I keep an expired passport as a memento. It's only special because of when and where it was issued:
New York, New York, September 11, 2001.
I needed that passport in a hurry, so I personally went down to the New York passport office in lower Manhattan that morning to pick it up. Many hours later, I caught the first train out of Grand Central, pulled out my laptop and typed what I saw and felt. The indented quotes below are verbatim excerpts from that dispatch.
That Tuesday was going to be busy, so I got in
earlier than usual. I was giving a presentation that afternoon at a midtown
hotel, for which I still was not fully prepared, and I needed to fly to Toronto
the next day (which is why I needed that passport in a hurry). All
that was on my mind when I got to Grand Central that morning about 8:15. I
stopped for a shoe shine and then, a little after 8:30, I jumped on the Time
Square shuttle to catch a downtown train, heading for the passport office on
Hudson Street, about 20 blocks directly north of the World Trade
I made it as far as 14th Street, where our train was taken out of service -- no reason given. Then we were told that because of a fire at Cortland Street, there would be no local service. . . . I got on the express, and debated whether to just go straight to the office, or to try to catch the uptown local at Chambers Street. I decided to see if the uptown local was running. It was, and I rode up to Houston Street.
The express train to Chambers Street had taken me
to within 4 blocks of the Twin Towers, well within the World Trade Center
complex. Had I chosen to head to my office, a mere 10-minute walk from there, I
would have been under the Twin Towers when the second plane struck. Instead, a
random pursuit of a last-minute passport had me on one of the last subway train
away from danger. By the time I got to Houston Street, the second Tower had
just been hit, as I could see when I got out of the subway.
The World Trade Center Towers . . . bore gashes along their perimeter, about 60 stories up, as if someone had taken a huge magic marker and drawn a line around each tower, the North Tower slightly lower than the South Tower, and not as straight. From each line fire was spewing all along it, and from that thick grey smoke. From where I was, perhaps 3/4 mile north, it looked unreal, like a bad disaster movie. Yet, there was very real electricity in the air -- the constant wail of sirens and police bullhorns.
The planes had actually sliced through at about the
90th floors, but I mistakenly thought they were lower
than that. They had closed the passport office, so, still hoping to get to my
office, I walked south to Canal Street against the crowd moving calmly but
Facing me was what looked like an army of civilians, walking in the other direction. As I walked on, I could not help gazing at the burning lines of fire on the two towers. They looked like firebreaks--those deliberately set lines of fire that attempt to halt advancing forest fires. As I walked on, the towers came closer and closer into view, and the flames coming out of the gashes more and more distinct.
stopped walking at Varick Street and gazed for a minute down the street
directly at the burning Towers, when--
The South Tower, above the firebreak, started shifting, slowly at first, as if in slow motion. As if one of its supports had given way, and could no longer hold its weight. The top of the tower began to form an angle to the rest of the structure, a very slight angle. But then, in the space of less than a minute, the angle became more and more acute, as the full weight of the 30 or 40 stories above the firebreak leaned into the break. Gravity did the rest, and as I stood there on Canal Street staring in amazement, the entire top of the tower toppled over in my direction, gathering speed but staying largely intact as it careened into the street below. As it did a low rumble could be heard, and smoke now billowed from street level as well as from the tower heights. A cry of alarm arose from the mass of people walking North on Varick and Hudson Streets, and they broke, en mass, into a run away from the billowing smoke that erupted from the now collapsed debris of the fallen Tower, the cloud ballooning in slow motion up and outward up the avenue towards them. Again, it seemed unreal, like a scene from a movie -- even the running crowd could have been Hollywood extras.
The official timeline notes the South Tower fell in 10 seconds at 9:59 a.m. It seemed longer to me, time dilated by the shock of it. I had the most absurd thought as I saw the top of the Tower start its slow tilt - I wondered how they were going fix that. Also, I thought at the time that the top part of the building had fallen over into the street. Only later than night did I learn that the entire building had collapsed.
couldn't go south anymore, so I walked East, eventually ending at the Courts
complex at the other end of Canal Street. But lower Manhattan is a
Keeping an eye on the still burning North Tower, I walked across Canal Street and down to the Supreme Court building on Centre Street. There I lingered, like a rock in the middle of a river of people making their way, very orderly and very controlled, up from lower Manhattan. A policeman told me that I could not proceed south, and that all of lower Manhattan was in the process of being evacuated. Uniformed Court Officers and US Marshals were helping to keep the evacuees in order.
I kept trying to reach office-mates by cellphone, but in vain. A crowd had gathered in a parking lot around a car radio tuned in to 1010 WINS, where we learned a few facts that we did not already know, including the fact that two passenger planes had crashed into the Trade Center Towers at about 9 that morning. As we listened, I saw a military fighter overhead, something I had never seen flying over New York City. Then we heard another low rumble and a huge billowing of smoke. Outside of my direct view, the North Tower had followed its sister to the ground. Within seconds, the radio had reported the fact. It was about 10:30.
10:28 by the official clock. At that point there was no direction
left to go but north, so I started walking, vainly making cellphone calls along
I was part of a large crowd, all moving north, but with no evident panic. Soon we walked through Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo and into Greenwich Village. I stopped for a rest in Washington Square Park, tried to call on my cellphone, again to no avail, and gazed to the south, where, as I remember from my law school days here, the twin towers stood. Now, I saw only clear blue sky, and smoke.
continued to trudge north. The subways were shut down. I
couldn't know the status of the commuter trains until I got to Grand Central
But as I passed 40th Street towards Grand Central Terminal, . . . [a] group of people began running towards me away from the station. I ran with them, but no one seemed to know why they were running. Forty-second Street seemed blocked in any event, so I walked west on 40th, and was soon met with another group of people running in a panic in my direction away from Fifth Avenue. They didn't know why they were running either.
That's how the day was for those of us on the street, a thin veneer of New York City grit over sheer terror. A few hours later I reached Grand Central and caught the first running Hudson Line train home - jammed with people like refugees fleeing a war zone, many covered in dust and all of them quiet. My notes show I started typing at 2:15 p.m., and that the smoke of lower Manhattan was clearly visible, at 3:12 p.m., from Croton-Harmon, some 40 miles up the Hudson River.
* * *
Back in 2001, the conventional psychiatric wisdom was that post-traumatic stress syndrome only happened to those who suffered severe physical trauma. Now we know better. We all suffer traumas, big or small, and they all leave traces. In his seminal 2014 work, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote that most victims of trauma "try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability. . . . Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption."
I think all of us who lived through that day 20 years ago need to recognize that truth, and be gentle with ourselves and each other. There's a reason I never reread my first-person report till a few days ago; I was actually surprised I found it, surprised it hadn't long ago vanished into whatever ether absorbs long-neglected computer files. I'm also surprised at how literate it is -- at how well I started acting as if nothing happened within hours of its happening. Likewise, I've never read a novel about 9/11, never seen a movie about it, and never written about it publicly until today.
Every year they read the names of the dead at the 9/11 Memorial. I've never attended. But a few days ago, I went through the names online. Here and there are groups with common surnames, probably families traveling on one of the planes. A handful of women are named -- "and her unborn child." Here and there I recognize a former client. I see the name of the brother of a current client who I know is struggling mightily with the memory of watching (as I had) the collapse of the building where his brother worked. And then my eye catches the one name on the list that I know well:
SUSAN LEE SCHULER
Bill Singer and I were partners then, in a firm I was managing with Susan as our office manager/controller/CFO -- basically the person who kept us out of financial trouble. She and I worked closely together. "Nothing bad will happen today," she would often remind me when something or other looked very bad indeed. She was always right, until that morning when she found herself on a top floor of the World Trade Center with no way down. I miss her.
In the days and weeks that followed, we survivors reconnected. I met a dear friend at a coffee shop a few days later, just to tell her she wasn't alone. Later I walked a teary colleague past the Pile, trying hard not to cry myself. And each day I saw Grand Central evolve into a makeshift memorial, its walls papered over with the names and pictures of those who would now only walk its platforms as ghosts. Twenty years on and they still haunt those of us who lived. I hope they always will.