There is a fireplace in the apartment where I live. On 11 September, I was at home waiting for the man to come and sweep the chimney, some time between nine and twelve. Around nine o’clock, my cellphone rang; half-asleep I answered it. It was the chimney-sweep’s office calling to tell me that he wouldn’t be coming because of a crash. I assumed they meant a car crash, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again. It was my mother calling to check that I was OK because two planes had just flown into the World Trade Center. I assured her that I wasn’t in a plane but in bed asleep and that I would call her the next day when my land line was due to be installed. I tried to go back to sleep but there were sirens outside my window. I turned on the radio and tuned it to the New York news station. The announcer was saying that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center, that the Twin Towers were burning and that it was rumoured that one of the planes was a commercial jetliner. He told us that at any moment President Bush would be making a statement. I lay in bed waiting for the statement. Bush said that there had been an apparent act of terrorism. He may have said more. The only other thing I remember him saying was ‘God bless America.’
I live downtown and decided that I should go take a look. On the way I stopped and bought a cup of coffee. I reached Broadway and couldn’t see the towers so I headed further west. I got to Church Street, saw the buildings on fire, and headed downtown. I stopped at Canal Street, which is where the police barricade now stands. I stood and watched. I didn’t see anyone jumping from the windows. I couldn’t see the plane itself. All I saw were flames leaping out of the windows of WTC 2. I wondered if the firemen were in yet, and then I thought, quite idly: I wonder if the towers are going to collapse.
In the building on my left, there was some kind of commotion. I heard someone yelling for a doctor. I looked over trying to see what was going on. Then I looked back at the building. I don’t know why I looked back. I didn’t hear anything or see anything out of the corner of my eye. I just looked back. The first tower was going down. It went down really slowly. I stood transfixed. I wish there was some kind of description I could provide, but there is nothing I remember except seeing the building go down very, very slowly.
People started running up the street. Hordes of them heading north. A large Hispanic woman dropped to her knees in front of me and began to pray. A man standing beside me kept saying over and over again: ‘There are going to be fatalities, there are going to be fatalities.’ I just stood there. A cop came by exhorting people to move, get away, go north. I kept standing there. Suddenly it hit me that a lot of people were dead and suddenly I didn’t want to see any more, I didn’t want to see the other tower come down. That was the thing, you knew the other one was going too. I walked up the street trying to call people, trying to find out what was going on. There was no cellular service. At the corner of Broadway and Spring, a woman stopped me. She told me that it was all the fault of ‘those dirty fucking Muslims’, and that she was going to Temple to pray for Israel. I began fervently to hope that this, like the Oklahoma City bombing, was going to turn out to be the work of Far Right extremists in America.
Another woman stopped me. She said my name. I looked at her blankly. She told me who she was. We hugged. She told me she was going to her office. I asked if I could come to use the phone. We headed west. The other tower came down but we couldn’t see it from where we were standing. I got to her office. A crowd of people stood at the window but there was nothing to see. I couldn’t even remember where exactly the towers had been. I tried to call my parents in England. I couldn’t get through. I called a friend of mine who lives just outside the city. She offered to call my parents for me. I got through to my friend Claudia: she told me to come to the apartment where she was staying.
I went back to my apartment first and packed a bag: my toothbrush, some Valium, a book, a change of underwear, and my passport. I am a Resident Alien and I wanted to have documentation that proved my legal status with me. I walked uptown towards Claudia’s. On the Bowery, the shops were open as normal. Outside one, the staff had set up a stand with water and dust masks. People were grabbing them as they passed. I saw a man walk by covered head to toe in dust. The air didn’t yet smell of burning the way it would for the next few days.
I got to Claudia’s. One of the women in the apartment was making breakfast. We ate and watched the news. I tried to call people. My phone wasn’t working. The woman who made breakfast was trying to call her parents. She couldn’t get through. I called my old roommate from New Haven and asked her to call the woman’s family. We sat there, a plane had flown into the Pentagon and another had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania. There were four other planes that the airlines couldn’t account for. I drank a beer. It was 11 o’clock in the morning.
We had to do something. Claudia and I walked to the nearest hospital to give blood. The line stretched around the block. We tried to join the line. A well-dressed woman told us, as if it was the Barney’s sale, that the line started fifty yards further back. We stood at the end of the line and after about half an hour we were told that the hospital couldn’t take any more blood. We walked to another hospital and stood in line again. A doctor came out and explained the requirements for blood donation. I wasn’t eligible – no one from England is on account of CJD. I was ready to swear up and down that I had been a vegetarian since birth regardless of the bacon sandwich that I had eaten on my way to the hospital but then another administrator came out and told us that they weren’t accepting any donations. So it was back to the news and the endless attempts to make phone calls.
The rest of the day passed by in a haze. We watched the news diligently; it told us nothing. They kept playing footage of the second plane going in. Every time I saw it, I was convinced that this time it would miss, that this time it would just have been a scare and that this time things could return to normal. There was a worrying moment when no one could get in touch with my friend Ben, but eventually his boss told me that he had spoken to him at noon and he could be accounted safe. I spoke to Ian. It was his birthday. I wished him a happy birthday. Around six o’clock, we went out to get food. In Tompkins Square Park, parents and children were grimly playing on the swings, a forlorn attempt to capture some kind of normality. It felt like the end of the world.
Around midnight, I managed to get through to my friend Rob. He told me that he had been nearby when it happened and had spent the day in the rubble working with the firemen trying to locate survivors. He hadn’t found any, but he had found a book: a thriller about terrorists taking over the World Trade Center. We agreed to meet up the next day to go down to the site and see what we could do to help.
We met at ten the next morning. Rob works for a design company and so they had masks and goggles in their shop. We walked down Church Street. At the first police barricade, we snuck in while the cops on duty were talking to people. At the second, Rob told the policeman that we had been working on site yesterday and had been asked to come back by someone who he referred to as a ‘white shirt’. I didn’t say anything but stood there with what I hoped was an appropriately professional expression. The cop let us through.
We found ourselves standing between where the towers would have been. Behind us was a department store. The windows were broken, it looked like it had been abandoned a hundred years ago. To the sides were the bases of the towers, now only about six storeys high. And in front, there was an ocean of rubble covered with scraps of paper. You could only see for about fifty yards because of the dust and smoke. Here and there on the ground were vast holes, which had at one point been the parking garage. It was in these holes that they hoped to find survivors. The air stank, it smelled of brick and paper and asbestos and something else, something sweet. It smelled like death.
There were people everywhere. All kinds of police, soldiers, firemen, construction workers, medics. Some of them had cameras. My phone rang. I was shocked. Here I was at Ground Zero and my cellphone worked. It was Jason calling to see if I was all right. I tried to explain to him where I was and what it was like. I couldn’t. The only thing I could say was that it looked just like a movie, not any specific movie, just not like real life.
Eventually we walked out onto the rubble. About twenty feet away from where I stood, the antenna from the top of one of the towers was sticking up out of the ground. As I stood there waiting to be put to work, a group of firemen put a ladder next to the antenna, braced themselves and the pole and raised the Stars and Stripes. A man, some kind of colour sergeant, I presume, shouted: ‘Present arms.’ Every person on the site saluted. I was at Iwo Jima.
We got into lines. Pieces of debris were passed down the line to be hauled away in dumpsters. Suddenly we stopped. A call went out for rope. Rope was sent down. Then torches, then water, then a stretcher, then sound probes, then dogs. Everyone waited. A body bag was called for. They had found a Port Authority officer. His body was carried out, wrapped in an American flag. We went back to work; more and more debris to be passed down the line. I picked up a piece of paper. It was a memo explaining how to appear confident at a corporate presentation. It was burnt at the edges. We were told that if we heard three blasts on the horn to run like hell – it meant a building was coming down. We worked for a few more hours. I don’t really know how long.
Afterwards we stopped in for a beer. While we were sitting there two firemen still in uniform came in. The entire place applauded. I got shivers up my back and tears in my eyes.
The rest of the week passed by. Flags started to appear all over. Then the posters began to go up; pictures of people’s faces with ‘missing’ written across the top and phone numbers at the bottom. Outside police stations and firehouses there were flowers and candles. People were asked not to volunteer but to make donations. I bought two boxes of dust masks and dropped them off at my local firehouse.
Coming home at night, I had to pass by a police barricade. I only moved in a week before it happened and I have nothing that says I live where I live. I tell them this and they let me through. On Thursday night, the barricades came down. That night it rained. It rained all night and I hid under the covers and tried to pretend that I didn’t think it was the end of the world.
New York is quiet and empty; it’s possible to cross the streets against the lights. There is a mood of barely suppressed panic. On Friday, I had to go to Penn Station to catch a train. At the bottom of the escalator to the platform, there was a crush, the people weren’t clearing the escalator quickly enough. A policeman told us to push the others out of the way.
Things are starting to happen again. The theatres reopened on Thursday. The cast of The Producers sang ‘God Bless America’ at the curtain call. Baseball will resume on Monday. Today I renewed my driver’s licence. Apparently there is a war on, but right now no one is fighting.
As you walk around, there are candles and flowers everywhere. The profiteers are coming out. I saw T-shirts for sale. One says: ‘America under attack, I can’t believe I got out.’ People are hawking pictures of the towers on fire. A friend was at the vigil in Union Square, he saw one guy who every time he had his picture taken couldn’t resist holding up his hand with his little and index fingers sticking up in the sign for rock and roll.
Every morning when I wake up, I lie in bed and wonder if maybe it didn’t take place. I have no TV and no phone and it’s easy to stay inside and make it all go away. Then I go to buy a cup of coffee and the paper, and the smell is still in the air.