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Manhattan Dispatch

People watch a burning building near the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By the time I reached the roof of my apartment building on 21st Street, one of the towers was already gone. All you could see was a plume of smoke. An elderly tenant, who lives in the penthouse, was leaning over her railing, blinking at it.

“Some fool flew right into it,” she said.

The doorman, Miguel, pulled out a Polaroid camera and took a snapshot. “I saw the plane come right in and hit it,” he told me. “It was too low.”

We stood there for a while not sure what to do. More and more people came up. One tenant said he saw the first plane flying so low he thought it was going to land on the street; a woman, whom I occasionally exchange glances with in the elevator, said we were “under siege” by terrorists. Then the second tower came down. Everyone waited for a thunderous crash—one man even crouched behind the wall—but there was not a sound except for the wail of sirens and the tenant in apartment 5A, who said, “This is war.”

After a while I got back into the elevator with Miguel. His Polaroid had just come into focus and you could see, through smoke, one of the towers still standing. “You’ll never see that again,” he said.

The police had blocked off our street with an armored car. On the roof of the police station next door I could see snipers, poking their rifles through crevices, even though there didn’t seem to be anything to point them at. By then all the roads and subways were closed off and, though I had gathered up my reporter pads and recorder, I had no way of getting anywhere. On my way upstairs again, I bumped into a volunteer police officer in 16D who was rushing to the scene; though I had never spoken to him before, I asked him if I could tag along. “I’ll get you as close as I can,” he said.

We got in his car and switched on the siren. Uncertain how to get there, we turned down one road, then another, until we wound up on Second Avenue, where the police had created an emergency lane. We were swept into a long line of ambulances and fire engines, many with men hanging off the sides, or piled on the tops, heading toward the smoke now spreading over the lower half of Manhattan. As we progressed downtown, past the Second Avenue Deli at 10th Street and through the East Village, we could see more and more people coming toward us, a mass of humanity. They moved in a steady, almost orderly march. Occasionally we slowed to let a bunch pass. “Look at that man,” said the cop driving me. A figure in an impeccable suit and tie was crossing in front of us. He looked as if he had just stepped out of a board meeting, except that he was blackened by ashes from head to toe. Some people had taken off their shirts and wrapped them around their mouths to protect them from the smoke, even as they carried their brief cases or cell phones. One person carried an umbrella.

By Lafayette Street the police had created an armed perimeter around the entire area and we parked by the subway station. Volunteer EMTs and doctors had gathered, but no more victims were arriving, and the stretchers lay on the sidewalk. As we passed through the first of several police barriers, the cop with me flashed his badge. He was a short, stocky fellow with a boyish face. He said he volunteered as an officer in Long Island, but that he “had never seen anything like this before.”

As we moved deeper inside the perimeter, the sun seemed to disappear. The smoke stung our eyes and a fireman gave us surgical masks to help us breathe; on the ground, a thick layer of soot covered everything. On one of the cars someone had written in the ashes with his finger triage here, with an arrow pointing into a building, now abandoned. The smaller streets, leading to the World Trade Center, were empty save for firemen. At one point we came across a car, still idling, left in the middle of the road. We also saw a deserted fruit stand. Finally there was an opening in the row of buildings through which we could see, only 100 or so yards away, where the tower once stood, nothing but a mass of rubble.

Police cars and ambulances that had arrived for what they believed was the beginning of the rescue now sat cracked in half, their interiors still in flames. Several workers tried to put them out, their hoses stirring up the soot so that the few people in the vicinity rushed backward. A policeman removed a gas mask and said into a radio, “Haven’t been able to find John. I’m still looking for John. We’re still looking for John.”

“I can’t find my company,” another fireman said.

There were no wounded visible, nor even the sound of a human cry. A man came by on a bicycle carrying a bucket filled with bottles of Evian water and little boxes of Visine, which he passed out. Several firemen took the bottles of water, sipped from them, and then poured them over their heads. We stood there for a long time, watching, and then an older man stumbled out of the smoke. He didn’t seem to know where he was. There were no intact ambulances in the area, and he wandered toward a car that was on fire. “I better help him,” my cop said. He took the man’s arm and led him down the street. I asked him where he had come from, but he didn’t seem to know. “I have MS,” he said. We led him toward the perimeter, where other officers then carried him away.

When we walked back toward the rubble, I noticed something on the sidewalk. It had been cordoned off by yellow tape, as if part of a crime scene, but the tape had broken, which is why I hadn’t noticed it before. Inside the area was a thick, metallic object about the size of a desk. “It’s the fuckin’ engine from one of the planes,” a police officer told us. The cop and I stared at it for a while. “It must have cut through there,” he said, pointing at the sky, “and landed all the way over here.”

Not far behind it was a building with the door blown out, and we went inside for shelter. It was a real estate agency for luxury suites. There was an art deco painting on the wall and travel magazines strewn in the lobby. A camera was sitting on the front desk, along with other valuables, and a piece of half-eaten fudge. A message taped to the wall said make sofia’s job easier.

The phones were working, and the cop and I both tried to call our families. I could hear him on the phone talking to his dad and then to his girlfriend. Afterward he asked me if my wife was OK, and when I told him she was, he seemed genuinely pleased. Another fireman came in and tried to call home as well, when suddenly someone yelled, “Building coming down, clear out,” and there was a rush of people outside, firemen and police running past, and the three of us tried to get out. I slipped and fell on the wet floor, then got back up and ran after the cop. There was the sound of an explosion behind us, but the building didn’t come down.

Neither of us had much interest in watching the fire burn any longer, and there didn’t seem to be anybody to help. So we started to walk uptown, our clothes and hair by now covered in soot. All around us, on the ground or fluttering in the air, were thousands of pieces of paper. They had been blown out of the World Trade Center and were still swirling. I began to catch them in my hands, occasionally bending to pick some up. One said, “World Trade Center Master Options List Report: OpPenheimerFunds Inc. ... Building 2WTC ... Floor 30.” Another paper, typed partly in Chinese, said “American TCC International Group, Inc., One World Trade Center, Suite 4763.”

There were e-mails (“thanks for your voice message today”) and desk calendars and Post-it notes. I tried to stuff them in my pockets, but I couldn’t get them all. The cop saw me and began to catch them too. By the time we got to the car we had such a large mound I had to put some in the back. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but when I got home I sat down and began to read. Most were too charred, but I could make out small clues, about some man named Andrew in suite 101 who received a FedEx package from Stamford on August 6 and another man, named Philip, who worked at Kidder Peabody and sent a package, also on August 6, to General Electric for $8.83. There was part of a novel with the initials “S.P.” written on the inside flap; the reader had underlined a passage that said: “There was one thing she was sure of. She was going to become an editor.” There was a man named David who wrote long e-mails with phrases like “segment specific retention/winback” and “deliverables were re-prioritized,” and a woman who had sent an e-mail that said only, “I’ll see you at two. Love S.” After reading through them, I put them in a neat pile and stored them in a box in the back of a closet. Then I went back upstairs to join the other tenants who had gathered on the roof to watch the empty sky.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.