By Tim Meadows
Special at the Sentinel
It’s an absolutely spectacular late summer morning in New York City. Erased is the oppressive humidity of yesterday, replaced by cool, cool air and a gentle breeze. I’m in a cab, on my way to a 9 a.m. meeting at American Express in the World Financial Center in front of the huge Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. My cab took me from my downtown hotel to lower Manhattan. I am earlier than I thought.
As I sit waiting for the light to change, a block and a half from the World Trade Center, a muffled explosion is followed by a shower of broken glass and debris falling on the street around us. Something big crashes, knocking over a lamppost on the sidewalk near the cabin. A small explosion must have smashed a window a few floors higher, I think. The driver, true to his New York cab driver style, gets annoyed at the inconvenience and tells me I’d better get out now. None of us has the faintest idea what just happened 400 meters above our heads.
While I’m paying him, I lean out the window and gaze at the World Trade Center towers. To my horror, the top 15-20 floors of the North Tower are on fire, already burning furiously. Flames erupt from the windows and plumes of smoke rise skyward as thousands of pieces of paper slowly flutter toward the ground.
I quickly get out of the cab and rush down three lanes to the sidewalk. As I cross the street, I look up to the pavement and see what appears to be a headless torso lying disconcertingly in the street. It’s like someone just dropped part of a store window mannequin right there. I watch again. It is the torso of a person. I find it difficult to make sense of what I am witnessing.
Most people just walk around in circles, watching in shock as the building burn, unsure of what else to do. People point fingers at the fire, exchange questions and try in vain to digest the enormity of what they see. It seems several minutes elapsed before the sirens of the fire and rescue trucks announced their arrival. I find it hard to focus on what to do next. Am I crossing the street, which might make it harder for me to get to safety, or do I have to stay where I am? I can’t go north. I’m stuck at the very foot of Manhattan.
Out of nowhere, the howl of jet engines overhead drowns all sound. I look up to see what is unmistakably a United Airlines 767 struggling to turn sharply. A thunderous explosion tears the air around me, causing panic in the crowd and scattering people in all directions. I find refuge under scaffolding. Surprisingly, nothing falls on me, so I start to walk quickly down the street, away from danger. I am overwhelmed by the empty feeling of being very alone in this mess, despite being surrounded by hundreds of others, also alone in their worst day. We all instinctively head to Lower Manhattan’s only open space – Battery Park.
I now have a clear view of the two towers ravaged by the flames. The north tower is burning out of control. The south tower has a huge gaping hole in the form of an end-to-end view of the jet that pierced it. Objects fall from the north tower. It turns out they are bodies. Bodies that jump, that do not fall out of the windows. How terrible must it be inside the building for people to decide to jump to certain death below?
The air of Battery Park is abuzz with the nervous energy of thousands of people. Sobs and anxiety mingle with disbelief and horror. Most people unsuccessfully dial cell phones, desperately trying to contact friends or loved ones. Almost no one succeeds. I drop onto a bench to rest. There I meet two women who had stayed at the Marriott World Trade Center, which literally straddles the base between the two towers. A woman is agitated, and it is certainly an attack on dignitaries attending her meeting. The other woman heard the first accident and saw bodies fall out of her hotel room window. She immediately put on her jeans, grabbed her laptop and purse, and walked down the six flights of stairs to the main floor and out. Her quick decisions and sense of impending danger saved her.
The three of us are staying in Battery Park. This hellish scene is nowhere to be alone. We meet a few guys with a portable TV. There, we learn that the Pentagon was also hit, and that other commercial airliners are missing. It’s bad, really bad. What could be the next step, we wonder, incredulously? I expect to see fighter planes howling in the sky. It’s a scene from a bad action movie, but it’s real. Who is attacking us? Is it this? Will someone protect us?
Around 10:25 am this already surreal panorama becomes even more bizarre. With a thunderous rumble, the top of the South Tower begins to crumble and crumble before our eyes. People cry helplessly and try to run away, but there is only water behind us. I am terrified that the flocking crowd will push me overboard into the water. The immense cloud of dust and ash rises hundreds of meters in the air and rushes towards us like a gigantic tsunami.
Day turns into night. The cloud of dust thickens in the air like Tule fog. We can only see about 20 feet. Our trio begin to move east in our quest to escape safety. Dust is everywhere, covering everything. I breathe through the lapel of my suit jacket, trying to filter some clean air.
Crowds of people rush to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, looking for the fastest way to escape this nightmare. The loud creak of a car turning against them frightens them like wild horses. I am petrified. The crowd suddenly rushes in the opposite direction. I am pushed to the ground. I scream frantically. It’s like no sound is coming out of my mouth. Fear takes over everyone. I’m especially afraid of not knowing what will happen next.
We snuggle up by a chain-link fence at the foot of a small Coast Guard building next to the ferry terminal. Everyone squats on the ground to take the last breaths of fresh air. A fine powdery dust falls on us.
The air is thick with ash the size of a snowflake. Without thinking, a laundry delivery boy begins to throw towels from his truck at the crowds of people around him. Now we all breathe a little less timidly.
The dusty twilight finally begins to give way. Sunlight filters in as clouds of suffocating ash fade away. My eyes follow the rays of light upwards, and to my amazement the first thing I see is the American flag, high above Battery Park, unscathed and fluttering in the light breeze.
We start our walk out of the danger zone. The dust burns my eyes, the back of my throat is rough. I clear my throat and spit out as much acrid dust as I can. I remove the towel from my mouth and nose and wipe the grainy film off my glasses. I look at my old black suit that has turned gray from the concrete dust. My shoes have a thick layer of gray dust. My face is covered in grime and sweat, and my hair is straight. We are walking a few more blocks and suddenly the dust in the air becomes noticeably thicker again. We will find out later that these are the consequences of the collapse of the North Tower. It is only when I see TV coverage later that I realize that both towers have been completely destroyed. Unimaginable.
Our exodus takes us through several anonymous neighborhoods in Manhattan. Our priority now shifts from survival to finding a way to communicate with our loved ones. I keep pressing the redial button on my cell phone to try to reach my family. Each time it is the same result, a fast busy signal. Even the public phones on the street don’t work. We are cut off from the outside world. A few blocks further, we finally find a phone booth that works intermittently in a small neighborhood grocery store.
Another refugee who lines up for the payphone in front of us is lucky. He generously takes the phone numbers of the next of kin of everyone else in the line. In an automatic and selfless gesture, this New Jersey stranger calls my wife to let her know “I’m fine.” It wasn’t until half an hour later that I finally managed to reach my family on my cell phone. Only then do I recognize the terror they have lived for three hours, 3,000 miles away, hoping for the best, but imagining the worst.
I can’t understand what I just went through. Puzzled, confused, and angry, I sit in my hotel room, glued in disbelief to the coverage of the next day and a half. I finally realize that I am really lucky to be alive. Luckier than many that day. My life will be forever marked by the events of September 11, 2001. Life’s priorities are clearer now. Family time is more precious. And the sound of a jet passing at low altitude will never be the same.
Tim Meadows is a resident of Santa Cruz.