Thursday, September 1, 2011

Prelude to 9/11, Part 1

Today being September 1, with the tenth anniversary of 9-11 rapidly approaching, I'd like to return to 1993, and the first attack on New York's World Trade Center. I was living and working in New York City at the time, and doubt I'll ever forget that strange, confusing day.

This essay was originally posted in September, 2010:

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

I can still remember the sudden shudder and muffled explosion that rocked our office on the 25th floor.

My desk faced north, and it was as if a sonic boom had rolled our building backwards, and then forwards. Just for the briefest of moments.

Lights went out, cables clanged in the elevator shafts down the hall, computers went dead.

It all happened so fast, we didn’t have time to be scared. Our desktops clicked and beeped back to life, florescent ceiling lights flickered back on, fax machines that had been in mid-transmission began squawking error messages, and alarm bells from the elevators started ringing.

And of course, a chorus of muttered expletives erupted from co-workers who, like me, did not welcome this disconcerting setback. It was lunchtime. It was also Friday, invoice day, and billables needed to go out the door. Crashed computers and jammed fax machines were even less tolerated than on a normal day.

As we rebooted our computers and somebody reset the fax machines, we wondered aloud at what had happened. Did something blow up in our building, a 30-story pre-war tower perched along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan? Maybe there was a massive wreck at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which snaked by the entrance to our building? Nah, is was probably stupid Con-Ed’s fault (New York’s power provider); one of their steam pipes probably blew.

And being New York City, a thick grid of streets and towers piled atop Consolidated Edison’s primitive pipes and substations, our concern for what caused our momentary setback subsided quickly. After all, even a trickle of melting snow could short out a third rail on subway tracks two stories underground. With New York generally, and Manhattan particularly, one worries less about what you can’t see and even less about why it might be important. As I’ve said before, New York life is lived in inches. Your power's coming back on? Then get moving again and don't look back.

So we were only marginally curious when the office manager in the next-door law firm came over and invited us to come take a look out their north-facing windows.

“All this black smoke is coming out of the Trade Center garage,” she informed us.

Where There's Smoke...

Located four blocks south of the World Trade Center (WTC), our aging office building featured a beautifully ornate lobby and a vacancy rate past 75%. The 25th floor housed just two tenants - our freight forwarding company, with stunning views of the harbor and the Hudson River; and the law firm, which looked up West Street straight towards the Twin Towers.

Sure enough, from the law firm's office with a vista along the flanks of what was then Lower Manhattan's westernmost boulevard, looking due north as the street below us curved slightly, we saw thick, sooty smoke billowing out of the entrance to the Trade Center's parking garage. Not just puffs of gray, but heavy, charcoal-colored plumes.

And true to the New Yorkness of the moment, cars continued to plow through the smoke as it blew across West Street. Pedestrians still plied the sidewalks and crosswalks, more concerned about dodging traffic than the smoke which must have been making their eyes water. We could hear sirens, though, and within moments, a couple of police cars rolled up the street.

Actually, the sound of sirens would fill the air for the next hour or so as police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and emergency services officials converged on the World Trade Center, jamming West Street down past our building all the way to the Battery. The whap-whap clipping noise of helicopter rotors would buffet the soundwaves around Lower Manhattan until after I left for the evening.

We looked at each other and agreed this was bigger than just an exploding steam pipe. "Con-Ed has a lot of 'splaining' to do," I recall us mimicking in Ricky Ricardo spanglish.


From what I can recall, the owner of our company, who lived out on Long Island, had taken that Friday off. His son, my boss, was on a business trip to California. Our sales manager was out sick, so the rest of us – about six in all – were holding down the fort.

Not that the lack of managerial supervision meant we could simply goof off. On most days, our office ran itself quite efficiently, with all of us knowing what needed to get done and how to do it. Our firm's executives knew they didn’t need to be on-site for us to be productive. Besides, as I’ve said, Fridays were when we invoiced, and the woman who was in charge of billables had done it for so long she could do it in her sleep if she had to. The one thing we couldn’t do without was computers.

Which, to our surprise, started crashing multiple times and failing to reboot. Our screens dimmed, and software programs wouldn't open. Between the staff at the law firm next door and ourselves, we realized we were having a brown-out.

Normally, we kept a radio on in the office, but today, the news announcers proved to be little help with what was going on. This being before the days of cell phones, the Internet, and texting, we were probably a bit more self-sufficient than people are today. We didn’t wait for a play-by-play on the problems at the WTC, we just kept working as much as we could.

I remember that by the time we'd deduced we were having a brown-out, some announcement came over the radio that electricity was being reduced below the Brooklyn Bridge because of the fire at the Trade Center. But here again, that was not an irregular occurrence, either. The summer before, a transformer fire had shut down half of the financial district and forced some subway riders to walk across the bridge to pick up their trains. For all that is modern in New York City, so much remains so ancient.

My aunt, then a legal secretary for a Midtown firm, called me after a co-worker of hers heard that streets were being shut down around the WTC, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was closed except for emergency vehicles. I told her we were fine, apart from the slow computers and constant wailing of sirens from the street below. Soon, I would be going out to lunch, and I'd let her know what was happening.

My boss also called in from California, having heard of an emergency at the Twin Towers. About all I could add was that we were having a brown-out and the computers weren’t working properly. At least the invoices we’d already printed were getting out. He simply encouraged us to get done whatever we could without our usual technology, although I'm sure he could hear his father grumbling on Monday that "we never had that problem before computers!"

Since our day's workload was rapidly being curtailed through no fault of our own, most of my co-workers decided to simply have lunch, and maybe things would be back to normal in an hour. So they ordered from the diner down the block.

Being the nosy guy I am, however, and having never developed a taste for the burnt grease that diner called food, I decided to stroll up to the Twin Towers to see what was going on. Since it was a snowy, windy, bitter day, and the diner delivered, nobody else wanted to walk up there with me.

By then, the elevators were back to normal, after some people had gotten stuck when the power came back on. So I went downstairs, and across the pedestrian bridge spanning the mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. I marveled at how even though emergency equipment idled all along West Street, the wide ramps leading to the tunnels, instead of sucking in or spitting out cars and trucks like normal, were eerily quiet and empty.

And so utterly still.

The other three essays of this series will be posted next week.

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