The Most Orange Orange



Montague Ter, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

In the silence, ash and smoke and dust snowing down, right before I felt and heard the second collapse, there was the teenage girl, with blond hair that should have been shining in the sun but for the pieces of the Towers in the air, and hiphuggers, and a boyfriend listening to her read from Revelations. I walked past them on Montague Street heading for the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to look for my wife, the silence and burning air swallowing up both Revelations and, ultimately, the rumbling collapse of the second Tower.

A few minutes before, I had hugged Kay, a co-worker, goodbye on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn before she boarded a bus for Fort Green. She would get off the unbearably slow moving bus a few moments later and walk the rest of the way home.

The dust and ash of the first collapse had darkened the sun above us once we finally walked off the Brooklyn Bridge, almost at the same time that we ducked away from a low flying jet overhead and then smiled and straightened after a cop we were passing screamed, impossibly, “It’s one of ours! It’s one of ours!”

Later these memories seemed as unreal as the endless loop of film of the first plane from faraway and the second plane from right below and the orange explosion and the first collapse and the second collapse and people running from the tidal waves of dust and smoke. The ghosts would ultimately make it real: one of them kept waving goodbye. The next day or the day after that I saw and read and touched my first missing poster on a telephone pole at the corner of Remsen and Clinton in Brooklyn Heights: Giovanna, 27, a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 105th floor of 1 World Trade Center. At the moment I saw it, for all we knew then, she may have still been alive.

On the Bridge on the 11th after turning to watch the first tower sink into a rising mountain of dust and black smoke, the crush of the others escaping Manhattan behind us suddenly pushing forward in a panic toward Brooklyn, women and men around us breaking down, crying, screaming, leaning on each other, all I could do was to pull Kay forward, telling her we had to get home.

Kay had told me, only minutes before, that she had never made the walk over the Bridge before, told me she hated it that she had to do it like this, promised to make the walk again voluntarily that very weekend, and I got her to look down between the slats at the water as we walked. As we looked to the right, the top of both Towers were disappearing into black, black melting down the sides. But looking to the left, toward the Manhattan Bridge, it was a perfect New York fall day, and among the thousands on the Bridge and the dozens matching our strides all around us, there were furtive smiles and timid meetings of the eyes, and looking to the left, there was the sense that we were getting through it all.

Clicking obsessively from channel to channel in the first hours and days after that morning, I couldn’t make myself stop on the missing, the naked grief on the husbands’ or the wives’ or the children’s faces as they were paraded before cameras with their home-made posters and pictures of the lost, invariably covering the left-behind with a thumb or bending the picture back to hide them from view, yet that weekend, clicking past Channel 5 and then going back, realizing I had recognized the face, there was Giovanna again, someone holding up her picture for the camera. Later I realized that it must have been her boyfriend.

About halfway over the Bridge on the 11th, we had passed a lone man threading his way through us quickly back toward Manhattan, almost hopping in his excitement, a Yankee cap pulled low pushing out his ears, a walkman and headphones, frayed jean shorts and white sweat socks to his knees, spitting out repeatedly, “They got the Pentagon too.” Whether because of the outfit or the fact that he was walking toward Manhattan or the heavy Brooklyn accent or because of what he was saying, none of us believed him. A few of us even laughed.

I imagine he made it down to the site — I think he would have had enough time — I hope he made it out. Maybe he saved someone. I thought of him again, reading death notices days later, when among the young Wall Streeters from Long Island and Connecticut and Westchester with so many children and so much life meriting so many column inches, a short one honored a middle-aged man, missing since the tragedy, survived only by his brother and his pet dog.

We had been surprised by the number of people on the Bridge since we had passed few people walking south as we headed toward it from TriBeCa. A swarm of thousands walked north, on the other hand, abuzz with talk of the second plane, the explosion, people jumping, tears, silence, occasional hysterical laughter. And along with all of us rushing toward safety, toward home or just rushing away, dozens stood on every corner looking up at the Towers, unfathomably burning.

Days later I would wonder why we too didn’t stand longer to witness, to acknowledge what was happening. Others, I know, stood and watched. One of them said that once she saw the first person jumping, she couldn’t move. She was thinking of her son, she said, who she knew was safe uptown, whom she was praying for anyway, with whom she wanted, more than anything, to be at that moment, but she couldn’t move.

Others seemed to have been caught up in an apocalyptic excitement. One pointed out the Millennium Hotel to me days later, its west side bandaged in orange to protect the site from falling glass and debris, and breathlessly described how it shook after the collapse, like this, he said, vigorously waving his arm, and that he and the others he stood with were sure it would go too. Another man walked south from Chambers before a cop made him turn west, and he was caught in the avalanche of dust after the first Tower collapsed. He eventually walked over the Brooklyn Bridge too, he said, covered in the grey dust, and some teenagers in downtown Brooklyn — maybe they hadn’t heard yet — laughed at him. He ran when he saw the dust coming, he said, but a piece of flying glass cut me, he said, holding up an index finger, a Band-Aid around the knuckle, before quickly, self-consciously pulling back the evidence of such a little wound in the face of such an enormous one.

That Sunday, the 16th, Giovanna was in the Times, profiled among the missing. Her father said she loved the Mets and that she was so organized that even as a child she told the teachers what to do. They had already held three prayer services for his daughter in front of his house in Carroll Gardens, he said; hundreds had come to pay their respects. Her sister also worked in the same Tower, he said, but she worked on the 25th floor, so she made it out right away. They had resigned themselves, he said; Cantor Fitzgerald, right above where the plane hit the first Tower, was no more.

After calling Marian, my wife, on the 11th to tell her I was okay, floating the idea of staying at work, Marian saying put down the phone and don’t stop until you’re home, Kay and I had decided to walk over the Bridge together. We took the elevator down, an evacuation order hissing over the loudspeakers. Two women held the elevator for a long minute on one of the floors and one of them got on, while the other went back to call home, she said, despair in her face and in her voice. Once the doors closed, her friend told us that the woman’s father worked in one of the Towers.

Beginning to walk west and then south toward the Bridge, we began to tell each other how much we had seen and from where, what we had done, the story we would all soon repeat over and over, much the same story we would hear from so many others. One woman’s son walked to the Bronx from LaGuardia after his flight was cancelled; he didn’t have a cell phone, didn’t wait in the long lines for a payphone; and so for the many slow hours it took him to get home, she was convinced, even though she knew otherwise, that he was dead. Another retrieved dozens of messages from her cellphone that night from a distant friend on the West Coast, beginning with “Just making sure you’re okay,” and, “I know the cellphones there aren’t working, but I’m just going to keep trying you, okay?” and ending with, “I’m going to keep calling so that if you’re trapped in the rubble, the firemen can hear the phone and come get you.

I began to search for hints of Giovanna on the Internet. On the 13th the Post had quoted her boyfriend, who, still looking for her, was probably checking all the hospitals and trying to get her picture on the news stations. “There’s a lot of smoke,” he said she told him when he called her three minutes after the crash. “We’re huddled on the floor, but we’re being evacuated right now. We’ve got to go.

At about the same moment that Giovanna began to go, I got off the 2 train at Chambers, five blocks away, came out of the station and began to walk north on the west side of Hudson, oblivious for more than a block to the sirens and the screaming and all the people standing and looking up at the sky on the east side of the street. I crossed over, finally, after passing Reade. Looking up with dozens of others, I then first saw the hole and the fire in the first Tower. On the Tower’s right side, above the gash, near the very last column, someone waved something out of a broken window. As I told myself that it was only a curtain blowing in the wind, the top of the second Tower exploded toward me in the most orange orange I have ever seen, in the sudden heat of a New York August day, in a huge sound of a giant hammer striking the lightening-rod that was the Tower, something burning that seemed as big as a car flying out toward the east, lazily falling and disappearing amid the high-rises of Wall Street.

On the 11th, I watched both Towers burn for only a moment before heading up to Franklin to my office to call home, chased by sounds of sirens wailing, people running, and the screams of one particular woman running sideways, pointing north with one arm, whirling the other around like a traffic cop and screaming, almost cheerfully, “Run north, people; there may be other bombs.” Amid the sounds of New York on fire, the Towers, unleashing their paper snow on a perfect autumn day, were already collapsing.

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