IN June, I served as best man at the wedding of my best friend, who, up until Tuesday, worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center. At 9:59 a.m. on that bloody day, I stood at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street, and saw a tornado of dust and debris form down at the end of the block, like a force of nature, which the clouds were certainly not.
People screamed, pulled their hands up to their mouths, and blessed themselves, and wiped tears from their eyes. I sat dazed on a bench at Madison Square Park, next to a mumbling homeless man. Just one hour earlier, seemingly years earlier, my bus pulled up to the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel, where the entire island of Manhattan opens
Up before you. Way down at the southern tip, there was smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers.
At the back of the bus - now stalled at the Tunnel entrance - cell phones were whipped out. A plane had crashed into the tower, some said. Terrorism? Maybe, maybe not. Horrible, either way. Some said they could use a day off anyway. I wasn't sure which tower my best friend, Ed Hicks, worked in. I knew his office was very high, and that was bad news. But it wasn't yet 9 a.m. And only one building had been struck.
We were ultimately allowed to proceed. Perhaps we were the last wave of vehicles to enter Manhattan. Cell phones had stopped working. Because of the long delay, I'd missed an interview. Off the bus, 34th Street was abuzz.
Another plane had hit the Towers. On Fifth Avenue, a man said he saw, and heard, a plane fly over the Empire State Building. It missed the landmark by what seemed to be inches. Lines of 10 people formed near telephone booths.
The best view of the conflagration was down at 25th St, where Fifth Avenue opens up wide, at Madison Square Park, where the quirky, triangular Flatiron Building splits the streets. It was the last time I would set my eyes on the World Trade Center. A scream went up, followed by many more. What had been an awful tragedy, like Oklahoma, like the last Trade Center attack, had become something worse.
And the worst, still, was yet to come.
Walking to give blood several hours later, there were all kinds of emotions to be felt on the East Side. Fear and sorrow, of course. But the bars were also packed. Guys in khakis opened beer cans in brown paper bags. It was a gloriously sunny day. There were neither clouds nor planes in the sky. Windshields on several cars seemed to have just emerged from a snow shower, with dust recently swiped away.
Downtown, the smoke in the sky made it seem like a nasty thunder storm was imminent. Aside from a missing friend - not to mention friends and cousins who are firefighters, EMTs and cops - I now had to figure out a way to get out of Manhattan. My brother-in-law, downtown on Varick Street, had a car.
So I made the 30 minute walk from Park Avenue South. On 23rd Street, reserve units in camouflage directed traffic, with rifles drawn. Down on to 11th Street, a snappily dressed woman entered a brownstone, with designer sunglasses set over the surgical mask on her face.
Outside the firehouse near Waverly Place and Sixth Avenue, a pick up truck bore several inches of wet dust on its hood. As we cruised up the traffic-free West Side, at 4:30, it appeared we'd at least be getting home soon. The George Washington Bridge way uptown was open, and at least we could get into Jersey, and point ourselves south. The Jersey
bridges to Staten Island, it had been reported, were open. So we could
return to our wives and children, on this day when perhaps 10,000 such lives had ended.
But no - the Henry Hudson Parkway was jammed. They had "re-closed" the GWB. Not until 8 p.m. did we find ourselves headed south in Jersey. At 8:30 we were pointed South again, turned away from the Goethals Bridge. It was closed.
"The Outerbridge is open," the toll collector tells us. But those flares that Jersey State Troopers were setting up at the Outerbridge Crossing told us otherwise.
There was not a hotel to be had. One Sheraton near Woodbridge, which I hope has serious plumbing problems soon, told us they did have one suite. It would cost us $300.
At that Sheraton, we called home. ($5.10 for the first three minutes.) My best friend had called. He was late for work that day, and watched the plane hit his building from a traffic jam on the Gowanus Expressway.
I slept at a friend's house in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, and was home at 3 p.m. the next afternoon, to wait to hear from so many others.
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