Sept 11th – a recollection

20 years ago today, around this time I was emerging from the subway at Bowling Green in Manhattan right by the iconic iron bull sculpture. My subway journey had been marred by delays and the commuting New Yorkers were getting irritable, myself included. Little did we know that above ground the first plane had struck the Twin Towers, and the second was just about to hit. As I emerged I saw throngs of people running down the middle of Broadway, some shouting and others with their eyes locked on the horizon in a catatonic stare. I shuffled through the crowd, catching snippets of conversation about a plane and the towers. It didnt make much sense. Once inside my office, with a radio plonked in the centre of the communal area, we learned piecemeal about the hijacked planes, but it was all pretty unclear still. I called my dad and my sister to let them know I was ok. My friend Dave and I went over to Battery Park to see for ourselves, and I will never forget the sight of the buildings burning and belching out smoke, with the sound of sirens all around us. As odd as it sounds now, despite the unspeakable horror of it all, we assumed the NYPD and FDNY had it under control. We returned inside and without warning our building started to violently shake. Looking back, this was the first tower collapsing and the reverberations were so fierce they shook our foundations, although at the time we didn’t know it. There was garbled talk on the radio of bombs, and with our building backing onto the NY Stock Exchange, there was a real concern for our safety and the rumbling building felt like a warning. I made a personal decision to leave and as I did so, the building announced an evacuation. Throngs of people spilled into the lobby but the doors to the outside had been locked. Mixed messages from the building management meant that thousands of people were now pressing into the confined area and it was getting uncomfortably tight. A security guard said he would open the doors and we could leave at our own risk. I exited with Dave and his sister Karin, who also worked with me. I still remember the yellowish dust that lay on the ground like a weird snow, as we traipsed through it. As we crossed Bowling Green there was the sound of planes roaring above us and I felt panic and threw myself against a wall in a meaningless effort to stay safe. They were likely military planes securing the area, given that all air traffic had been grounded. We then slowly trudged down to the bottom of Manhattan with streams of people pouring out of buildings onto the normally busy roads of the financial district. Some buildings had hauled out their water coolers onto the road and were handing out cups to drink from. Around then there was another loud boom and plumes of smoke raced down the concrete canyons around us as the second tower collapsed. Everyone started running and we made it to a slip road up onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where a kindly cop let us enter. Once I was up there I stared across and saw hordes of New Yorkers streaming out of Manhattan across the bridges. It was only then I was finally able to look back at the island and where the towers had once stood, there was now a smoking, burning vacant space. When we finally got to Brooklyn I looked up into the clear blue skies and saw the surreal sight of reams of paper fluttering down. Old letterheads and index cards from the offices in the towers, just drifting to the ground. Some of them charred and singed. I grabbed one and folded it into my wallet as a strange memento to remember those who were gone. With a sense of social duty we went to the hospital to donate blood but they didn’t need any more, and as it would turn out they unfortunately wouldn’t have a huge need anyway due to the lack of survivors from the buildings themselves. As we finally sat down in Dave’s apartment in Carroll Gardens, I called my father to let him know I was ok. He hadn’t heard from me for hours and saw the events unfolding on live television. Both of us spoke in hushed tones and in a state of shock, as well as real gratitude to be talking. Next I spoke to my sister and then a few friends & family in Ireland and Sweden. And then I did the only thing I knew to do, I sat down and wrote a brief and spotty account of my experience on an online messageboard, which I recall getting picked up by The Irish Times and the Munster Express in my home town of Waterford. The next morning I ventured out to the subway and made the lengthy journey back to Sunnyside, Queens, still wearing the dusty clothes from the day before. Commuters staring blankly to the floor. When I got home I bumped into my landlord Tom Lee,, who let me know that our neighbour Warren, who worked in Tower One, had not returned home yet. And he would never return. And as the week rolled by I heard of other sad stories, and also of unlikely escapes, like my friend Shadi who was fired from his job in the Twin Towers on Sept 10th. The week that followed was a blur of watching the news and sleeping and eating. And the return to work was an eerie one, with military personnel and vehicles on the roads, with strict ID checks at entry points from the Subway. And those fires burned at Ground Zero for months afterwards. Months. Air filters that were normally changed annually were being swapped out within weeks. Union Square become a memorial ground to those who were gone, with candles and flags and mementos and books strewn in makeshift shrines. Some sang songs. Others walked in silence. It was a strange and oddly beautiful time to be there. And as I look back now, 20 years later, I think about how grateful I am to have walked away to tell the tale, and I turn my thoughts to those who didn’t. May they rest in peace.