Thursday, September 8, 2011

Prelude to 9/11, Part 4

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 - click here

Part Four: Conclusion

Back at the office, I discovered how brown-outs got their name.

The elevators worked just fine, but the fluorescent ceiling lights cast a decidedly dull glow. Combined with the leaden skies outside, our office actually had an eerie yellowish-brownish tinge when I walked in.

By now, the computers were completely useless. Several of my co-workers had simply turned off their desktops and were doing invoicing with our old - yet still not obsolete - typewriters.

Since we didn't know how long our building's elevators would keep running in the brown-out, we decided to take what invoices we could complete to the post office, and then call it a day. Our boss had called again from California, and having seen coverage of the evacuation from the Twin Towers on television himself, he encouraged us to wrap things up for the day.

Three of my co-workers lived on Staten Island, just a ferry’s ride away from the pier near our office building. After hearing my story about the damsels in distress at Burger King, a fourth co-worker who lived in New Jersey - and always commuted via the PATH train underneath the World Trade Center (WTC) - decided to take the ferry too. She called her boyfriend to have him drive over from Secaucus and meet her at the terminal on Staten Island.

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 also 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; any smoke coming out was of the light, wispy variety. Rescue workers were still bustling about, while as far as I could see, West Street remained choked with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

First responders had come from all over the city even as 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 beginning to suggest, was this some sort of terrorist act?

Either way, the WTC was the most-densely populated office complex on the densely-populated island of Manhattan, so a major problem there was a major responsibility for the city's entire first responder workforce.

We saw the same thing happen on 9/11 seven years later, of course, but with unprecedentedly horrific results.

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 that scale.

There was the LaGuardia Airport Christmas bombing in 1975, which killed 11 people - five more than we'd learn died at the WTC - but only destroyed a baggage claim area. All these years later, that bombing has yet to be solved, although some experts suspect a Puerto Rican political group that had also bombed Lower Manhattan's Fraunces Tavern earlier in 1975, killing 4.

The bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would come two years after the WTC's first attack, in 1995, and feature a similar modus operandi involving a rental truck stuffed with explosive material. 168 people were killed in this rare atrocity in "middle America," and over 500 injured.

Nowadays, terrorism has become a part of many ordinary patterns of life. Air travel presents the most noticeable deference to terrorism concerns, but many public buildings also now have scanning machines, closed-circuit cameras now proliferate from downtowns to suburban malls, and our presidents now ride around in a bomb-proofed Cadillac with its own oxygen supply.

Yet even back in the relatively innocent year of 1993, within hours of the Trade Center explosion, New York media began reporting that over 100 claims of responsibility had been phoned in from terrorist organizations just within the city.

Good grief! 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.

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.

It was weird to realize that for the first time since they were built, those two towers were likely completely empty of people.

New Era Dawning

By the end of that weekend, 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. This scenario assumed, of course, that the skyscraper wouldn’t fall into the wide boulevard to its west, the old ATT building to its north, or the open plaza to its east; 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 closed the case. Apparently, a couple of the terrorists, upon learning that their plan hadn't worked, reported the Ryder truck stolen, and went back to Ryder to claim their deposit, where the FBI was waiting for them. 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 trophy property.

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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