"It began as an ordinary Tuesday in late summer..."
On this somber anniversary, we share a first-person account of the scene in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, by NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl, and a poem by Joan Murray.
(Paul Grondahl/Times Union archives)
Grondahl: The immediate images and impact of 9/11 never fade
ALBANY — My sneakers kicked up scattered sheets of paper that had fluttered down like dead leaves from offices pulverized after the second of the twin towers pancaked to the ground just minutes earlier.
What remained a couple blocks north of ground zero was ankle-deep gray ash and concrete dust that blanketed Broadway at Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. It began as an ordinary Tuesday in late summer and ended in heart-wrenching images of destruction that changed the world utterly. I stopped to try to interview a firefighter. He stumbled along in a daze, caked with ash and sweat. He mumbled a few words in a low whisper, then lowered his head and closed his eyes. More than 400 firefighters and police officers who rushed to assist victims in the twin towers were killed.
An acrid tang of burning metal as thick as syrup soaked the air and irritated my nostrils. The shrill wail of sirens reverberated off skyscrapers. I moved south, turned west on Barclay Street, drawn to the oily-black inferno of 7 World Trade Center.
The ash was several inches deep now. Greenwich Street was lined on both sides with New York City police and fire trucks: battered, windows blackened or smashed by falling debris. Small fires burned inside a couple vehicles. No. 7 of the WTC complex, a 47-story office building just north of the towers, heaved and groaned like a wounded beast and belched a plume of tar-thick smoke. It was about 10:45 a.m. I pushed the camera’s shutter button and quickly finished the 36-exposure roll. I tried to document the apocalyptic scene as police officers, firefighters, EMTs and emergency personnel crisscrossed urban blocks that had morphed into a surreal landscape more lunar than earthly.
Someone handed me a surgical mask, which first responders wore to protect against the toxic stew choking the air. Soon, cops ordered me to move uptown. I began interviewing people. I spoke to an office messenger who was making deliveries in the South Tower when it was struck by a hijacked jet at 9:03 a.m. He felt the building shudder. He said a recording played on the intercom, telling workers to return to their desks to await further instructions. Instead, he fled the building, along with thousands of others who defied orders and likely survived.
“Nothing’s left,” he said.
For the next five days, I reported from the epicenter of the nation’s defining trauma, the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil in U.S. history that left nearly 3,000 dead — including nine families with local ties who lost a family member in the 9/11 attacks. On the second day, Times Union photographer Steve Jacobs managed to catch the only PATH train from New Jersey and we worked together. It was a global story unleashed by a suicide mission carried out by 19 jihadis who hijacked jetliners with box cutters in the name of the Islamic extremist group al- Qaida and leader Osama Bin Laden. They targeted symbols of American capitalism and military might. The U.S. responded with a 20-year war against terrorism in Afghanistan and, at home, an era of harassment and attacks against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent became an insidious byproduct. The nation’s longest conflict ended with a stinging loss for America as the repressive Taliban regime regained control of the country during a chaotic American withdrawal that drew comparisons to the Vietnam War debacle.
That’s the wide-angle view, a historian’s perspective from the distance of two decades. But on that terrible day in September, all I could do was focus on a grim close-up of staggering loss. I saw the worst and best of humanity in those scorched 16 acres where the twin towers had stood.
I had stumbled unwittingly into the heart of the story. I had boarded an early-morning Amtrak train at Rensselaer with Jack Waite, principal of an Albany architectural firm, and his wife, Diana, an architectural historian. They had completed an extensive restoration of the historic Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan and were going to give me a tour for a feature story. I had booked an early-evening return train and carried a notebook, a couple of pens, a bottle of water and my Nikon FM camera loaded with a roll of film.
At Yonkers, there was a rising chatter among passengers with cellphones and I could make out phrases: Hijacked planes. ... twin towers and the Pentagon. ... Terrorist attacks. It was shortly before 9:45 a.m. A conductor told the passengers there had been an emergency and they needed to clear the tracks. We had one minute to get off the train and wait for a northbound train, or stay on and go into Penn Station. I peered out a window and saw fire and smoke pouring out of the towers. Nearly all the passengers got off the train. The Waites and I stayed on. I bid goodbye to them at Penn Station, which was strangely empty. On the street, it was eerily quiet. I saw people crying, embracing and consoling each other on the sidewalk.
A river of pedestrians trudged uptown as I sidestepped the crowds and headed downtown. In the canyon of skyscrapers, I saw a beautiful blue sunny sky overhead, postcard-perfect. It was hot and I sweated through my polo shirt.
I fast-walked south, not sensing the enormity of the catastrophe until I started seeing men and women in business suits, dusted with ash, zombie-like, trudging north. They brushed me aside when I tried to speak to them.
I never felt afraid, but I did feel inadequate during that blur of sorrowful days when I came to understand why many call New York the greatest city in the world. What help could I offer amid this cataclysm, with my thin notebook and one roll of film? I did what journalists do: bear witness. Bring readers into the scene. Observe closely. Listen with empathy to people’s stories. Get out of the way of their narrative. New York City had suffered a devastating blow and picked itself up with resilience and grace under pressure. I observed rows of ironworkers in hard hats marching to the smoldering ruins, shouldering pick axes and shovels, volunteering to search through the still-burning pile. I watched medical personnel in scrubs lined up around the block outside New York-Presbyterian Hospital, preparing to triage injured survivors who never materialized.
I saw the second act of the human tragedy unfold at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on Manhattan’s west side. Waves of grief-stricken mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters searched for loved ones, taped up photocopied fliers with portraits of the missing and phone numbers to call.
I attended press conferences led by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki, who spoke in calm, reassuring tones. They urged people to stop bringing donations of clothing, food and water because highways entering New York were clogged for miles in every direction and emergency vehicles could not get through. I visited a burn center and interviewed a local woman who worked for a state agency who had been severely burned and was grateful she survived. I talked to rescue workers in St. Paul’s Chapel, remarkably undamaged just a block from ground zero. The chapel became a refuge where laborers gathered after digging through the smoldering pile and ate meals prepared by volunteers, rested in pews — soothed by counselors, clergy, chiropractors and massage therapists.
I remember standing in the amber glow of hundreds of candles flickering in the darkness at Union Square Park. Throngs of mourners kept a vigil going for the dead and missing for several nights and days. Mourners left flowers, heartfelt notes and teddy bears. A vast carpet of memorial items formed. The crowd was as diverse as the city itself, a melting pot united by communal grief. We held hands, linked arms, offered prayers and sang songs.
It was a hosanna lifted to the heavens, a counterpoint to the hellish landscape left where the towers stood.
I saw a sign that stayed with me: I Love New York. Now More Than Ever.
First published Wednesday, September 8, 2021. Albany Times Union
On this Times Union Eagle podcast, Paul recounts his experience covering the aftermath of the attacks from Ground Zero, something he never imagined he'd have had to do when he boarded that early train to Manhattan that morning.
"This poem was inspired when I met a group of firefighters on an Amtrak train on their way to dig at the World Trade Center site four days after the terror attacks. Read on NPR, the poem became something of an anthem and led to my anthology, Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times (Beacon Press), released on 11/11/01. The poem is included in the introduction."
-- Joan Murray
By Joan Murray
We thought that they were gone—
we rarely saw them on our screens—
those everyday Americans
with workaday routines,
and the heroes standing ready—
not glamorous enough—
on days without a tragedy,
we clicked—and turned them off.
We only saw the cynics—
the dropouts, show-offs, snobs—
the right- and left-wing critics:
we thought that they were us.
But with the wounds of Tuesday
when the smoke began to clear,
we rubbed away our stony gaze—
and watched them reappear:
the waitress in the tower,
the broker reading mail,
the pair of window washers,
filling up a final pail,
the husband's last "I love you"
from the last seat of a plane,
the tourist taking in a view
no one would see again,
the fireman, his eyes ablaze
as he climbed the swaying stairs—
he knew someone might still be saved.
We wondered who it was.
We glimpsed them through the rubble:
the ones who lost their lives,
the heroes' double burials,
the ones now "left behind,"
the ones who rolled a sleeve up,
the ones in scrubs and masks,
the ones who lifted buckets
filled with stone and grief and ash:
some spoke a different language—
still no one missed a phrase;
the soot had softened every face
of every shade and age—
"the greatest generation”?—
we wondered where they'd gone—
they hadn't left directions
how to find our nation-home:
for thirty years we saw few signs,
but now in swirls of dust,
they were alive— they had survived—
we saw that they were us.
© Joan Murray 2001
"Survivors--Found" was also published in the [Albany] Times Union today.