Nicholas Spangler is on reporting duty in Baghdad. Seven years ago today, on September 11, 2001, he was a journalism student covering a primary election in downtown New York, when he witnessed the incident that would lead to that war. He heard a loud noise, looked up, and saw a jet fly into the side of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He ran toward it and began taking notes furiously. This is the article that resulted, which ran in our November 2001 issue.
I was outside P.S. 89 tailing a city council candidate on election day when I heard the plane. It made a heavy rasping sound. That was at 8:46 a.m. I watched it fly above my head and into the north side of WTC 1. I could see only smoke and a hole. I started running toward it.
It took me perhaps two minutes to get to the great square off Church Street that was then still bounded by those two massive towers. Millions of documents floated in the sky. I got under a ledge and ran out as far as I could. Fist-sized chunks of concrete and long strips of steel and tiny pieces of glass were hitting the ground beyond the ledge. Three building maintenance men and a cop came out. We told each other what we had just seen and when we saw the bodies falling we were rendered inarticulate. Jesus Christ oh Jesus Christ, someone said. At a distance falling debris can be mistaken for falling bodies but I can say this with certainty: I saw two bodies fall and I saw four lying on the ground. One fell on the opposite edge of the square, arms out and legs straight. I heard it tear through the roof of a bandstand and I heard it hit the ground. Closer to me another woman struck the ground. Both times I heard a sound that, had I not seen the impact, I would have taken for an explosion.
I knew the body in front of me was a woman because she was wearing a skirt (sea-green) and I could see her legs. She had blond hair but I could not see her face. I would not say that I wanted to see it but I thought it was important. I thought if I could edge around the corner I could get closer to her and still be protected by the ledge, but when I made the turn I became terrified and backed up.
At 9 a.m. the other plane crashed into WTC 2. When the glass fell I pressed myself against the wall and covered my face with my left arm. I heard the glass tinkling around me and soothing music coming from speakers embedded in the ledge above me.
I went back to the street and around the corner to get into the complex from the south side. I ran through the deserted farmer’s market and got under the ledge on Liberty Street. Debris was still falling. Something bounced off a stoplight. It was getting hard to breathe. A policeman across the street started yelling at me. At 9:25, I saw fifteen to twenty-five firemen cross the Liberty Street walkway to WTC 2.
Two policemen came to get me. We all walked back east, then they went inside WTC 2 and told me to leave. I showed them my press pass. They told me to leave again. I waded through ash, rubble, and paper to the east side of Church, to what looked like a medical staging area. I ducked under the tape and was accosted immediately. I showed the pass. This time it worked.
I spoke with a man named Reyher Kelly who had been on the seventy-eighth floor, the sky lobby of WTC 2, when the plane hit. “We saw people fall out. I was getting into the elevator when it hit us,” he said. “The explosion just knocked us down.” Bill Hay was in WTC 1 on the fifty-fifth floor giving a lecture at the World Trade Institute when the first plane hit. “The building started to rock,” he said. “I looked out the window, saw all the debris falling and just left my laptop, my billfold, passport, plane tickets. They’re all gone.” Allan Mean was in the WTC 2 elevator at impact. The elevator dropped. “My leg is tingling,” he told an EMT.