Are You OK?

Trying to Get the Word Out From the Surreal City in Disaster

 E-mail from Malaysia: "WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? I'm in a small gay bar in Kuala Lumpur, listening to the first house music I've heard in a while and on the TV it looks like CNN is announcing a photobook about the WTC bombing several years ago. There's no volume, just the house music bumping. Then I find out it's REAL. IS EVERYONE OK? I am completely freaked. Love to you all, Andy."

I was on my way out to vote Tuesday morning. There are five apartments on my floor, and that morning, unknown to me, a woman who lives across the hall, Sareve Dukat, called her daughter, Athena, from work. Sareve, 53, was working as a New York State tax adviser in the World Trade Center. She was on the 87th floor and phoned to say that though a plane hit the other tower, she was fine, and she asked Athena to call her grandparents and tell them so they wouldn't worry. Then she said, "I'm at my desk."

I saw those towers slam down like someone had pulled open a hydraulic lift to hell. Though any metaphor falls apart, a biblical cataclysm brings up the language of holy books, mortal dust, ashes. The dust and smoke in New York may have smelled like burning tires, but it also had to contain the clay that the ancients said God used to make mortals.

Days were spent checking on everyone with any degree of separation. Phones were difficult. "Are you OK?" was the only message.

By midday, I'd offered my couch to two people. New York's firemen, EMTs, and cops were down there dealing, and I trusted them much more than anybody who might show up later to get people out. We have that self-sufficiency of island people everywhere, and we have history—like the last WTC bombing. New York chauvinism filled my heart. Every chain store closed down immediately. Instantly, neighborhoods were returned to their pre-Starbucks character. Local folks stayed open.

On the sidewalk, my neighbors were in their own "heightened state of alert." One rattled off the names of groups he wanted blown away. My cousin, visiting a few miles from the Pentagon, left a message that she was on an empty, eerie highway south. Military jets overhead.

Finally Irene Cabrera called. She and her husband, Derick Grant, and two children, Kaleo, three, and Lulu, 20 months, live in nearby Battery Park City.

"I got up, trying to get to work early. I heard the first plane, but I thought it was maybe trucks outside. Derick looked out the window and said the building was on fire. The phone started ringing. The second plane came so close I felt like I could touch it. We jumped to the floor, crawled with the babies into the bathroom. We knew it was just a matter of time before it would just come down. I saw bodies flying in the air, people jumping. I just thought, That can't be.

"The first tower did go down. I knew this was part of something bigger. We decided to get out, and I just grabbed my wallet and a pair of baby shoes. When we got out in the street, it was covered with papers and shoes and flesh. I mean, we had to censor what we were saying to each other about what we saw because of the kids. We only got across the street." Then the second tower fell.

"We heard there were possible gas leaks and we had to go to the river. These great police officers helped us, carrying the kids so we could walk faster. We were put in a fisherman's boat, and we're in New Jersey. We landed in a construction site where there were people with food and juice and phones. I'm just grateful. I was there for the '93 bombing, and it wasn't as severe, of course, but mainly, I didn't have my kids then. This feels like I dreamt about it, but it doesn't stop."

In the late afternoon, just before the third building, number 7 WTC, collapsed, I went up to the roof to look downtown. After seeing the smoking hole in the skyline, I saw, on a nearby roof, two women sunbathing. In the elevator down I met two guys who had escaped the towers. They didn't know each other but live in the same building.

Memo from Kieron Devlin: Joel Craig Phillips, Kieron's roommate, was late for work. Phillips told Devlin: "When I looked up at the World Trade I saw these white things in the air. I thought, 'Oh, my God.' They were spread-eagle like birds. They were people jumping to their deaths. People were screaming and fainting. A black cloud of debris descended on us. I thought I was going to die.

"I heard a second explosion. I thought it was a bomb at the Stock Exchange. I ran to 40 Wall Street. Women in high heels were running faster than me. We were evacuated to a smoky hot basement. Out of the windows was just black smoke. Security told us to use our wet undershirts as masks. I got hysterics. I wanted out of that frigging building."

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