Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Twenty Years Later, I Can Still Hear It

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

I can still remember it.

Suddenly, a shudder, and a muffled explosion jolted our office on the 25th floor.

Twenty years ago this morning.

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.  I can still hear it.  In a city full of noise and distraction, this was utterly unique.

Our office's lights went out.  Down the hall, cables clanged in the elevator shafts, like somebody was trying to ring old church bells in a steeple.  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, it was probably stupid Con-Ed’s fault, New York’s problem-prone power provider; one of their steam pipes probably blew.

And being New York City, where one worries little about what you can’t see, and even less about why it might be important, we went back to work. As I’ve said before, New York life is lived in inches. Your power's coming back on? Then get a move on!

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.

Located four blocks south of the World Trade Center (WTC), our office building's north face gazed up West Street, straight towards the Twin Towers.

Sure enough, from the law firm's office, 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.

They were the first of what we'd later learn would be a massive turnout of first responders to the first terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Lunch Brake

With a brownout imposed by Con-Ed across the Financial District taking away our computers, my co-workers and I decided to take an early lunch.  Maybe full power would be back in an hour or so.  Since it was a bitter, snowy day, they ordered lunch from a greasy diner down the block and had it delivered, but I wanted to see what was going on at the WTC.  I strolled up to the two-story Burger King on Liberty Street, across from the WTC, which is still in business.  Eerily enough, this same Burger King where I had lunch twenty years ago today would narrowly miss being destroyed on 9/11.  The police turned its ashen dining rooms into their temporary command post on that fateful day.

Liberty Street's Burger King after 9/11
Although the streets outside were choked with emergency vehicles by the time I arrived for lunch, everything seemed normal inside the Burger King, until after I started to eat.  I looked around the dining room, 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's bathroom?

Turns out, 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.

Something really bad was taking place right across the street!

After lunch, and wishing the Damsels in Distress success in finding a way back to their homes in New Jersey, I still had some time before trying back at the office to see if our computers were working again.  I walked down to the Bankers Trust tower, a black steel skyscraper that, having been rechristened the Deutsche Bank building by 9/11, was irreparably damaged during the second attack on the WTC.

On this February afternoon, throngs of people had gathered on an outdoor mezzanine along that charmless bank headquarters, looking quietly to the Trade Center, their chilled faces marked by bewilderment and pensiveness.

I turned to follow their gaze.

Snow, Smoke, and Soot

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.

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 WTC.  I still didn't realize that both towers had become two giant smokestacks.  Later, we would learn that police helicopters plucked 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 such enormous buildings, executives, managers, secretaries, clerks, and custodians 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.

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.

Undaunted, or perhaps simply resigned to reality, she strode past me and into the throngs of people milling about emergency vehicles, on into the bizarre afternoon.

Try Again?

Part of the bomb crater in the WTC parking garage in 1993
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.

I remember our office staff laughing out loud when we heard on the radio days later that the FBI had closed the case. 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 crises in the future, we had little else to fear for the Twin Towers.

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.

(Condensed from four essays I'd previously written in memory of the six people who were killed on that tragic day.)

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