I was attending a company meeting on that Tuesday. We had started at 8:00, a presentation on the company values and mission statement to the staff. Even though I had been at the previous presentation, I had decided to attend, as a show of support and solidarity. At approximately 9:10, my cell phone began vibrating, the caller id showing my mother’s home number. It was very unusual for her to call me on my cell phone, especially during the workday. I immediately assumed that something was wrong.
My mother’s hysteria jumped out at me over the airwaves. “Richie, they attacked the World Trade Center, the city is under attack. You have to get out of there.” She was crying.
I knew my mother, so my instinct was to disregard most of the emotion and look for the facts. But this was somehow different. She said she had seen it on TV; “They” attacked the World Trade Center. She kept calling it an “Attack”.
I told her to calm down. I said, “I’m OK.” I couldn’t process the word “attack”. It seemed so foreign to me. Attacked. New York, the United States, was under attack? How was it possible?
The rest of the morning was a blur. The forty or so people in the office, huddled around PC’s to watch Internet news reports. Radios were playing with the latest reports and transportation closings. I walked two blocks over to Fifth Ave to see my wife, Karen. Her office is at Fifth and 52nd, on the 29th floor. People were just gathered around the window. We could clearly see the smoke rising from downtown. Earlier that morning, Karen said, she saw the second plane approaching the towers from her window.
As I walked back to my office, I stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I didn’t know what else to do. As I approached the steps of the Cathedral, I noticed people frantically dialing cell phones, to no avail. There were people crying as they walked along, couples stopped and hugged each other in an attempt to offer consolation. In the background the smoke billowed up from where the Twin Towers once stood.
By the time I returned to the office, the city was shut down. Subways were stopped, bridges and tunnels closed. It was next to impossible to get in or out of New York. At 1:15 or so I learned that the Queensboro Bridge was open to traffic leaving the city. I called Karen and asked if she was up to walking to Queens. A friend from my office, Dimitrios, was going to walk with us. His wife Ivanna was working in Queens that day and could pick us up in Astoria.
So we walked.
As we headed north toward the bridge we passed people covered in ash and soot. Some walked about dazed, while others seemed unaffected. As we got closer to the bridge, pedestrian traffic grew. By the time we reached the entrance to the bridge we were among thousands of “ refugees”.
Thousands of people walked over the bridge towards Queens. Others hitched rides on the back of trucks, in the bed of pick-ups and still others begged for rides, knowing that there could be miles of walking ahead of them. Crossing the bridge I noticed a man in a business suit heading back into NY. He was pushing a luggage cart from the airport. I wondered where he had come from or where he was going. Was he a business traveler who tried to escape NY, only to be told there were no planes leaving the ground? Was he diverted from some other destination? How far did he travel with that luggage cart? Given all that had happened that day, incredibly, this seemed strange to me.
When we reached the center of the bridge we had a clear view of downtown Manhattan. The absence of the towers was obvious. Replaced now by towers of heavy gray and black smoke. The smoke was on its way to Brooklyn, Queens and who knows where else. When we reached the end of the bridge we were met by volunteers handing out water and donuts. Karen grabbed both. “What’s wrong with me that I went right for the donut?” she said.
There were so many people and cars at the base of the bridge. The radio had said there would be shuttle buses, although we didn’t see any. Given all the street closings and traffic Dimitrios called Ivanna and told her to meet us at a diner on the edge of Astoria. So we walked some more.
As we walked, we encountered people, our neighbors, out on their steps, in their front yards and in front of their businesses. One family had set up a large Igloo cooler full of cold water, with hundreds of Styrofoam cups stacked neatly alongside of it. They offered us drinks and the use of their cordless phone. The woman said she realized that cell phone signals were inadequate and wanted to help people contact their loved ones.
We finally arrived at the diner around 3:00. We had something to eat and drink, while CNN replayed the “attack”, over and over. We waited for Ivanna. We were almost home.