Monday, September 5, 2011

Prelude to 9/11, Part 2

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

Part One - click here

Part 2

Of all the streets in New York City famous in their own right, Trinity Place isn't one of them.

It's the humble service road for its far more stellar sibling, Broadway, one block east. Some office buildings and restaurants which feature prominent entrances on Broadway literally have their back doors on Trinity Place.

Indeed, as Trinity Place parallels the part of Broadway slicing through the world's financial capital, it provides the quiet yin to Broadway’s teeming yang. Even its traffic flows in the opposite direction: north.

Its name comes from the grand old Trinity Church, consecrated in 1846, which faces Broadway at the head of Wall Street, and whose historic graveyard – including the remains of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and steamboat inventor Robert Fulton – looks out over the suitably quiet roadway linking Battery Park to the south with the eastern side of the World Trade Center (WTC).

On this dreary February day, I walked up Trinity Place, past the solemn stone wall buttressing Trinity Church’s cemetery, and past what was then the American Stock Exchange. Usually the only people I ever saw on this walk were traders from the exchange, outside on their smoke breaks, always in shirtsleeves, no matter the weather.

Business as Usual?

Before 9/11, the WTC complex consisted of the Twin Towers, of course, but also a collection of much shorter buildings scattered around the feet of their much taller partners. They were squat, odd things clad in black metal, surrounded by a parking lot that I only ever saw used once – during a marketing promotion for new Ford Probe sportscars.

So when I turned the corner at Liberty Street, and my gaze passed over the WTC complex there in front of me, apart from all of the emergency vehicles lining the street, I couldn't see that much that didn't look normal. In New York, it's not unusual to see what civilians might consider to be an inordinate number of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances at the scene of what turns out to be a minor emergency. You can't really complain, for example, when dozens of first responders turn out for a dumpster fire in a city with so much unpredictability.

In addition, the snowy skies mostly obscured the upper reaches of the towers, and masked smoke which had begun billowing out of their tops as if they were two cigarettes (which I had always thought they looked like anyway).

Things almost looked placid enough for me to go on into the WTC's underground mall and have lunch in its food court. If I wanted to - which I rarely did. That was still back before the Port Authority started modernizing the public spaces with national retailers and better restaurants. Unless you liked tasteless hot dogs or dining in the plastic wood ambiance of vintage 1970's diner kitsch, for all of its wonder, the Twin Towers were gastronomically disappointing back then

At the very top, both literally and figuratively, sat the multi-star Windows on the World restaurant, where my office used to hold its annual Christmas dinners. And then at the bottom, and I do mean the bottom, near the entrance to the PATH station, were the dimly-lit, decidedly non-gourmet offerings for the masses.

No, as far as cheap food was concerned, the two-story Burger King at the corner on Liberty Street suited me just fine. This same Burger King would narrowly miss being destroyed on 9/11, even after the police turned it into their temporary command post on that fateful day.

Everything seemed normal at Burger King. I got my order, and walked upstairs to the main dining area. I sat looked out a window facing Liberty Plaza Park (now called Zuccotti Park), and figured that with everything appearing so routine, our concerns about the brown-out, the smoke from the WTC’s garage, and all of the emergency vehicles still parked all over the place seemed overblown.

Not Everything is Normal

Then I started looking around the dining room at my fellow diners, and at the next table, I noticed several young women huddled over hot teas and coffees. They had no coats on this frigid day, and their blouses were dingy gray. Their hair had fine soot on it, and their faces looked like they had been hastily washed, maybe in the Burger King bathroom? They were talking in earnest about the PATH commuter trains to New Jersey not running from the Trade Center's station. How were they going to get home?

I interrupted them, and asked if they were from the WTC. Yes, as a matter of fact, they had been evacuated from one of the towers, with not even enough time to go and get their coats from a nearby closet. They had broken into a sweat while trudging down what seemed like miles of emergency stairs, they had frozen when hustling across the open plaza at the base of the towers, and they were coughing from all of the soot they’d inhaled both inside and outside the buildings. To cap it all off, they’d learned that both the commuter trains and the subways with stops in the basement of the WTC were shut down. How were they supposed to get back to their homes in New Jersey, across the Hudson River?

Well! Here were three beautiful young women with a problem I could help solve. I assumed as much of a knight-in-shining-armor pose as I could muster, and I shared with them my admittedly well-honed knowledge of the other local subway stops they could try. They’d probably be able to catch the Lexington Avenue line on Broadway or the N and R from Rector Street, and go up to 42nd Street, then hike over to the Port Authority bus terminal for any number of bus lines into the Garden State.

“Oh, I’ve heard bad things about the bus terminal,” one of the young women balked, referring to perhaps the singlemost crime-ridden building on Manhattan Island (other than City Hall, but that's another story). So I remember we had a conversation about how daytime at the bus terminal is relatively safer than nighttime, and how if they stick together, they should be fine.

And with that, these damsels in distress decided to hit the restroom one more time before striking out on what must have been a long commute home.

My work being done at Burger King, I decided that before I headed back to the office, I’d just stroll around the WTC one last time to see if anything at all exciting was taking place. I bundled myself up – wondering if maybe I should make a chivalrous gesture and offer my wool coat to the damsels, but then, plenty of stores were nearby where they could buy their own coats if they really wanted to.

Chivalry only goes so far on raw February days in New York City.

Figures in Coal, Shuffling

So I stepped out into the frigid, snowy air. Rows of fire trucks and ambulances idled silently along Liberty Street and the southern edge of the WTC complex. Huddled in my overcoat for protection from the biting wind, I walked down to the Bankers Trust tower (which had become the Deutsche Bank building by 9/11, and was so severely damaged when the towers fell, it itself has now been torn down). That black, charmless skyscraper featured an odd, elevated outdoor mezzanine looking over Liberty Street to the entrance to Tower Two.

Throngs of people had gathered on the mezzanine, looking somberly to the Trade Center, their chilled faces marked by bewilderment and pensiveness.

I turned to follow their gaze.

And there I saw them.

Long, shuffling lines of gray and black, some people wearing coats, others coatless, but all covered to varying degrees in soot. Coughing, but otherwise silent, without expression or vigor.

These were the evacuees from the Twin Towers, thousands of them. About 50,000 people worked in or visited the WTC daily. Take the entire population of Biloxi, or Ames, or Sheboygan, and funnel them out of two 110-story towers, four shorter buildings, and a shopping mall, one by one. And you have the miserable, sooty lines of evacuees that February Friday.

They moved like a line of insects in a cartoon, or more morosely, like the ill-fated lines of prisoners being herded to the gas chambers. Although not deathly, the mood was somber. And quiet.

And so utterly still.

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