The following is what I wrote on and immediately after 11 September 2001. At that time, I was a junior at NYU and living at the corner of Bleecker, Mulberry and Lafayette Streets. Jump to my World Trade Center pictures.
On the morning of 11 September 2001, as soon as I realized what was going on (a few minutes after the planes hit the World Trade Center), I grabbed my cameras and some film and started walking and running downtown from my NoHo apartment. It took me many minutes before I could even see the buildings (but I could see a large cloud of smoke). As I walked down Mulberry Street, then Lafayette, through NoLita, Little Italy and Chinatown, people were everywhere, milling about, crying, talking on cell phones, totally confused. Many people didn’t even have any idea yet what had happened.
Wherever the two towers of the World Trade Center were visible, huge groups of people stood around, gaping, talking to each other, trying to connect on cell phones, taking pictures, trading rumors. I joined a lot of these groups and heard a lot of rumors, some of which seemed too insane to be true – but later turned out to be understatements.
My goal was to get as far downtown as possible, in order to take photographs of the burning towers, but the NYPD didn’t think that was such a great idea. Everyone with a badge of any sort, or even a nametag, was immediately a de facto deputy and assisted in herding the huge crowds uptown. Around all the federal buildings downtown, I saw the thickest crowds of people, since all those buildings had been evacuated first. I worked my way through the crowds and slowly evaded the police and got past the area of federal buildings on my way downtown.
Eventually I ended up fairly close to the World Trade Center [a few days later I tried to trace my path on a map, and estimated I was three blocks away] and I had a very clear view of both towers burning. The holes were huge, black, gaping and open. The whole sky near the towers was glittering as pieces of metal on the outside of the buildings melted and flaked off, fluttering to the ground. The flames coming out of the holes were hundreds of feet high, leaping out and licking the sides of the buildings, as the smoke billowed out and wrapped around one tower, engulfing the other.
I stood there for a while, taking pictures, and then I heard a scream behind me – a woman was pointing at a tower, crying that she could see a man getting ready to jump. I watched that man jump to his death and several others after him in different parts of the buildings. That was the most terrible thing I saw, and those images will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life.
Then the first tower collapsed. The top of it sort of moved to the side, lilted, and then tipped right at us and fell in our direction, crumbling to the ground. We all watched it, gaping, insane, as the smoke and dust cloud rose and then started advancing on us. The sound was exactly like the roar of a jet, we couldn’t hear anything else for a few seconds. It was so much like a movie, so graphic and vivid – I think I heard myself screaming, but it could have been someone near me. Our screams sounded like animals: there’s no human way to respond to something like what we watched – the destruction of possibly the greatest achievement of humanity. As the dust cloud rose slowly and started approaching, we realized that it was actually advancing very rapidly. It looked exactly like in those movies where it’s either a huge fireball or tumbling water. The movies are so real that to describe this as “like the movies,” just seems awkward, but that’s the closest I can approximate. Suddenly it dawned on us that we could get sick if we breathed it, or get hit by debris, so we started running. In fact, debris was falling everywhere; I saw people get hit. First I tried hiding behind a car, but that was stupid, the cloud was engulfing everything. Then I skirted onto a side street (one that ran east-west instead of north-south), hoping, the cloud would bypass it and leave it clear, but that was also folly. So I dashed into a cigar store for cover (imagine running into a cigar store to avoid breathing smoke!), but a cop ran in after me and made me leave. I’ve been asked why the cop made me leave the cigar store. Who knows? The best answer I could give is that no one was thinking straight – he probably thought that the entire southern part of the island was going to fall into New York harbor.
So I ran out onto the street and in a second the dust cloud enveloped me. You know all those people on tv saying it was like “a nuclear winter”? They’re exactly right. We were all sure there was some sort of non-conventional weaponry in the planes, and that we were being showered with fallout. As I started running, I became part of the massive stampede, but in a moment thought to myself: “wait, if there’s nuclear fallout in the air, why am I bothering to run?” So I stopped to help some elderly people who were getting trampled by the crowds. It was terrible. We were all choking and I heard some people vomit. The cops pushed us more and eventually I just realized I was running and running. After I was out of the dust cloud I started walking quickly and I kept trying to call home but obviously the cell phones were out. I waited in lines to try pay phones, but none of them worked. From street level in Manhattan, often the World Trade Center wasn’t visible, so every time we heard a jet roar above (it seems they were Air Force jets, posted to intercept any more possible terror strikes) we were sure the second tower was falling. I stopped in a few bars to watch the news, and that’s where I saw the second tower actually collapse and eventually got back to my apartment around 10:45 am.
When I got home, I looked at myself in the mirror, and was shocked by what I saw. I was covered, from head to toe, in gray soot. My blue jeans, white t-shirt, black camera bag and brown sandals were all totally gray. After washing myself off and contacting my family, I sat there for a while, stunned, before I realized that the hospitals were probably in serious need of help. I decided to go to St Vincent’s and donate blood. When I got there, I saw the most positive thing – a huge line, probably a mile long (literally!) with people who just wanted to donate blood. The hospital wasn’t even taking their blood; the donors were just getting appointment times to return.
That wasn’t good enough for me – I wanted to help immediately, so I started asking hospital staff where I could go to volunteer. After speaking to at least a dozen, someone pointed me towards nearby Beth Israel’s volunteer command post. I sat in the command post for several hours, but the hospital didn’t really need any help. The hours in Beth Israel were so crazy – the volunteers mainly sat around, sharing all sorts of insane rumors. Once the other volunteers found out that I know a lot about the Middle East, they all wanted my opinion on who had carried out the attacks. I didn’t know what to say. One woman had been on the 50th floor of Tower 2 and walked all the way down. She was in very good condition physically (although she didn’t have any shoes, having left her high heels under her desk), but emotionally was very distraught. I was amazed that she had shown up at the hospital to volunteer when she clearly needed help! Eventually I left Beth Israel because they didn’t need me for anything, and returned to my apartment.
New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but the avenues were dead yesterday afternoon – far quieter than I’ve ever seen, even during snowstorms. I’ll try to have my photos developed as soon as possible, but I hear that all of Manhattan south of 14th street is shut down, so I’ll have to go uptown to do it. When they are developed, I’ll have them scanned as soon as possible and put them up on this site. I’d also like to help in rescue efforts, which is hopefully how I’ll spend the next few days.
12 September 2001