Editor’s note: The following article, by Tom Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman, was published originally on September 19, 2001. We’re running it now to mark the fifth anniversary of New York’s saddest day.
City of Ghosts
100 Minutes of Tragedy That Will Haunt Us All
September 19, 2001
by Tom Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman
At 9:59 on the morning of Day One, with the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower, a rain of fine gray dust began settling on lower Manhattan. It coated the streets and cars, the trapped rescue vehicles, the trees in the parks, the late summer flowers, the faces and clothes of the panicky citizens rushing for their lives; it nestled on the hats and helmets of the police and firefighters, and into the hair of the emergency medical workers.
The rain thickened 30 minutes later with the fall of the second tower, leaving a dusty carpet inches thick on the gleaming new glass financial houses in Battery Park City, on the restored fountain in front of City Hall, on the old, narrow, crooked streets of the financial district, the ones that drove Melville’s Bartleby mad with their looming high walls.
The ash could be seen rising from the angry red and yellow flames that raged high above the city after the demon airplanes struck. It was carried on billowing clouds of black smoke that rose into a bright blue sky where a faint half-moon still hung, the last emblem of the innocent night before. A steady northwest breeze steered it over the harbor, past Governor’s Island into Brooklyn and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
In the hours after the terrible cataclysm, those trodding through the lower Manhattan streets, their footsteps muffled as though in fresh snow, realized the powder that some called ash and soot was also made of something else: Concrete dust. It was the buildings themselves, pulverized by the billions of pounds of downward pressure generated by the collapse.
What had that impossible event felt like close up? “First, this tremendous wind. Then it was like you put your hand inside a sand castle; it just crumbled,” said Felix Sanchez, 46, who, with two dozen coworkers, ran 30 blocks to the site to help.
Some 425,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured into the Twin Towers as they rose in the late 1960s. Concrete formed the thick slabs dividing the 110 floors of each building and was also poured 70 feet deep into the ground to hold the mighty steel beams that supported the buildings’ vertical loads. It was enough concrete, as its builders then proudly proclaimed, to pave a five-foot-wide sidewalk all the way from Manhattan to Washington, D.C.
“The scale was cyclopean,” said Eric Darton, who wrote a critical history of the towers two years ago and watched their final chapter from the windows of his doctor’s office on Tuesday.
More than 1.2 million cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated to make way for the World Trade Center. More than 200,000 tons of steel were used, each beam weighing 52 tons. There were 43,600 narrow windows—containing 600,000 square feet of glass. When the building was completed, every inch of pane was cleaned by automatic machines that moved vertically along stainless steel tracks. There were 99 elevators, arranged by zones so that no trip took more than two minutes. Five million square feet of painted gypsum board formed interiors, along with 7 million square feet of acoustical tiles, 200,000 lighting fixtures, 40,000 doorknobs, 1200 soap dispensers.
It was so rock solid then: A pair of 1350-foot-tall monuments visible on clear days from Bear Mountain in the north to Sandy Hook in the south. They were a guide and compass for anyone lost in the city. They were the gargantuan presence against which all large things were measured. “As big as the World Trade Center” was a universal yardstick. When King Kong was remade in 1976, the gorilla’s final fatal climb was shifted from the Empire State Building to the new towers. The moviemakers constructed an immense replica of the fallen beast in the plaza, surrounded by fake rubble. Office workers staring from the 80th floor remarked how tiny the mighty Kong looked.
The Twin Towers were the first buildings to catch the rising sun, reflecting a brilliant light off their metallic finish. Israeli-born architect Eli Attia, who designed the sleek Millenium Hilton Hotel across Church Street from the Trade Center, was awakened every morning in his Brooklyn bedroom by the light. “Winter or summer, the reflected light from the towers filled our windows,” he said. Toward sunset, before the electric lights came on, from a certain angle the towers resembled a pair of mammoth trees.
Great tragedies leave behind legions of ghosts. They are the ghosts of those who perished, who would otherwise walk the streets, ride the subways and buses, dine in restaurants, toil at their jobs, laugh aloud in movie theaters, hold their children, make love to their partners. There one minute, they are suddenly disappeared, leaving only echoes, photographs, and intangible, ever-fading memories.
Insulated from the direst natural storms, modern New York City nevertheless has had its own experience with enormous loss. At its virulent peak in 1994, AIDS-related deaths claimed more than 8300. By last year, the disease had killed 74,000. For those in the communities most affected during the epidemic’s early days—gay men, intravenous drug users—it was not uncommon for people to have attended dozens of funerals. The deluge of death was so overwhelming for many in those communities, as Guy Trebay recorded eloquently in these pages in 1995, that an army of ghosts seemed to be everywhere, haunting the survivors.
So, too, for the city’s then small Honduran community after a jealous spurned lover set fire to a crowded illegal Bronx social club called “Happy Land” in 1990, killing 87. A single DC-8 carried 50 bodies back to the island for burial. The event still haunts the city’s Honduran families, who attend an annual memorial mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Crotona Parkway and then walk to the site of the fire, where a monument has been erected.
Haunted as well are the city neighborhoods that took the brunt of the deadly crack cocaine epidemic in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the city’s murder rate crested at 2245. In the largely African American community of East New York, Brooklyn, there were 126 murders in 1993. Death came so often and so regularly in such close quarters that it was impossible to find anyone who had not suffered the violent loss of a friend or family member.
None match the vast new army of ghosts created within 100 lethal minutes between the moment the first plane struck to the collapse of the second tower on the otherwise resplendent morning of September 11.
How many died? The numbers, made purposefully vague by authorities fearful for public morale, are a moving target. On Monday, the estimate of those missing or dead stood at 5623. Gathered together, the victims would overflow the bleachers in Yankee Stadium.
But if the horrifying numbers are still imprecise, the ghosts have already assembled. They are there in the hundreds of posters created by distraught family members and friends, taped to trees, telephone booths, mailboxes, bus shelters, and vans. More than 1000 have been attached to the plywood “Wall of Prayer” at the entrance to Bellevue Hospital, just south of the grim East 30th Street offices of the city’s medical examiner, where refrigerated trucks hold corpses and body parts. An astonishing number of the posters are computer-generated snapshots: pictures from weddings, from vacation cruises, from barbecues. Some are of businessmen and women posing proudly in front of the tall buildings that have become their likely tomb. Some, of parents with their children, read “Hurry Home Daddy.”
The names are a New York symphony: Foti, Costello, Puckett, Barbella, Luparello, Morris, Faragher, Zinzi, Smith, Kumar, Ramos, Supinski, Bergstein, Barnes, Cho, Callahan, DeSantis, Wong, Dedvukaj, Villanueva, Cahill, Traina, Zeng. Even Rockefeller.
Likewise, the colors of the faces range from pale to dark, with every shade in between. Did the attackers imagine their victims? Did they picture the heathens they sought to punish as one class, one race, one color? If so, they failed miserably. The roster of the dead and the missing is inexorably democratic: There are investment bankers, secretaries, electricians, janitors, cops, firemen, photographers, delivery workers, bond brokers, cooks, waiters, dishwashers, lawyers, painters, and accountants.
The hijackers, who were in their twenties and thirties, apparently did have one thing in common with many of their victims: youth. “I had a very young staff,” said Howard Lutnick, chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading company, as he tearfully described losing more than 600 of his employees.
Turn back the clock, omit those dreadful minutes, and what would everyone be doing? What would be happening in these towers and streets minus the deadly debris, crushing rubble, and the bleak gray carpet?
We know that Eliezer Jimenez, 38, would be cooking at Windows on the World, the famous restaurant where tables were arranged to afford a glorious view for all diners. That bond broker Jason Defazio, 29, might be opening the pictures from his wedding three months ago after getting a seat on the express bus from Staten Island to his job at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of Tower One. That Christopher Duffy, all of 23 years old, would be anticipating a Saturday night beer at Tin Lizzie’s on Second Avenue with his fellow Villanova graduates after he finished work at Keefe Bruyette & Woods. That Elizabeth Holmes, 42, of Harlem, her long braids swinging, would be coming up from the IRT and starting her day with a cup of tea at her desk.
We know that the saloon next to Windows on the World, modestly dubbed The Greatest Bar on Earth, would be gearing up for Mambo night or Funk night or Swing night, anticipating the usual throng of Wall Street workers and city employees, all dressed for the occasion in “cocktail casual.”
We know that Borders Books & Music at 5 World Trade Center, overlooking Vesey Street, would be preparing to host that week’s guest author, browsers moving through its aisles. That the aroma from the Krispy Kreme store next door would be seducing many through its doors. We know that the concourse below the towers—the city’s largest indoor mall—would be filled with people, many of them from among the 50,000 daily commuters exiting the subways, or rising on a massive bank of escalators from the New Jersey PATH trains. We know that the city’s shrewdest clothing shoppers would be eagerly pawing through the racks of Century 21 across Church Street in the old bank building, where Polo shirts or, on occasion, a Galliano gown, were savagely reduced from their original prices.
We know that people would still be talking about the series of outdoor summer concerts on the plaza, where musicians John Gorka, Mark Lindsay, Savoy Brown, and the David Cedeno Orchestra all provided free entertainment under the stars. Visitors would still flock to the windswept five-acre plaza, named after Port Authority leader and Trade Center pioneer Austin J. Tobin. Believe it or not, designers had St. Mark’s Square in Venice in mind when they laid it out, encircling it with a huge Gothic arcade.
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.”
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.
Headed back to the disaster site to dig some more, Sullivan said: “There are red suspenders and puppy dogs and cats in trees and all that stuff, and then sometimes the shit hits the fan and it gets very real.”
On Wednesday, the day after the collapse, a young couple from North Carolina named Tori Branch and Mark Rushing are trying to make their way back to the apartment they had fled on South End Avenue in Battery Park City. On West Street, near Stuyvesant High School, they talk their way past a cop wearing a Suffolk County shoulder patch, then a National Guardsman. Their shoes send up clouds of gray dust as they walk through the park along the river. Everywhere there is the litter of millions of pieces of paper, the burst files of a thousand destroyed offices: graphs with numbers, charts covered in Chinese lettering, pink buy and sell forms from brokerage houses, stern-sounding official letters from federal agencies.
Tori and Mark moved to the city in December from Raleigh. “We just wanted to be in New York,” said Tori. Mark found a job with an investment firm. Tori planned on attending New York University. They had been concerned about finding an apartment, but the first real estate broker they visited steered them to the high-rise building at 200 Gateway Plaza. Directly out the window, to their delight, was one of the treasures they’d sought in their move north: the Twin Towers. “We love it,” said Mark, like most people in the city, still using the present tense about the monolith. “The World Trade Center is such a magnificent building, just to think that people could design and achieve something like that. It’s inspiring.”
There is little doubt the city will commence the job of rebuilding, filling in the view again across from their apartment. This time, like Nehemiah, the Old Testament king who rebuilt the destroyed walls of Jerusalem, workers will hold “a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.”
Additional reporting: Toni Schlesinger, Emma Nwegbo, James Wong, Carla Spartos
Letters from 9-11
I have just read “City of Ghosts” [September 25] by Tom Robbins and Jennifer Gonnerman. Although I wish that circumstances had never required such an article to be written, it was an extremely well-done piece that really helped me, a non-New Yorker, understand more of the personal side of the tragedy. In all of the television news and endless replaying of the attacks, it is all too easy to forget the smaller things, that the victims were real people just like us—they read books, they ate doughnuts, they had families and friends. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.