At Thomas Street, about six blocks north of the World Trade Center, the nature of the crowd on the street changed. There was more urgency and less mirth, more police shouting, and amid the crowd was a guy who had been on the 81st floor on 2 World Trade Center when the plane hit. It was just after 10 a.m. Two World Trade Center had just collapsed, and 1 World Trade Center stood smoldering behind him.
At first glance he looked like a snowman except instead of snow he was covered in gray, asbestos-colored ash. He was moving along with the crowd, streaming north up Broadway. His head and neck and shoulders and about halfway down his chest was covered in gray ash. You could make out a pair of bloodshot eyes, and he was running his hand over his head. A small plume of dust drifted off the top of his head as he walked, echoing the larger plume of smoke drifting off of 1 World Trade Center behind him.
“There were about 230 people on the 81st floor and I was one of the last ones out. We took the stairs. There was smoke, but it wasn’t fire smoke, it was drywall smoke and dust. The fire was above us.”
He was shaking. His eyes were red from dust and maybe tears. He didn’t seem like the sort of man who cried. He had fair skin and sandy hair cut in a crewcut. His pants were chinos and he had on docksiders and his shirt was a check button-down.
He was walking along with the crowd, but his body language was a little different. Everyone, even those who weren’t looking back, had about them a certain nervous desire to look behind them, to see, to communicate to their neighbor, but this guy had no interest in anything except getting away from where he had just been. It radiated from every muscle in his body. To get away.
“I was almost out. I got down to the lobby, right near the Borders bookstore. And then there was this explosion. I don’t know, I just got thrown to the ground and all this stuff fell on top of me.”
By now he had dusted his head off, and you could see his skin. It was pale and ashen, one of his eyes was very red. At first I thought maybe it was the dust and perhaps tears that had made his eyes bloodshot, but one eyes was badly inflamed.
He was joined by another man, blue oxford shirt and tie, mid-40s, lawyerly, who worked in the building across the street.
“I watched the whole thing. I saw the second plane hit, the explosion. No one told us to evacuate, and then the building just collapsed and I thought I better get out of here because my building could go too.”
On Franklin Street the police were screaming: “There’s a package! There’s a package! Keep moving!”
They were herding everyone to the left, toward West Broadway. “Trust me! Let’s go! People ,let’s go, there’s an unidentified package across the street!”
The view on West Broadway and Franklin was very good. One Tower, gray sky billowing, the sky darkening.
“I don’t know what happened. I just hit the ground, don’t know if something hit me or …”
“It was the force of the building collapsing,” said the lawyer.
“I got up and just started walking,” said the ashen guy.
There was a huge rumbling sound accompanied by the sound of people shrieking. Everyone who wasn’t already looking turned to see the remaining building start to crumble in on itself, a huge ball of smoke rising out from beneath it, a mushroom cloud in reverse. The whole street paused, froze, screamed, some people broke into tears, except for the ashen guy, who just kept walking.
Tom Beller is a novelist and the editor of mrbellersneighborhood.com.