Previously unseen photos taken by the NYPD on 9/11/01 of the attack on the twin towers were released today. The photos, held originally by the 9/11 commission, were obtained and released by ABC in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. Twelve of the over 2,000 photos are available on the New York Times website.
Nine years later and still I sat staring in silence at my computer screen and I clicked from one photo to the next, unable to emote, unable to look away.
I knew no one in the towers that day and I was more than 30 blocks away that morning, walking to work, sipping Starbucks and bopping to Janet Jackson on my headphones. I was on my way to work on 32nd street (I believe) from where I lived in Northern New Jersey. I can’t remember much of that morning before I had heard of the first attack. Most of it lines my mind in snippets, a montage of moments that, had I not been in New York City, might have struck me as peculiar: A man at the top of the escalator at the 34th Street Subway station falls slowly to his knees with his cell phone pressed to his ear. My headphones drowned out any noise, but the response of those around him made it clear to me that the man was either crying or screaming. I didn’t pay much attention. As I walked to work people seemed to walk more slowly. I remember being aggravated by it. I never looked up. I saw no smoke. I just wanted my behind in my chair before I could be deemed late. As I exited the elevator on my floor (16 I believe), there laid a woman in the elevator lobby, half pressed against the glass wall that was partitioned the lobby from my office, half against the floor. I knew the woman, but not well. Two of my supervisors stood over her trying to calm her down. My first thought was that she broke down after being fired, or a fight of some sorts broke out. As I entered the office, I pulled out my headphones and smiled at the security guard, nudging my head toward the commotion on the other side of the glass wall. He stared at me in pause. He then slowly turned the monitor in front of him so that it faced me. It was a news broadcast of the the first tower to be hit. Smoke billowed. The camera panned. More smoke. Flames.
No one worked that morning. The few who actually made it to work stood by each other, coats still on, bags still slung over shoulders, in the break room. Our mouths wide open staring at the television screen that on any other day I’d not even had glanced at as one coworker or another took breaks to watch their Soap Opera. Soon the broadcast secured images of the plane hitting the tower and it played over, and over, and over. I remember feeling numb. Frozen. Still. Just watching, one hand over my mouth. We all stood that way. Unsure what to say. Perhaps unsure how to speak. Some time had passed. It could have been an hour or two, or less than a minute. I’ve no way of judging. But the silence was cut by a deep, jarring, bang sound and everyone at once ducked down. I caught every eye in the room in a matter of three seconds. It was a truck outside hitting a pothole. It was a sound we likely heard a thousand times before. The city we all called home, that we maneuvered with symbiotic elegance in the dance of survival, had instantaneously turned cold and unfamiliar. The sounds and the smells and patterns all seemed, and were, suddenly alien.
We used landlines to call home. Though I’m unsure why at this moment, we all were calling home to make arrangements to be met. Parents called schools frantically. I called the man who was my boyfriend at the time. He was the only person I knew in New York and going home to New Jersey was out of the question as the authorities had closed off all ports in and out the city. When I called, he urged me to stay, underestimating the scope of what was happening. He said he was packing his cameras and was on his way. It was at my insistence, my pleading, that he agreed to stay home and wait for me.
The trip to Queens from Manhattan normally took 40 minutes, door to door. Down into Penn Station, catch the E, then the Q4 bus and I was golden.
The moment I stepped foot out of my building onto the 32nd street sidewalk, I knew this was even larger than it felt. I knew it was larger than I could comprehend. Standing at the corner waiting for a gap between cars large enough to cushion my sprint across the street I started to hear the bits and pieces of the attacks. I learned here that the Pentagon had been hit. “Been hit.” The words conjure images of complete annihilation. I imaged the deaths. The people. The crumbling cement that was our fortress. The Dept. of Defense is gone, so then too are our defenses. What now?
I approached the platform and awaited the E train. The crowds were unspeakable. The silence echoed against the mass of bodies awaiting a train. Three or four went by in a crawl before another finally came. I didn’t get a seat. I stood by the sliding doors, holding on to the metal handles, occasionally wiping my hands of the stress sweet that moistened them. There was small chatter, but mostly silence. The doors had closed and we all seemed to be thinking the same thing as we each gazed around the train, seeing everyone, but avoiding eyes at all costs. We’ve seen enough movies to know that this is not a time to make friends, but to see exit strategies. A few yards down the track, in the darkness between stations, below the streets surface, the train came to a complete stop. Only a few minutes past before the communal chatter started. I had never seen so many pregnant women on a single train before. Five of them, bellies fully extended. They chatted first. “How far along,” that sort of thing. A man at one of the train started to talk to another, stringing together bits of information to see more of the whole. The Pentagon. A plane in Pennsylvania. Another was said to be hijacked in Los Angeles. Another missing above New York.
The sounds of the chatter rose and fell with our anxieties as we awaiting movement on the train. No one daring to say what we all no doubt felt at that moment, that thing that bridge-and-tunnels like myself dared never even jest about: that the subway system that strengthens our economy makes us more vulnerable to attack. We dared not speak the name of the beast, even as we sat patiently in it’s belly.
Soon enough the train pulled into the next station. We waited there another ten minutes or so, then departed. The starts and fits of movement continued in this trend for the next few hours before they shut down all forms of mass transit. The trains. The buses. The taxis. It would be foot or ass from here on in. I was only about halfway to my destination when we pulled into the last stop at Roosevelt Station.
I had no idea what to do, where to go. Beyond Manhattan there is no rhyme or riddle to urban planning – not from my perspective anyway. I only knew to ride the train to the last stop and step off. I walked aimlessly around Roosevelt Station for a while, looking for the way to the street and found a set of public payphones. I called my boyfriend, but was disconnected before he could direct me. I suppose it was my multiple slamming on the pay phone or my crying that the attention of a young man. He took the phone from my hand and placed it calmly on the receiver and asked where I was going. I told him Linden Blvd. He smiled and took my hand and insisted I stay with him. What choice had I? I went calmly.
As we maneuvered the pathway out of the station, we passed a mid-sized crowd of people gathered outside of the small barbershop in the underground mini-mall. I tip-toed to see a small television broadcasting the falling of a tower. Before I could see more, I was being dragged away by this kind stranger. We walked above ground and there was a sea of people, tides of bodies crossing streets, sitting, waiting, walking. We walked across a few streets and the man who held my hand sat me on the curb and told me not to move. A bodega behind me handed out water and cigarettes to non-paying customers through their night-window that normally served to put distance between those buying and those selling, but which today served to connect them.
I smoked and drank water. I sat nervous. Anxious. Afraid. What was happening? People spoke of more strikes, of air strikes, of warfare on American soil. I wondered in those moments I sat waiting, people milling fearful around me, how frightening it must be to live this fear daily. To wake to bombs and be lulled to sleep by them. To fear invasion at every moment. How dare I be sad? I thought of my mother and hoped she knew I was alright. I wondered if my sister would ever come to know fully realize herself and her potentials. I was saddened by what I’d done and not done with my life till this moment.
My new friend returned a while later by jerking my hand forward hard enough for it to pull me up off my seat on the curb. “Let’s go,” was all he said. A cabbie had made the mistake of lowering his window momentarily to let the men (there were now 7 of them plus me) know he was unable to take us anywhere, when one put his hand into the car and auto-unlocked the doors. I never thought about the legalities. About the fact that I could be arrested for kidnapping and grand theft auto. I thought only that I had to get home. The cabbie eventually let down his yelling and agreed to drive us on the promise that we each pay him 60.00. We all agreed.
We listened to 1010 Wins, the regional am news station. We sat in silence, the radio blared. One by one, the cabbie dropped of his occupants. One by one, the promised to return with cash. None did. When the young man who helped me get home arrived at his stop, he simply said “sorry.” I applied it to fact that he’d likely not be returning with cab fare at the time, but the single word means so much more to me now than it could have then.
When I arrived at my boyfriend’s place, he came out to the cab and handed the cabbie 40 dollars. He had been waiting for me at the window. The cabbie took the bit of money and left, no doubt just as eager to get home as we were.
We sat inside in silence as the single station left capable of broadcast fed news into his bedroom, and his living room and his kitchen.