Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reflections of Strike One - New Reality

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

Part One - click here
Two - click here
Part Three - click here


Back at the office, I discovered how brown-outs got their name. The elevators worked just fine, but on our floor, the fluorescent ceiling lights were decidedly dull. Combined with the overcast skies outside, the office actually had an eerie yellowish-brownish tinge when I walked in.

By now, the computers were completely useless, with software programs refusing to open even when hard drives managed to reboot. Several of my co-workers had simply turned off their desktops and were doing the manual component of invoicing – literally, by hand.

As a freight forwarding firm, we dealt daily with steamship companies, many of whom were located in the World Trade Center (WTC), and our messenger wanted to know if there was any point in him trying to run documents over there. Which, of course, there wasn’t.

My boss called in again from California, by now having seen live footage of the scene on television. Knowing that a lot of the documentation we'd need for invoicing would still be over in the Twin Towers, and assuming no one among the thousands of soot-covered evacuees would have thought to bring our paperwork out with them, he realized we were limited in what we could get done. In addition, he expressed concern about our own welfare, knowing that although our building wasn’t affected, getting out of Lower Manhattan that day would only get more complicated as the afternoon wore on. Remember, this was before the recent fad of residential conversions in Lower Manhattan - back then, the streets still cleared out after quitting time. (As it happens, our old office building is now a condominium.)

Freaky Friday

Since the brown-out had knocked out our computers, and we didn’t know how - or how long - the elevators were still running, we decided to get what we could to the post office, and then call it a day.

Three of my co-workers lived on Staten Island, just a ferry’s ride away from the pier near our office building. A fourth co-worker who lived in New Jersey and always commuted via the PATH train underneath the WTC decided to take the ferry with them, and called her boyfriend to have him drive over and meet her at the terminal on Staten Island.

I lived between Gramercy Park and Murray Hill on the eastern side of Manhattan, and I’d walked home before. Today being Friday, however, I would be headed straight uptown to Calvary Baptist Church, where I was a member, near Central Park. I would have a quick dinner at a small diner near Calvary (they had a great pasta salad – nothing greasy!) and then MC the contemporary Christian music ministry at my church, an event held every other Friday evening.

After everyone else had gone, I stayed behind in the office for a while just listening to the radio, which by now had gone to an all-news format with constant coverage of the emergency at the WTC. Apparently, our radio station was one of the few left on the air, since the main broadcast tower atop One World Trade had been put out of commission by the explosion. We'd discover later that several television stations would be without their signal for days.

Staff at the law firm next door were getting ready to head home early, too, so before they left, I went into their office to look out at the Twin Towers again. This time, the garage entrance was clearly visible; I don’t remember seeing any smoke, and rescue workers were busy going in and out. As far as I could see, West Street remained choked with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, responders who’d come from all over the city when officials still weren’t sure what they were dealing with. Was it a disaster involving Consolidated Edison and their combustible steam pipes, as my co-workers and I imagined? Was there some sort of massive structural failure within the bowels of the WTC? Or, as some reporters were suggesting, was this some sort of terrorist act?

Terrorism Not Yet a Part of Life

Back in 1993, terrorism on United States soil remained almost unimaginable. It hadn’t happened before, at least on this scale. There was the LaGuardia Airport Christmas bombing in 1975, but even though it killed 11 people - five more than we'd learn died at the WTC - it destroyed only a baggage claim area. The Oklahoma City bombing would still be two years in the future.

Within hours of the Trade Center explosion, New York media was reporting that over 100 claims of responsibility had been phoned in from terrorist organizations just within the city. Before then, most of us had no idea so many hate groups existed in the United States, let alone the Big Apple. Since that sounded so absurd to us, it made the idea of terrorists striking the WTC that much more unlikely to us. At the time, anyway.

As I closed up the office and struck out for Uptown, mapping out in my mind the subway routes that were probably open to me, I once again crossed the pedestrian bridge spanning the gaping mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Just like it had been at lunchtime, the ramps below me were eerily empty and quiet. They should have been bumper-to-bumper with rush hour traffic. I looked to my left, and gazed at the Twin Towers soaring four blocks away, a bright blue police helicopter hovering mid-way up Tower Two. Perhaps it was scanning the buildings from the outside, or supervising the last stage of their evacuation. By now, we still didn’t know anybody had died; we assumed somebody must have been killed, but police and fire officials were still crawling around all of the buildings in the WTC, making sure everybody had gotten out.

Without any problems, I got the N and R straight up to 57th Street, at Carnegie Hall, just half a block away from Calvary Baptist. After an early dinner, I arrived at the church’s fellowship hall with plenty of time to help transform it into a coffeehouse for the evening. About a dozen volunteers and I ran the show. A college student and graphic designer set up the lights and sound system, a genuine Ford fashion model cooked delicious hors d'oeuvres, an accountant and private school teacher staffed the ticket desk, and different local Christian bands provided the music. Only because nobody else wanted to, I MC’d the evenings, and that night, I commented to the crowd of about 40 on the day’s drama downtown at the WTC.

Unbelievably to me, a couple of people still hadn’t heard about it, many others hadn’t heard how serious it was, and nobody seemed overly concerned. Even late on that Friday evening, I think most of us still assumed it was a Con Ed accident.

New Era Dawning

By the end of that weekend, however, we would learn it wasn’t Con-Ed’s fault at all. Instead, Muslim terrorists had rented a yellow Ryder truck in New Jersey, loaded it with explosives, and detonated it in the WTC’s underground parking garage. Apparently, their plan was to topple Tower One with their bomb, and that as it fell, Tower One would destroy Tower Two (assuming, of course, that Tower One didn’t fall into West Street, the old AT&T building behind it, or the open plaza to its right; or, as we all witnessed on 9/11, basically collapse in on itself).

I remember our office staff laughing out loud when we heard on the radio days later that the FBI had arrested a couple of the terrorists after they reported the Ryder truck stolen and went back to where they rented it to claim their deposit. With idiots like that trying to blow up New York landmarks, we quickly assumed that while the city might be plagued with other major disruptions like February 26’s in the future, we had little else to fear.

In fact, after the WTC was cleaned, repaired, remodeled, and reopened, I was standing in line in the lobby of Tower Two, waiting to get a photo identification badge that would give me open access to the complex, since I often ran errands for the company there. I remember chatting with a couple of other guys in line, also waiting for their badges, and we got to joking about the foiled destruction of the very building we were in.

Like typical civilians who mock government bureaucracy, we saw the I.D. procurement process as useless red tape meant to pacify building tenants who might be leery about moving back into the towers. Just another hoop to jump through, just a veneer of security to try and show that the Port Authority is serious about protecting their headquarters. After all, nobody would be insane enough to attempt the destruction of the Twin Towers ever again.

I so wish we were right.

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