Posting opinions, letters and correspondence from far and wide. Even some to/from my elected representatives.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My September 11th, 2001:

What happened to me on September 11th 2001 is not important nor very memorable. There were real heroes that day and there were many victims. I was just a spectator. My involvement with the actual events was small. But I was there, five blocks away and the event changed me forever. I write this for the record, for history and for my family.

I began work at Tullett, Tokyo and Liberty on May 8th 2001. I was employed there as the senior network design engineer and security architect. I worked out of 80 Pine St which runs parallel with Wall St and is about five blocks away from the World Trade Center. I had intended to go to the New Jersey office in Pavonia that morning. The plan was to leave at 9:00AM. The trip would have required walking into the World Trade Center complex to get to the “Path” train which then heads under the Hudson to get to New Jersey. However, a technical problem with the company Internet firewalls delayed my trip - thankfully.

8:03AM - On September 11, I arrived at 8AM in the morning. I remember walking down Wall St that morning, looking up at the sky which had that distinct blueness of spring when the air is crisp, fresh. You just want to look up and take in a deep lung full of air. I felt a lift, I felt good. “Life is very good to Mike” I thought. I walked into my office and as is my way I quickly set about the tasks of the day. Task one - firewall problem. I head to the desk where a maintenance computer is located on the 27th floor.

Just after 8:46AM - I was sitting on the 27th floor of the 80 Pine St building. I faced a computer which was sitting on a desk facing south west. There are wide windows on that floor and I was facing them directly. My attention was on the computer screen but after sitting there for about 10 minutes I was distracted by something out the window. I looked up to see hundreds of sheets of paper floating down from out of the sky. I gave a quizzical look to no one but myself. Then, I got up, walked around the desk and stood at the edge of the window. I peered out and up. My eyes slowly scanned upward as high as I could see and could see more and more paper coming down from a great height. I wondered where it could be coming from. The papers were coming from so far up that the entire sky was filled with it. There was a lot of it. I stood there wondering for maybe a minute. I thought, 'who could be throwing this paper out of a window somewhere? Which disgruntled employee has gone stupid somewhere?" It briefly went through my mind that an aircraft might be involved but I discounted that immediately because 'how could a plane be full of paper like that'. Someone had to be throwing paper out of a building.

Rewind: I arrived in the United States on 9th March 2001. I had never been to New York before. I married Stella on March 15th. We were married at 10:30AM on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. I had no job but found one by May. Due to the more restrictive job market, I ended up working downtown. So I was working in the downtown area for only four months before the World Trade Center attacks. This meant I didn't really know my way around town, I didn't really comprehend the size and imposing height of the World Trade Center towers. Had it not been for a job I did in Tower B (51st floor) three weeks before September 11 I would never have even set foot in either of the towers. I certainly didn't "understand" the towers. On my visit three weeks beforehand I remember standing at the foot of tower B and slowly looking up and up and up. It was only then that I began to realize that I was standing at the foot of a truly immense and incredible building. And what's more, there were two of them.

Back to the morning:

As I stood there at the window, wondering, pausing. I began to think that something was going on that was not part of the usual work day. I walked up the length of the computer room to talk to two of my colleagues. Stefano was agitated and almost shouted at me "a plane crashed into the world trade center"! From where I had been sitting, the towers are both obscured by other buildings. But as Stefano was shouting the words, I turned to see that tower A was on fire. From this different vantage point I could see the entire top of the building engulfed in thick, black, solid smoke. I looked at it for only a few moments and realized that the last thing I wanted was for Stella to be worried about me. So I walked straight into the nearest office and phoned her. Stella didn't know anything about it, so I told her to put Foxnews channel on. She did and I reassured her that I was OK and would be OK. It was probably a small plane, in fact, I was certain it was a small plane. Someone had said it was a small plane so I was certain of it. I don't know why I was so adamant.

9:03AM - As I was speaking, Stella was watching Foxnews and suddenly she told me that she saw another plane hit the tower. I can't remember whether she said it was the other tower or not, but I insisted several times that she was wrong. "You are watching a repeat of the first crash." Stella insisted to me, over and over, that it was another plane. "Get out of there!" she said, "Be careful, I love you." I still did not believe her. I told her I loved her, I would be OK, I'll go and see what's going on and call her back. I went back to the windows where Stefano was. Stefano's eyes were wide - he was shocked! He exclaimed "Another plane crashed into the other tower". I said "No way!" in surprise, I think Stefano thought I was literally saying no way because he repeated "I saw it with my own eyes - another plane dived straight into the second f#@king tower"! I stood there, looking at both buildings burning. I stared and stared and stared.

At this point I realized being outside was better than being inside. I made my way with everyone else down the elevators (NOTE: DO NOT ever use elevators in an emergency - use the stairs!). The best point of vantage on Maiden Lane was across the street. By chance, that's where a few of my colleagues, including Joe, ended up. I remember commenting to Joe, "I think those towers could collapse". I didn't realize at the time that the possibility was actually a certainty. It just seemed obvious that with flames visibly pouring out of three or more floors across two entire faces of a building there was enormous destructive process at work that would result in structural failure. What I did not envisage or even contemplate at the time was the ramification of a total structural failure of buildings that are 1,300 ft high. Joe and I remained in place on Maiden Lane. We watched and we watched. Fire engines barreled past us constantly - sirens wailing constantly. People were standing around everywhere. Everyone was looking up. Right next to where we were standing is a small photo shop. I went in and purchased almost the last disposable camera they had. I took photos. As we watched I could see small, distant objects, unidentifiable falling from some of the windows. I was again bemused. I thought they might have been panes of glass falling out of the towers but I couldn’t understand how the same size objects could be falling out of numerous different places from windows. I just couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I later learned they were people.

Not really knowing my way around New York City, I was at a loss as to what to do about the situation. And seeing an event of such magnitude leaves you somewhat dumb founded anyway so for the next 40 minutes or so I just watched and talked and gawked. Eventually, I decided I would go back up to the 27th floor and take a few photos. I went into the lobby of 80 Pine St walked up to the elevator bank and pressed the elevator call button.

9:59AM - At the moment that I pressed the button there was a muffled rumbling sound and strong vibration through the floor. I stopped frozen and waited while I felt the rumble. I didn’t understand what the rumble was but at a deep level I “knew” but I didn’t. My mind was locked. It seemed like only seconds while I was trying to comprehend the sound and suddenly it stopped but the room had become darker. I slowly turned around and my attention was drawn to the security staff that had congregated at the glass doors into the lobby area. I was struck! The outside was pitch black - as black as the darkest recess in a closed room with a blindfold on – pitch – black. The security staff was asking everyone to stay inside and to stay away from the glass front. Within a few minutes the dust gradually settled out enough that the picture outside slowly came back into view. It was very much like slowly turning up dimmed lights. Outside people were hurriedly making their way down Cedar and Pine St from the vicinity of the WTC. I have no idea who those people were or where they came from. Some may have been close to WTC some not so close. But they were all covered in a thick layer of dust and many of them were struggling to breath. Their eyes were watering profusely and their hair was full of dust. Their appearance was transformed from polite office worker to disaster survivor. It took me only a few moments to realize that these people needed assistance (but I really wasn’t functioning well). I took a quick moment to snap a picture of one of the dust covered. The man gave me a quizzical look as I lined him for the shot. Was I being insensitive? Probably but I ushered as many of them as came toward me around to the Au-Bon-Pain. Then I walked up to the counter and asked the staff to give me as much water as they could. The server offered me two bottles of water which surprised me so I said “how about you give me a whole case?” She looked surprised, hesitated but then agreed and I took my 24 bottles of Evian out onto Pearl St and began offering them to people as they made their way away from danger and toward clean air. 22 out of 23 people were grateful but one woman caught me quite off guard when she asked if she could have two bottles. I must have looked at her quizzically but I relented and let her take two. Perhaps she was going to give one to someone else. In retrospect, Hanlon’s razor comes to mind. I went back in to Au-Bon-Pain but they had quickly shut the shop. I will never forget them shutting shop like that, they’re hurried closing of the shutters and cash register seemed a little crass but then, if it was my shop to manage would I have done the same? They didn’t close the store though. It remained open so that people could still use the restrooms. Eventually the dust was fully settled and people were being looked after so I went back up to one of the broker’s floors and took a snap shot of the remaining brokers huddled around the cable TV. They all nearly jumped off of their chairs when the flash went off. I apologized and they went back to their watching. I went back to my office, IM’d Stella that I would be talking to my boss and working out how to go about getting home in Connecticut. Then I grabbed my bag and headed downstairs with my boss and we sat in a corner of Au-Bon-Pain and I waited. I commented to our CTO that we probably shouldn’t be sitting next to such large floor to ceiling panes of glass so we shifted position into the cornet where we had solid wall between us and the street. As we shifted I first noticed the layer dust and debris covering every horizontal surface on the streets of downtown New York.

10:28AM – As we sat there in Au-Bon-Pain the same rumbling sound was felt through the floor and the same darkness soon followed. Most people had evacuated the area when the first tower came down so there were very few people on the streets by then. After the dust settled yet again, I could look outside and see just how thick the layer of debris was on the streets. It had to be about a half inch thick. Papers were scattered everywhere (I actually regret not having picked up at least a few of those documents to keep as a permanent testament to the innocent office workers who died that day).

11:00AM – Finally, the horror was over and it was time to work out how to get home. For the next hour I spent time walking around with our CTO and my boss trying to get some sense of where people were and who was left in the building. We took brief stock of the situation with our data systems but quickly decided that all that could wait for now.

Approx. midday - I ended up with Alberto from desktop support and we headed off together walking up to Grand Central railroad station. It took us two and half hours or so to make the trip. Neither of us knew New York very well and we ended up walking through Avenue A, a somewhat “rough” area. We were followed a bit by some young miscreants too asking me “for the time”. I brushed them off and we headed toward the sanctuary of a nearby fire house. We weren’t bothered by anyone after that.

Approx. 2:30PM - We made it the Grand Central and parted company. I hopped onto an unscheduled Metro North train and waited about half an hour before we departed. It was a very quiet trip for a train that was so overcrowded. I didn’t speak to anyone and no one spoke to me.

4:00 PM – Arrived in Stamford. As soon as I jumped into the car, seeing Stella and the boys in the back, I broke down crying. It lasted only a few moments, but for me to break down at all was quite something. We spent the rest of the time as most people did that day. We watch the news, we watched WTC 7 collapse, we watched our President Bush and we watched the world change. I changed that day. Did you?

I didn't know anyone personally who died that day but I work with many people who did that had either one or many friends or co-workers who did die that day. My relationship to the event is a little offbeat in that I arrived in New York in May of 2001 and was only just beginning to become accustomed to the New York way. A month prior to Sept 11th I was just beginning to lift my head up and really absorb the city and downtown and the larger than life character of the Twin Towers. Because of this, I see the towers as new friends who were suddenly taken away from me. My anthrapomorphised towers are a husband and wife. And the people jumping from them are the married couple crying and as tower B crashed to the ground I see its mate mourning the loss and seeing its fate, hurried to be with its partner. Of course, this is just a wild distortion of reality because the buildings were just steel and concrete (and tons of gypsum) and as such, the buildings can be replaced (or not as of 2008, which is a disgrace in and of itself).But the people are what matter and that principle and that ideal is what the western world now faces as a challenge. What matters to me most, and what I took from the experience as most profound, was that freedom and democracy must be brought to those parts of the world that remain barbaric and retrograde. We should not be embarrassed or cringe at our western world mistakes but we should hold our head up high and reassert ourselves for the path ahead. Onward and upward, the world will be a better place when radicalism and extremism of any kind reduced to nothing but a threat. The debate will always be how to achieve that. Let's debate, agree and take action.

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