Reprint: City of Ghosts

100 minutes of tragedy that will haunt us all

How could it all disappear so quickly? In the wake of the 1993 bombing, after the terrorists' plainspoken ringleader, Ramzi Yousef, told federal agents his goal had been to destroy the buildings, experts said this proved that the Trade Center itself, by reason of design, was virtually impregnable from that type of assault.

It was different from other buildings. For almost 100 years, conventional skyscrapers were built with interior columns supporting the building's weight, while the outer walls were merely window dressing. The Trade Center's builders rejected that approach, using the exterior walls themselves as the load-bearing structure. "The World Trade Center buildings represent a new era," wrote officials of Tishman Construction, who managed the project. "They are the buildings of the oncoming 21st Century."


One stands tall, two fade into history.
illustration: Sean Beavers
One stands tall, two fade into history.

Aside from earthquakes or floods, it's unlikely that any modern urban calamity has been personally witnessed by as many people. Businessmen in midtown high-rises and schoolchildren in Brooklyn all stared with disbelieving eyes at the first, appalling, gaping hole in the South Tower, then at the mad, low descent of Flight 175 across the Hudson into the second building, and finally as both landmarks vanished before their eyes. It was a view that spurred many to valor.

Felix Sanchez, a member of District Council 9 of the Painters Union and an ex-Marine who served in Beirut, saw it clearly from the building at 85 West 15th Street, where he was painting a patio. By the time he and his coworkers arrived, the second plane had struck the north tower. A frantic cop yelled, "Give us a hand," and Sanchez and his companions charged inside, where they began helping an emergency crew from Saint Vincents Hospital. A few minutes later, he heard someone yell that the structure was falling. Then smoke and dust blackened everything. "I couldn't see anything, none of us could," Sanchez said later as he looked at the wreckage. "I just know most of the others were no longer behind me when I got out."

In Borough Park, Brooklyn, a volunteer emergency medical worker named Bernard Gipps jumped into a Hatzolah Ambulance as soon as the news of the first attack spread. Its siren screaming, the ambulance raced up the Prospect Expressway and through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which deposited the crew directly under the raging fires.

"We got there and we saw two gaping holes; there were people jumping and bodies everywhere," said Gipps. His crew watched in horror as a body falling from the tower's upper floors slammed into a helmet-wearing firefighter, killing both instantly. Another fireman was killed by falling debris before he even had a chance to get out of his truck. When the first tower fell, the volunteers ran for their lives, heading west across Battery Park City to the river. Several escaped by jumping onto ferries that took them to Hoboken.

Steve Sullivan, 56, was eight years retired already from the New York City Fire Department when the news reached him at home in Staten Island. He tried to drive across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, heading for Greenwich Village to team up with his old crew, Engine Company 24 and Ladder 5, where he had worked for 13 years. Unable to get across the bridge, he drove to a Staten Island firehouse whose members commandeered a city bus down to the St. George terminal, where they hopped the last ferry to lower Manhattan.

"We got as far as the Statue of Liberty, and we saw the second tower collapse," said Sullivan. "We had the radio on and we heard the calls. They were trapped in their rigs. They couldn't get the doors of their trucks open. And you hear it on the radio and there is nothing to do. They are screaming, 'I can't breathe. Help me. I can't breathe.' And you can't do anything."

Once the ferry docked, Sullivan and the other firefighters rushed to the scene, but the worst had already happened. "We found Chief Feehan, a super guy, as good as they get," said Sullivan two days later, his voice cracking as he sat, still wearing his gear, on a low brick wall in the sun outside the station house on Sixth Avenue and King Street. "We found Chief Ganci. We took them out gently. You'd find an arm in a glove with a fireman's cuff on it. A backpack. You put the arm and the backpack on the side and keep looking." The wind would blow, covering the bodies with dust, making them less recognizable. "They were like jello people, no hair. It makes it a little easier somehow."

"That's John," he said, showing a visitor a picture on the bulletin board upstairs in the firehouse of a tall man with a drooping handlebar moustache and a wide grin. "He's waiting for us to find him down there."

In 1994, a terrible fire killed three members of the crew at Ladder 5, including its captain, John Drennan. Those appalling casualties drew donations and sympathy from all over the city. As of last week, the firehouse was missing at least eight members in the Trade Center collapse. Their fire truck was destroyed as well, the one with the huge gold number 5, the same one that inspired painter Charles Demuth and poet William Carlos Williams to write about its "wheels rumbling through the dark city." The firefighters plucked the big gold numeral off the destroyed ladder truck and placed it on the hood of a battered gray pickup missing its windshield. "We use that now," said Sullivan.

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