I doubt I will go to witness the ceremony of remembrance at the 9-11 Memorial this year, the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attack. I am never comfortable when I am at the 16-acre site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. It’s not the memories. Those come and go depending on what is going on in the world. It’s the images which lingered before me for months after that day. Now they almost never return. Unless I am at the site.
On September 11, 2001, my wife Amy and I lived in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. We had moved there from midtown just a few months earlier. Our apartment building was at the south end of the neighborhood, south and west of WTC Tower #2. I was the New York Bureau Chief and Senior Correspondent for public television’s Nightly Business Report and the newsroom/production facility/broadcast studio was just across West Street, even closer to the tower, due south of the site. Tower #2 filled the window of my bedroom, and of my office.
I was putting on my tie when I heard a noise I later described as the sound of a dump truck unloading gravel at my feet. Running to the window, I saw smoke coming from the top of Tower #1, the view partially obscured by #2, which was closer to me. I had been through the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, so I did think of that. But I thought in terms of a bomb planted inside, or an explosion on one of the equipment floors toward the top of the building. It was 8:46am.
I called Mark Landsman, our veteran assignment desk manager and reported that I was going right to the scene. And I called Howard Grossman, our senior technical staff member. Howard also lived in Battery Park, in a building at the north end. I asked him to grab a camera and meet me. Amy and I went down to the street. We would not leave each other’s sight for a full week.
On the street the talk was of an airplane hitting the north tower. Know-it-all that I can tend to be, I opined as to how ridiculous that idea was. I knew flight patterns over the Hudson River included a visual approach to LaGuardia at higher altitudes and a sightseeing route for small aircraft at lower altitudes. But the weather was clear and the idea that a two-pilot commercial jet would hit the towers was inconceivable. Perhaps a solo pilot could lose control. But it seemed to me there was much too much damage, a large gaping hole in the south side of Tower #1, for it to have been caused by a light aircraft. The idea that a jet had been intentionally steered into the tower never crossed my mind.
As we walked north along South End Avenue, toward the towers, we sensed rather than saw a shadow come up from behind, where the Statue of Liberty stood welcoming people to the United States. Then came a massive explosion right in front of us, along the south face of Tower #2. The second jet had come in from the south and slammed into the second tower. Now there was no question that we were witnessing a purposeful attack. We ducked instinctively behind parked cars as debris rained down from the building. The plane was moving away from us and went all the way through the building to the north side, where most of the heavy debris landed. We were safe where we were. People on the ground on the north side were killed by falling debris. It was 9:03am.
As unbelievable as these events were, I had no idea that they would get even worse. As the day unfolded, the images, the ones I can’t avoid seeing when I visit the site, began to build up. Through it all, I was a numb reporter doing what he was programmed to do, shooting pictures, and taking notes. We saw people streaming out of the buildings, frightened, sweaty, many covered with soot, some bleeding from cuts and more serious injuries. We saw police and firemen heading into the buildings while at the same time telling civilians to get away from the area. I first heard the sirens and then turned to see scores of emergency vehicles barreling out of the Battery Park underpass which connects the east side to the west side at the bottom of Manhattan Island. It seemed that every ambulance in New York was headed right at us.
There is one more image, still difficult to talk about. From the North Tower, we had noticed what appeared to be some unusual debris, small, dark spots falling from the upper floors. We shot pictures, and then realized what it was. People were falling from those incredible heights. They had elected to jump to certain death rather than face what must have been the hell of the heat and flame that was upon them. The inferno was the result of burning jet fuel from the fully loaded airplanes. We did not broadcast those pictures that day.
After a time, Howard suggested he walk a considerable distance to the east, away from the site, so that he could get a long shot that allowed the entire height of the towers to appear in the frame. I agreed. I already had a variety of ground shots; people pictures and even a few interviews with dazed survivors. Amy and I headed south, to the bureau office. It was about 9:30am.
We had been standing right across Liberty Street at the base of Tower #2, in front of the fire department company for the area, along the row of restaurants and fast-food joints that were frequent luncheon destinations on workdays. Less than half an hour later Tower #2 would collapse. The fire station, known as “Ten House,” Engine 10, Ladder 10, would be crushed under tons of debris. Five members of the company would die.
I updated our headquarters by phone. I was standing in front of the window, watching the south tower, now half hidden by smoke. Amy was on one side of me, Erika Miller, a Nightly Business Report reporter, on the other. Suddenly we could see that something was happening to the tower. For want of a better word, it seemed to shimmer, to go out of focus. It took several seconds before the meaning of the strange scene registered, the tower was collapsing, dissolving it seemed, coming straight down. I pushed Amy and Erika out of my office into the newsroom in the center of the bureau, away from the windows.
If the tower had fallen over to the south, it would have landed on our building at 74 Trinity Place. As we know now, each tower’s weight was carried by the steel shell, and as the structure holding the upper floors to the frame literally melted from the heat, the floors fell in one by one. Many lives were probably saved because the building collapsed inward on itself, rather than falling over onto the surrounding buildings.
The bright and sunny day turned into the pitch dark of night. Wave after wave of thick black smoke and debris roared past our building. It would seem to pause, get somewhat lighter, and then another wave would hit. The speculation is that secondary explosions accounted for that effect. I wondered if our 100-year-old office building would hold. It did, but a fine layer of debris penetrated the old window frames and settled throughout. A smell like burning rubber filled the air. That smell would linger for many months.
To my surprise our electric power and our electronic connections to the outside world continued to operate. It did begin to get stuffy and hot, probably because the filters on the intakes for the air conditioning system on the roof became clogged with debris. We could see the reporting on cable news on our newsroom monitors. NBC had a camera across the Hudson in Jersey City and another on top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, both giving a clear view of the destruction.
Slowly the realization hit me. Although I knew many people had evacuated the building, I was sure many had not gotten out in time. Certainly not the police and firemen. The idea that the tower would completely collapse was something else that had never ever crossed my mind. I concluded that I had just witnessed with my own eyes the death of hundreds if not thousands of people. My thoughts also turned to Howard and the other members of the two crews I had out on the streets recording video. Had my assignments cost them their lives? It took about 20 minutes before they were able to get dial tones on their mobile phones and call in. Both crews had ducked into buildings as the debris raced toward them down the famous canyons of Wall Street. One had even recorded what looked like a dust cloud coming down the street. All of my people were safe. A few minutes later, the north tower collapsed. It was 10:28am.
For the rest of the day, in fact, for the rest of the week, I was on autopilot, doing my job as if in a trance. The police ordered us to get out of the area. But before we abandoned ship, we transmitted our video and we lit up the studio and I sat down for two interview reports, one for our own program and another with Ray Suarez of the PBS NewsHour. I was in a jacket but not wearing a tie, sweaty and disheveled. No one complained. I still have that tape. As it happened, since the stock market never opened for business that day, our program was preempted to make way for an expanded NewsHour. My interview did appear on the NewsHour, describing with reasonable calm what I had seen and done through the day, along with the pictures shot by our dedicated and brave crews.
The rest of the week was spent improvising. But improvise we did and although we lacked access to our studio and some of us lacked access to our apartments, we filed reports for each broadcast.
We didn’t have time to be frightened on that day. The fear came one day the following week. That day the stock market reopened, and we returned to Wall Street to cover the event. It was an armed camp with national guard armor on the streets and armed soldiers at checkpoints carefully inspecting our news media credentials as we walked from the City Hall subway station, as close as we could get on public transportation, to the New York Stock Exchange. The unspoken thought on everyone’s mind was how great a target we made if anyone was planning another attack.
Over the years I have had time to reflect on the impact of that day. For more then two hundred years we in the United States had a belief in our invulnerability. There had never been a real attack on the homeland, separated as it is from threats on the other side of oceans. Now we had lost our innocence. We were suddenly living in a land of stoplight-like “threat level” indicators, loaded with security guards, and identification checks at every turn. We are fearful. And I believe that has had a major negative effect on our national psyche.
We also have lost our sense of invincibility. Having prevailed in multiple worldwide conflicts to become the world’s only superpower, we now faced wrenching structural change to our society at the hands of a radical terrorist operating out of the near primitive backwaters of humanity. And when we announced that we would avenge the killing of nearly three thousand of our fellow citizens by sending the world’s most powerful military to destroy the man behind the attack, he managed to escape.
It took ten years to kill Osama bin Laden, the terrorist a Senate Foreign Relations Committee study said was, “within our grasp” when he was holed up in the mountains at Tora Bora in Afghanistan three months after 9-11. Another ten years having gone by, the same people who sheltered bin Laden, the Taliban, have taken control of Afghanistan again. This is a disaster for Afghans there who have been helping Americans for the last two decades. Not to mention what will happen to Afghan women and any Afghan with an education. Twenty years of American effort to secure that country ended in a failure we haven’t seen since Vietnam. And our adventure in Afghanistan also led to our excursion into Iraq from which the only beneficiaries seem to be Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
Our initial reaction to the attack was bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats alike screaming for retribution. But in the aftermath as we failed to fell the foe and seemed bogged down in a country of questionable strategic interest the finger pointing began. We relied on faulty or fabricated intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq and the declaration that Iraq, Iran and North Korea form an “axis of evil” that presents an existential threat. We tortured prisoners and we used unmanned drone aircraft to execute enemies on a global scale. The good will our special nation had built up in the eyes of the world following the Second World War has been expended. We built a massive domestic police force at the control of the federal government. We can’t recognize ourselves. And we are divided to an extent we haven’t seen since the Civil War.
Our costs total several thousand more American soldiers dead. Trillions of American dollars spent. An exhausted American military unable to meet its own readiness standards. And real questions as to just how well our incredibly expensive armies would do if they were to face a real existential threat to the homeland. Did we fight a war with bid Lade,n and lose?
All those images and emotions and concerns return when I stand at the Trade Center Site. And that is why I am not eager to visit that place.
A new One World Trade Center tower stands tall near the site where the original twin towers stood. And other new buildings surround it.
I think they have done a remarkable job on the 9-11 Memorial itself. While it was considered essential to redevelop the site to demonstrate our resolve to carry on in the face of a great tragedy, planners were able to leave the actual footprints of the twin towers open.
They have been turned into recessed pools; water falls gently over the walls that encompass them. On the parapet on top of those walls are the names of the people who died. It is solemn and peaceful and very moving when you stand there. The gentle sound of the falling water obscures the sounds of the city and gives rise to thought and reflection.
Still, when standing there I need only to look up and see, just across Liberty Street, the spot where I stood just minutes before the towers fell. I am acutely aware of the fact that while I survived that day, along with my family and my colleagues, so many lost their lives. When I stand here the images come back. And I’d rather they not.