September 11: New York, NY

Editor’s note: After the September 11th attacks, I sent out a request in our eNewsletter. Here’s what it said:

"I haven’t been able to get away from the news for the past week, and I’m sure most of you feel the same way. Wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you’ll probably remember the specifics for a long time. But memories deteriorate.

While I often find myself begging (almost) for more contributions, this request is of a different nature. Please take a few minutes to reflect on the past week and write down your experiences. I want to know where you were, how you reacted, what you saw, what you didn’t see.

I want to know how this has affected people. I will try to find a way to share it with everyone; or no one, if you prefer."

What I received soon thereafter surprised me. I not only received more contributions than I expected, but I found myself coming to terms with things through the reactions of those who wrote back.

I encourage you to read each and every response, for they represent a fraction of what I received. Please remember that these are uncensored responses that might offend you. Read and digest. Perhaps it will help you too.

– Michael Browne, October 2001

By Corvus Corvax

New York, NY

My wife is running a little late for work this morning. She gets her messenger bag together and heads out the door with her bike. "Ride safe," I say, and go back to reading the paper. I have a light breakfast and decide on a morning ride. I’m still feeling a little wonky from the century, so something strenuous like the Palisades doesn’t appeal. A nice, easy ride is the ticket. I’ll just head down to the World Trade Center. It’s a gorgeous, calm morning.

I bike uptown to the top of the Hudson River Path at 125th Street. Just as I cross from the street to the path, a police emergency van screams by, headed onto the Hudson Parkway. I figure it’s another accident on the Parkway, looks like a bad one. I can see the helicopters hovering further downtown. As I ride downtown I wonder why there’s no traffic to speak of on the Parkway. If there’s an accident, it should be backed up all the way to Westchester by now. Funny.

It isn’t until around 72nd Street that I hear the news. A green Parks Department pickup truck sits with its doors open and the radio playing the news. I ride by and do a double-take, turn back and get the news from bystanders that the WTC has been hit by a plane. I look up and for the first time see the plume of smoke over downtown. Oh, fuck. My wife is down there.

Irrationally, I hop on the bike and barrel downtown, trying to work out the timing in my head. Her commute takes her directly beneath the towers. It would have been close. My cell phone is out, and I can only assume the whole phone grid is down. (I am wrong about this.)

I try to stay calm, not do something stupid and get hit by a garbage truck or something. Ambulances and fire trucks are pouring down the West Side Highway, and I begin to see the refugees from the financial district walking uptown on the bike path. I have a clear view of the burning towers as I fly by Chelsea Pier.

I don’t even really know what I’m doing. I figure maybe I can get further downtown, then cut across town and down to the east end of Wall Street, where my wife’s office is. If she made it to work, she’ll be fine. I want to see her. I am also driven by a morbid fascination at the sight of the towers in flames ahead of me, growing larger in the sky with each block I ride. Nobody stops me. There are no police. Nobody tells me to turn around. The crowd thickens and my pace slows to a crawl through the mob headed uptown. Why am I headed downtown? I don’t know. Still nobody stops me. Finally, it is clear that it is suicide to continue. I am on the riverbank less than a half mile from the towers, burning serenely overhead.

So I stop. I sit on my bike, and try to reach my wife with the cell. I finally get through, but all I get is her voicemail. I leave a message. The scale of the disaster is so huge that it looks almost calm. I can clearly see the fires throughout the top floors of the North Tower. The South Tower, partially obscured behind the North, is clearly more heavily damaged. Occasional small explosions hit, tiny puffs of orange and black which must be huge given the scale. Debris swirls and corkscrews down through the air like paper. A police helicopter flies precariously close to the top of the North Tower, nearly touching the roof. F-15 fighters are buzzing downtown like something out of King Kong.

Then a huge grey ball erupts in the top third of the South Tower, and then the building disappears completely, drops from the sky. The sound of the tower as it collapses is a quiet, gentle whoosh, like snow falling from a roof. The smoke billows out barely two blocks from where I am standing. I watch, transfixed. It is horrible and almost beautiful.

But it is not beautiful, and I leave when they start to jump from the North Tower. I watch four or five of them go in quick succession, falling not at all like the debris. My stomach knots, and I return to the world and ride north, shaking. The bike path is impassable, so I hit the streets and wind through trucks and pedestrians and emergency vehicles up Greenwich Street. I hear a gasp from the crowd on the street, and then that soft sound of snow falling from the roof again. The North Tower has fallen.

I ride to 14th, then over to 10th Avenue and up the west side. Once I hit midtown, I am the only thing moving. Traffic is at a dead stop. I swerve through the useless metal. I break my neck for home. I still don’t know where my wife is.

When I get home, I find she has left me an email. She made it to work ok. She rode under the towers barely fifteen minutes before the planes hit. I am tense and distraught during the hours until she arrives home, her bike covered in ash. The smoke was so thick that she had to ride with a wet towel over her mouth. Thank God she had her bike, or she’d still be out there somewhere.

We’re ok, me and my warm, beautiful alive wife.


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