A Remembrance of the Days after 9/11, Living in Downtown New York

It was all new and surprising, enveloping and overwhelming at the same time. Excerpted from "Entering Limbo," as included in my upcoming book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America.

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            Stanley calls a little after nine in the morning.

            “Turn on the TV,” he says.

            “Which channel?”

            “Any channel.  You won’t believe what you’re seeing.”

            Stanley’s sense of wonder is not mine, I have no particular expectation, other than it would be some odd tidbit of human behavior he reveled in mocking, probably to do with the Mayoral election.  Some Sharpton shenanigan.

            On TV, the World Trade Center Towers are burning.  Erupting black smoke and flame.  A mile south of where I live.

            I run to put in my contact lenses.  The next day I will find usual objects in unusual places, not remembering how they got there.  I grab binoculars, dash downstairs.  I live at the corner of Washington and Charles Streets, ten blocks south of Fourteenth Street, a mile and change north of the World Trade Center.  From there I have a straight view looking downtown, a familiar view of a street that didn’t stretch into infinity but ended in a great glass and steel frame, so familiar I barely noticed it most days.  Now the street ends in great plumes of smoke, an incomprehensible picture.

            The street is full, barely known faces that are neighbors in a New York community.  The air is full of explanation and exclamation.  I look away  a second, then back as a wave of screams and cries crashes up Washington Street, cars stop, people point, shouts, “Oh shit,” young voices, Hispanic accents, everybody, people pointing.  My mind can’t process what my eyes see.  I think it is just heavier smoke, further obscuring the south tower.  Slowly I seem to see that only one tower still stands, but I keep looking for the other, a tongue gnawing at a cavity.

            Red flames burn behind the gray/white steel girders of the remaining building, shreds of steel hanging like dead skin on the façade.  I run upstairs, seeking on the TV a better understanding of what I had ostensibly witnessed.  They play the collapse.  What was unthinkable becomes inevitable.  I run back downstairs.  There is no doubt now.  Watch as the second tower falls on itself, implodes.  The crash smothers the flames, great black and gray and brown plumes shriek out around the tower.  My mind holds them in place like after images.  We can’t see the bases, only the smoke filling the sky.

            They are gone, just gone.

            I wait a while longer, but oddly, there is now nothing to see from the street, except huge clouds that smother the skies to the south.

            I go back upstairs, watch with the rest of the world.  It is happening so close, yet in another world.  I can no longer distinguish between what I saw directly and what I saw on TV, over and over.  From where I stood, the crashes were silent, the ground steady, only the cries of people filled the air until it burst with wonder and horror.

            These buildings were gone, just gone.  How could that be?

            My wife Margot had returned to her part time work uptown that morning, after a summer off.  On the upper East Side.  I keep calling, get cut off, finally I reach her.  Come home, I say, come home now.  Just a few calls, she says.  Don’t go down the East Side, I say, it’s near the United Nations.  I don’t know where that comes from; have we all been implicitly trained for these kind of understandings?  I wait for her, watch the screen, impatient to see more, impatient for her arrival.  And the phone starts ringing.  It hasn’t stopped.

            I go downstairs to buy bottled water in the deli.  Already people are lining up to do the same.  Carry a couple of bottles up.  Hit by the odd understanding of place and situation, I rush back downstairs, buy the now three remaining water bottles, a pound of ham, eggs, milk, juice.  I don’t know what might be available, what might be cut off.  Upstairs I fill pitchers with water.

            Our son Stuart calls.  He lives uptown, West Side.  Talks of shutting all their windows, turning on the air conditioner to filter the air.  I tell him he might want to think about stocking up on some essentials, for their two year old son, just in case.  He says he doesn’t want to go outside, that the people who could do this wouldn’t stop at biological weapons.  I have memories of a news report that Cipro was good against anthrax.  We have some, to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, but where?

            Margot and I walk where we can, down West Street, looking at the smoke, ready to turn back at a moment’s notice if the wind shifts towards us.  The street is blocked off, an emergency thoroughfare.  We look where the buildings had been, trying to place their position among the ones we could see, orient ourselves to a guidepost no longer there, as if compasses no longer had a true north.

            An ambulance streams by.  I think it’s on fire, trailing smoke.  It doesn’t make sense, that it would be driving, but what does?  I see another with a similar plume, realize they are trailing the dust that has settled on them.  A train of smoking vehicles extends as far south as I could follow, as it grew dark their flashing lights, reds and blues and whites, stretched out the night.

            It is after midnight. Fifteen hours have gone by in a dull glaze of repeated visions that vexed plausibility.  Multiple angles of planes plummeting dead on, without hesitation, slicing through the walls, the ubiquitous modern vision of home video, every moment and angle relentlessly captured.  At first I thought the planes had been commandeered, rented even.  When I learn they had been hijacked with people on them, my shock increases.

            The weather is perfect.  A breezy summer day, sunny and warm, usually embraced as a blessing, respite from the cold to come, evolves into an equally lovely night, the great NYC royal blue sky tinged over the Hudson with a red sunset and pink clouds.  It is all so beautiful, in three directions

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