By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT - Nine years have passed since 9/11 and, yet, the memories of that day – that week – are as vivid as if the events had happened yesterday. I was at Ground Zero just 26 hours after the first strike and these are my recollections of the day of the events and my subsequent tour of lower New York.
On the morning of September 11th, I had just dropped off my son, almost six years old, at his elementary school and looped up to a car wash on Tunxis Hill Road. It was a spectacular day – bright blue skies and a perfect temperature – so in contrast with the horrors that were to follow.
While vacuuming my car, an attendant mentioned that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. My immediate assumption was that it was a single-engine aircraft and it had accidentally hit the building. I flipped on the radio and, of course, that guess was soon dispelled as on-the-scene reports came in and then President Bush made an announcement and labeled it an act of terrorism.
I quickly realized that both towers had been hit by separate jetliners and that they were engulfed in flames and smoke. I finished up and began racing home to join my wife and our younger son, almost two. En route, the first tower fell and I did all I could to keep my car on the road as the magnitude of what had just happened hit me.
As I pulled into the driveway, my wife poked her head out the window and began to tell me what was happening, but of course I already knew. I joined them in the living room and we watched our TV as events continued to unfold. The collapse of the second tower. The strike on the Pentagon. The downed plane in Pennsylvania. Grounding of all air traffic.
The phone rang periodically as friends from across the country and around the world called in to check on our well being. It all seemed so surreal. After all the reports were in, it seemed finally all the worst had happened. As evening approached, there was an eerie quiet everywhere – both in the air and on the streets as we all wrestled with the news.
As the new day dawned, I could not just sit and check news reports again. And I felt I needed to see for myself that this had indeed happened and what that scene was like. So I set out in my truck down I-95, passing rest areas at which plywood signs had been placed and marked “Staging Area”, bound for New York. Other disturbing signs indicated the city was closed – yes, closed – to traffic and I realized I would need to find another mode of transportation to complete the trek.
I b-lined to the Bronx and, with my brother-in-law, Deon, hopped a train, riding it as far south as we could, to Houston Street.
There, we found the street deserted, with the exception of a lone fire engine with an American flag flapping from the rear that whipped around a corner, and police-manned barricades running the length of the city from east to west. Working our way over to the East Side, with smoke drifting in our direction, we slipped through the line and hugged the F.D.R. Drive, moving south on foot. Like Houston Street, there wasn’t a single car on the Drive either, though it was nearly midday on a Wednesday.
Reaching the South Street Seaport, we saw about a dozen cops, who had obviously been working through the night, taking a breather on long benches and sipping from water bottles. A military Humvee passed, with a soldier manning a rooftop gun. Overhead, F-16s did a flyover. And around us, the cobblestones and cars were covered with this white ash that looked like snow and grew deeper as we moved toward the Trade Center site. On a windshield, someone had scrawled in the ash with his or her finger, “Bomb Bin Laden!”
As we got nearer, we passed firefighters, Con Ed workers and cops, as well as bagel carts and women’s high heels that had been abandoned, and then dust covered, as the debris clouds from the collapsing towers came rolling through the streets. There were gaping holes in the street and steam pouring out from pipes that had cracked and would need to be replaced.
We reached another perimeter, on Liberty Street, and could just make out the jagged remains of the distinctive “tridents” that defined the design of the towers. Smoke and dust billowed from the area and where we stood the ash was a good two inches deep. A memento seeker scooped some of this into an empty Snapple bottle. I found a One World Trade Center business card and a Fed Ex form from same, and stuffed these in my pocket. (I would later get in touch with the owner of the business card, a Port Authority employee, who was lucky to have survived.)
We moved further south down to Battery Park, passing downtown residents hurriedly vacating apartments and toting suitcases, others making lunch on small grills right on the sidewalk, police filing onto a bus that had been commandeered as emergency transportation and a small tank sitting right in the park. To a side street, a row of ten or more police cars and taxis, flattened by falling debris, had been towed.
Looking up West Street, we were afforded another view of the site and the void in the skyline where the buildings had been. More barricades had been erected here and soldiers were escorting residents to their places to remove belongings. Flatbed trucks were already hauling out twisted steel beams, taking them to awaiting barges for the quick jaunt over to a Staten Island dump site.
Already photos of missing loved ones and relatives were being posted along makeshift plywood walls near Trinity Church, which had somehow survived the collapses. Out in the Bay, there was no boat traffic, with the exception of a Coast Guard ship guarding the Statue of Liberty and a DEP ship moored off the point.
We had seen what we needed to see, proved to ourselves that the events had indeed been real and that the Towers had truly been taken down in a bold assault on American soil. And as we rode the train back north, we also realized that life as we knew it would never again be the same. That our collective innocence and sense of security was lost.