The smoke billows into the hard blue sky as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses in silence. It’s 10 a.m., and I’m standing with a few strangers high up on the hill on Staten Island, looking north across the New York Bay. We’re all speechless, except for gasps. The ferry terminal lies below, and the Statue of Liberty is framing the vista on the left.
I turn, and the 10-minute walk back to my condo becomes a trot because I’m desperate to return to the live TV coverage I awoke to just over an hour before. Along the waterfront, the New York Harbor is serene with the tugboats and container ships easing their way through this Tuesday.
My World Trade Center memories: Friday nights, Carol and I would take the speedy elevator with the sound of whooshing air up to the Windows on the World bar, during the NYC swing dancing craze. The floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows gave a stunning nighttime view of the twinkling lights on the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Opposite was New Jersey and the Hudson River.
Saturday morning, up the Hudson Valley at the skydiving club, one of the regulars was excitedly handing out 8x10 B&W photos. It showed him leaping head first from the North Tower, having smuggled his parachuting gear as a construction worker. In 1975, Owen Quinn survived this BASE jump, and now that tower is in jeopardy.
I’m frantic even though this is my vacation week from a surgical residency at a local hospital. I call to see if they need my help. They tell me to call later.
The TV shows the chaotic scene unfolding in lower Manhattan, and I’m just sitting there, five miles from this event of global proportions. I grab my backpack, add my video camera with extra battery packs, thinking that with my hospital ID, could I get a ride on the ferry, to possibly help? Witness?
I rush back to the ferry terminal, and a few people are loading when I stop, struck with a lightning bolt of self-awareness: Don’t do this. The inner voice knows this is a foolish act. I do a 180.
Stop. Regroup. I was back watching the TV. The rest of the U.S. was awakening to this incomprehensible attack. Video of soot-dusted people fleeing. Besides the two 767 airliners hitting the Twin Towers this morning, another hit the Pentagon and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani was on the screen, walking the streets of Lower Manhattan, visibly shaken. This was primary day, but he was ineligible since he’d already reached the term limit. Still, that day he became “America’s Mayor.”
It was three days later that George W. Bush visited Ground Zero, and used a bullhorn: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”
In the days after, the streaming sidewalks of head-down people had ceased. People now looked at faces with a new understanding of the fragility of life in the big city.
Stories revealed: the suicidal leaps (I couldn’t help but feel it), the firefighters who were faced with climbing the 110 flights of stairs with protective suits and heavy Scott Air-Paks, only to have to descend the same way. Of the 412 emergency workers who died, 343 were firefighters.
Back at work, I found out the rush of patients never occurred. One attending said in Manhattan it was just a bunch of doctors bickering on how the cots should be arranged in the impromptu emergency facilities.
Weeks afterward, the smell of burning electrical insulation pervaded the air. The 1.8 million tons of Ground Zero debris was relocated to a Staten Island landfill that became a forensic site.
The enormity of this is so hard to bury, but lessons learned nonetheless.
Bill Koslosky, an Omaha resident, is an M.D. and medical writer with a focus on ethics and technology issues.