WTC

The 11th September 2001 was a lovely morning in New York, more like summer than fall. A little after 8.30am I was in the kitchen at our midtown apartment, making coffee, while my wife, who was awake but not yet up, was in the bedroom. I heard her call my name in an urgent, imperative tone which frightened me since she was still recovering from a long and serious illness. I rushed into the bedroom to see what was wrong. She was sitting on the end of her bed in her nightdress, staring at the television. “There’s something going on at the World Trade Center,” she said.

I stood so that I could see the set. On the screen was an image of the famous twin towers in those unreal, picture-postcard colours and sharpness of detail you get on a clear day in Manhattan. A plume of black smoke was rising at an angle and with deceptive slowness from one of the silver-topped towers.

For a while that was all there was to see, just the contrast between the static, oddly peaceful image of the smoke, like watching a bonfire in someone’s garden, and the hubbub of voices on the soundtrack-anchormen, reporters, eyewitnesses phoning in, all punctuated by dead air, missed connections, people being cut off and put back on again, everyone scrambling to get the story. It was an accident. There’d been an explosion. Then someone said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, a small commuter plane, unlikely though it seemed. Seventeen minutes later, while we were still watching the trail of smoke, a fireball blossomed from the second, untouched tower in a lurid, rolling cloud. Everyone had missed the tiny object moving rapidly across the sky and vanishing on impact. Then some sharp-eyed colleagues in the TV newsroom spoke up and other, equally sharp-eyed viewers phoned in. There were reruns, freezes, zooms, highlights. The terrible truth sank in.

I’ve lived in America through enough disasters, both natural and man-made, to know how Americans react to them. Their immediate response is to get on the phone and phone everyone they know and then to go out to the supermarket and stockpile provisions. Both responses reflect peculiarly American circumstances. In a small country you might walk out of your front door to talk to the neighbours but in a huge continent the urge to communicate gets done by phone, along with the need to check up on the safety of loved ones who are often spread out over hundreds, or thousands, of miles.

As for the stockpiling, America is a country of extreme weather. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires that consume entire regions, spectacular blizzards, even earthquakes, are regular and in many cases annual events. People are used to thinking of a crisis, whatever its cause, as something that may disrupt supplies and cut off communities. Hence the rush to stock up before the shops run out.

As a European, I may understand this in the abstract but I lack the necessary instincts. It was left to my American wife to make her phone calls while dispatching me across the street to buy bottled water. By then, we had watched shock turn to horror, the unspeakable act of flying loaded civilian airliners into skyscrapers followed by the unimaginable collapse of the towers themselves. Five miles to the south there was chaos but midtown felt quieter than usual, people withdrawn into themselves, hurrying to do whatever it was they had to do.

When I returned with the water, my wife was dressed and with a shopping list in her hand and we went back out to the store, where we saw several people with trolleys piled to the brim and beyond. By comparison with them, our own modest shopping could not be said to constitute panic, my wife felt. Theirs was panic-buying: ours was a prudent precaution against panic in the future.

There were still some things she wanted that we couldn’t get, so I volunteered to walk uptown to another store. It was now almost noon, three hours since the attacks. I walked up Ninth Avenue past Lincoln Centre to the junction with Broadway, then up Broadway through the 70s. The atmosphere on the streets had changed. There were crowds of people about. Everyone seemed to be carrying a mobile phone. A lucky few were talking on their handsets but most of the phones were dead. The networks were out of action or the circuits overloaded. Neverthless, everyone carried their phones in their hands and from time to time lifted them to their ears before lowering them again, like technological talismans to ward off evil.

It took me a while to realize the bulk of the crowd was heading north as I was, that unwittingly I’d become part of a great and purposeful migration that was going on all over Manhattan as well as on all the bridges that connect the city to Long Island and the mainland. Many of the people around me had already walked miles from Wall Street and the downtown business district. The whole enormous crowd streamed north on foot like those columns of refugees faimilar from numerous films and photographs from the Second War War and the many wars thereafter. But there was something wrong with the picture. These refugees weren’t ragged or starving. They were well-fed, tanned, dressed in summer dresses and shorts and shirtsleeves, as if the war they’d been forced to flee had broken out in a luxury holiday resort.

Then there was their silence. New York is one of the noisiest cities in the world and New Yorkers are notorious for expressing their opinions at the tops of their voices on any and all occasions. But for the most part, people walked in silence or spoke softly among themselves. Even the drivers stuck in the gridlocked, northbound traffic didn’t honk their horns. The only sound was the incessant, screaming sirens on the emergency vehicles racing south, in the opposite direction. Overhead, the dazzling blue sky was unnaturally empty, wiped clean of planes like a window wiped by a window-cleaner.

Here and there, on streets corners or in pocket parks, small groups separated themselves out from the stream of pedestrians. They seemed to come together in an impromptu fashion, but rapidly organized themselves around a tangle of mobile phones, radios and other electronic paraphenalia. From these groups came the only discussions I heard, in the form of eager, excited exclamations and exchanges.

“Something like this, you gotta have organization to pull it off.”

“We’re at war, that’s what it means.”

“It’s worse than Pearl Harbor.”

“Nah. It can’t be worse than that. How many were killed at Pearl Harbor?”

There were even a few people who still hadn’t heard the news. I came across a gang of high-school kids in their sneakers and backpacks shrieking on the corner of 66th and Broadway.

“You’re kidding me? Oh my god!”

As time went on, the lines at every bank ATM I passed grew longer. As did the lines at every pay phone. And every supermarket.

In the mid-70s on Broadway there’s a sort of street market in second-hand and discount books and magazines. Peddlars, mostly black, set up folding tables on the sidewalks in a cross between a commercial enterprise and help for the homeless. I saw one young man with a half-shaved head, wearing a grubby T-shirt and baggy pants, leap up from his table, as if propelled by the force of his own emotions.

“I’m like-it’s a dream! They bombed the fucking World Trade Center-again!” he cried to the man on the next stall.

“Again!” repeated his neighbour, a portly black man in a blue check shirt.

“And again and again and again!” repeated the boy with a mixture of anger and excitement.

Some stallholders had radios on their tables. Some of the delivery drivers who double-park all down upper Broadway abandoned their runs, turned up the radios in their trucks and opened their cab doors. Around these de facto broadcasting stations knots of people gathered to listen to the news. There were rumours and counter-rumours. Where was President Bush? Were the attacks over or were there more to come?

The mood on the street began to change. It was as if people had been sleepwalking: now they woke up, noticed others around them and eagerly started to tell each other where they’d been and what they knew.

“I saw the plane. I was at 14th Street and I saw the plane come around real low.”

“I was at 49th and Broadway and I looked downtown and I could see the smoke.”

“I was on the phone in the office when it came on television and we all had to leave.”

The most frequent comment was, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like watching a movie.” Later I discovered that the same phrases, in almost identical words, were the most common reaction not only of those who saw or heard the event second-hand, via TV or radio, like myself, but also of the actual eywitnesses and the survivors. Everyone reported a different moment when his initial disbelief gave way to horrified comprehension. For the eyewitnesses, including many journalists, it was when they watched debris falling from the tops of the towers; then realized those twirling black specks were human beings who had chosen to jump to their deaths rather than stay to be burned alive. For the survivors, the moment was different. It came after they’d escaped into the open outside the World Trade Center and thought themselves safe. None of them dreamt the buildings behind them might collapse. It simply never crossed their minds, they said. Then they heard the roarof the first tower starting to come down, a noise so loud it seemed to come not from above them but out of the depths of the earth itself.

For me, the moment was when I heard about the street of shoes. There was a whole downtown street covered in shoes which were in turn covered in ash- shoes belonging to men, women and children but especially womens’ shoes with heels. People who’d had to run for their lives had literally run out of their shoes.

And for everyone, eyewitnesses, survivors, viewers and listeners alike over the next few days what made the tragedy real was the same as what made it human- the phone calls from the Towers. The voices of the dead preserved on answering machines and in the recesses of the phone company’s data banks across the city which somehow found their way on to the airwaves. Husbands and fathers and wives and mothers calling home from their offices in the twin towers in the minutes after the planes had struck and when they knew there was no way out. When they knew they were going to die. For the most part their voices- the ones that were broadcast anyway- were extraordinarily calm and direct. I don’t think it’s fanciful to feel they spoke for all of us, and what humanity turned out to have to say under those extreme circumstances-in fact, under any and all circumstances- was already known. “I love you”. “Look after the children.” “Have a good life.” “Remember me.”

I picked up the groceries for my wife and started back. This time I was walking against the flow so I could see people’s faces which were grim and pale, with strained looks and downcast eyes. Neverthless, the crowd remained quite orderly as if thousands of people had chosen to go for a hike all at the same time on a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the 80s. Outside the 72nd Street subway station two large women in starched uniforms clutching walkie-talkies in their fists were surrounded by a crush of commuters who’d already walked miles and had many more miles to go, and rivers to cross, to reach their homes in the suburbs. “There is no service from this station. No subways running” one of the women intoned over and over again, her voice tolling like a bell, while her smaller, junior colleague whispered to those nearest to her, “I hear the bridges are packed with people walking. Not supposed to, but I don’t know how they’re going to get ‘em off there.”

By the afternoon, the TV news shows were full of so-called terrorism consultants and military experts, as numerous and as dubious as the Wall Street analysts who had filled the same chairs 24 hours before. 9/11 was already passing, though of course far from over. It was not until a few days later, when the wind changed, that the smoke from “ground zero” reached midtown where we lived, filling the streets and permeating the corridors of our building with an invisible cloud that wasn’t like ordinary smoke but had an acrid, chemical odour, like burning rubber or plastic, or the way you imagine a smouldering computer box, toxic and evil-smelling.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014