortly after the attack, but couldn’t get very close due to the security closures). He immediately demanded that I leave my building and head home. The office building I work in houses many law firms and international banking offices. Not exactly a prime target, but at this point I didn’t care.

When I got home, I watched with shock, anger and horror as the news reports showed people jumping out of the WTC to escape the flames. These were bond traders and lawyers and janitors and waiters—not exactly military targets.

Before I knew it, it was 10:00 PM and I went out for a walk. Nothing was open where I lived (just a few blocks from Times Square). I ended up going home and eating cereal, which would be the only thing I ate for the next 48 hours.

The first day was a shock about the loss of two buildings and the crash of some airplanes, but by the second day the stories of survivors and the missing started to appear. I grew sadder and sadder as I heard the stories of the loved ones looking for the husbands, wives, fathers, sons… There were firms in the building that I did business with, there was a former colleague that worked there and is now missing. There were stories of people leaping to their deaths, and firemen struggling to save lives while people were dying all around.

The next few days were very stressful, more stressful than a long day at the office or studying for a final exam. Suddenly every problem in my life became insignificant, and my heart was with the victims and the ones left behind. I found myself waking up early in the morning in a panic of helplessness and sadness, the reality of the previous evening coming back with a crushing weight. I felt myself becoming more and more of a New Yorker as the city bound together to combat this attack.

On Friday, Andrew came up from Washington. I held him so tight I never wanted to let go. It was the first time in a week that I had a smile on my face.

Andrew was also very touched by the loss of firemen and police officers. Within a few minutes of his arriving, we went to pay our respects to the fire stations that are near my house.

At the first station, we lit two candles and left some flowers for the men of Engine 54, Ladder 4. Every night I sleep, these firemen would wake me up with the sirens as they drove past my house. Tonight, it was rather silent at the station.

This station lost 15 firemen and their ladder truck, which was destroyed in the blast. Because the attack took place around 9:00 AM in the morning, the fire departments were “changing shifts.” Thus, most stations had double the number of firemen and they all overloaded the firetrucks on the way down to the WTC. A huge pile of flowers and candles covered the driveway, and pictures drawn by local children covered the walls with words like “thank you for being brave” and one having a picture showing a fireman catching the people jumping out of the building. One showed a policemen and a firemen standing tall over the city, with the caption “The Twin Towers of the City” referring to the firemen’s and policemen’s bravery and courage.

One sad note at this station was the orphaned son of a fireman. He was a little boy about five sitting on the bumper of the remaining Engine who told people “my father likes to save people.” Unfortunately, his father has not returned.

We then went to see the men of Engine Co. 23, about two blocks north of my house. This Engine was also lost, and an old rusting 1980’s firetruck was in the station to fill in the gaps. Six men from this station were lost in the tragedy, and we left more flowers and candles with the firemen (from Boston) who were manning this station.

Our next stop was the Family Service Center at the New York National Guard armory. This was horrible. All around the building were quickly made “missing” signs, with photos and information about people lost in the WTC. Family members were holding pictures and begging anyone they could find for information about their lost relatives. Some of the pictures were funny—one even showed an elderly man standing next to an elephant. I guess it was the best picture they had of him, but it also helped people remember his name. Others photos were tragic, with a picture of fathers and mothers holding their children. I also noticed one Chinese woman with her baby walking with an anguished face as she handed out fliers of her husband’s picture and it was sad to see this young child who would grow up without their father.

The pictures scared me, because they looked like everyone. There were fat and thin, pretty and ugly, black, white, Chinese, Hispanic, middle class, educated, upper class. There were janitors and lawyers. People from all over the world, as the WTC crash affected many people from many countries. One photo showed a brother and sister who were missing, another had a husband and wife. For each person missing, there are dozens of loved ones who have broken hearts, and some children that will never know their parents. I was teary eyed for hours after this as we went home for the night.

I should note that New York is a very strange place right now. It’s quiet around town, but there are massive rescue efforts underway that are visible to anyone. On one day, we saw the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship now serving as a hotel for the firemen. It sits next to the USS Intrepid, a WWII aircraft carrier (which looks small next to the hospital ship). On one day, we saw a convoy of massive digging equipment make its way through Times Square. With a police escort, nearly 15 huge semi-trucks made their way down the road with giant digging equipment on the flatbeds. The license plates were from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Andrew said they were likely from the Iron Mines of the Minnesota. Volunteers had driven them all the way from the Midwest to New York.

Volunteers are everywhere in town. You see firetrucks from Boston, police from New Hampshire, National Guard units from all over New York.

Saturday started with a visit to Engine 31, down around Times Square and across the street from St. Francis of Assissi Monestary. Father Judge was the fire department Chaplain who lived with the friars and rode with Engine 31 to the fires. His story was incredibly tragic.

One of the first firemen to die at the WTC was a young man rushing into the building. A woman who had jumped from the 100th floor landed on the firemen, and Father Judge and the Deputy Fire Chief went to his aid. Seeing that he had already died, the priest took off his helmet to administer last rites. That was when he, and the Deputy Chief were hit by fallen debris and killed.

Fireman grabbed Father Judge’s body and carried him to a nearby church. They then, very delicately, laid his body on the altar of the church and went back to deal with the wounded. After the building collapsed, the men of Engine 31 grabbed Father Judge’s body and took him back to their station, where they put him in their bunk and had the priests from across the street come over to pray. The reverence they showed to Father Judge was something I will always remember when I think about this tragedy.

I should also note that Engine 31 lost six firemen. We left flowers at this station as well, and then decided to head to the crime scene.

New York has been cut into two by the police and we were unable to get farther south than Canal Street, a street that runs E-W through city and bisects Chinatown. We ate lunch in Chinatown (which was busy, but also kind of quiet) and then walked down Canal Street East to West. We could see the smoke from this location (but you can see the smoke from nearly everywhere in the city). However, when we got to Church Street, the street that runs next to WTC Building 4 and 5, we could actually see some of the wreckage of the WTC Towers (buildings 1&2). About 50 feet of the building was sitting in middle of the street, and giant cranes were everywhere around the debris trying to rescue those who are still missing.

Tired from walking around town (and that is the easiest way to move around town right now) we headed for home to catch the latest news.

On Sunday, we visited a highly recommend bagel place on the East side, but when we came out we found yet another fire station and yet another memorial. This station lost its ladder and the battalion chief car that was stationed there. A total of nine firemen were missing from this station.

Andrew and I went to visit his friend Michael who has a new baby. The baby was out, but we ended up walking around the upper west side, visiting our final fire station of the weekend at 78th and Broadway. They lost seven men in the battle, and their fire truck was also destroyed.

Andrew pointed out something interesting that I hadn’t thought of. Fire trucks from 48th, 58th, 52nd, and 78th streets in Manhattan responded to the fire (about three miles away). All of these stations lost men and equipment. The initial response was 400 firemen, but now some 300 are missing. These were the men who were going up the stairs while civilians were fleeing downwards. Many survivors told how they applauded these young brave firemen on their way up to the flames. The scope of this disaster is massive, and the debris covered many blocks killing many men and women.

So here it is Sunday night and I’ve been trying to “go on” with life. The best way to fight terrorism is to work hard and get on with life. Maybe this letter is part of that process.

I want you all to know that I appreciate your calls and e-mails. It’s nice to know that you care and I take comfort in knowing you are concerned. I hope you are all remembering the missing in your thoughts and prayers.


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