Tuesday 11th September 2001 12 noon
Three hours ago I saw the heart of New York destroyed. I want to write about what I’ve seen, but I don’t pretend this is good writing. It’s just what happened.
I spent Sunday the 9th working in my hotel room overlooking Lincoln Harbor, with a spectacular view of the length of Manhattan. It was rather too spectacular, in fact, and I ended up drawing the curtains so that the constant distractions outside wouldn’t disturb my work. Ocean liners the size of upended skyscrapers were leaving on the high tide, saluted by lacy cascading fountains from fire boats. A power boat race churned round the harbor, closely followed by several low-flying helicopters. These were the only parts of the view that made me vaguely apprehensive: a couple of years ago, I’d watched a news copter fall and dive into the Hudson. I worked through the afternoon and evening, but then decided to changed my plans and check into a hotel in Manhattan for the rest of my time here. I chose the W at Union Square. I moved bases in-between meetings on Monday, and ate in the restaurant that evening with a colleague. It was a wildly stormy evening, the rain coming down in bucketloads. The W’s trade mark is New York black, but they’ve overdone it here. The atmosphere in my room was excessively dark and oppressive, and my spirits quite noticeably sank into gloominess. They say that coming events cast their shadow before them: perhaps that’s why black has been so big here these past few years.
Tuesday morning, just after nine a.m., and I’m getting ready to leave my room on the ninth floor, my mind focused on a few meetings this morning then catching the 1 p.m. train to Washington DC. My bag is thrown untidily under the window overlooking the square. On the spur of the moment, I go to retrieve a tie, finally decide not to wear one, then shoot glance out of the window as I head back to the door. I am aware of a large, red-orange mushroom in the air outside. There’s been a lot of skywriting here over the weekend, and I just assume that it must be more of the same. But something makes me do a double-take, and I come back to the window.
The mushroom is a huge orange fireball, welling up about half way down the left hand tower of the World Trade Center. Later, I work out that this is less than a couple of seconds after the second plane’s impact. But right now I don’t see the plane, so I don’t understand what’s going on. It is a perfect, beautiful fireball, just like all the fireballs you’ve ever seen in the movies, a flawless red-orange set against a softly blue sky. And that’s what I assume it is: a gigantic visual effect, some kind of massive advertising stunt. This is precisely what buildings look like in the movies when they burn: therefore, it must be an illusion. I’m tempted to turn on the television to see if this is real: not believing my own eyes, I defer to the TV newsroom to sanction my own reality. But then as I watch, I see the windows of the building start to burst out. First they pop at the top of the building, then lower floor by floor, top to bottom, like a crystal cascade in slow motion. Then I notice the ugly gash near the top of the other tower, and dark red flames licking through the spaces where the windows were. Now, and only now, I am beginning to think that this isn’t a pyrotechnic stunt.
I look down at the people in Union Square. Some of them are glancing up, but no-one is stopping to stare. I think they feel as I do, that this isn’t real, that it’s a trick or performance or show. Thye are going about their business as usual.
I can see objects dropping away from the leftmost tower, and they are shaped like people. But they cannot be people. I do not understand how both towers can be on fire simultaneously, it makes no sense. Even though I now know that these are real fires I cannot believe that what I’m watching is people falling to their deaths. This makes no sense, either. I know enough about fires to know that they burn upwards, not down, and modern buildings like these would surely have very sophisticated evacuation plans. Now I can see fire ladders on the sides on the buildings, but they barely reach a third of the way up. They can’t be dependent on a few fire ladders to evacuate these titanic buildings?
I phone home on my cell phone, thinking correctly as thing turned out, that communications are soon going to get very difficult. Then I call a close friend in the UK on the mobile, and on the hotel phone I simultaneously call my colleague in his office uptown. He hasn’t seen what was happening, and when he turns to the window to see the view downtown, he lets out a shriek of anguish.
By now, the fireball has gone. Some smoke is drifting away from the two towers, but not a huge amount, compared with what is to come. I simply can’t work out why both towers are on fire at the same time. I think perhaps this had indeed been a stunt, but things have somehow gone badly wrong. It never dawns on me that two planes might have been involved. The next few minutes seem to be the crucial time in which the fires will either take hold or be extinguished. I assume, again incorrectly, that the buildings’ sprinkler system will have kicked in by now, and the fires will be brought under control within minutes.
My plan at this stage is to continue with my schedule. I can do nothing to help, and it seems obscene to simply sit in my hotel room and rubber-neck at the unfolding calamity. So I grab my brief case, run out of the hotel and hail a cab to go uptown to 55th where I plan to have a haircut. Given the dimensions of the tragedy, it seems bizarre now to have had a haircut, but that’s what I do, still thinking that people will be evacuated, that New York will be dazed but not devastated, and that business will continue as usual. Going uptown is a surreal experience. People in the street are basically doing much the same as me, going about their business while glancing up, incredulously, at the developing wall of smoke. Tourists are snapping away excitedly: bad taste, to say the least.
Well, I must have been the last person to have had a haircut in Manhattan that day, possibly all week. After a few minutes, the receptionist comes up to tell me the first tower has collapsed, and the Pentagon has been hit. This is starting to feel very bad, very apocalyptic. I quickly pay and leave, heading down Madison Avenue to my friend’s office. The mood in the street is very different now. It is very, very crowded and panic is close to breaking out. No taxis are stopping. Cars are either snarling up and sounding their horns, or driving fast and very dangerously. People are on cell phones everywhere, crowding round TVs in shop windows, and everywhere I hear people saying “We must be at war… We must be at war…”
I get to my friend’s office building. Everyone is looking at the TV. Out of his window, I see for the first time the new landscape of New York, and the huge pall of smoke over the downtown area, growing all the time. I was supposed to catch the 1pm Acela to Washington, but clearly this isn’t going to happen. I try calling my DC meeting, but all I get is an answering machine. New York is now locked down, in a state of siege, no-one is getting in or out. Things are starting to look seriously bad. My first concern now is to make sure I have somewhere to take refuge. I check with my friend that I could camp out on his floor, and we exchange contact info. Then I decide to get back to my hotel again, see if they can extend me for another night, and indeed see if I’m going to be safe there.
I walk down Madison and by now, the streets are full of agitated and anxious people, most of them seemingly trying to get out of Manhattan. None of them will make it. People are squeezing on to buses going nowhere, and walking in front of taxis to make them stop. Most calls on cell phones are not getting through, although as I crossed to Park (it was barricaded by the police) I get a connection through to London, the last time I’ll speak to my family for 36 hours.
Everyone wants to know what is happening. I am virtually the only person heading downtown now, and as I get below 20th Street, the tidal wave of people surging up from downtown becomes enormous, and I begin to see people covered in gray dust and debris. They look like moving statues, and they move automatically without feeling and with glazed eyes. I am walking in the road now, there are so many people. People keep saying “We’re at war, we’re at war…” What they mean is “we must be under attack”. They mean that someone or some country has declared war on them, in the same way as Hitler had declared war on Londoners during the Blitz. The media later distorts these words, to suggest that “war” is what Americans are demanding. This isn’t how people in New York first responded.
The predominant emotion right now is fear. People are fearful that they can’t get home, that they can’t get in touch with their loved ones, that this may just be the start of far more destruction. Nowhere feels safe. I get back to my hotel and a woman in the lobby collapses. After some negotiation, I get another room for tonight – for a handsome price premium. Smaller, and far more expensive. Tomorrow, Wednesday, I’m going to try to leave the city. I dump my stuff in the new room and turn the TV on.
It’s showing the view from my window.
Wednesday September 12th
7:00 a.m. in Union Square. This is a ghost town, yet the atmosphere is unbearably intense. It is simply not possible to walk outside without breaking into tears. I’m biting my lip all the time, and other people are too. The two towers stood high over Union Square: now there is nothing but a dirty black plume of smoke and ash, still streaming into the air. It is very quiet. People are silent. Along the south side of the square, a line of state troopers are ranged across the roads and sidewalks. Today the dreadful size of the tragedy will become clear. The television is full of awful pictures and separated people. I saw people jumping from the buildings yesterday, and I will never forget that. There is grief everywhere. I can’t stop the tears welling up.
Someone has taped yards of brown paper to the pavement on the south side of the square, and people are writing their thoughts and feelings spontaneously. There are already a thousand or more comments, yet very few of them are angry or retributive or vengeful. Most of them simply want peace. Flowers and pictures of loved ones are starting to appear, and the space is turning into a shrine. It is heartbreaking.
And they want to know “Why?” I want to know that, too, but I can’t understand, and I don’t think I ever will. The world really does feel different now. New York is different now. Something has changed, gone forever. A friend later writes to me: “A crowd’s cheer from down the street rolls towards us in a wave… crowded on the back of a flatbed truck moving up Third Avenue are hard-hatted, dust-covered volunteers. As they are slowly carried north, onlookers stand up and cheer, clapping and yelling their approbation. On the truck, apparently exhausted, they smile and wave, seemingly appreciative of the love sent their way. And while I worry what tomorrow may bring, that people elsewhere will die for faraway deeds that have nothing to do with their own poverty, that Americans seem more concerned with laying blame than finding cause, I cheer for the fatigued Americans being ferried past. Digging for civilization, they are doing more than just getting through the day. These men are saving lives. In the rubble, they hope to find something lost; applauding their efforts, we fear it’s gone.” I know exactly what he means.
Among all the dreadful images of the past few days, two endure particularly. The first is of Mohammed Atta, the 33-year old presumed pilot of the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center. His features are elegant to the point of effeminacy, yet there is a beady cruelness to his eyes, and a haughtily intolerant curl of the mouth. I look at him, and I wonder how he could nurture so much hatred, for so long a time. He spent eight years learning how skyscrapers are constructed and dissembled, and then another 14 months or so training how to demolish one with a passenger plane. I look into his face for answers, but all I find is my own despair in human nature.
Then there is the picture taken from space. Traveling 423 miles over Manhattan at 11:43 a.m. on Wednesday September 12th, the IKONOS satellite took this extraordinarily transcendent picture. I find it starkly, sadly, hauntingly beautiful. The column of smoke rises like an eloquent prayer for peace. God knows if anyone is listening.
NEXT: THE BLOOD PRICE