The past two years, around this time, I’ve reflected on what happened to me three years ago. I was headed into work for my second day as a law clerk. My route was the A train from 207th to Brooklyn. I was on schedule to be in Brooklyn just before 9.
At Canal Street, around a quarter till nine, the train suddenly stopped. (For those unfamiliar with the city, this is one stop before Chambers, which is the trade center stop on the A line. The A line doesn’t run directly below the trade center, however, it’s a block to the east). The train waited for about fifteen minutes. Everyone was getting antsy and frustrated — New York subways are sometimes prone to unexplained stops.
A woman got on the train, all out of breath. She was talking about a terrible accident, that an airplane had crashed into a building. One or two people asked her questions. Some people looked at her strangely — all sorts of strange people get on the subway, and it was entirely possible that she was a looney. Most of the riders continued to read their newspaper or listen to their walkman.
The doors closed, and the train moved on. We skipped the Chambers stop, with no announcement as to what was going on. A few riders — who were apparently intending to get off there — were unhappy. We stopped at Broadway Nassau. Now three or four more people got on, and they were talking with each other about the airplane (or was it airplanes?) too. More passengers listened in. The atmosphere on the train car became a little more agitated, but still, at least half of the car continued to simply read or listen to music.
Finally, we reached High Street. I was a little annoyed, I had been meaning to be in earlier, and it was ten after nine by then. A great arrival time for day two of work. At least I had a valid excuse, train delay.
The ticket agent had a crowd around the booth, all agitated and asking questions. What was going on? I needed to get to work, quickly, and then I would look up online to see what was happening. I stepped out of the station at High street, just across the river from Manhattan, two and a half miles from the trade center. I wasn’t all that familiar with the setting, since it was only the third time I had gotten off at that stop. I looked around me to get my bearings. The twin towers were on fire.
My first impression, strangely enough, was that the fire was in the wrong place. On those ultra-symmetrical buildings, one fire was distinctly lower than the other.
By now the day was totally surreal. I needed to get to work, sit down, and figure out what was going on. I walked across the park, into the building, and went up to chambers. Our deputy, June, was there. My co-clerk had left earlier. Our intern called in to say that he wouldn’t be coming in, because the Staten Island ferries were not working right. I said that I thought that would be fine.
The judge wasn’t in, he had been planning on getting in later. So I sat down and worked on a few edits I had been making the day before. I really didn’t know what to do. I could see the burning buildings from my office (well, sort of, you had to go right by the window, since my window actually looks kind of to the side of the trade center). Every few minutes, I got up and looked over at them. The judge called in. I told him I was editing, and he said not to worry about work, and that everyone should go home as soon as they could.
Going home wasn’t really an option at the moment. Trains weren’t running, and the streets were jammed. The Brooklyn bridge and the Manhattan bridge were bumper-to-bumper cars, mostly leaving Manhattan. Every few minutes, we heard sirens pass. Fire trucks from all over Brooklyn were racing over to help. I felt a vague impulse that I should be helping somehow — I was a Boy Scout, after all, and aren’t we supposed to be helpful in emergencies? — but I couldn’t think of a way that I could actually do anything useful.
Some of the other clerks were in and out, discussing what was going on. June had a mini-TV and was keeping up with the news. A former court intern showed up, she was scared and didn’t know where to go, so she came to the court. I continued editing — what else was I going to do? Then June came running in and announced that one of the towers had fallen. We looked out the window, and sure enough, there was just a cloud of dust. A few minutes later, the second tower fell too. We sat in shocked silence for a moment, and then everyone seemed to have the thought at the same time. Oh no, all those fire trucks, all those fire fighters.
June’s TV was full of news, but it was changing minute to minute. There were more planes on the way to attack. There was sarin gas and anthrax on the Manhattan planes. The police had foiled an attack on the George Washington Bridge. And the news was announcing that all federal buildings had been evacuated — and showing footage of people leaving buildings in Ohio — as we sat in a federal building, two miles from the trade center.
Finally, around 1 p.m., the marshals told everyone to leave the building. Several of us had no where to go, really. One of my classmates, clerking down the hall from me, lived in Brooklyn, and so we went to his apartment.
I still remember the walk over. The dust cloud covered most of the Manhattan bridge. Above the cloud of dust, you could see the American flag. It’s an image that is burned onto my mind. Every time I see a flag poking out from clouds, I recall that image.
We stayed at Jason’s for a few hours, sitting on his couch and watching CNN. Wackiness abounded — people saying that there was anthrax on the planes, connecting the attacks to Palestinians, homegrown militants, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and bin Laden. A few of the ideas eventually turned out to be right, but the signal-to-noise ratio was not particularly great.
I was mostly worried about getting home. I had had trouble calling home earlier, but eventually got through. I told Mardell that I was okay, and would be home as soon as I could. I contemplated the possibility of a fifteen-mile walk across chaotic Manhattan. Then, at about 3, Rudy Giuliani announced that the trains were running again. I went down to the A station and waited for an hour, and the train showed up. It took another two hours to get back to 207th. I wasn’t complaining.
Mardell was home the whole time, as were the kids. She had originally been planning to go shopping downtown, but had overslept.
The weeks after were very sad for many people. I didn’t know anyone who worked at the center. Two friends had worked there or close by, and I was worried for them, but as it turned out, they had both changed locations recently.
I felt terrible whenever I saw the handmade posters, all over every subway station, “Have you seen my Dad? Name: ___. Brown hair, thirty-five years old. [Picture]. Please call ___.” “Have you seen our daughter? Blond hair, twenty-two. A heart tattoo on one ankle. [Picture]. Please call ___.”
Over the next few weeks, rumors abounded. An air pocket had been found full of survivors. (No, it hadn’t). More survivors had been located. (No, they hadn’t). And of course the ever-present LDS rumors, such as the group of missionaries on their way to the trade center, miraculously detained. (Not a bit of truth).
Meanwhile, life goes on. For most of us, after a few months, life settled back in to the familiar routines of work, family, church, school. (I had the impression in early 2002 that the rest of the country was more fixated on 9/11 than New York City). Years later, the routine continues. Yes, I could dwell on it endlessly. I don’t. But I remember it sometimes. When I had to review documents downtown, I stopped by and looked at the WTC site. And I think about 9/11 when this time of year rolls around. And any time that I happen to see the Manhattan skyline.