By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
NEW YORK Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 shortly after 9 a.m. ---
Freshly shaven, I walked out of Bally's health club across from the statue of the bull on lower Broadway headed for my office two blocks away on State Street. As usual, the table vendors were setting up shop on Whitehall Street as I eyed the coffee-and-doughnut stand.
But a calamity was already unfolding in the financial district in Lower Manhattan. A Boeing 767, American Airlines Flight 11, had hit One World Trade Center, the north tower, at 8:45 a.m. the second plane, a Boeing 757, United Airlines Flight 175, had just punctured Two World Trade Center, the south tower, at 9:03 a.m.
Though the World Trade Center towers were not immediately visible from lower Whitehall Street, the breeze had carried a plume of light brown smoke southwards. The smoke was beginning to drift past the southern tip of Manhattan over the New York harbor.
People were already looking up into the bright blue September sky as word spread quickly that the World Trade Center was on fire.
I hurried to the office. In the elevator on the way up to my desk, someone said airplanes had struck the towers.
Up in the office of Thomson Financial's American Banker unit, on the 25th floor of 1 State Street Plaza, with view of the soaring Twin Towers, a scene reminiscent of a ghastly Hollywood movie was unfolding before us.
Bright orange flames on three floors flicked from inside the silver columns torn apart by the disintegrating jet. Black smoke poured from One World Trade Center, and smoke from Two World Trade was starting to thicken.
A Thomson Financial employee, one of about 2,000 working in the financial district including 200 people in the World Trade Center, was already in tears. On the 26th floor, in the American Banker newsroom, only one editor was at work. CNN footage flickered on two television monitors.
Looking down from my offices on the 25th floor, there was almost no panic.
Below us, hundreds of people, executives, tourists and floor traders were walking away from the Twin Tower complex.
Others staggered, supported by friends. Some wept. At the South Ferry Terminal, ramps were jammed with yet more people queuing up to leave Manhattan.
Traffic along the lower end of Manhattan had come to a halt. Pedestrians darting between cars told drivers that towers had been hit.
On the placid waters of New York Harbor, freighters and other merchantmen sat at anchor under the bright blue September sky. Except for a dark trail of smoke drifting south toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, September 11 looked much like September 10.
On our floor, all was quiet. Phones worked. Internet connections and email functioned normally. The handful of employees who made it in to work began making plans to get out.
While the southern views of New York Harbor, Liberty Island, Ellis Island and New Jersey beyond were beautifully crisp, a horrific scene was unfolding on the north side of State Street Plaza. The worst was yet to come.
At 10:05 a.m., we heard the low rumble as the south tower collapsed, and State Street Place shook very slightly.
"That can only mean one thing,'' said my colleague, Gregory DL Morris, executive editor of Bank Investment Marketing, a sister publication.
I didn't know whether Morris knew if another explosion had occurred or if he sensed that one of the towers was disintegrating.
He ran for the exit. I shut down my computer and did the same. We walked down the stairwell. People had gathered in the lobby from the upper floors, home to one of the bond rating agencies.
It was 10:10 a.m. Daylight dimmed. A gray film, the remnants of drywall from the towers was settling onto the trees. Streets and sidewalks turned a soft, light gray. At 10:28 a.m. our building trembled once more as the north tower crashed to the ground.
The wind from the rubble kicked up a blizzard of drywall dust, as if a winter storm was sweeping through the financial district.
People calling from public phones outside wrapped towels around the heads and pulled masks on their mouths to breathe.
Inside the lobby of 1 State Street Plaza, we waited. There were more than 200 employees. A group huddled around a radio. One woman sobbed. Another woman curled up on the floor by the entrance of a service elevator.
I sat down on the floor of the lobby, behind the front desk, next to a bankruptcy lawyer. "The last time people dived-bombed the U.S. it started a war,'' said Stephen Z. Starr, a lawyer who was evacuated from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court minutes earlier.
With buses at a standstill and the subway closed, we were stranded.
As authorities ordered the evacuation of Lower Manhattan and the dust settled, people left the building. Some walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and others took the ferry to New Jersey.
John Schwarz, director of strategy and planning for American Banker, had to make sure there was no American Banker employees left at State Street Plaza before going home. He gave me a bottle of water and after 15 minutes, I decided to leave for Thomson Financial's Whitehall Street offices, a few feet away.
Whitehall Street itself was deserted and caked with a coating of drywall. Hours before it had been a minor hub of street-side commerce.
From the window, I could see that vendors had abandoned their tables and pushcarts lay strewn across the street.
More dust floated in the breeze. Police officers and a smattering of civilians wearing white masks, were the only souls visible outside.
On the 9th floor, home to several newsletter-publishing operations, only a half dozen workers remained. All was quiet except for the AM and FM broadcasts from desktop radio. Phone lines were down, as were cellphone connections.
I took a seat at one of the desks. Emails were streaming into the building via Microsoft Outlook on the desktop terminals. The Internet offered us the only two--way connections out of Manhattan.
I left at 3 p.m. and made my way back north, in the direction of Battery Park City. The air was still heavy with dust, though it was possible to breathe without the help of a mask. More gray soot covered the trees, buildings and streets.
An SUV was parked on a sidewalk. Pieces of paper and a bundle of copper wire had landed on the trunk of a car more than quarter-mile away from the collapsed towers. An abandoned gurney was visible at the water's edge.
The drywall dust on the street gradually became thicker as I approached what was left of the World Trade Center. Rays from the afternoon sun pieced the dust. An eerie silence pervaded lower Manhattan.
In Battery Park City, the police stopped me. One of the officers suggested I take a police launch about to leave for Jersey City. I boarded and we motored west, across the Hudson.
On the Jersey City landing, emergency crews had pitched a tent and dozens of ambulances were on standby. Relief workers served people water and soda.
At the triage center, people coming off the boat were asked if they needed attention. A number of beds were empty, and a handful of people appeared to have received minor injuries. Those of us who didn't need help walked out to a waiting bus that drove us to a commuter light rail train station.
From there I took a bus to Hoboken, and then a New Jersey Transit train home. Few people spoke, as we stared at an empty skyline. Thousands were dead, but we were alive.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Small Business Banker,
a publication that Risk & Insurance® Managing Editor Cyril Tuohy was editor of at the time.
September 1, 2011
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