Ballot Box

“As If Someone Had Blown a Hole in the Sky Itself”

My family and I live in Tribeca, six blocks due north of the World Trade Center. We’re habituated to life in Manhattan enough that when we heard an enormous bang this morning, we assumed it was nothing more than an especially noisy garbage truck. But when my wife and I left for work a few minutes later, we saw a cluster of people on our corner, pointing and staring down West Broadway. Looking up, we saw an airplane-shaped hole in one of the westernmost of the towers, flames pouring out of two sides of it. My jaw dropped; I can hardly describe the shock of that sight, as if someone had blown a hole in the sky itself, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. A man said he had seen people jumping from 80 stories up. Another man said his wife, a nurse, was on the ground floor of the building.

My wife, Deborah, and I went back home to tell our baby-sitter and turn on CNN. At that point, we assumed it was some sort of horrifying freak accident. Then, a few minutes later, an even louder boom. Our apartment was lit by the fireball, reflected in the windows across the street. I dashed back downstairs to see the second tower in flames. At that point, there wasn’t much doubt about what was happening. This was no accident. The rumors, shouted on the corner: It was the PLO, the Sudanese. I ran up the stairs and back inside our apartment, where a playmate of our 2-year-old daughter had arrived with her baby-sitter. They live only three blocks from the towers and had been evacuated north. Both baby-sitters were trying to call relatives who worked downtown.

I ran out for another look, to try to figure out if we were safer staying put or moving out. People were streaming up the two north-south avenues that flank our block; some of them covered with soot, some crying, a few screaming, but most looking simply blank, dazed, uncommunicative. I was looking up at the Twin Towers trying to figure how tall they were and whether their height extended horizontally could reach our small apartment building. As I did the math, I was also thinking: That’s ridiculous, the World Trade Towers won’t collapse.

Then another enormous explosion; one of the towers had collapsed, filling nearly the whole sky with thick gray smoke. Now there was something more like panic in the streets. Southbound West Broadway was being kept clear for emergency vehicles. Northbound Church Street was a procession of people, now running, then walking, then running again. At that point, a policewoman told me I should move north as well; we were being evacuated. By that time, my daughter’s friend’s mother had arrived as well; she had walked barefoot from her office in Midtown Manhattan.

We grabbed a few diapers and left, joining the macabre procession of refugees. Everyone behaved well despite a sense of panic that turned briefly into hysteria when we heard the second tower collapse. You couldn’t see through the smoke, and we didn’t know what had happened. From the direction, it looked like another hit–perhaps the Statue of Liberty? We broke into a run, clutching the children, then walked again. We were headed for the house of my friend David, who had called offering refuge a couple of miles to the north. It might have taken the eight of us–two moms, one dad, two baby-sitters, three toddlers–a bit less than an hour. You had to detour into the street to circumnavigate the lines of people waiting by pay phones.

Snatches of conversation in the streets: I wouldn’t want to be in Kuwait right now; five hijacked planes still in the sky. When we arrived at my friend’s apartment, it was around noon. We contemplated what to do next. The wind was blowing the smoke straight east, across the East River. But what if it shifted north? Both baby-sitters needed to get home to Queens, and word was that all tunnels and bridges were closed.

We did what I imagine everyone else did: We worried, waited, and watched TV, which at least gave some sense of control. The only official I saw who failed to create some sense of reassurance was the president. All he knew how to do was read his statement and offer a prayer. My honest, churlish reaction: I wish Bill Clinton were still the president. We all felt better when Mayor Giuliani came on. Giuliani is a man who knows how to deal with an emergency.

The afternoon passed quickly, in a kind of haze. We tried to reach relatives on the phone to let them know we were safe. I went out for cash; there was a long line, but order at the ATM. I went out for groceries. Again, long lines, but relative order prevailed. The baby-sitters decided to try to get home. At 5, we took our two children to Washington Square Park. That was in a way the strangest part of the day. Someone who didn’t know what had happened wouldn’t have gathered that anything was amiss. Children were running and shouting in the mellow afternoon sunlight of a gorgeous September day. Parents talked, smiled, laughed, as if in denial of the man-made cloud filling the southern sky. And then it hit me again: The World Trade Towers don’t exist anymore. Many of the people who worked there no longer do either. And for the rest of us, life goes on nearly as normal.

After we got back to our friend’s apartment, where I think we’ll probably have to stay at least tonight, we heard that another part of the World Trade complex had collapsed–including the Borders bookstore where our 2-year-old goes several times a week to read stories and play. Much of our neighborhood is simply gone; we have no idea when we’ll be allowed back in.

Our neighborhood without the World Trade Towers. It’s as if you woke up one day and no longer had a nose. But even stranger, you’re perfectly fine. You’re just not all there anymore.