It was an extraordinarily beautiful day.
The sky was a brilliant cerulean blue, so sharp and clear it looked more like an ad for Fuji film than a real-life sky. New Yorkers, being perhaps more removed from nature than most folks, are very quick to notice changes in the natural world, and perhaps that is why I observed that the sky was so intensely clear and blue that morning 18 years ago, on September 11, 2001.
The sky was beautiful, that is, until it became filled with smoke and a fine mist of ashes, the majority of which was building debris, but some of which were human remains. Standing that morning on the roof of the Chelsea office building where I worked, watching the towers burn and then fall just a few miles downtown, the last thing on my mind was concern that the usual city soot which routinely clogged one’s pores and dirtied one’s hair, might, that day, be the final remains of an investment banker. That troubling thought came later when I heard stories about people sweeping the debris from the balconies of their overpriced TriBeCa lofts and finding random bone fragments among the ashes and dust.
Another thing I didn’t realize at the time was that New York’s terrorism response plan included shutting down access to all other possible targets, including tunnels and bridges, effectively sealing the island of Manhattan off from the rest of the world, and thereby trapping myself and a few million others who worked in the city but lived in other parts of the metropolitan area.
That was problematic enough, but the problem was compounded by the fact that a building adjacent to the twin towers, which routed or controlled basically all of the island’s cell service, also came down. In those early days of cell phones, there were a few payphones left, but not nearly as many as there had been just a few years before. I remember long lines of anxious commuters at those payphones attempting to reach their nearest and dearest to tell them they were alive and well. I was in a couple of those lines, but didn’t reach my wife who had gone to the hospital on a completely unrelated matter.
My daughter’s school decided not to release the kids until each one was picked up by a parent or designated friend or relative, so no child would be forced to face an empty house and dead parents all on their own. As parents picked up relieved children, and the number of uncollected students grew smaller, the waiting game moved to the office. Where my 6th-grade daughter sat with the last few students who had yet to learn if they were now orphans or not.
Ultimately, our friend Nancy (as designated emergency contact) picked her up and took Joie home with her, no doubt assuring her everything was going to be alright, though she couldn’t have been entirely sure of that, as I sometimes took the PATH train which made a stop at a station underneath the towers.
Likewise, I was worried about my sister who drove into work, and stopped most mornings at a traffic signal just outside a hotel (the name of which I can’t remember) in the World Trade Center complex. I had no idea at the time if the hotel had fallen, or if my sister might have been waiting at the light at the moment it had fallen. Of course, it was a highly unlikely scenario, but if there ever was a day for highly unlikely scenarios coming to pass, that was the day.
Hours were spent roaming from one transportation hub to another as unsubstantiated rumors randomly sprang up: first that Grand Central had opened Metro-North to Westchester and then that the George Washington Bridge was open. Both turned out to be untrue. The one about the pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge being open turned out to be true, so my Brooklyn co-workers headed downtown, leaving Margarita (my one Jersey co-worker) and me sitting on the curb of a bizarrely deserted 7th Avenue. Sitting on the sidewalk outside Penn station with our feet on the pavement, a suicidal act at any other time, we spotted a possibly homeless man walking down the street pushing a mop bucket filled with ice and bottles of water which he was passing out to stranded commuters. The water was refreshing under the hot sun of that formerly beautiful day, but more importantly, the mop bucket water man was in possession of the most reliable transportation information to be found that day.
After speaking with him, Margarita and I realized our situation was hopeless, and we made our way to our boss’s penthouse in Chelsea to beg for a couple of sofas to sleep on. She reached her husband by phone shortly thereafter, but it was the next morning before my family knew if I was alive or not.
Which was maddening at the time, but not nearly so bad as it must have been for the hundreds of folks who began posting “Lost” posters on utility poles in the coming days. A sheet of printer paper bearing the photo of a posh bond trader or a sleek secretary or sometimes a busboy from “Windows on the World” would appear on utility poles and bus shelters, with a list of phone numbers to call if you had seen that person. It’s hard to imagine the desperation required to hold out the slightest hope that a loved one is wandering around in a state of trauma-induced amnesia rather than being crushed under 110 floors of rubble.
As summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, the flyers faded and deteriorated, much like the hope for miracles that had put the flyers up in the first place.
I made it home the next day, after the Lincoln Tunnel re-opened. Manhattan remained eerily quiet as the airspace overhead was still closed. Occasionally, a military plane would fly over, and the breaking of the silence was deafening. And terrifying. My wife’s aunt lost an ex-husband, a commercial ship captain based in New Orleans who happened to be in New York harbor that day and made trip after trip ferrying injured, and then stranded, people to New Jersey, before dropping dead of a heart attack after the long hours caught up to him. But the rest of my family came out alive.
And as far as I know, my daughter was the last kid to escape the principal’s office with two living parents. So all in all, I can’t complain. But I still find spectacularly beautiful days to be unsettling.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-258-4035.