The day the nightmare scenario came true

By Ed Vulliamy

Crowds flee the billowing cloud of ash that followed the collapse of each tower. Photo / AP
Crowds flee the billowing cloud of ash that followed the collapse of each tower. Photo / AP

"I think you'd better wake up,"
said a voice in my left ear.

"The World Trade Centre's on fire." It was very decent of my partner to stir me.

I had stayed out late in my local, Johnny's Bar, after a New York Yankees game against the Chicago White Sox had been rained off and gone to sleep on the sitting room sofa, clothed, which was just as well.

Because within 30 seconds, we were both down on the corner of my block where West 11th Street crosses 6th Avenue, to behold what looked like the world's end: the last burst of flame as a plane cut into the south tower of the World Trade Centre and black smoke billowed from the inferno of the northernmost edifice. (My partner had seen the first plane, returning from taking her daughter to school.) People were still eating eggs Benedict at the sidewalk tables outside French Roast on the corner. Nikko's, the splendid newsagent, was open for business as usual, as was Ray's Original Pizza across the avenue. But 20 blocks south was this inexplicable, horrendous spectacle.

People stared without knowing what to do or say. We went into New World Coffee, bought cappuccinos and, clutching our drinks, walked instinctively and briskly down the empty street towards the now burning towers, saying - as I recall - nothing, for there was nothing meaningful to say. Then, just as we crossed Grand Street, the unthinkable happened.

In slow motion, and with what seemed to be a murderous silence, the top of the north tower peeled away into itself, belching a cloud of hellish dust, and fell into its own footprint, hurtling gradually (yes, it is an oxymoron, but that is how it was) towards the ground. "Holy shit," said a man walking behind me and we broke into a run towards the now single, standing, burning tower, against a tide of people running in the opposite direction, away from it.

Something hard-wired - part personal, part professional - propelled me towards the building. The certainty that thousands of people were probably dying before my eyes was at the back, not the front, of my mind. Such horrible magnitude takes time to register - what mattered in that moment was to get to that building. Somewhere south of Chambers Street, a police cordon blocked the way to anyone heading south, while crowds of people streamed northwards away from the billowing, pale grey dust that obstructed the view and burned one's face. Looking up, the view was oddly clearer and we saw what seemed to be flies hurtling into mid-air from the upper floors of the tower, not knowing - or thinking to know - what they were.

I pleaded with a police officer to let me through, brandishing my press card, driving licence and whatever else I could find in my wallet. With a stubbornness for which I am eternally grateful, the officer refused me passage and I had just spotted a means of getting past him - the open window of a restaurant with a door giving on to West Broadway on the other side of the police line - when an awful sound, like a train rattling into hell, filled the heavens and the tower above us imitated its neighbour, crumbling into the dust of its own once-mighty prowess. Now we all fled: covered in dust, so thick on the ground that as we did so, hundreds of us, our footsteps made no sound. A few blocks back up north, we turned around to look at ... at nothing but pulverised concrete, through which and into which the towers that had formed the omnipresent backdrop to our lives in downtown had been felled by a force America had hitherto never encountered.

Less than a month previously, there had been a concert by Radiohead, in Liberty State Park, just across the water at the foot of the Twin Towers.

At one point, my friend and I looked away from the stage and up at them, these great columns of clean silver steel and twinkling light towering over the crowds and the Statue of Liberty. They seemed utterly omnipotent, even arrogant, pillars of capitalism, but unimpeachable, because they were so much more beautiful than the grubby system they represented. Thom Yorke was singing a soundtrack to the moment, a track that perfectly serenaded the towers' charisma - Everything in its right place.

I could see the towers from the corner of my block and, like every New Yorker, gave them at least a glance - and often a lingering gaze - every time I crossed the avenue to grab a coffee or a subway train, if only because they were the best way to tell the time of day. Their clean, vertical steel girders trapped the brilliant sunlight and its depth: a deep gold at the eastern edge in early morning, becoming paler towards midday and deepening again to a tangerine glow at dusk. At twilight, the towers shimmered; at night, they were like pearly columns. They had a special, spectral quality after rain and, if low cloud wrapped the city, they pierced it from below, their summits hidden - an image immortalised on the cover of Don DeLillo's epic American novel Underworld. Their steel girders were designed by the towers' architect, Minoru Yamasaki, to echo medieval and gothic motifs of the tree of life; they were invigorating, defiant.

They were recent history: most New Yorkers could remember a time when the skyline looked ... well, as it did after that September morning. The towers had muscled their way into the sky, the creation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a body accountable to no one, which wrested the project from the city and state, and the combined brawn of Wall Street, political eminences and construction unions.

They had come to supplant even the Empire State Building as the signature of mankind's most audacious architectural enterprise, Manhattan, and were the symbol of the city's emergence from slump and a scrape with bankruptcy in the 1970s. They were also a city within a city, 110 storeys of social geology, a frantic and workaholic community of 100,000 people - the logic of al-Qaeda's "act of war", which was one as much against caretakers, secretaries, pizza delivery and shoeshine boys as it was against minor traders, for there were few masters of the universe working in the World Trade Centre.

One of the first things I did was to make a call from a public phone some four blocks from the wreckage, which - unlike our cellphones - was working. There were two others in the queue to use it; a woman who had arrived late for work and thereby been spared her life, and a suited man shaking and covered in dust, who said only: "What is this? What is this?" I made calls to my newspaper and the mother of my children.

Everywhere, people were running - some had blood streaming from cuts to their heads - while others simply gawped, rubbed their eyes, wiped the dust from their faces.

It took some time before the authorities established a no-go area south of Houston Street and we walked slowly north, barred from the scene that was already being called "Ground Zero", as ambulances screamed through this apocalyptic morning in the slipstream of the firefighters and police. A woman hurled herself at the police line: "My baby's in there! My baby's in there!" Most people just stared at the gaping absence on the skyline, through a billow of now blackening smoke. There was a sudden panic of people rushing by - "They're coming back," shouted someone - but nothing stirred in the deep blue sky. "The Pentagon's been hit," said another; "Aw, cut the bullshit," came the retort.

By nightfall, St Vincent's hospital, a block away from my apartment, was bathed in floodlight and surrounded by cameras, taking in the wounded from fleets of ambulances, arriving from Houston Street, where they were loaded from stretchers by tireless, heroic paramedics. The Reverend Lloyd Prator was a neighbour of mine, rector of St John's Episcopal church in the West Village, who answered a ministerial call to St Vincent's hospital and at Ground Zero. He had been at the hospital entrance blessing a wounded firefighter, who may or may not have lived, while the towers were still standing; when he looked up again, one of the towers was gone.

September 12
Next morning, a Wednesday, what I call "the New York Week" began. My day started as close to Ground Zero as was possible, trying to find words worthy of the landscape. Already, there were accounts of thousands of casualties and hundreds among the fire and other emergency services who had responded too quickly and bravely for their own good. It was mid-afternoon when the first flyer appeared, attached to a mailbox on the corner of 6th Avenue and 10th street: "Missing: Giovanna "Gennie" Gambale." She had a radiant smile and there was a number to call.

That evening, we had a delayed birthday party. A dear friend, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, had moved from Europe a few days previously to become the paper's foreign editor. We had spent Sunday afternoon walking with his mother-in-law and youngest daughter, Adele. The 11th had been Adele's fourth birthday and the celebrations had been cancelled, so we held them on the 12th instead; an evening of wrapping paper, take-out pizza, cake and candles.

September 13
By the morning of the 13th, a form of unwonted life had taken root; the inexplicable had become almost routine with unwelcome haste, the monstrosity a natural condition, the canons established.

The wall from Ray's Pizza along 11th Street to St Vincent's hospital was, by midday, covered with notices headed "Missing" and photocopied or computer-printed faces staring out at us and numbers wailing for help. An inquiry centre for those searching was established across the road from my front steps. The aim of the centre was to connect those who had survived the collapse of the towers with those looking for them. In reality, it became a place connecting the seekers with howling silence.

Arrangements also had to be made for, as mayor Rudy Giuliani put it tactfully, "children who have not been picked up by their parents". A woman called Sara Maddux tried to help Luis Morales with news of his missing wife, from behind a teaching lectern; she told him there was none and offered him coffee, which he sipped in tears and disbelief.

The volunteers advised that my contribution could be no more than minimal, beyond offering refreshments and use of my lavatory upstairs, which I did. It proved to be - as a journalist, I must confess it - a good way to hear the stories of the relatives of the missing.

And from that morning on, the missing would remain forever so. Although we kept using the term "rescue workers", the last survivor to be hauled out of the wreckage was found on the morning of the 13th. Al-Qaeda had killed as yet inestimable thousands, but wounded few.

By now, the carpets of tributes, candles and flowers had begun to form. There were two nearby: one round the corner in Washington Square, where I would usually read the papers, and another up in Union Square, where I usually frequented Barnes & Noble, but in which vigils were now held overnight, from September 12 onwards, and people assembled, for no reason but to be together.

Strewn across both spaces, at makeshift shrines, were gifts people had wanted to leave for the dead - or whoever it was: the survivors, the bereaved, for New York. These were primal, occult offerings: favourite cigarette lighters, fancy pens, teddy bears and even watches and cheap jewellery. As far as I could tell, none of it was stolen. Flowers were everywhere - in bunches and loose, lambent colours in the bright September weather, in defiance of the clouds of smoke and the pall of despair and mourning. Among the confetti of messages and tributes was one that read simply: "Donde estan las torres?" - where are the towers? Every time we crossed an avenue now, we stared, with utter disbelief, at ...nothing.

There was much in the air and on the news - quite quickly - about how New York would become a humbler city from now on. How the greedy belligerence that emanated from Wall Street would be tempered; the vanities not so much put on a bonfire, but moderated.

But I noticed one thing at lunchtime on September 13 which I pretended to ignore: at the corner of 6th Avenue and Houston was an extraordinary scene: this was the outer barrier around Ground Zero, the furthest south the public could go. There, around the tributes reading: "I Love New York More Than Ever", paramedics would arrive and discharge their stretchers from ambulances, loading other vehicles with the wounded and body bags. The fire services used this junction for logistics that did not need to be at the kernel of the catastrophe, their workload huge but systematic and strangely calm. But also at this intersection was the Da Silvano restaurant, a favourite haunt of the beautiful people, and why should all this calamity necessitate the cancellation of a lunch date? There they were, around the outdoor tables, Brooks Brothers blazers across the backs of chairs, chest hair under expensive shirts, elegant legs crossed and stiletto heels flicked by perfect ankles as the laughter and chatter swept the tabletops. Heavy beads of grimy sweat meandered down crevices in the firemen's faces; light drops of condensation glided down the outside of glasses of excellent sauvignon blanc. Everyone was saying that al-Qaeda would not cow New York - and they were right.

That afternoon, I got as close as I had hitherto to the core of the catastrophe, the point below Canal Street where rescue workers and the emergency services would come up for air and body bags be loaded into ambulances. There were people to talk to who did not yet know what the
word "despair" meant, digging with spades, heavy machinery, fingers. "There are always pockets, like caves," insisted a fireman called Mel Myers from Ladder Company 103. I met a man called Stanley, built like a prize fighter, with curses to match, from the ladder company right around the corner from my apartment. Over two days, he had lost at least three of his workmates, who, driven by gut instinct and training, had been retrieving "body parts and bodies". But when he heard that one of his missing colleagues was safe after all, it was too much for him. He ripped off his helmet and mask, collapsed on the kerb, took a deep breath and choked up.

Over and over again, firefighters were ordered to leave the scene and over and over again they refused. "If any of you have completed your 24-hour shift, please go," came a deputy chief's plea down a loud hailer in Battery Park, where the men rested beneath a layer of ash. Two dozen rose, then sat down again. Teams of "moles" - experts in subterranean work, including a man I knew from years back, Russ Schneider, who looked after the piping system beneath Grand Central Station - joined the firefighters to search out viable routes through the catacombs beneath Ground Zero.

Entwined with the heroism were reports of appalling blunders: first, the news that people escaping the inferno by running down the stairwells had been told to turn around and go back up again. A broker called Arturo Domingo told the New York Times that he had seen a man with a bullhorn telling fleeing office workers to return upstairs and had "felt like punching him in the face". I went to Brooklyn to see a woman called Mary Thomas who worked in an architect's studio and remembered office workers being told to remain in their seats. She disobeyed to join what turned out to have been a two-way rush, up as well as down the staircases.

September 14
Friday, and at last I reached Ground Zero, not to accompany or observe the "rescue" operation as I had wished, but to watch George W Bush finally become President of the United States. He had vanished to the midwest after the attacks, then returned to Washington for an apparently tearful broadcast from the Oval Office and only now came to New York. For three days, the US President was effectively mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City. We later learned that on the way to the site, New York's Republican Governor, George Pataki, looking at the crowds flanking the motorcade, had said to Bush: "See those people? None of them voted for you" - New York was not Dubya's kind of town. Bush would later recall, however, a different voice saying: "Don't let me down" and he didn't.

We were corralled through a hundred different checks and searches, and with spine-chilling proximity to the great shard of steel, all that remained of the fallen south tower. By clinging to an ABC television crew, I managed to get close to a charred truck, which a rescue worker called Bob Beckwith was asked to test for stability as a podium on which the President might stand. He did. Bush clambered up, put his arm around the 68-year-old old man's shoulder, and kept it there.

Then something interesting happened: secret servicemen moved towards the truck to remove Beckwith but were stopped by none other than Karl Rove, Bush's image-maker and closest aide, who had already seen in his mind's eye what was about to happen. Someone thrust a megaphone into Bush's hand and he embarked on a version of the pedestrian speech he had been making all week: "America today is on bended knee in prayer ..."

September 15
By Saturday, the flag was everywhere. Old Glory had made its debut appearance, unforgettably, on September 11 itself, hoist in a landscape smothered by the dust of death by three firemen on to a fallen antenna which had only hours beforehand stood at the apex of the north tower. It was a simple, instinctive gesture, charged with defiance and mourning.

During New York's week, the flag became a bandanna, a wristband, T-shirt or mini-skirt. Even the venerable New York Times printed flags across entire pages for fixing to windows. Flying the flag in New York that week said many things: it expressed grief, it was a flag of mourning, replacing black armbands or ribbons, of which I saw none - they were included in the Stars and Stripes. The flag was also a way of saying that the city was aware, every second, that as many as 6000 of its citizens could be buried down there, beneath the rubble.

In parallel to the inevitable patriotism, something more complicated was happening to the flag in New York. Swelling candlelit vigils assembled in Washington and Union squares at either end of Greenwich Village, entwining the feelings of sorrow and loss with a plea for peace. The blankets of little flames, flowers and offering were accompanied by tributes and messages, such as "An eye for an eye makes the world blind" and "War is not the answer".

The flag was claimed as a badge of peace in a way that could not happen outside America - by making the flag a totem of their own, these people thought (incorrectly, sad to say) that they could influence events undertaken in its name. In Union Square, the equestrian statue of George Washington was adorned with that famous pastiche of Old Glory, devised and ubiquitous in the 1960s and still common now, in which the stars are replaced by a peace sign.

During the second week after 9/11, I spent most of the time either at Ground Zero - when I could get in, which was not often - or in the bars that operated like caves in tunnels of wooden hoardings delineating the secure zone, buying beer for rescue workers. Friends living around Ground Zero would also hold street parties - perhaps one should call them "gatherings" - for their own solace and to entertain those who had come from all over America to volunteer in numbers so great that many were turned away, as was anyone wishing to give blood - the banks were full.

Most of the workers were the salt of the earth, decent ironworkers, construction workers and welders from America's ravaged industrial heartlands - Ohio, Illinois, Michigan - come to cut through the tangled steel and rubble in the heart of New York, clear the devastation, dig into the death chambers and help in the recovery of body parts. A man called Mike Ledson at a cook-out organised by friends on Reade Street told how he dreaded calling his son in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, each night, because he would always ask: "Dad, did you save anyone today?"

In the bars, the etiquette was to buy a bucket of a dozen Buds on ice, which was a way of getting stories and a gesture of civic gratitude. A rescue worker called Paul Morales wiped the dust from his forehead, swigged his Bud, and said: "You don't find bodies, just parts." A firefighter from the Bronx even saw a perverse sign of relief, or at least of clarification, ahead: "We're getting down so low in some areas, I think they've all been pulverised."

September 18
I had managed to get on to Ground Zero on Sunday, September 16, thanks to a facility allowing reporters to report on players for the New York Giants football team coming to meet the rescue workers. But I only really got to walk Ground Zero on Tuesday, September 18, thanks to a contact in the emergency services who smuggled me in. This time, no presidential address, no secret service entourage, no sports stars. Just drifts of skin-burning dust and mountains of mangled metal, rubble and devastation. Among it, quiet, determined work, making little sound, given its magnitude and scale.

And that shard of the building itself, still standing, diagonally, as though speaking of a moment that came and went past like the apocalypse itself.

The ground was still so hot that the rubber on the soles of my boots melted. It was hard to keep my footing on the jagged strands of steel that had once been among the tallest buildings in the world. I felt acutely aware that this was a mass grave for people who had done no more, or less, than go to work one morning.

I also got a quick look at a Brooks Brothers store that had been converted into a makeshift morgue; what appeared to be pieces of dirt were analysed, categorised and packaged by people wearing white tunics, in total silence. I could see, from a viewing point, body bags being loaded by National Guardsmen into refrigerated trucks - mobile morgues. My friend also took me to meet drivers of what felt like a funeral procession through the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel and over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, hauling the debris 10 miles (16.09km) and through 10 checkpoints to a landfill site called - they couldn't have made it up - Fresh Kills.

Slowly, the families of the dead began to talk. Gracious Nancy Suhr, whose husband, Dan - nicknamed "Captain America" - was a firefighter with Engine Company 216, like his father before him.

Kevin Hannafin was a fireman who had torn into the blazing towers, as had his brother, Tom, who had worked at a ladder station near my home, Company 5; Kevin lived, Tom didn't. Kevin was part of the search team that found his brother's body and took his helmet from the wreckage.

There was a bond between these people as they built up support groups between them and rebuilt their families with empty spaces at the table for Thanksgiving, 2001 - an intimacy encapsulated by the only great novel to emerge from the calamity - Don Delillo's Falling Man. Delillo's book was not the only great artistic project to arise in such a dynamic city, though: in Soho, a gallery was handed over to anyone who wanted to exhibit two personal pictures they had taken of the attacks and their aftermath, later turned into a book, Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.

September 21
The following Friday, September 21, Giuliani gave a press conference in which he said of the search for the missing: "We still hope and pray, but the chance is very, very small." I remember a fireman emerging from the inferno on to Canal Street and saying to a group of three of us: "Please don't give people false hope." No one had been recovered alive since September 13. Convoys of trucks lined up to carry mountains of rubble to a landfill across the water in New Jersey - rubble from the Marriott hotel alone was six storeys high.

In a bizarre twist, certain songs were banned on the radio, out of respect. They were a strange collection: Ticket to Ride by the Beatles, On Broadway by the Drifters, What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong.

And, more ominously than strangely, radio stations were told that the entire oeuvre of Rage against the Machine was to be considered "questionable" - a diktat so outrageous that the estimable guitarist Tom Morello was obliged to put out a statement saying that the band are "diametrically opposed to the kind of horrible violence committed against innocent people ... if our songs are 'questionable' in any way, it is that they encourage people to question the kind of ignorance that breeds intolerance - intolerance which leads to censorship and the extinguishing of our civil liberties, or at its extremes can lead to the kind of violence we witnessed last week". We made a point of playing Morello's music at high volume, with the windows wide open. Attacks on Muslims began around America, some of them fatal.

The drift from grief to war was a fast one. Bumper stickers appeared reading: "We have faith in God, but nuke'em just in case", funny but dangerous. The story of the bellicosity of the rest of America, beyond New York, and the agenda of the Bush administration and constituencies within it - bent on war, in alliance with Britain - are well known. I was not the only person to think and write at the time: "It is no exaggeration: nothing will be the same in New York again" and: "No one in New York can be the same again".

That is the last time I shall ever write anything of that apocalyptic nature about any occurrence.

I no longer believe in apocalyptic moments and my trade's search for the oxymoronic idea of serial apocalypse is one of its most fundamental flaws. Life lurches on, and apart from those glasses of sauvignon blanc yards from the body bags on September 13, the first hint of the way things would proceed came during a squabble over the claim by the owners and developers of the World Trade Centre and their Swiss insurers over whether two disasters or one had occurred (one for each tower) with obvious implications for the pay-out.

There was also the question of what would happen to the site; the mass grave, itself. There were some good ideas, one of which was for a park shaped as a mound, the top curve of a circle which, had it continued underground, would have embraced the dead.

The glaringly obvious monument to the those who died on September 11 was the great steel shard that remained of the south tower. It could so easily have been secured and stood, in a park upon the site of the fallen towers of which it was itself once part, as one of the simplest and most cogent monuments in the world.

Alternatively, New York could have kept the great towers of light which appeared soon after the attacks, spectral ghosts of the fallen buildings.

But the lights were switched off and the shard removed to make way for Freedom Tower, another cash-till - for money means more than memory in New York.

Within a few years, the city that was supposed to be humbled by the shattering experience was the stage for a very different kind of collapse - the bulimic crash of Lehman Brothers and other titans of international finance, whose limitless arrogance and greed had exceeded even its own expectations. Lehman had, come to think of it, given an early clue: in the immediate aftermath of the carnage, it had negotiated a friendly takeover of the Sheraton Manhattan hotel on 7th Avenue north of 51st Street and, within a week of the attacks, was refurbishing 665 rooms - beds removed, office tables and filing cabinets installed - so that 1500 bankers could get to work, selling stocks, bonds and, as it turned out, toxic debt.

Most of us who stayed on in New York became used to the empty space, I suppose, but as someone who returns only intermittently to the place that was my adoptive native city during the week after 9/11, I still stare down 6th Avenue, wondering what in hell happened. During that second New York week, I took a ride on the Brooklyn to Manhattan ferry one morning, to report on the new service, for which residents had campaigned in vain for years, but which was now introduced because the towers had collapsed into the subway. The 200 or so passengers on its debut crossing gaped at the still smouldering emptiness of the skyline before us. My companion, who taught at NYU, delivered the ultimate insult: "It looks like Boston."

The towers had been built to last. Before 9/11, a lecturer at New York University, Eric Darton, had written a good book on the manipulative politics behind the construction, Divided We Stand.

In the days after 9/11, it shared the city's bestsellers list alongside the prophecies of Nostradamus and literature on al-Qaeda. In it, Darton wrote: "Yamasaki had engineered his towers to withstand the force of a 747 shearing into them - the nightmare scenario."

Towering impact

2996
People killed in the attacks, including the 19 hijackers

3051
Children lost a parent

20 per cent
Of Americans say they knew someone hurt or killed

146,100
Jobs lost in New York

US$105 billion.
Economic loss to New York in month following the attacks.

422,000
Estimated number of New Yorkers suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder as a result of 9/11

Share your memories and stories of the day that shook the world here

Plus

Next Saturday's Weekend Herald will have a special report on how 9/11 changed New Zealand. Human rights lawyers, the family of a terror victim, young Muslims and a veteran of two Army missions in Afghanistan discuss how their lives have been affected by the events of September 11, 2001.

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