I’ve never really written anything about my experiences in New York City on 9/11/01. I don’t have any particular reason for never writing, but this tenth anniversary does make me think that maybe some might find some of it interesting. This could be a long one.
I’d driven up to New York City the night before, Monday evening of September 10th, and stayed overnight at the Hilton hotel not too far from Rockefeller Plaza, on the Avenue of the Americas near 53rd Street. Driving in NYC was always a dicey thing for me–I’d either start driving like the rest of the aggressive maniacs around me or drive very conservatively and nervously. Regardless, I made it to the hotel just fine and parked my car in their underground garage.
I’d been sent to the city by my company as the representative to a new industry exchange group discussing internal web portals. The group of representatives from a collection of large companies was to hold its first meeting the next day at a consulting firm’s office, which was located about three miles down from the Hilton on the Avenue of the Americas near 15th Street. My plan was to leave my car in the hotel garage the next day and use the Metro to travel to and from the meeting. It would leave about a block of walking on each end, but I was hoping for a nice day to make the walk enjoyable.
Well, after a good breakfast at the hotel, I checked out, stored my bags in my car in the garage, and checked with the concierge on which Metro lines to take to my destination. I headed out of the hotel into a very nice sunny day, making my way to the subway, then arriving at the 14th Street Metro station along the Avenue of the Americas around 8:25 AM. Emerging up at street level, I walked south with a beautiful view of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and made my way to the consultant’s offices. The office was about two miles north of the WTC, so the view of the buildings on that beautiful, sunlit morning was really of the upper half of the buildings since nearer buildings obscured the lower floors.
The meeting was to start at 9:00 AM, so I made my way into the building and up to the meeting room to meet some of the attendees and grab a danish and some tea. I was shaking hands and meeting the representatives who’d arrived early when a new arrival came in and said something very odd, “You need to see this–a plane crashed into the World Trade Tower. You can see it perfectly from the street.” It was about 8:50 AM, ten minutes before the meeting was to start. In my mind, for some reason I was thinking of a private plane, something small, that might might be sticking out of the building after crashing into it. That was the picture in my mind as I joined a few others in walking down to the street level to take a look.
When I exited onto the sidewalk, the picture was far different. Looking up at the tower, I saw a huge gash, an area stretching maybe ten floors up and down and perhaps three quarters of the way across the face of the building. This area wasn’t yet very smoky, so it looked to me very much as though someone had scooped out a big handful of the building, taking everything away and leaving a jagged empty space. I was immediately struck by the question of how many people might have been in that now missing space. The whole idea of a small airplane crashing into the building was quickly driven from my mind. But, frankly, the situation was already a bit much to assess, and the group of us went back up to the meeting room for the start of the session.
A few of the remaining representatives and attendees did arrive and the host called the meeting to order. He welcomed us and we started introducing ourselves around the table. I think we started to move on to the next agenda item when someone came in and called the host out of the meeting as some discussion continued. Very shortly, a our host returned and interrupted the conversation, telling us that we’d need to stop the meeting. Clearly, he was concerned, shaken, but intent on providing information and help–information and help we didn’t yet know we needed. He told us that a second plane had crashed into the other tower, and the news reports were indicating that the crashes were deliberate. These factors and the expected set of complications to come made it clear we all had more important issues to attend to. His firm had a number personnel who were working an engagement with a client in one of the towers, so his team in the office where we were had started to track down the locations of all their employees.
They’d pulled two large white boards on wheels out into the center of their open cubicle area. The first was being used to tally the locations and status of their employees. Various folks in the office were actively and as rapidly as possible working through the list of their employees to make contact and ensure their status, and updating the board with the good news as each was contacted and confirmed to be in fine shape. The second board was labeled “Got a Room – Need a Room”–the employees in that office were immediately opening their nearby homes to each other in case anyone was unable to make it home that night. Our host told us to add our names in the “Need a Room” column for time being, and they’d try to ensure we were provided for until we visitors could be sure of where we were headed that day. I was really struck by the intense local reality of this firm having employees that could be in those buildings, by their focused tactical response to the situation as they tracked down every one of their employees, and by the immense gift of hospitality they were offering by their readiness to open their homes to each of us visitors. (And they were successful in their task of accounting for all of their staff. All were found to be safe, although a number were clearly stranded by the transportation challenges that had already started and would continue for days to come.)
We all started to move. I added my name to the “Need a Room” column on the white board and went to one of the visitor kiosks they pointed out to us. I connected my laptop to the internet jack there and started making a few phone calls. I called my wife, Lisa, to let her know I was fine and talk about what had happened. She was intensely relieved to hear from me, of course, and had plenty to tell me–about the Pentagon crash, about planes being tracked everywhere, about precautions and measures being taken, and about the fear everywhere. I told her that my plan was to stay at that office until I had firm plans for what to do. My car was still at the hotel, so I was definitely going to try to get in touch with them. I also wanted to get in touch with my office to ensure they knew I was okay. I wanted to make sure our church community also knew that I was in NYC an was okay. And I needed to get an idea of what to do. I sent a few emails with status to work colleagues and to folks from our church, and made a call to an administrator at the office to pass word back to other there.
I think it was very shortly after that when I heard cries and sobbing from the common area of the offices where we were. They’d pulled a large screen TV out into the area and folks were watching the coverage intently. The people there had just watched the South Tower crumble into a huge cloud of dust (which happened just before 10 AM). Several people were crying or sobbing at the sight of that destruction. I’d not seen the collapse directly, so I went to the windows to see what I might see from there. The team had closed the shades, I think to turn away from what they might see out there. As the second tower collapsed about 30 minutes after the first, all that could be seen down the street and to the south was a huge cloud of smoke and dust.
As time progressed, we learned more from the news coverage, and I exchanged a few emails. It became clear that the city of New York was being protected through shutting down access through bridges and tunnels and that I was very unlikely to be able to leave town that day. So I contacted the Hilton and spoke with their front desk. Understandably, they were not admitting new guests to the hotel nor allowing cars to enter their garage and would have turned me away except that my car was still parked there. Since they weren’t admitting new guests to the hotel, the room I’d used the night before was still available, so they agreed I could return to the hotel and stay that night. Our hosts’ hospitality continued in plenty as they’d had lunch brought in lunch for all of us. So I decided that after a good lunch and a check of my email and the news, I’d head back to the hotel. I knew that the subways weren’t running, so I knew I’d need to walk the about three miles back to the hotel. I also knew that the security and safety of the city and even the state of utilities wasn’t a sure thing, so I definitely wanted to make that walk in good daylight. I took a little time after lunch to thank my hosts, remove my name from the white board, and wish the others in the new (kind of unlaunched) discussion group safety until we reconvened, whenever that would be.
Down on the street, it was clearly an abnormal day in NYC. There was little traffic on the normally busy Avenue of the Americas, whether pedestrian or vehicle. Few private vehicles went by, but the occasional police or emergency vehicle passed now and then. As for people, there were definitely people out on the sidewalks of the Avenue of the Americas. Some were in groups of a few standing together talking and looking south at the cloud and the changed skyline. Others were making their way north away from or south toward the destruction. More than once, I saw persons who were very dirty, covered from head to foot in dust–but I failed to make the connection that these were the ones who’d been in the debris cloud, regrettably. What I found strangest, though, were the military fighter jets that passed overhead a number of times. A reminder of the profound uncertainty about the situation and the heightened security precautions for whatever was to come.
In hindsight, my thoughts through much of the time since the magnitude of the tragedy had first become clear were on my wife and nearly two year old daughter at home, and the imperative that I needed to get safely back to them. Over the course of that about three mile walk back to the hotel, I could have been thinking about how I could help or offer words of comfort or even a listening ear to the people I encountered. But I was certainly overwhelmed by it all. One other thought pattern was emerging though–gratitude for what people were doing in this outrageous day. I was resolving to thank everyone I met in some area of service to others “for being here today.” I was thinking that there are so many other places anyone could decide to be on a day like this, but if they were at their jobs, ready to serve, they were demonstrating an admirable dedication.
When I got to the hotel, they checked me in efficiently and I retrieved my bags to head up to my room. I made a particular point to thank a number of the staff I encountered for being there. I made my way up to the same room I’d used the night before, that calm, normal night before. Not too long after I changed into casual clothes and got settled in, I hear a noise at the door. When I looked, I found a letter that had been slid under the door. It was a letter of notification and apology from the Hilton management, but its understatement and humility have always struck me deeply–I hang the original of this letter on my office wall.
I’m not sure how often the attacks on the WTC and the ensuing collapse of the towers were labeled “unfortunate tragedy” nor “unusual circumstances,” but the clarity, sincerity, and service orientation the letter engendered were definitely a gift to me on that afternoon. I began to monitor the local and national news reports to better understand what was happening and what the prospects were for making the drive home soon–one that would normally take about 2 1/2 hours. The answers were not immediately clear. Talking with my wife, I heard that our church was having a prayer service that night to offer comfort to our community and to extend our immediate assistance through prayer. I let her know that I was feeling safe and secured in the hotel and was mostly hoping they could pray for my wisdom on how to get home to my girls. It certainly turned out that I was not the only traveler with that need…
After a dinner in the hotel restaurant–they’d stocked a very nice buffet for guests–and more avid TV news viewing, it was clear there would be no more news on access or egress from the city, so I made a goodnight call home and hit the sack with alarms set for early. In the morning, word was out that the outward bound lanes of the George Washington Bridge, way up at 179th Street, about 11 miles north of the hotel. I resolved to get my breakfast, pack up, check conditions one more time, and head home.
Traffic was uncannily absent for much of the trip north in the city, but definitely picked up as I neared the bridge. There was still no traffic being allowed to enter the city across the bridge, but there was a steady stream of vehicles leaving the city. I joined the flow of cars heading to the New Jersey Turnpike as I headed south toward the Pennsylvania Turnpike connector. The NJ Turnpike wound its way south, but as it led me south past Union City and Jersey City, the Manhattan skyline started to come into view. That Wednesday morning was another beautiful sunny day. But the view from the NJ Turnpike was disrupted by a column of smoke that rose and formed a steady path to the south and east, across the turnpike and over NJ. The trail it formed led directly to the lower Manhattan site of the WTC, and the skyline was clearly different on this day.
The other striking sight was the knot of vehicles waiting at each of the bridge or tunnel exits from the NJ Turnpike, waiting to get over to the city. There were plenty of private cars and trucks, but very clearly in the mix were emergency and care vehicles, even FEMA caravans. And these emergency vehicles were prominent even as I drove south, making their way up to those backups to wait for their chance to make it into town and offer their help. It was as if half of the world was outside the door of the city just waiting to be let in to help. It was profound.
I made my way back south in NJ and over east into PA, making my way back to my office to dump off a few things and let them know I’d made it back, then further on to my home and my girls. My trip home was actually an easy drive and rather timely after the accident as compared with most who were traveling on that Tuesday. But it really did give me an additional appreciation of the situation immediately and to come.
These years later, I do remember many snapshots of the day, and I have visited the WTC site once to get a closer look at what is underway there. I am so grateful that I was cared for so well by strangers–at the meeting host offices, at the Hilton hotel, and really, throughout the city and NJ by every manner of safety officer. I do wish I had been a bit more thoughtful of the people I encountered who had clearly experienced aspects of the attacks or collapse first hand. And I am very glad God led me back to my girls just one day after the crisis began.
I’ll end this account right there, with gratitude. Hope this was of some interest to some!