I am now a volunteer at The 9/11 Tribute Museum. It is a sister organization of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Volunteers at the 9/11 Tribute Museum are guides who give tours of the 9/11 memorial and site. We are members of the 9/11 community - family members who lost loved one, survivors. Lower Manhattan residents, and workers, rescue, and recovery workers, police and firefighters. We all tell our story -- our oral history of this day this place as part of the tour. The Tribute Museum is an amazing and powerful history of 9/11 through the eyes and words of the community. Below is my story that I hope to share with visitors.
Donna and I moved from Soho to Tribeca in 1988. The Towers of the World Trade Center were the lighthouses steering us to Tribeca. They were never an architectural marvel or calling of world business. For us the towers were place holders in our new sparse and artistic neighborhood. From our bedroom we could see the office lights of the North tower flickering though clouds. The Twin Towers marked our home and our lives. The twin towers said you are safe. You are home.
September 11, 2001 actually began on September 10, 2001. It was my birthday, as it is every year. It was also the day Donna thought it would be nice to shave about 1/4” off a granite counter top in our kitchen. Her logic, make it fit the kitchen better. She found someone to come in and grind granite. Me, I was to stay home to supervise. That was not the birthday present Donna promised. She wanted to buy me my first road bike since running was taking a toll on my knees but only after the granite haircut was complete.
Sept 10 was a hot humid New Orleans in NYC. I was not worried about being away from my business since it was a block south on Chambers Street I could pop in to make sure everyone was working. The rando with a grinder showed up. Donna was heading to work a but first, in wax pencil, she carefully traced the new silhouette of the counter and bounced.
Mr. Grinder started. Three or four hours later it was done. Leaving a thin patina of granite dust across 1,800 square feet apartment. Ever try to clean up granite dust… not easy, not water soluble, not fun. No fans or the AC to cool the apartment since they would blow the dust all over. By the time Donna got home I was only 50% done cleaning and 100% pissed. All of this for a 1/4” grrrrrrr
I took a break went with Donna to a local bike shop ordered the bike, went to dinner, and came home to clean until 11 or so. Still mumbling under my breath.
The next morning I woke up early as usual. Sept 11 was a cool, dry, cloud free day in NYC. It was no longer hot, humid, and sticky. It felt almost fall like and for me fall was the start of a New Year. I did my morning routine. Let our house keeper in to finish the granite clean up. I headed one block south to my office on Chambers Street. The office is the 5th top floor of a railroad flat layout looking North on Chambers and south to WTC. I get in about 8 to turn off the alarm, start the coffee, etc. That time alone I could do some work in peace. One employee came in at 8:30.
At 8:45 a plane's engines screamed a deafening roar overhead and rattled the building so severely I instinctively ducked my head into my keyboard. Seconds later there was what could only be described as an explosion which richochied through the open windows facing North. I ran to the windows and looked out to see nothing. It was the reverberation off buildings on the north side of Chambers Street. Turned and ran to the south facing windows and saw a ball of fire, debris falling, and smoke raising from the North Tower. That is what I saw. What my mind saw was incomprehensible. I stood frozen. I would later be told I was shouting F bombs.
At 9:03 there is an explosion from the south tower. It is though the south tower. Flames belching out the windows on the north side. Smoke raising up, debris falling, flames dancing. More F bomb shouts. I ran home got binoculars came back and watched the smoke, fire, debris falling. Not debris but jumpers from the North Tower.
At the time of the 1993 bombing of the WTC I was working from home. On that day I walked toward the WTC. Sept 11 was no different. I made sure my employee was safe and I headed south on West Broadway to WTC. Not sure why, to watch or help or just a moth to a flame. Looking past the North Tower I saw the South Tower collapse and billows of dust race toward me up West B’way. I turned and ran north as well. I got to Reade Street turned right to head home. The canyon walls of buildings on West B’way created a valley for the cloud of dust that raced by me. I abandoned heading home and turned to walk south toward the standing North Tower. At Reade Street the dust was about 2” deep four blocks south it was about a foot deep. The physic’s of destruction is a constant.
Instead of going home I headed to the office grabbed my employees and took them to my apartment. Thank god the house keeper closed the windows no dust made it inside. On went the TV and we all sat to watch. I thought I would try and head south again. As I turned on West B’way looking though the smoke and dust of the South tower. There were faces in shadowy dust like kabuki makeup walking north. Looking beyond the people I could see the North tower. It began to fall. Not really fall. As I think back it is more like a strong powerful person slowly sitting down, surrendering, sighing with no fight or will to stand any longer. In my mind I hear the North Tower say “I tried my best to help everyone.” I ran north as fast as I could back home through a foot of dust crunching under my feet. I passed a car covered in dust with the word TRIAGE etched into the dust on the windshield and an arrow point to a doorway. There was no one coming to receive TRIAGE.
As I walked along Reade Street in the dust the world was in utter and complete silence. Mere seconds ago it was filled with screaming sirens, helicopters, cars racing, and falling buildings. Nothing, blankness, empty. Looking at my feet and in the dust there were memos, invoices, manifests, lists, etc some burned some ripped all waiting for a hand to lift and read. These fragments were a work life on someones desk, locked in a file cabinet, sitting in a trash can? I bent and lifted a piece of paper. Was this in someones hand an hour earlier? How did September 11 carry them to my doorstep?
Once home my employees and the house keeper were watching TV. I sat, we talked about getting them back home. The power went off and we sat in silence. Eventually everyone left and walked out of Tribeca to Penn Station or the Brooklyn Bridge.
I knew the police weren’t letting anyone into Tribeca at Canal Street. Donna’s office was on Park Ave South and 21st Street. Subways taxi’s were not running. Cell service was a joke. I worried. About 3 or 4 pm the door opened and Donna came in. “How the hell did you get though Canal?” Donna responded “When the cop wasn’t looking I ducked under the blue saw horse barricade and ran like hell” “I guess he didn’t care.” she added.
I looked at her and on her face was a camo bandana. “Huh, since when do you wear camo? You are all about colors.” “We’re at war.” Simple and to the point. She had two American flags that she tacked to the front door. She was angry. She looked at me an asked if I remembered the Krispy Cream at WTC mall? I said “I am sure it’s gone as well.” “You're not wanting donuts, are you?” Donna looked away and said, “All those donuts became halo’s for those who died."
Power off we ate all the leftovers we had by candles. Later we took the dogs out for a walk in the dust, the dark with the entire neighborhood blacked out, dirty, and silent. All the neighbors left for parts known or unknown. As Donna and I walked each step making dust eddies she said. “You bitched about a little granite dust? Right now that and all we know doesn’t matter does it?” She was correct what matters in life become an entirely new emotional calculus.
The next day we got a room at the Tribeca Grand waiting for the power to be restored. We were still below Canal Street. Con Ed got the power up for an entire neighborhood in three days with cables running along the sidewalks.
A chainlink fence appeared overnight on the South side of Chambers Street effectively closing my business. With some snacks and coffee the NYPD protecting the Red Zone give me 30 minutes a day or two a week to get my computers, serves, and files out to take to a temporary office. At times a cop would escort me into my business to make sure it was mine and what I was taking. I used a little red wagon to move my office to Varick Street. I had employees to pay and business to find. I had to keep moving. That was my escape. It was my denial of what I saw.
Every morning on the corner of Reade and West Broadway were piles of bottled water, toiletries, clothes, tube socks, and more. There were food trucks for the recovery workers and for those still living here. Sitting at the picnic tables eating were, NYPD, FDNY, PAPD, Secret Service, FBI, recovery workers, Red Cross, and those of us still here. We all nodded to each other but mostly ate in silence. Red Cross workers were roaming to offer help which I took advantage. Seeing the jumpers made me feel like I did not deserve to live. The world was here for us.
Early in November I signed up with the Red Cross to volunteer at the site. I worked the 11pm to 6am shift at the Marriott Hotel serving food. I walked along the pile with the lights illuminating the dark rubble to the hotel hoping I could do something. I am not sure I did much. What could you do for with those who are seeing what no human should ever see. In late November the fence was moved south and my office was opened or I could get into it. It was professionally cleaned and we could work again.
Later in November restricted access to Tribeca at Canal Street was lifted. Buses began to stream in with people dislodging and walking to the new fence at Murry Street to look into 9/11. Donna is fierce, a force of nature who takes no prisoners, and does not tolerate fools gladly. She spoke her mind at will. These buses of people coming, all for good reason, were simply an insult to her, our home, and all who died. A couple of times while walking the dogs with her she began to speak at groups of people telling them to go home leave the area. I had to pull her away saying, “Donna you don’t know if any of these people lost someone here.” She looked at me in hard focused intensity, “ This is sacred hallowed ground for those who died, those who lost someone, those working, for us who lived through this. This is not a place, not now, for visits. We need space to heal.” Stepping over a bundle of electrical cables in the street she added, “One day the site will be hallowed ground to pay respect and remember but now it is simply a raw open wound for me.”
What was the marker for our home, the Twin Towers, were gone replaced by the void of loss and grief not only for us but for the world. Nothing would be the same.