by Nick Taylor
On a cool bright morning fifteen years ago our house shook as a plane roared low overhead. A few seconds later the jet roar ended in a “thump.” I thought it sounded like a bomb exploding underwater and maybe it was a military exercise. In New York harbor?
The truth crashed in soon enough. Contractors were working in our house. One of them came to the door breathless: “A plane hit the World Trade Center!” I ran outside with him and joined the crowd gathering on Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street. A deep gash near the top of the North Tower, smoke, flames. The unspoken conviction that this was no accident.
Back at home, exciting radio voices talked about what I had just seen. It was a Tuesday morning, primary election day, and we were going to vote before Barbara left for work at WWOR-TV across the river in New Jersey. Now, she shifted gears to head for the scene. I needed to help her.
We walked downtown on Seventh Avenue. I was wearing shorts and flip-flops, carrying a bag of Barbara’s gear, the binoculars around my neck banging on my chest. I’ve wondered why I didn’t take a camera. I think back on what we saw and I wouldn’t want to look at it again.
We pressed on, now walking against a stream of people leading north, away from the towers. We could only see the North Tower; we didn’t know the South Tower had been rammed as well.
The police were starting to close off access to the area around the towers but Barbara showed her press card and we went through. We got to Vesey Street just a block from the North Tower. Three off-duty police detectives were the only other people there. High above us, people trapped at the top of the tower by the flames below them were waving from the broken windows, pleading to be rescued.
Then they began to fall. Or to jump. The heat must have been awful. It forced humans to choose how they would die. Some chose not to die alone. They left the tower holding hands, plummeting to certain death but grasping another human being, another connection, as long as it would hold. Maybe there was some comfort in those last seconds on the long way down. I hope so.
A new roar gathered and grew and the detectives yelled, “Run, it’s coming down.” And we ran north from Vesey, me trailing in my stupid flip-flops, as the debris and dust of the collapsing South Tower billowed around the corner and toward us.
From that point we retreated north. We stopped at a McDonalds on Church Street while Barbara tried to call her station. Now the streets filled with shreds of paper. We had no sense of the danger. The North Tower still stood. Phone and cell service was all dead, so we kept on north.
I think we were at Chambers Street when the North Tower fell. It went straight down, fell into itself, 110 stories disappearing as if into a hole leaving nothing but a mushroom of smoke and then, in the wake, more billows of paper dancing and falling like gray snow.
All around us, people watched with their hands on their mouths and tears in their eyes. How to describe what we all felt? We had watched people die. We were alive. What would happen next? What of our city? What of our lives?
Barbara found a TV truck from FOX 5, her sister station, at Broome Street and immediately took a microphone and went to work. I went home and watched TV coverage that relived the destruction over and over.
In the days to come, we lived in isolation south of Fourteenth Street for some time. Barbara trekked to Christopher Street and the West Side Highway every day, where all the TV trucks lined up along what came to be known as Point Thank You. Volunteers from all over the country passed the same route.
They came to lend a hand clearing rubble, delivering water and food to the workers at Ground Zero, bringing their rescue dogs to search for survivors, of which there were none.
Fifteen years have passed. Memorial pools now lie in the footprints of the towers. Water pours down their sides and disappears metaphorically into square drains at the center.
Names of the people who died in the two towers, of the fire and police officers whose first instinct was to rush to the danger and not away from it, those names are carved into the walls surrounding the two pools.
There’s a museum to that tragic day. A new tower is raised. Tourists have returned to New York. It’s more vibrant than ever. We’re a remarkable city, a city of pain, but a city of joy.
Elena Ferrante writes in My Brilliant Friend, “ . . . they thought that what happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before…”
We can never forget September 11. We should never forget it, the selflessness, the heroism, the instinct to hold on to someone else. But we should not become immersed in it. We wake up to a new world every day.