Observations and Memories from 9-11-11 at the World Trade Center
I’m taking a break from “Circling” to revisit the first days and months after 9-11. It was life-changing. I was part of a large corporate training team working at the Port Authority in the summer of 2001. I would have been there on 9/11, but I was one of the few who knew the “old system” of SAP and was reassigned for two weeks to Dow in Newark, NY.
Then I was asked to return to Port Authority in October, and I witnessed the kingdom of God up close and personal… Here’s what I wrote at the time. We deplore the horror AND celebrate the courage of the American people.
Felicity Wright: Notes from working at Port Authority just after 9/11:
Although I had been assigned to a different project for the first two weeks of September 2001, I had spent the previous summer working at the Port Authority in the north tower of the World Trade Center (the first one hit and the last one to fall). After the bombing, I was honored to be one of three people (out of an original group of nearly forty) that were asked to help the agency regroup. Here were my observations at the time:
Week 1: October 8 – 12, 2001:
I spent last week helping people at La Guardia airport manage their way through the new computer system. All of the documentation and training materials for the system (which we had developed over the summer) had been available on the internal web site, but the servers were destroyed in the WTC bombing. So most of the airport folks had not yet gone to class on the new system, and the training materials and procedures were non-existent. Those who had gone through training had no brain cells left after 9/11 and couldn’t remember a thing of what they were supposed to do. But bills were beginning to pile up, vendors needed to be paid, and equipment (including new security scanners) needed to be purchased. So I was asked to help mentor them. Here’s what I found:
The Manhattan skyline from Queens looks very bland — like most of the people I’ve met. Even those who were nowhere close to WTC are still in shock, and the stories from the survivors are truly mind-numbing. I spent two days with one woman who had been working in the WTC when it was bombed 7 years ago. She got a promotion and was transferred several months ago to La Guardia, but she had gone back for training on the 78th floor of WTC1 (the same room where I had been teaching all summer). She made it out, along with three others from La Guardia, but two others in the class went to a different stairwell and haven’t been seen since. (Of course, this fact gave me considerable pause, since if I had been teaching in that room on 9/11 as I had been throughout the months of July and August, the odds would have been pretty good that I would not be here writing this…)
But now, a month later, “Jane” (not her real name) is still too scared to take an elevator. When we went to the main terminal for lunch, she decided not to mail a letter in the airport post office for fear the airport would be bombed and the letter wouldn’t make it to her friend.
Her husband was on the 74th floor. He and five others got out, thanks to a janitor with a small metal window squeegee and a knowledge of building construction. They were on the express elevator that runs from the 44th floor cafeteria to floors 69-74, when it suddenly plunged downward, and then, just as abruptly, stopped. (This was the same elevator bank that I used when I wasn’t training, for our offices were on the 71st floor.) Trapped, they had no idea where they were. They were able to force the doors open, but saw only a dark wall.
As smoke was seeping in through the elevator cracks, they shared handkerchiefs soaked in milk (which the janitor had just bought from the cafeteria) to breathe, while they spelled each other using the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock. They eventually broke through into a bathroom, and then had to break through ceramic bathroom tiles. Somehow, they emerged on the 50th floor, and walked single-file down the stairs leaving room for the many firemen who were running up. When they made it to the 15th floor, they felt another huge jolt and thunderous roar – the crash of the south building. They managed to make it out to the street just 4 minutes before the north tower crashed. If the elevator had stopped at the 55th or 60th floors, instead of the 50th, they would not have made it. If the janitor (a guardian angel in disguise?) had not had the squeegee, the pint of milk, the experience, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would be alive to retell their adventures of the morning. It’s a truly unbelievable story that made it into the NY Times, and is now making the route of some of the TV news shows. His wife kept shaking as she retold the story. They did not know that each other was safe until late in the afternoon, for both had managed – finally, since telephone service was mostly non-existent for the whole area for most of the day – to get through to their son, who is in college. It was in the early hours of the morning that both were finally home and reunited. (I still get teary as I relate her story.) Of course, all those firemen running UP the stairs have disappeared…
I’ve heard tales of numerous (and I mean LOTS) of Port Authority police and NY Fire Department folks who were off that day, but drove to the WTC immediately to help — and have never been heard of again. Since all were coming in from the outside, it is pretty clear that they knew what they were getting into. The survivors who were coming down the steps all say that the looks on the faces of the firemen and police going up the steps was such that they must have known that they were going to their deaths. There were also several “ordinary” office workers who called loved ones from the plaza or elsewhere to let them know that they were safe, and then decided to go back into the buildings to help rescue others… and then disappeared… (I’ve captured a few of these at the end, but there are many more.)
Many of us working on the 71st floor remember Omar, the blind man, with his wonderful dog Salty. Two colleagues in the office went back to make sure he got out. The four of them – two friends, Omar, and Salty — were among the last to make it out. Then they really started running for their lives. In describing that day, he focuses on the strange and constant crackling sounds (later understood to be the death rattles of the steel girders), the acrid smoke, and the smell of jet fuel – all of which will live with him for the rest of his life. It seems like a terrifying equivalent of how the smell of Madeleine cookies brought back memories from Proust’s early childhood that then resulted in The Remembrance of Things Past…
In any case, of the 50+ people I’ve spoken with this week, not one of them has gone back to view “ground zero” – or plans to…
They’re all heroes in my book, even the “ordinary folks” who were there, like the six RWD staffers and the 30+ Port Authority people with whom I had spent the summer. To stay calm, if only on the outside, to be humane, to make way for the injured and fearful, not to stampede each other — these are incredible stories. Of the Port Authority folks, only 74 were killed (half of them the police and firemen who knew that they were going to their deaths) out of the 2,000 or so who were in the building. Another interesting statistic that speaks volumes: less than 5,000 people were killed in the collapse of the two centers, compared with 25,000 who were safely evacuated.
Next week, I will go to a temporary office to work with the information systems folks to try to reconstruct the written procedures and training materials – a whole summer’s worth of work – that was lost. I expect that it will be a good deal more difficult than being out at La Guardia, where only a few were directly affected. I will be working with the people who were on the 70th and 71st floors, many of whom lost friends and colleagues.
I remember being in severe shock during three different times in my life – the kind of truly dysfunctional, mind-numbing, panic-attack-type-shock that makes getting out of bed an act of incredible stupidity or superhuman courage. But then it was just one person (me), and there were plenty of others around to help me stay functional. So how do people manage when EVERYONE they know is also in shock? (And this is shock, not post-traumatic stress disorder – that will come months or years from now.)
I will also be a short ferry ride away from “ground zero.” I haven’t decided yet whether I will visit or not. I will be at the same hotel in Jersey City where I spent the summer. My room looked out over the twin towers, and I always kept the curtains open at night because the lights from the city cast a gentle glow – much like a night light. The highlight of my day was the ferry ride across the Hudson. A couple of times, I chose to stay on the ferry for an additional trip, lying on the upper deck and enjoying the richness of the life around me. In addition to the incredible variety of people, there were boats of every kind – the huge Staten Island ferry, smaller ferries from WTC and Hoboken and Liberty Plaza, towering cruise ships, lanky barges, squat fireboats, coast guard and Navy ships, resolute tugboats, three-masted schooners, 20-30-foot sailboats of all varieties, an occasional cabin cruiser, and even the lonely kayaker that skirted around the Jersey piers at 6:45 – 7:00 every other morning. In the air were the helicopters, single- and twin-prop planes, the jumbo jets, a rare blimp, the massive cranes that were pummeling pylons into the river making foundations for future condos and office buildings, and even the parasailing fool who got trapped on the Statue of Liberty. And of course the birds – gulls, ducks, geese, cormorants, and even (I think) one great blue heron cruising close to the water far in the distance. The mouth of the Hudson – so rich, so varied, so ALIVE – will it ever be the same again?
Week 2: October 15 – 19, 2001:
Upon arriving at my hotel room in Jersey City, I went immediately to the window to check the New York skyline. The room faced too far north to see the remains of the World Trade Center, but I had a wonderful view of mid-Manhattan. On this night, it was an exquisite sight: layers of cloud meandered through the night sky in such a way that the emerald-green crown of the Empire State Building was hazy and luminous while the lower part was so clear that one could almost count the windows. It was intensely beautiful, I thought.
After unpacking, I went to get a soda and ice and looked out the rear hallway window to the remains of the WTC. Even three-quarters away, I was not prepared for what I saw: despite the darkness of the clear night sky, the smoke bellowing forth from the hole in the ground was plainly visible. It reminded me of large institutions with underground steam heat. But whereas, in such institutions, one can see steam rising from well-placed vents of inches, or (at most) four feet wide, here it was rising a hole that was several city blocks in diameter. It was pale enough to be identifiable as mostly steam, rather than smoke. Almost a month to the date from the bombing, and no sign that the end was near; it felt like a part of my heart had caved in, much as the ground had.
Upon returning to my room, I looked more carefully at the emerald beacon on the Empire State Building and the source of the cloud that made it shimmer so. Sadly, it was true: that opalescent haze was not cloud, but smog from ground zero. I then opened the window to bring in some fresh air for sleeping, but the faintly acrid smell made me close it immediately thereafter. It was at this point that I had no choice but to cry.
It was good to see my Port Authority friends on Monday. In particular, I was pleased to be sharing an office with Diane Amici (not her real name), a senior manager for the agency. Diane is known for her drive and for the long hours she puts in; she seems impelled by a maternal dedication to her staff. From our standpoint as the consultants, this meant that she demands high-quality documentation and training material and will tolerate nothing less.
By the evening of Wednesday, September 12, the day after the bombing, I had learned that Diane and all of the other folks in the procurement group were safe – most of them having walked down from the 70th and 71st floors. But “safe” and “okay” are not synonyms. Thus, I was relieved to see that Diane was pretty normal. Despite her years (mid-late thirties), she still had her cute way of giggling (rather like a new bride) when she was pleased with someone or something.
But the eyes were different. They didn’t twinkle anymore. I also noticed that she used rubber gloves to open mail. But mostly, she was no longer driven to the extent that she had been; the passion, the energy, the drive – they were dormant. They will come back, I thought, but probably not with the same intensity as before. And perhaps that’s good; I don’t know. But it made me think about Galen (my teenage son) and his friends, and how this has shaken them in ways they have no idea of yet. Just about to leave the nest and explore the wide wonderful world – when suddenly, that world has changed. The world is not a safe place anymore. Suddenly, people are aware of their fragility in the face of evil.
I don’t know what war itself is like, but I do feel have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars.” It is the process by which one is forced to acknowledge one’s vulnerability. For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” and “back then,” and it involves others. Now the war is here and now and within. The reality of ourselves is at war with the preconceptions about ourselves. Suddenly we are afraid, and we’re not happy with the people that we’ve become.
Certainly part of the reason that Diane has lost some of her intensity is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of the mere 90 minutes it had been. Also, the new Port Authority servers are not yet set up for remote access, so she can’t work nights and weekends on the computer, as she did before. And twice, she was an hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this meant that she had to walk 6 blocks to a subway and then a different PATH station. So she leaves home before 6:00 am and doesn’t make it into the office until 9:00 or 10:00.
…Or perhaps her emotional weariness stems from the fact that the computer system has been fussy ever since so many servers were destroyed. What once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for celebration. For example, it kept going down Monday morning, when Diane was trying to enter a requisition for anthrax test kits. (This was a requisition she wanted to enter herself, so as to hide its purchase from the rest of her staff.)
As it turned out, she was just a small step ahead of the game on the anthrax business. After secretly showing me the requisition, she left for lunch. But while she was out of the building, a man in another large bank of offices across the hall returned from lunch to find a white powder covering his desk. (Suddenly the rubber gloves that Diane used for opening mail weren’t so ludicrous…) Within seconds, all doors in the building were closed, and the HVAC system was turned off. We were quarantined to our offices, unable even to go into the hallways to the bathrooms. About 20 minutes later, an entourage of security experts arrived. Fortunately, the doors to the hallways were glass, so we could watch – in fascination and terror – as two of the men went through the laborious process of suiting up into “moon suits.” Shades of Jimmy Carter and Three-Mile Island, I thought, but this time it was only 20 feet down the hall.
The comments in our corridor spoke to the general fear of the country. Because the building was secure, it was evident that putting anthrax powder on this man’s desk was an inside job, either by a prankster or…a terrorist…here? There was unanimous agreement that, if it were a prank, then the culprit should be fined and put in jail… After the 10-minute ordeal of suiting up, they walked into the other bank of offices, and, with nothing left to gawk at, the rest of us went back to work.
Thirty minutes later, one of my colleagues came back chuckling. The “white powder” was innocent enough – it was particles of ceiling tile and dust, apparently loosened by some construction. Had this happened 6 weeks ago, the man returning from lunch would have looked up and asked a few questions, and probably figured out the cause without effectively shutting down the offices for two hours.
Toward the end of the week, Tom (catty-corner from my office) had a similar episode, but it was only a small amount of dust. However, work was disrupted for about an hour while we awaited the security experts (along with a doctor, who took nasal swab samples from Tom and tried to reassure him that, if it is anthrax – which will be confirmed in 3 days time – it is easily treatable with drugs. (Of course, I wrote this before the sudden deaths of the DC postal workers have given us a whole new respect for the power of bio-terrorism, but Tom, fortunately, was fine.)
I’ve been thinking about All Saints’ Day and the sermon that I need to give in class. In a wonderful book of daily meditations called All Saints, author Robert Ellsberg defines a saint as “someone whose life doesn’t make sense without God.” This allows him to honor the awesome humanity of true sainthood by including such godly non-Christians as Chief Seattle of the Snohimish nation, Gandhi, the ancient Hebrew prophets, and numerous others in his list. Expanding on that idea, I once described saints as those people who can transform the gospel from historical artifact to living truth. So I’ve been pondering the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11), and saints.
As Victoria Lockhart walked into our office with a stack of files, I heard her muttering “Jesus Christ” under her breath. Assuming that she was cursing, I looked up from the computer to see what was wrong. (I guessed that she had forgotten something or broken a fingernail.) Instead of a scowl, I saw a warm smile followed by a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman whom I had never before seen in my life.
We soon got talking, and she was happy to share her impressions of that day. She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit. Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees and started praying. Although no one knew exactly what had happened, everyone realized that this was much, much worse than the bombing of ’93.
Praying on her knees, she had a clear vision of God “sitting on his throne” and looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.” Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”
She was also reminded of a previous epiphany when God had promised various things that had not yet come to pass. And, instantly, Numbers 23:19 came to her mind: “God is not a human being that would lie.” Thus, in her heart, she knew that this day was not going to be her end and that she would calmly deal with whatever might befall her.
When the vision of God’s radiance faded, she stood up and went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell. Walking down, she began singing praise and worship songs, as well as reciting the 23rd psalm. Others joined in, if they knew the words, and many came up to her later, thanking her for the courage and faith that she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell. In an e-mail that she shared with me later, she wrote: “I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan; as long as I live, may trouble rise…I hasten to his throne…. This is my testimony, and I will continue to spread God’s word; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”
As others wake up shaking at their reliving of the sounds, smells, and sights of that dreadful day, Victoria says that she begins the day with “profuse tears of gratitude at God’s salvation.
Yes, I would define Victoria as “someone whose life doesn’t make sense without God.”
Week 3: October 22 – 26, 2001:
Sounds are a huge source of trauma for people. Every alarm, grinding sound, scream from the outdoors, squealing of breaks – they all bring a brief moment of terror before people settle down. Once they do, someone comes up with a joke and everyone laughs off their anxiety. (Although there are no jokes about bombs, airplanes, or anthrax, there is an overabundance of other types of humor.)
On Monday and Tuesday, the agency conducted detailed fire drills (3 separate egresses and 2 regrouping points outside of the building). This was followed, on Wednesday, with the distribution of flashlights, elaborate dust masks, and hard hats.
I’m especially enjoying the gentle, respectful way that they talk about one another regarding that horrible day. Joe and Kamar were sharing their stories about walking down from the 70th floor. Things were pretty calm until the 20th floor, since many people had been through the previous bombing and everyone trusted the structural integrity of the towers. Certainly, they were nonplussed by the burn victims coming down the stairs, along with quite a number that were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until about the 20th floor, when the smoke became increasingly intense, making it hard to both breathe and see. An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of WTC2) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other. After this, it was an almost super-human effort to maintain calm, and some began to scream. But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, many of them holding hands, some whimpering, but with little apparent complaining – just cold, stark determination.
In the middle of this horrific retelling of events, Joe blurts out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones. We had no idea of what was going on. When the second tower fell, we knew something horrible had happened, but our stairwell was still fine and our tower still stood… Actually, it’s the people like Diane that really have it hard. She was just walking in from the plaza and saw it all. She froze, absolutely froze – not knowing whether to rush up and help her people or run away as fast as she could. Fortunately, a policeman coming by ordered her to leave – and it was a good thing because this is when debris – huge debris, enough to kill you if it landed on you – started falling from the sky.”
I was moved by the fact that Joe felt sorrier for Diane than he did for himself. It was no surprise therefore that, since she was out of the office when the flashlights were distributed, he installed the batteries in her flashlight and made sure it was working properly.
Everywhere and always, when people stop in for a meeting and see someone that they haven’t seen since that day, work abruptly ends and people come out from their cubicles to check out the scene. It’s rather like the excitement of a woman coming back from being on maternity leave with her new baby in tow – except that it’s very, very quiet – a chastening calm, totally unlike the gushes over the beautiful baby – and the unspoken affection is truly palpable.
I left New York on Wednesday afternoon and spent that evening and Thursday at Wesley. On Friday, I returned to my office in Columbia, Md., for meetings and paperwork, and, quite late in the afternoon, I found myself, quite suddenly, very depressed. I realized that I had once been graced to witness the realm of God in action, however strange and strained it might have been, but that powerful vision was quickly vaporizing into a fleeting glance. For some, their self-sacrifice for the well-being of others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming…if only for a time. And I knew that I too was forever changed, for good as well as ill. The trivialities of my life gnawed at me: having spent three weeks in the company of saints, heroes, and people who were not ashamed to show that they genuinely cared for one another, ordinary mortals seemed so frivolous and self-absorbed.