Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Prelude to 9/11, Part 3

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 Two - click here

Part Three:

I was taken aback. Talking to the damsels in distress at Burger King, it hadn’t occurred to me that a massive evacuation was taking place at the World Trade Center (WTC). I guess I had just assumed that the smoke from the fire we saw back at the office had only contaminated the lower parts of the complex, like the lobbies, the mall, and the train stations. I still didn't realize that both towers had become two giant smokestacks.(FYI, police helicopters did pluck over 100 people from the tower roofs that day, including a pregnant woman who gave birth soon after being rescued.)

Evacuation can be a great equalizer. At least from skyscrapers. When you’re emptying two 110-story buildings, executives, managers, secretaries, clerks, and custodians who were interspersed across 220 floors worth of offices and one very exclusive restaurant suddenly become one human mass facing the same predicament. There isn’t one emergency stairwell for million-dollar CEOs, and another one for hourly employees. It’s sheer physical fitness, not your job title, that spells the difference between getting out with enough energy to make it home, or just getting out.

Indeed, all ages, body types, and physical conditions were represented in the grim, sooty lines of WTC tenants shuffling out of the towers. Some were walking arm-in-arm for mutual support, some were almost being carried by others.

None were talking; many were coughing.

Some women were walking barefoot, probably having taken off their high heels back on the twentieth floor landing, or maybe the 82nd. I remember seeing photos of handicapped people who were forced to leave their wheelchairs behind, relying on the graciousness of co-workers to be carried down.

Trudging down 90, 60, 30 floors in smoky dimness, with hundreds of people in front of you, and hundreds more pressing down behind you, with more being added floor by floor as you descended. Can you imagine?! The claustrophobia alone must have been oppressive, let alone the anxiety of not really knowing what was going on. What energy that must have required for everyone involved!

Whenever tragedy has stricken the Big Apple, its mayors always like to say those are times when New Yorkers shine. And sure enough, everybody had worked together to get out of the buildings alive. Nobody was complaining, nobody was bickering. Everybody was too exhausted. They also seemed to be dazed, since nothing like this had ever happened to them before.

Lines of Soot-Covered Survivors

Oddly enough, the long lines of huddled evacuees slowly marching from the towers were being herded by police officers to walk alongside the towers themselves. The cops were not allowing anybody to roam out into the broad plaza between the WTC's two signature skyscrapers. As I walked back around to the plaza's eastern side, I could see why.

Craning my neck and looking high into the snowy sky, bits of stuff were falling from the upper floors of the Twin Towers, and it wasn’t snow. It was… furniture! Later, when I got back to the office, I heard on the radio that people waiting for congestion to clear in the emergency stairwells were smashing office furniture through windows to try and let the smoke escape and allow fresh air in. So bits of furnishings and shards of glass would occasionally rain down, onto the rooftops of shorter buildings around the towers, and into the plaza below. It wasn't like leather chairs and sofas were crashing onto the plaza like bombs during the London Blitz, but enough debris was falling to make walking out from the relative shelter of the plaza’s periphery exceedingly dangerous. That’s why the police were forcing evacuees to stay in their narrow lines alongside the buildings.

Another reason also became clear: as the evacuees came towards that parking lot that was never used, more police officers were ready in a surprisingly well-organized distribution system with bottled water, blankets, and towels, handing them out to the grateful, freezing, exhausted, soot-covered office workers, one by one. For evacuees who could barely walk, more first responders draped blankets over them and helped them onto waiting stretchers. Ambulances had lined up in rows, filling the otherwise unused parking lot and turning it into a sort of triage.

I vividly remember one tall woman with what we Texans call "big hair" that was dusted with soot. She was wearing a plush, knee-length mink coat – obviously having taken the time to retrieve her valuable fur before vacating her office – and still had on her high heels. After all, even in an emergency, some New Yorkers wouldn’t dare forgo their fashion sense. She walked towards me, patting the sleeves of her thick mink, and each time she did, soot puffed out of her coat. It was obviously ruined, and by the look on her face, she knew it. Undaunted, or perhaps simply resigned to reality, she strode past me and into the throngs of people milling about the ambulances, on into the bizarre afternoon.

Sing it With Me: "We Need Dirty Laundry"

By this time, news crews were everywhere, and as evacuees from the towers came towards the parking lot triage area, some reporters would dart towards them, trying to get an interview. Some were shooed away by cops who were trying to assess the medical needs of evacuees. But not many evacuees had the interest – or the breath – to talk with the reporters anyway. They just pushed by the media folks, wanting only to go home.

Other evacuees lined themselves up at the backs of ambulances staged in the parking lot. Paramedics worked feverishly with oxygen tanks and masks, helping people wash their faces, rinse out their sooty mouths, and cleaning up after a few evacuees simply vomited what they’d inhaled back in the towers. Even as the medics were multi-tasking on multiple patients, the lines at the back doors to their ambulances continued to grow. But the evacuees were patient, for the most part; content enough to be safely out of the towers.

Patience, however, was lost on the news crews who were roving around the triage area, like vultures looking for prey. Who could get the best story? Who could find the evacuee with the most harrowing tale to tell? What better place to look for provocative exclusives than these ambulances, where weary survivors were being treated?

The only time I became disgusted at what I saw came when I watched TV news crews try to push their way into the backs of ambulances where paramedics were treating injured people on stretchers. Reporters actually pushed aside waiting patients and tried to clamor inside the ambulances, swinging light poles and microphone poles with absolutely no regard to the people or equipment that were being jabbed inside. This happened repeatedly, from ambulance to ambulance, as all of New York’s media hounds tried to scoop each other with interviews of the sick.

At first, it was disturbing, but as I witnessed it happening multiple times, it became appalling. I couldn’t believe that here we were, in the face of what was rapidly being realized as a major emergency, and sick people were being pushed aside and jostled so news reporters could try and advance their own careers. This had nothing to do with getting first-hand accounts of what went on inside the Twin Towers. Those reports could be collected after everybody was safely home and over the day’s shock. The only reason for those reporters to be as belligerent as they were in their aggressive pursuit of interviews and video of sick people in ambulances was their own lust for making a headline. I’ve never held the media in very high regard, but after that day, news reporters have ranked just above used car salesmen in my book.

Suddenly, a cop saw a particularly insensitive reporter trying to shove his way into the back of an ambulance, pushing back a cluster of evacuees waiting for help. “Hey!” she yelled, a hefty black officer, as I recall, reaching over and physically pulling the reporter by his arm out of the ambulance, his hand-held microphone dropping to the pavement. The evacuees who had been pushed aside gave the reporter looks that matched the sooty marks on their faces, otherwise too weary to express their own anger at the reporter. When the reporter started to protest, the officer simply ordered him to stay back and not get in anybody’s way.

By now, the snow had mostly stopped, and the smoke drifting from the tops of the Twin Towers was clearly visible. After soaking in a bit more of the human drama unfolding before me, and finally seeing one too many reporter push aside evacuees waiting for help at the ambulances, I decided to return to the office, having more than enough material of my own to share with my co-workers who had stayed behind.

I headed back past the Burger King, walking down Trinity Place, to the relative sanity of our busy little firm.

More to come later this week...

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