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.”
Ruth Ford: “My boyfriend, Kerby Neill, works at One Liberty Plaza. He felt a rumble, saw the shadow of the first plane, stood up, and saw the crash. He called and told me not to worry, he was being evacuated. (Unknown to her he walked home to Park Slope.) When I heard that the second tower had been hit, I ran for the subway. The train stopped in the tunnel and people freaked. The first building had fallen, but we didn’t know. They cut off the air because of the dust. When we finally got out, there was ash everywhere. At the top of the stairs, I saw a man collapsed in a corner, his nose clogged with ash, hyperventilating, and someone helping him. I was just standing there and the building rumbled.
“I panicked, running for the glass doors. The security people shouted at me to stop, and then all this debris started raining down. I thought when I went outside that it was the apocalypse. First it was gray ash; you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you. Then black ash. The sun was a hard tiny dot. I don’t think I accepted it until I was walking across the Manhattan Bridge and I looked and the towers were gone.”
According to a reporter, people wandering near City Hall were grabbing handfuls of the asbestos-laden ash to take home. One phone call at home: Cliff, my nephew and a doctor, had been treating patients evacuated to Jersey City, burns mostly.
E-mail from Arnim: ” . . . We have slaughtered innocents throughout our history—from the Indians through the slaves . . . all to gain economic advantage and signal repression. We have turned former oppressed colonials of color into alleged “terrorists,” and the technology has empowered these individuals to wield a level of power and destruction once reserved as the exclusive province of the state. Now, there are thousands of people waiting in line to be the next suicide bomber. DuBois’s conclusion about the color line being the the hallmark of the last century is still appropriate. Remember, we A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Being here means facing the unreality of victims who failed to appear during torturous days of digging, waiting, listening. We face the prospect that thousands share a mass grave, a hole blasted seven stories deep into the city’s foundation. It’s a grave shared with our founders, for right there are the remains of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans, as well as the remains of centuries-old wooden ships.
Buddhist service book: “Compassion does away with the distinctions between self and other. When one sees the illusory nature of man, true compassion arises.”
E-mail from Grace Bastidas: “This is a list of things needed by rescue crews: lip balm, aspirin/Tylenol, saline solution, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, combs, Neosporin . . . ”
E-mail from Geoff: “You know how they said they were evacuating everything south of Canal . . . what about “the Tombs” [the Metropolitan Correctional Center]? You think they evacuated those people?” And, “New York is frantically calling manufacturers upstate to make more body bags, according to one bag producer in Binghamton, my Uncle Wayne.”
Wednesday, people were collecting clothes, especially socks. I took a subway, a cab, and a walk to get to work. I crossed a barricade at Union Square into the frozen zone. As the day went on, the smell became more acrid. The wind shifted and blew smoke north through the length of Manhattan. I tied a scarf over my face.
Bastidas: “Buckets, rubbing alcohol, scissors, deodorant, disposable razors, shaving cream, towels, washcloths, sheets, blankets, SOCKS . . . ”
Ron Catenanova, who works in my building, tells me he’s got three sons who’ve been down there digging the whole time: William, 38, an engineer; Jeffrey, 37, a crane operator, and Adam, 30, a firefighter. He says their feet are very blistered and are constantly wet.
E-mail from Robert Kasner: “Was on a plane to Seattle over Manhattan after WTC was struck. Saw smoke but didn’t know. During the flight I noted that we seemed to be going faster than normal. Diverted to Detroit. Once landed, I saw other planes landing but none taking off. Went outside for a smoke, saw a security man who was listening to a radio and said only: ‘New York is under attack, the WTC was destroyed, we’re at war.’
“Tried calling my wife but circuits were down. Thinking she might be dead, or hurt, and that I needed to get home. Finally called my mom in Minnesota, who had heard from my wife Tricia that she was OK. I rented a car with two strangers: a woman from Florida and a French male fashion model. We drove straight through in 10 hours and waited at the Goethals Bridge another 10 hours.”
Thursday, a day of 90 bomb threats. At work, I got upgraded to a dust mask.
That night there was an impromptu vigil in Union Square. People improvised speeches, not knowing what to say. An NYU student named Jordan Shuster had laid butcher paper down on the pavement Tuesday, and for days he had scribbled a diary of messages on it. A Larry Mitchell had added, “I write this to all the people who no longer ride the subways, walk the streets, complain about the traffic . . . these people whom I never knew, but shared a seat on the train at some point.” A few messages were crossed out, like “Stop the Hate! Stop the Immigrants!” A question was asked, “God?” and answered, “God!”
On 96th Street, Sunday, Jay Medina from the Bronx told me his friend who was missing for a day and a half because he was hit on the head and taken to a hospital was OK. I rode down the West Side Highway, and there were refrigerated “remains” trucks parked outside a makeshift morgue. A gigantic white Navy hospital ship with red crosses on the side was moored further down. To my left was a tiny camouflaged army tank. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.” This is both a vow and an explanation that, for me, peace has to be the way. No vengeance. No more killing.
As of this weekend, Sareve Dukat, across the hall from me, has not been found.
E-mail from Jesus Diaz: “Jon Simonds recalls how his father, Harold, a cab driver for 30 years who lived in Bensonhurst, would figure out the weather. ‘We could see the towers from outside our kitchen window. For many years he would tell us if it was going to rain, or be one of those muggy days, just by the way the clouds formed around the towers. We didn’t need a radio.’ We both agreed Harold’s Tuesday forecast would have been,’I can see the towers. It’s gonna be a beautiful day—there’s not a cloud in the sky.’ ”
E-mail from Doug Matsouoka in Hawaii:
“When you get a chance just hit the reply button. OK?”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2001