I was awakened by a phone call from my future mother-in-law. A plane had just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. She knew I was a reporter for the Associated Press in the New York City bureau. This was something I might want to know about.
I jumped out of bed and turned on the television. The same image beamed from every channel. Against the backdrop of a perfect blue late-summer morning, thick plumes of smoke billowed from a hole that spanned several floors high near the top of the tower.
I stared momentarily. Then I went back to the phone and called the bureau. Kylie Armstrong, the day supervisor, picked up. “Get there,” she said. It was 8:50am.
I put on the first clothes I could reach––a pair of jeans, a yellow T-shirt and a short-sleeved button down. I didn’t shower and I don’t remember brushing my teeth. I grabbed a clean reporter’s notebook and a pen and ran two blocks through Windsor Terrace to the subway stop in Brooklyn and caught the first F train heading into Manhattan.
The second plane had struck the South Tower by the time the train rose above Carroll Gardens on its elevated curve north toward downtown Brooklyn at 9:05am. We heard about it from eyewitnesses on the platform at the Smith Street station.
Everyone crowded to the windows to see the scene unfolding across the East River. Black smoke obscured the view of both Twin Towers. We were silent. Someone was crying.
I had to transfer at Jay Street-Borough Hall. I was worried the Manhattan-bound E train would not come. That it had been shut down. But it arrived and a handful of us boarded. Somewhere under the East River the train stopped and word spread among the passengers that we were turning back toward Brooklyn. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat for the tense couple of minutes we paused. The car jolted forward and we started moving again toward Manhattan.
When the doors opened at Fulton Street, police were herding people away from the trains, up the stairs and out of the station. The subways were now, finally, shutting down. Everyone had to head uptown on foot.
Hundreds of blank, dazed faces absorbed this inconceivable message, turned around and went back up the stairs. They turned north onto Broadway and blended into the river of business suits heading uptown.
I stopped in the middle of the intersection of Broadway and Fulton. I started taking notes, speaking to people rushing by. “It’s like a war zone down there.” “I need to get home.” “People are jumping out of windows.”
I found a bank of payphones at the southwest corner of the intersection and called the bureau. A top editor from another AP desk answered and took my notes.
I noticed a well-dressed, middle-aged woman struggling uphill on Fulton toward Broadway. She was out of breath and probably in shock. She took my arm and I led her into the lobby of a Chase Bank, where a handful of others had already sought refuge.
A few minutes later, back out on Broadway, the air grew still and the panicked noise of the street vanished, replaced by what sounded like the muffled booming of a crashing wave as heard from underwater. It was 9:59am.
A massive grey cloud, monstrous in height, emerged from between the walls of the skyscrapers. It was dark and swift like a river in flood. It swallowed everything in its path. I took a few steps,but was consumed and dove for cover, my arms raised protectively. I could feel it passing above me, like a thick, damp blanket. I lay on my stomach, hugging the curb, barely moving or breathing. I wondered briefly if I was going to die. Instead a new world emerged, covered in grey dust.
I got up and went back to the bank lobby. A deeper sense of shock had set in there. A young EMS worker fell to his knees and begged someone––anyone––for help. The others surrounded him, calmed him.
I was back out on Broadway when it happened again. The sudden stillness. An indefinable tension in the air. All sound displaced by a far off rush of air. And then another massive cloud. This time I made it inside the bank, where I watched in awe as a dust finer than sand billowed past. It was 10:29am.
I left the bank and walked west on Fulton toward the horror. The sky was overcast with smoke, as if a heavy storm was imminent. Yet to the north and west across the Hudson River, the sky was a cloudless blue.
At Church Street I saw a smoking hellscape of buildings with shattered windows, burning cars and a single, unmanned New York City fire truck. The street was deserted.
I passed the Millenium Hotel to my left and a man in a suit––probably the hotel’s manager––appeared at the door. His face was stricken and his voice choked.
“You can’t be here,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.”
“I’m a reporter,” I said.
“You can’t be here,” he repeated. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Is anyone left in the hotel?”
“The hotel is evacuated. You’ve got to leave.”
“Take care,” I said.
“And you do the same.”
At a deli back on Broadway, where a handful of dust-covered refugees had gathered to sip water and gather themselves, I called in again. I reported what I’d seen and Armstrong told me both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed. “They’re gone.”
I walked a couple of blocks south to Liberty Street. To my right, I could see what little remained of the grated metal foundation of the South Tower. Thick orange flames illuminated its waffled structure. Until then, while the world saw a wide shot of the horror on television, my proximity had limited my ability to grasp what had actually happened.
I got my new assignment. Head south toward the Staten Island ferry terminal and report on how the tens of thousands of workers who commuted each day into Lower Manhattan were fleeing the devastation at the World Trade Center site.
“What we really need to know,” Armstrong said, “is how many people died down there this morning.” It was 11:02am.
TOP IMAGE: A truck sits in the rubble in lower Manhattan 11 September, 2001, in New York after two planes flew into the World Trade Center twin towers. DOUG KANTER/AFP via Getty Images)