An ex-New Yorker and the Twin Towers

In 1966 turmoil rocked the world around me. Riots crushed the inner city during the fight for equality. Student protestors jammed the streets demanding an end to the carnage in Viet Nam. That same year when construction began on the North Tower of the World Trade Center I was in the sixth grade. Hailed as a breakthrough in building design, the Twin Towers would be the world’s largest skyscrapers, only a few subway stops away from my home. I would witness history.

The first set of gleaming giants was completed in 1971, my junior year. For a close-up of the big buildings jutting into the sky, I rode the subway downtown to Liberty Street. Mesmerized by 110 floors of glittering glass propped up by tons of concrete and steel, I strained my eyes to see the top. Foremen in hard hats barked out orders to teams of grungy looking construction workers as they added finishing touches. I milled around Brooks Brother’s, the place where preppies shopped, to catch the action. Soon, I was sidetracked by stockbrokers in snazzy suits and silk ties rushing to finalize investment deals. Delivery men carrying lunch trays packed with club sandwiches and Cokes scrambled down crowded streets to feed hungry office workers. Cabbies honked horns as they raced to pick up fares. College wasn’t in my future so said my mother. Higher education was only for boys like my brother. I shifted thoughts to a career on Wall Street. In those days, landing a job without a four-year degree was a cinch. Wall Street’s maddening rhythm attracted me. Maybe there was a place for me among the traders, bankers and brokers?

Excitement swirled around the World Center’s official opening day in 1973, the year after my high school graduation. Lower Manhattan’s newest tenant threaded ribbons of enthusiasm throughout the region. Experts predicted the World Trade Center would pump up the stagnant lower Manhattan economy. A festive inauguration was held, ribbons cut, and speeches given. The impossible had been achieved.

Not only did the Twin Towers transform New York City they attracted a slew of sickos. Late at night in 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petite strung a tightrope between the two giant buildings and made several daring crossings without the benefit of a safety net. New Yorkers cheered Petit but the Port Authority Police did not. They arrested him. A year later, 24-year old New York City resident Owen Quinn jumped off the roof of the North Tower with a parachute. After a safe landing he too was jailed. The antics at the Twin Towers continued. On May 26, 1977 27-year old George Willig achieved a stunning feat. Using clamps he designed to fit into the exterior grooves of the building, he climbed from the street level all the way to the roof. His three hour ascent captivated millions of people around the globe, including thousands of New Yorkers who crowded around the World Trade Centers to cheer Willig on. He was arrested but not before he scribbled his name in magic marker on the edge of the building. Security increased and there were no more dare devils to test the Twin Towers.

Numerous movie scenes included footage of the World Trade Center such as the remake of King Kong, Wall Street, Working Girl, Escape from New York, and Manhattan. Windows on the World, an exquisite restaurant on the 110th floor with breathtaking views offered great service and dancing at night. With fine food and drink, Windows packed in customers.

I developed my own relationship with the Twin Towers. I eventually landed a job across the street in a brokerage house. Along with thousands of other passengers I squeezed myself on the E train from my Jackson Heights neighborhood and rode to Chambers Street, a subway stop inside the South Tower. I pressed my way through the vast sea of humanity every morning, searching for a perfect cup of coffee. The company cafeteria sold caffeinated swill that I refused to drink.

At lunch time I often sat around the huge circular fountain sandwiched in between the buildings. After I ate my sandwich, I browsed through the New York Times and then stared at the crowds. Jugglers and magicians entertained us. I overheard lover’s spats. I listened to heated discussions about the stock market, details which bored me. I didn’t care about other people’s real estate investments in ritzy co-ops on the Upper East Side. I lived in a dinky two-room apartment in Queens that was over-priced and had bugs. Most people who worked in Lower Manhattan dressed in business suits with pastel colored button down cotton shirts and tassel leather loafers. Even women looked the same. Jeez, it was frightening. I was surrounded by pods from the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

At lunch, I preferred breathing in fresh air to fighting throngs of shoppers stalking the aisles in the World Trade Center plaza for sales. Well, fresh air was relative in the taxi and delivery truck clogged area. Lunch hour by the World Trade Center was entertaining as well as amusing.

I had a life-long fear of heights, but in a spasm of weakness I went with friends to the observation deck. As soon as the elevator door popped open, I froze. I was on top of the world. Winds gusted around me. The spectacular view made my knees feel like soggy sponges. Sweat poured down my face. I was paralyzed with fear. A guard approached me and said, “Miss, are you OK?”

“No, I’m not.”

“I’ll escort you to a seat,” the uniformed guard said.

“Ladies, take your tour,” I said, “I’m out of here.”

“Guard, please help me to the elevator.”

I waited for my friends in the lobby. By the time they arrived, my cheeks were rosy once again. I stopped perspiring like I roamed the desert.

One of my friends returned to the lobby. “Want to see the Empire State Building next?”

“You’re not funny,” I said. “I thought I could do this, but I’m just too afraid.”

By 1984 I no longer worked downtown. A new life lured me away and I attended NYU School of Social Work. I was also into jogging as a way to stay sane. From my network of running buddies, I met Ife, a secretary who worked in the Twin Towers. Once in a while, we met for an evening run that started at the South Tower. Ife’s view was outstanding but as always, I refused to look. Most times, I preferred waiting in the lobby where I felt safer. We jogged away from the World Trade Center and up the West Side of Manhattan, blabbering along the way. When we stopped for a light, we sometimes glanced back at the brightly lit buildings towering above the New York City skyline. They were an awesome sight.

Timothy, aka TJ, another friend from running circles, also worked in the Twin Towers. His office was on the 63rd floor in the North Tower. I sometimes had lunch with TJ. I was consistent and refused to look out his window too.

I woke up around 5 a.m. on 9/11/01, around the same time I did most days. At that time of year, it was still toasty in Phoenix, my home since a disabling car accident in 1994. I took my dogs out early for their romp around the neighborhood attached to my motorized chair. As soon as I came back, my roommate said, “Turn on the TV. A plane hit the World Trade Center.”

“That’s impossible,” I said. “It’s restricted airspace. All pilots know that.”

“A plane hit the building,” she said.

“Must’ve been a chopper or a small plane. I’ll catch the news later.”

“Turn on the TV now,” she said. “It’s serious.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks when I saw thick acrid smoke billowing from the North Tower, the building struck first. Sheets of flames, piles of papers, and other burning debris shot from the crippled skyscraper. Terrified workers jumped to their deaths almost one quarter mile below rather than be swallowed up by monster fire. Then it hit me. TJ and Ife worked in the Twin Towers. I’d lost touch with Ife years earlier but TJ was still in my life. I prayed both were safe. I also worried about Connie, another friend I’d known since the mid 1980s who worked in Lower Manhattan. She had to be affected.

Like millions of Americans, the senseless destruction saddened me. The city where I grew up and still loved was under attack. Then another plane rammed the South Tower. I was stunned, in total disbelief. News about the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania flashed on the news. Was this really happening to America? I finally got a grip. Consumed with anguish knowing the world would soon be at war, I wiped away my tears and said a prayer.

After several jittery hours glued to the television, I had enough. I tried calling my friends but the phone lines were constantly busy. Distraught, I made a decision. I had spent the day before at the county shelter where I volunteered. I returned to be among the homeless animals. I didn’t know what else to do.

That night I finally reached TJ. We both cried about the horror he endured. The experience was so overwhelming he cut the conversation short. Still in shock, he promised to call back soon. I told him I loved him.

I called Ife even though we hadn’t spoke in years. Her daughter answered. That morning, Ife woke up late. By the time she stepped off the subway, all hell had broken loose. She escaped death because she overslept.

Connie’s line was still busy. In a few days, TJ and Connie sent e-mails to their friends. Below are excerpts from those messages:

Connie

“From my cubicle, I have (had) a beautiful view of the twin towers- we are on the 12th floor. I could see the flames and smoke. The buildings continued to burn, and they were looking smokier…

And then the truly unthinkable happened – there was a low rumble, and I turned around to watch the tower just disappear – it didn’t collapse, it just vaporized – it disappeared….

I saw a huge gray and white dust cloud chasing people down Beekman Street, coming toward our building. I saw people running in front of it and decided we had to leave. The dust was thick and hard to breathe. There was already two or three inches of gray ash on the ground. There were folks in FBI vests yelling at us to walk east. Carol and I walked on the road, up the ramp from Pearl Street onto the Brooklyn Bridge….

No one panicked, although at one point we could hear planes overhead but we couldn’t see anything, and I did wonder if we were going to be bombed on the bridge. Everyone was walking quietly but deliberately towards Brooklyn. A few people were crying. For as far as I could see people were walking out of Manhattan. The FDR Drive was packed with people. All I wanted was home. We were about a third of the way across the bridge when the second tower collapsed and some people started to run. At the foot of the bridge fire trucks and emergency vehicles were assembled, waiting to drive into Manhattan. The rest of the walk home was uneventful….

I was covered with a light coating of gray ash. It was in my hair, all over my glasses, on my brief case. My shoes were covered. I took a shower, and then sat down and cried.”

TJ  

“I was at work in the North Tower when the first plane hit the building about 20 floors above me. The whole building shook and we heard a loud explosion and dull thuds. Immediately debris and burning metal came past my window and fell to the plaza below. Most of us were in the office and stunned for a few seconds, but then we realized that we had to get out…

As I walked down 63 flights of stairs we smelled fuel and encountered water leakage, fire alarms and some light smoke. At the time I thought that we were hit either by a small, single engine plane or a helicopter. I had no idea of the magnitude of the explosions and plane crashes until I got down to the plaza level. But when I saw a huge twisted steel “I” beam, I knew that it had probably been a commercial airline – and the possibility of terrorist activity…

People everywhere were in a daze, some crying and some (like me) totally shocked. It never occurred to me that the buildings would collapse. There is nothing left, just tons of rubble. Several co-workers that I regularly work with are missing and presumed buried in the debris. I am doubtful they will be found alive. This has been the most horrific experience. All I can do now is just keep reminding myself how lucky I am and that I’m watched over by God (and maybe it was Mom speaking in God’s ear).

I never knew that so many people cared. This kindness has overwhelmed me and your concern and support has been a great comfort. Thank you all. This will never be forgotten.”

In 2003 I returned to New York City, the first time since 9/11. As the jet approached Newark International Airport, I saw the skyline of Manhattan. The city without the Twin Towers looked naked. It didn’t seem like New York City at all.

A friend escorted me to the site of the former World Trade Center, most commonly known as ground zero. As I sat in my wheelchair on lower Broadway staring at an immense stretch of city blocks surrounded by a chain link fence, tears trickled down my face. I cried for the people who perished on 9/11 and for the family, friends and pets they left behind. I cried for all the people who have since died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cried because the world has grown ugly. Hate consumes us. The war on terror cannot be fought with army battalions and tanks. Billions of dollars are squanders on weapons of mass destruction.

I miss the Twin Towers. Visible from miles away, the World Trade Center was an icon, the lifeblood of the city. Subway lines stopped in the building. Tickets to Broadway shows were sold in the lobby. The towers were almost like a small city.

Even though plans are moving along for the Freedom Tower nothing can replace the World Trade Center. Designing the Twin Towers back in the 1960s took years of bickering to settle on the right plans, endless battles to scrape together the financing, yet more time to build it, and in just 103 minutes the buildings vanished. For the sake of those who perished on 9/11 I hope we can find a way to take the late John Lennon’s advice and, “Give peace a chance.” The people of the world deserve it.

 

 

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