Some longtime readers may recall that this story was posted annually on this day for the first few years of JMG.
Manhattan, September 11th, 2001
That day, I got to my office on 42nd Street at about 8:55am, a bit later than usual because that morning I’d voted for the first time as a New Yorker, pulling the level for Mark Green in the mayoral primary. About ten minutes after sitting down at my desk, I got a call from Thomas in Orlando. “Honey, you should look out your window because a plane just hit the World Trade Center!”
I have a fabulous view of the Chrysler Building from my office, but to see the World Trade Center I had to go downstairs and walk over to Fifth Avenue. There was already a crowd on every corner, shielding their eyes against the morning sun. All we could see was a plume of smoke. Just as I got back into my office, the word spread that a second plane had struck.
A few minutes later someone reported that the subways had stopped running and it only took about another 15 minutes before office decorum began to dissolve. Davita, our normally stoic sales manager, began sobbing, worrying about getting home to her daughter in Brooklyn.
Some of our staffers nervously took post at our windows overlooking Grand Central Terminal, watching the sky over the Chrysler Building one block away. We all tried calling our families but got nothing but busy signals.
Our CEO called us into the conference room at 10am and announced, “It appears that the United States is under attack. I’m suggesting that we all try to make our way to our homes at once. Please call the office tomorrow before you come in. To, um, see what our situation is.” His voice was overloud, his nerves overcoming his normally lilting Liverpool accent.
A moment later someone with a radio announced, “One of the towers just collapsed.” That sent the office scrambling for the door. We took the stairs from the 16th floor, just in case.
A few minutes later I was on the street. I headed towards my apartment on 22nd Street in Chelsea and had just turned south onto Sixth Avenue when the second tower collapsed. I watched the top half of the building slide from view. Everybody stopped walking and stood in silent horror. From our distance there was no noise.
As I continued walking I began to pass people in varying states of distress. Lines began to form in front of payphones as cellphones were now useless. Taking a cue from Hurricane Andrew, I decided to stop at an ATM and get all the cash I could, remembering that it was weeks before the machines were restocked in South Florida.
Lots of people had the same idea, there were long lines at every ATM that I passed. I was almost home before I finally found a deli with an unnoticed ATM in the back.
I pulled $300 from the ATM and headed up front with my cash, where I heard a couple of guys telling the clerk that they were going to head downtown and offer their help to the firemen. That hadn’t occurred to me and it seemed like a good idea just then.
Then a woman rushed in looking for bottled water, saying that she’d heard that the water supply was being turned off because it had been poisoned. That seemed quite possible, in the context of the day, so I followed her to the back of the store and picked up four gallons of water.
I added a disposable camera to my purchase and struggled out. Once home, I changed into my heaviest jeans and my work boots. Our cable was out, the radio stations were out, so without much information I headed downtown.
There were crowds of people on most corners, staring southward. Anybody with a transistor radio drew an immediate crowd. The only stations on the air were those with towers in New Jersey.
I got as far as Canal Street when I first encountered a police road block. They seemed to be stopping vehicles only, but when I tried to walk past the cops, they turned me back, saying, “Residents only.” ABOVE: The Chinatown boundary blockade.ABOVE: From a few blocks east.ABOVE: I veered east on Canal and a few blocks away I found many thousands of people walking home to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge.ABOVE: People were in a trance. There was little talking, just an occasional glance back at the smoke plume.ABOVE: I walked out onto the upper part of the bridge and took this picture.ABOVE: When I headed back south, along the edges of the financial district, I found many people wearing face masks. I still have no idea where these thousands of masks came from, but when I came across one lying on the ground, I put it on.ABOVE: The first physical evidence of the attack that I found was this heavy dusting.ABOVE: This abandoned fruit stand struck me as a sign of the terror that must have reigned just a couple of hours earlier because the owner even left his cash box behind. It was lying open with money visible.ABOVE: This cop wouldn’t let me go past his corner, but he did tell me that he heard that volunteers were being advised at the Ferry Building. He wasn’t very convincing, I think he just wanted me to go away.
A few feet away, a female cop started screaming at some people who’d arrived with cameras.
She shouted, “You’re horrible ghouls! This is a terrible disaster and you fucking want souvenirs!” I shoved my camera deeper into my pocket.
One of the guys shouted back at her, “This is history, lady! Terrible, terrible history! People need to know what we are seeing!”ABOVE: This is John Street, looking west. Those spots on the picture are tiny pieces of paper, raining down from some damaged skyscraper.ABOVE: Just around the corner, I was about 100 feet up the block when a gust of wind brought thick smoke down on top of me just as I was taking this picture. The darkness of the smoke prevented the camera from showing that this shoe was just one of dozens lying in the street. People had run right out of their shoes in the panic. I was very glad to have my face mask right then. ABOVE: Taking this photo of the Stock Exchange almost got me sent to Leavenworth. As I learned a moment later, taking pictures of financial institutions during national emergencies can be considered an act of treason because you might be providing proof to the enemy of what they did or did not accomplish. While the news reporter standing next to me vehemently argued his case, I slipped away.
From here, I walked south to the Ferry Building, where as I’d suspected, there was no gathering of volunteers, just some dazed looking ferry employees and some passengers hoping for service to Staten Island. This is when I decided to give up on volunteering that day, there was just nobody around to report to.
Nobody seemed in charge of anything, except the lone cops in charge of guarding their portion of the disaster’s perimeter.
The route to the west side of Manhattan was blocked from the Ferry Building, so I doubled back and circled the entire financial district, counter-clockwise, until I got to Battery Park City, intending to walk home up the West Side Highway.
I joined a ragtag group of office workers, perhaps a dozen or so, who’d just braved coming out of their buildings, and we walked on the sidewalk along the Hudson. We’d just about gotten to Tribeca when a police SWAT team of sorts appeared before us.
One of them barked at us through his megaphone, which was a bit funny because he was only about ten feet away.
“You may not proceed in this direction. You may not return the way you came. You must all now join a mandatory evacuation of this area.”
OK, fine. But if we can’t go forward and we can’t go back, what do we do?
“This tugboat is waiting to deliver you safely to Jersey City.”
TUGBOAT? And indeed, moored there was a tugboat, the kind that steer cruise ships into the harbor. The cops made us get on the tugboat. We protested, of course.
“This is for your own safety. We cannot allow you people to be wandering around this area. Once safely on the Jersey City side, you can re-enter Manhattan via the PATH train to the 33rd Street Station.”
The tugboat crew had to lift us down onto the boat as there was no real dock there. In my group of evacuees was a dog walker who had eight tiny dogs on leashes.
Once on the tugboat, it was noticed that the deck of the boat, which was an open grill of sorts, was too wide for the little dogs’ feet. We were each handed one of the dogs to hold while we crossed the Hudson. I got the pug. ABOVE: This is the view as we pushed back from the west side of Manhattan.
ABOVE: When we were about halfway across, another building collapsed. I never figured out which one it was, but you can tell it was just north of the Twin Towers.ABOVE: This young paramedic stood with his hands over his mouth, sobbing. No one spoke to him. ABOVE: On the Jersey City side, we were met by eager emergency workers who seemed genuinely disappointed that we had no injuries. A young girl gave me a wet towel to wipe my face and I was surprised to see the towel turn black after just one pass across my forehead. I walked through a big crowd of EMT’s all set up with no one to treat. They were just sitting in chairs, watching the smoke rise from downtown Manhattan.
I heard one of the tugboat people ask about the PATH train, and she was told, “Oh, no. There will be no trains to Manhattan for at least 72 hours, by order of the Port Authority. The bridges and tunnels are closed too. You folks are going to have to make do over here for a few days.”
I was furious. The cops on the Manhattan side had lied to us to get us onto the tugboat. I argued with a couple of the cops, telling them with great indignation of how we’d been deceived. One of them looked at me and said, “Buddy, if you want me to feel sorry for you, you need to turn around and look back at what you just left.”
That shut me up.
A moment later, I had another attack of anger, this time at myself. I’d forgotten to take the $300 cash out of my work pants. I was in Jersey City, by myself, and in my pockets I had a disposable camera, an expired California driver’s license and $6. I had no idea where the $6 came from. It could have been there since before I moved to NYC a few months earlier.
Trying to quell panic, I walked away from the pier towards downtown Jersey City in the direction of the PATH train station. I passed a young man sitting on a bike, studying the scene across the Hudson. Even in my very upset state of mind, I noted that he was very handsome.
“Joe! Is that you?”
I turned around. The guy on the bike was from San Francisco! He and I had fucked around once shortly after I got to SF and from then on I’d seen him out at the clubs every so often. My spirits lifted, maybe he could put me up for three days?
“Hi Ricky! What are you doing in New York?”
“Actually, I live here in Jersey City. I’m going to school here now. Been here for about a year. What a day, huh? Oh, here comes my boyfriend.”
And up walked a Port Authority cop. I couldn’t believe my luck. I quickly explained my situation to them.
The cop looked me up and down, then said, “Well, you can understand why they lied. You must have been in a dangerous area. And we’ve been told there will be no trains, tunnels or bridges open for at least 72 hours. But….”
“There is going to be one more inbound train to Manhattan in about 20 minutes. The train’s gonna be all fire-rescue and search units from Jersey. You could probably walk right onto that train and no one would stop you. You could pass for fire-rescue. Just don’t talk to anybody. They’re all from different units so they don’t know each other anyway.”
A few minutes later, Ricky’s boyfriend, the Port Authority cop, walked me past the other cops and through the yellow tape blocking the PATH station entrance. We shook hands at the top of the escalator and I headed down.
At the bottom of the escalator, I nearly gave myself away by instinctively heading for the fare machine, my $6 in my hand. Then I saw a fireman jump the turnstile and I whirled around and did the same.
The train left almost the moment I got on. I made it by 20 seconds, tops. Nobody spoke on the ride over. Not one word. I sat at the far end of the car and tried not to meet anybody’s eyes, even though it was too late to throw me off.ABOVE: When we reached the 33rd Street station in Manhattan, I walked upstairs to find the streets completely deserted of cars and buses. I have no idea where all those vehicles went, but this picture of Seventh Avenue, looking north, is the proof. That’s the west entrance of Macy’s on the right.
Then I walked home for the second time that day.
NOTE: All of the photos in this post are scans of the physical photos I took that day with that disposable camera, so I’m afraid they don’t enlarge as well as digital photos.
UPDATE: Smithsonian Magazine last year published an accounting of the above-mentioned boat lift. I’d had no idea that it was so huge. Spike Lee also devoted a portion of his 2021 HBO 9/11 documentary series to the boat lift.
A makeshift armada of about 150 commercial vessels of various types—tugboats, ferries, charter boats—transported an estimated 500,000 people out of the disaster zone of lower Manhattan to safety in New Jersey and Brooklyn. https://t.co/ZWsddZ6trT
— Smithsonian Magazine (@SmithsonianMag) September 9, 2021