It has been 20 years, and I finally feel ready to share some of the details of what I experienced that day and afterward.
In September 2001, I was living at 75 West St/110 Washington St, which was two buildings south of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I lived in a corner unit on the top floor.
A series of rough events led me to that apartment. My father died too young in mid-1999. In the wake of his passing, I rushed into a marriage that lasted no longer than this sentence. I’d moved into my downtown apartment out of that marriage about a half a year earlier.
I had a job writing ads, and even though I had a piano in my apartment, I remember sitting at it one day, baffled by it, and thinking, “OK, I guess now I’m just one of those guys who used to play music.” This hit me hard. I’d never imagined or considered doing anything else.
I loved that neighborhood south of the towers, though. We were pioneers. It was a commercial area and the few of us who had moved into the couple of residential loft conversions all sort of knew each other, or really, knew of each other.
That September they were doing construction on Washington Street, below my loft--remaking the parking lot across the street (by the Deutschebank Building, which you might have heard referenced in the months after the attacks. They had to demolish it shortly after).
September 10, my sister, who also lived down there in a different one of the few residential buildings, had a party. I was up until about 5am. As I put my companion in a cab, sun just about dawning on a gorgeous late-summer day, she said, “Wow, I didn’t realize how close you were to the Towers.”
I went to bed to catch a few hours’ sleep before work.
One of the giant I-beams fell off a flatbed truck on Washington Street and reverberated up and down the alleys and boulevards.
Or that’s what I guessed.
Though over a few minutes something about the pattern of sounds and sirens seemed...off. I went to the tiny round porthole window that looked out over Washington Street, but couldn’t see down to see the accident. So I went to my “alcove” which had windows in three directions--every direction except north.
A couple in the next residential building south was standing on their patio with a video camera, facing north. But they were looking straight across, not down. Others were on their patios too.
I went to the roof of my building--the next floor up from me. Maybe three or four people were there already. And then I saw it.
Massive holes in both towers, burning black smoke. Flames. The South Tower, which loomed above our building, still had the vague shape and some visible characteristics of an airplane carved into it. That was the crash I woke up to. Very, very quickly, it became clear that we were watching death occur on a very large scale. “That’s at least 10,000,” someone said. But we are not equipped to process that in real time, or at least I wasn’t.
There was a body on the roof below us, though it was incomplete. There was other organic matter around us, even where we were standing, and the sky was raining papers and office equipment.
I was still in the “got to get to work” mindset, not the “terrorist attack that will change our nation forever” mindset. This stuff was happening in real time, and those of us who were there had the least information, and knew the least about what was being said on TV/radio. (No smart phones yet in 2001.)
I ran down to my apartment and grabbed my house phone, which was still a thing people had then. I called work from the roof. I told them I’d still be in, I’d just ride my bike around the mess. They seemed more relieved to hear from me than I felt they should be, and also didn’t quite believe I’d be riding my bike north past a burning Twin Towers. Plus there were apparently fears of bombs on the ground.
I called my sister and found out she was at work, north of the Towers and safely out of range.
Then I stood on the roof for a very long time, shell-shocked but unable to process the danger I was in.
At a certain point, it became clear that some of the “office equipment” falling down and hitting the ground with an explosive concussion was not office equipment. “Please,” a woman next to me said. “Please tell me that’s just furniture. Or that they were dead already and just falling….?” And we could tell it was neither of those things.
Twenty years later, that’s still the sight and sound I have the hardest time dealing with.
I’d spend the last half-year occasionally musing--purely intellectually, not with fear--that if our country ever went to war, the enemy would bomb the World Trade Center and it would fall on our building. After a very long time on the roof, definitely too long, something about the nature of the burning yaw in the South Tower changed, and it seemed not just possible but inevitable that it was getting ready to fall over onto us NOW, not at some theoretical time in an imagined future. It somehow hadn’t occurred to me until then that we were not just watching peril, but were in peril.
I went inside to grab my wallet and finally leave the building and area. As soon as I got into the stairwell, though, the building started to vibrate, and then shake and sway, and there was a sound like the earth ending--the 3D rumble of a movie-demon--and I understood that the towers and my building were falling and my life ended there.
The stairwell turned pitch black almost immediately. I raced down the stairs, but in fact, I had no expectation that I was getting out. I knew with certainty that what would happen next is the building would collapse on me, and maybe in a few days my mother might get a phone call that they had found my body. I remembered I didn’t have my wallet and then realized they actually might never know who I was.
I have been in a car accident where I knew afterward that “Holy cow, I could have died.” This was not like that. This was the utter, resigned realization that this is where it ended.
I had time, during that frenzied run, to feel withering and profound disappointment with how I’d lived. I was young, but not so young that I hadn’t practically made a sport out of wasting my potential in order to make money and please others. The defeating sense of failure and sadness at how much time I had squandered, was practically molecular. I can feel the cells it lives in even now. It rewrote some part of my biological code. By the end of that internal narrative, I’d come to feel I not only deserved the fate I was about to encounter, but that I should get out of the way and leave room for others who were living more bravely.
I also felt I had failed my father, whose death seemed even more in vain if I was just going to have gone on peddling bullshit after his passing anyway. My thoughts were, “What a waste.”
I ended up, in that short run down the stairs, feeling that the life that was about to end, wasn’t worth preserving anyway.
Obviously I didn’t die. We knew nothing about “pancaking,” or even exactly what had happened to turn the world pitch-black and filled with soot and scraps, but in the end I and a few others made our way down to the lobby, where first-responders were limping in and setting up triage. They lined us up against the wall and waited to evacuate us until they felt sure we would not be killed by falling objects on the way out.
A guy in a bike helmet said, “I am just going to ride through it, it’s fine.” We knew that was crazy talk, even as I also knew I’d thought the exact same thing. We have no pre-existing neural pathways to process the too-large or too-new, on this kind of scale. We go to what we can grasp, no matter how incongruous.
A young woman next to me asked permission to go back upstairs and get some shoes. I said I’d bring her up. I dropped her on her floor, then ran back up to my place to grab my wallet and see if I could find and retrieve the two cats I had then, pre-allergies. I picked the woman back up at her place on the way down, and when we got back to the lobby, the rest of the residents were gone. They’d evacuated without us. It was just us and the few remaining building employees, plus some injured first responders.
I knew, deep down, that the reason they had evacuated without us was that they had calculated that it was safer to leave then and maybe lose two people, than to wait and potentially lose everyone.
And then sure enough: the rumble started again. If the first angry demon somehow didn’t kill us, there was no question this one was about to. I stood with my back against the wall--which faced north, toward the Towers--and said my goodbyes to the planet.
If you have ever gone to a public place with me, you have probably seen me anxiously positioning myself with my back against the wall, looking out into the room. That’s a direct result of the biological memory of waiting for whichever tower was falling this time, to kill me from behind.
But again, somehow we didn’t die. Pitch-black again, more choking smoke and dust and matter floating around. This no longer seemed like a thing we were going to just work our way around or away from--on a bike or otherwise. We were “in” this and it was developing in real time around us, with no clear predetermined outcome. Without even anyone to help us evacuate now.
But then, like magic: “If you can hear my voice, my name is Jefferson and I am here to get you out alive.”
A paramedic had found our building in the pitch black and made his way in. He had a few other people with him. He said, “Is everyone OK, is anyone hurt?” We building-people were all OK; the paramedics told him about the injured first responders they were treating.
He said “OK, wait here, let me see what’s up.”
Forever passed, probably ten minutes in real time. He lined us up and marched us out the back door, heading south on West St, where there are only a few remaining blocks left on the island. We walked out the door past small and large body parts. Fingers and a foot, other biological matter. The entire area was covered in a deep coating of gray dust, like nuclear winter. Papers floated from the sky--millions of sheets it seemed. The towers were either not there or skeletal, we couldn’t tell through the black dust. We headed south and walked until we got to the New York Athletic Club, where they house the Heisman Trophy--a couple of blocks south of us.
We joined other shell-shocked refugees.
Jefferson scored some cloth hand-towels, and told us to soak them in water and put them around our noses and mouths. No one groused about their freedom to wear what they want being taken away. Then he disappeared again, and even though I was young, I had been alive long enough by then to know that was the last we would see of him.
But it wasn’t. He collected us and told us to join him. He walked us out to a bus, which I found out later he had hijacked from a woman who had been sitting in it, terrified, in the tunnel just south of us. He promised her she would not get fired and that he would make sure she got home safely.
He marched us onto the bus and drove around the bottom of the island to the east side. One or two people on the bus had working cell phones and we all used them in turn to call or leave messages for family and anyone else we could get through to.
There were literally tens of thousands of people walking the streets, heading to and over the three bridges off the island. Desperate people kept asking to get on the bus. He let on the couple of extra people we could fit, but mostly we had to just drive past everyone.
Finally he dropped us at Bellevue Hospital. He talked to the admitting nurse and she lined us up to go in. He took off in the bus--I found later it was to drop the woman off at one of the bridges, true to his word, and then to go back to the World Trade Center site.
And now I will tell you something about New York City. While we waited to go into the hospital, there was another line of people, this one in the hundreds, maybe even a thousand. I said to the nurse, “Just take care of them, we are fine.” She said, “No, they are not injured. They are here to give blood.” An hour and a half into an unprecedented national emergency that was still unfolding in real-time, and what did New Yorkers do? Head, independently, in droves, to donate blood just in case.
Anyway. Clearly I lived through it all. It beat me up very hard for a very long time. When you are present at so much death, all at once, you wear the responsibility of ensuring the overall level of life remains the same--to not be “dead in life.” That felt too heavy to bear for some time. Coming as the “third” in the “Dad dying, rough divorce, genocidal terror event” trifecta, and being colored by my sense that the life that had been spared had not been worthy of the universe’s generosity in the end, I did not feel up to the weight.
Plus, compounding it, people just didn’t know what to make of those who were there but not physically in the Towers. Folks seemed to have difficulty processing how you would be saying you were “in the attacks” and feeling effects from it, when those attacks were “on the towers.” It was a problem common to those of us in the same boat, and one which we often believed and took on ourselves, making things worse and even more isolating. It was a very difficult period, and a frustratingly specific predicament that very few could relate to.
When finally a perceptive trauma therapist started a support group focused exactly on our demographic--what we shorthanded as “the residents,” but really meant anyone who didn’t evacuate the Towers but was still in the attacks (though it included some from the Towers as well in the end)--it was like the rescue plane finally finding your desert island, and bringing In ‘n Out to welcome you with. He literally lost control of that first meeting, so ready to talk and so exhausted from not being heard or not being sure we were worthy of being heard, were we. That support group saved multiple lives though, there is no doubt, almost certainly including my own.
Right after the attacks, I volunteered at the Disaster Assistance Center for a week, still not quite realizing that I was “in” the disaster, not just “at” it. Then I was “rich-person homeless” for many months. I lived in a hotel, not on the streets, but as nice as that might sound, picture the last small hotel room you stayed in and imagine that being where you live, 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, for months. Hotel rooms are essentially bed-holders. No kitchen, no “neighbors” in the traditional sense, no belongings, just you and your internal landscape, all day, every day--until even the hotel eventually got tired of us refugees taking up their potentially billable rooms, and compelled us all to leave there as well.
The compounding sense of wearing the isolating stain of this experience plus being literally displaced and removed from circulation, was ponderous. I feel lucky that I made it through that time.
I ended up in a family-like living situation in a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn. It was the first time I hadn’t felt like I could easily die unnoticed since (and including) the attacks. In some ways that began the “post-attacks” life I have been living one or another form of ever since. If you know me and have ever wondered why I seem so attached to Brooklyn after only six years of living there, this is why. It was home after homelessness. It was family.
One interesting item related to that: when I was finally able to get back into my original apartment to retrieve some belongings, it was covered in the same nuclear-winter soot as the rest of the area. Amazing, since my windows were only open about an inch or two, and because only two of them were even open. It also had scattered bits of paper, of which millions of sheets had rained from the sky that day. How it all got in there I will never know, except that it must have been that the air was so dense with the stuff that it just must have gone everywhere it had access to, like water.
Anyway, there, in the middle of soot-covered floor, was a segment of a blueprint or lot map of a housing development. I picked it up. It was a small section of a small town in Florida.
Meaningless, except: it was the development my father had been living in when he died. I guess the developer or someone related to them did business out of the towers, and of all the apartments, mine is the one that ended up in. I’m not spiritual, but that one landed.
Eventually the darkness lifted a bit. At some point I came to feel strongly that those of us who were fortunate enough to have lived that day, yes, had the cloak of responsibility to keep the overall level of life the same, but that whether it was a weight or a float was up to us. I wanted to ensure that the next time a building fell on me, it would end a life worthy of having lived--that my internal narrator would maybe tell a different story on the way down the next set of stairs.
So I committed to stay away from “death in life.” Life is for doing whatever your narrator will otherwise excoriate you over. There is plenty of time to be dead, if that’s what you prefer, but a very short time to be alive. “No death in life” is the reason I got married again, and is the reason had children--something I wish I’d done earlier, instead of wasting time pretending anything before them meant anything important. It’s the reason I got divorced again too, I suppose. It’s the reason I would still rather, even in my kids’ teen years, hang out with them than do anything else. It’s why I make a living built solely around music now, even when that living is threatened by worldwide pandemics and the rigid of mind. It’s why I am excited to hear your original music, see your artwork, read your novel, check out the furniture you built, and not excited to hear your glib and life-dismissing conspiracy theory.
I have a couple of regrets still--some unfinished business I still need to attend to to feel “clean.” But for the first time in my life, this death-anxious and existentially unsettled gypsy bum feels like if the next building fell on him, it would at least end a life unwasted.
Today I honor those who did not live through the attacks, or have not lived well because of them. I express gratitude to the first-responders who flocked into the belly of beast, including Jefferson, who was off-duty and drove down from the Bronx to see if he could be of assistance that day. I honor the quirk of human spirit that led to that blocks-long line of blood donators. I honor music, which has saved my life more than once, and been responsible for almost every great thing I’ve ever gotten to do. And I “dedicate” my survival to my kids, who are the ultimate “life in life,” and who make every second I’ve had with them, worth every millisecond of the sometimes rough ride that led to them being here.
Planet Earth, I hope you keep me around for a while, but if not, thanks for the second chance.
Peace to all.