A Scene from September 11

The Gazette’s main office was located on West Street, in a twenty-four-story building that had the Hudson to the west and the Twin Towers to the east. When the possibility of the towers collapsing entered the minds of the editors, support staff, and firefighters, it became clear evacuation was necessary, and publication of a September 12th edition was in serious jeopardy, along with mere existence. As my superiors scurried to find a way to get a paper out, and eventually succeeding, we reporters and photographers took to the streets on what, chillingly, was a perfect summer day, with the sky pristinely, ubiquitously blue except for where it was interrupted by the searing sun and the conflagration of man’s wrath.

In a way, it was cathartic to have something so distracting as a purpose among the chaos that was people — friends, neighbors, fellow simple humans — scrambling for their wellbeing. Onlookers stood on the streets, many watching hands-to-lips, mouthing God as the towers burned, and I spoke to a few of them briefly, compassionately, asking them what they saw, what they were thinking, how they felt. Then I wished them the best and found one of the few cops giving interviews. He had just finished speaking to a TV crew and I asked several questions he claimed required speculative responses and he refused to give comment other than to say convincingly it was the worst day of his life, and it wasn’t even ten in the morning. As I was looking around for someone else, a detective or captain or a person of authority wearing plain clothes, the first tower began to fall and screams crescendoed. The dust from the implosion rolled into the city quickly and with a whoosh as if being vacuumed up by the streets. Everyone raced for shelter, anything that passed for superficial cover. I leaned beside a parked truck and felt jittery when the tiny gray flakes enveloped me, infiltrating each breath and making me think suffocation was a possibility. I spied for any buildings that might be possible havens, pressing my hand against the sure steel frame of the truck to keep my bearings. I couldn’t hold my head up for long, because of the dust. Already, it was difficult to hear anything and I didn’t want to be unable to see too, so I took intermittent peeks, deciding I was going to have to crawl underneath the truck if I couldn’t locate a way out of the streets. All I saw at first were lofty office buildings that people had just poured out of upon orders. Thinking those highrises unsafe, either structurally or as potential targets, I then felt fortunate to have a truck to go under. Behind me, glass shattered from a clothing store two doors away and I yelped and covered my head with my hands and notebook, anticipating the sprinkling of sharp edges. None came; the last shards of glass trickled to the ground far enough away to be harmless, and when I realized it was okay to take another quick look, I saw the initial rush of dust had stopped and whatever was in the air was beginning to settle, falling like a tarpauline over us and precious oxygen.

I also saw a diner on the corner and across the street. It was letting people in. Like an animal desperate and scurrying, I scrambled to my feet and ran for it, staying hunched and keeping my knees bent and hands on top of my head. At the door, a dour-faced man welcomed me to come inside and asked how I was and someone gave me bottled water and a wet paper towel that I used to wipe my face. I thanked whomever it was and wandered into the diner, finding a seat on a busted stool at the counter near the back.

People sat in the tables and on the stools and those huddled on the floor looked like nudged bowling pins, their knees curled into their chests as they rocked slowly, ready to stop at any moment or fall completely over. From all spots of the diner, people cried and cursed and prayed, or yelled assurances into cell phones, or stayed silent and dealt with their panic.

I put my notebook on the counter, wiped my hands with the paper towel until it was too dirty, wet and crumpled to be of use. My hands covered my face; they shook. When I took them away again, after a minute or so, a woman was sitting beside me; she may have been there all along. She cried, head down, a stricken look on her face. I guessed she was in her forties, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she was twentysomething and had aged with the stress of the morning. She said she had run out of the second tower, the South Tower, and had kept running, looking directly forward. She knew most of her friends and co-workers hadn’t made it. Some headed back up before the second plane hit. I said they might have gotten out. She closed her eyes and shook her head in a manner that told me I was foolish.

Then a man entering the diner punctuated her point, announcing as he walked to the back that the South Tower was about to go.

“Oh, God,” the woman said, her fingers in a spasm, “he’s in there.”

She unrolled, as best she could, a tearsoaked napkin in her hand and used it to wipe at her eyes. After exhaling a few times, she cried loud again. I touched on her shoulder and asked if I could get her anything. She turned to me and stared, sheer terror in her blue eyes, and something else I later understood as guilt.

“Look out! Look out!” yelled the man who stood by the door. He was the proprietor or manager.

His words caused all of us to focus outside, a motion that required me to swivel my squeaky chair, which tilted and I ended up falling right off it, landing on my side with a thud. No one noticed, I don’t think. All of us watched keenly as another storm of the gray dust charged up the street appearing very much as I would expect the apocalypse to, like it could wrap up and cloak anything or anyone, swallow up life in its ocean of soot and dirt. At the sight of it, we in the diner covered our heads and most of us screamed. Those not already on the floor, hit it, or ran behind the counter. We stared through squinting eyes, ready to shut them and turn away — for good, if necessary — as the cloud swept past and threatened to break through the diner’s windows. The glass panels shook and contoured inward, teetering on the verge of shattering into daggers, a potentiality that elicited more screams and prayers, and prompted hands to resecure themselves over heads. Manhattan was completely gray and it seemed as if it would always be so as the cloud continued to roll up the street, an army of filth.

Despite the revolt, the diner’s structure held, and the glass panels relaxed back into place. The chattering diningware settled down to intermittent clanging; the door was again safe to open. Another soul entered with the obvious, yet still disturbing words, “The South Tower just fell. And they hit the Pentagon.”

Those statements sparked an adrenaline rush that urged me to get myself together and back to my job. I stayed, though, and watched the dust sprinkle and waited for it to stop as if it were a snowstorm I needed to drive through. Rather than sit on the faulty stool, I stood and leaned my forearms on the solid counter. The woman who had been speaking to me was already back in her seat. When I folded my hands on the Formica top, she opened her eyes and exhaled. “He’s dead. It’s my fault. I know he’s dead.”

At first, believing she was hallucinating or too traumatized to know what she was saying, I thought of pretending not to hear. Desperation was in her voice, though, and I asked, “Who do you think has died?”

“Myron.” She puled and her jaw quivered as if she was cold, but this was a hot September day and she couldn’t have been.

“Was Myron in the tower?”

She nodded and her face contorted into an ugly melange of grief and loss as she cried unrestrained. After several minutes her sobs eased and she spoke again, telling me Myron was one of the men in her office. They were dating and he was married. She had recently met his wife, a nice woman she could’ve been friends with under other circumstances; and both of them, the woman and her lover, Myron, later marveled at how well they had managed to get through the episode without letting on. “We were so damned pleased with ourselves.” She frowned and continued to handle the one slowly disintegrating tissue in her fingers.

She put her head in her hands and, in a wheezing voice, told me she loved him, she honestly did. The affair had gone on for a year and she wanted to stop, but couldn’t help herself. It was her fault, she said. She should’ve waited for him. She should’ve made him leave the office. He was calling his wife, to make sure their kids were okay. Her fault, she said, everything.

I tried to get her off the subject and asked how she got into the diner. Someone had dragged her in, she answered, because she’d stopped right in front of the storefront to catch her breath. Otherwise she didn’t know — she might’ve gone back and died too.

A man said his cell phone was working, prompting everyone with one to check for messages or attempt to place a call. Bleeps and tinkles drowned out the cries and whimpers for a moment. A woman behind the bar dropped bunches of paper towels on the countertop and I reached over for two, handing one to the woman. She looked at it, but seemed unable to move. She looked down again and said, “He’s dead.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do. He’s dead.”

I rubbed a hand through my hair and scratched the top of it. “If he is, it’s not your fault.” I tapped a finger in front of her. “It’s not your fault at all.”

When I held her left wrist and shook it, she trembled. In one fluid motion, she stood, flung open her arms, and clung tight to my neck. I patted her back and moved my face out of her dark hair so I could breathe. After I don’t know how long I slowly eased her away, sat her down and held her hands. Her eyes faced her lap, where her busy hands played with the tissue like it was a miniature Rubik’s cube she was trying hard to crack. Writing was on the inside. I could tell when I noticed the ink. I imagine the tissue held a love note or maybe just Myron’s name, but I don’t know for sure.

“You’re going to be fine,” I said. “You’re absolutely going to be fine. You did nothing wrong.”

“Thank you, thank you.” She nodded and sobbed and grabbed a paper towel to dab her eyes.

Police officers and emergency workers came in and asked if anyone needed help. Those who did were ambulanced to a hospital or a nearby triage center, depending on the severity of their injuries. I didn’t ask them for interviews, but the sight of the officers and rescue personnel indicated it was time to go back outside. I picked up my notebook, kissed the woman on the head, and told her to take care of herself.

I didn’t ask her name. In fact, I don’t think I asked her anything. I just listened to what she needed to say. And, until now, I have never reported it to anyone, maybe because I always thought it would be impertinent and even unprofessional, since I don’t think I introduced myself. In any case, I understand I made a choice to not consider exploiting her story, and I did so because such a gesture seemed so obviously appropriate at the time, even for a reporter in New York on the most important news day of my career.

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