Pictures from 9/11
Burned Paper
Burning Tower
Street Ash

In the Shadow of Terror

Brandon Smith '98 moved to Manhattan Aug. 26, 2001, to study at New York University/Tisch School of the Arts. Two weeks later terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center Twin Towers, destroying both buildings.

I'm writing this story from the 25th story of my building overlooking downtown New York City, where I live five blocks from the World Trade Center towers. Or what used to be the towers.

Once landmarks towering 1,200 feet above the end of John Street and the financial district, September 11 reduced the twin towers to charred black metal no taller than 40 feet. What's left barely peeks its head above the end of my street.

Light shines into new corners, illuminating a street once existing only in the shadow of the towers. The towers hummed, heaved, and breathed. Their sounds were like those of old friends saying hello to me every night as I walked by them on my way home.

My neighborhood is now soaked in an eerie silence, except for the howling wind that sculpts a different sound than before. And now the most noticeable feature of my neighborhood isn't the looming towers: It's the pervasive smell of wet ashes.

I was in the shower when the first plane struck the WTC. The explosion diffused away from my building, so that I missed hearing it entirely. A few moments later I was tying my shoes preparing to leave for a 10 o'clock class when my entire studio shook with deafening noise. It felt like an earthquake, but I knew it had to be lightning and thunder. (It had rained most of the night before.) Amazed to hear the kind of powerful thunder I thought existed only in Kansas, I peeked out the Venetian blinds to see if I needed to grab my umbrella.

Nothing in my life could have prepared me for what I saw when I looked out the window. A brilliant blue sky belied the thunder. Then I noticed it: smoke and fire coming from the North tower. I couldn't believe my eyes and yelled for my roommate to get up and look. I called my parents to tell them I was safe. Then I grabbed my camera and we raced to the 25th floor roof terrace. Just days earlier we had stood there admiring the majestic view of Manhattan and the towers, amazed we were now living in New York City.

Now the towers were on fire, burning bright orange and billowing with black smoke against a surreal blue sky. Tenants poured onto the terrace, watching the horror unfold, gasping in disbelief. Paper drifted out of the towers like confetti, some landing at our feet. I picked a piece up. It smelled of acrid smoke and fire. One woman remarked how long it would take to rebuild the upper floors of the towers, and we all nodded in stunned agreement. Thinking the towers might fall was silly and ludicrous and, of course, impossible.

Not one of us was prepared for what would happen in the next 45 minutes. In what seemed like perpetual slow motion, the left tower started to lean and then began to slip down over the rest of the tower. Frozen in place, we watched as the first tower fell in a cloud of dust, ash, smoke, fire, and paper.

In that harrowing moment I heard another huge airliner flying over our heads...but I couldn't see it, I could only hear the scream of its engines. It took me a few seconds to realize it wasn't an airliner, but the sound of thousands of New Yorkers down in the streets screaming in unison as the tower fell.

All of us on the roof were paralyzed with shock and didn't notice the enormous cloud of ash coming towards us until it was too late to escape. Then it hit us. It felt like a hard wall of hot smoky breath. Our eyes were immediately caked and our clothes saturated with itchy dust.

We ran for the sanctuary of the door and made it inside before the sky turned completely black. Fearing a collapse on our own building, we raced back to the ground floor to evacuate, but the doormen had shut the front doors and stuffed shirts and towels under them in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to keep the ash out of the building so we could breathe. They herded us into a back reception room and told to stay there and not go to our apartments.

People of all types took sanctuary in our building. Homeless people, business men and women, tourists, students, and other tenants. Some were clean, others were enveloped in white dust. We stayed there until the darkness in the streets disappeared.

Just when we were given permission to leave the building and to escape lower Manhattan, our building began to rumble and people again began to scream: "The second one is falling!" Horrified, we ran back into the room and the skies turned dark once again.

Once the cloud of black soot cleared, we were allowed to leave the building. Some people headed towards the Brooklyn Bridge, some toward the safety of upper Manhattan. I was irresistibly drawn to walk toward the WTC.

Ash, dust, and paper covered every inch of my street. Winds stirred the soot and made it difficult to breathe. I had to clean my camera lens many times.

I saw a crying fireman walking away from the WTC and towards me. He waved his hands and told me to run away because gas lines were exploding. His face was ash-caked and rivulets of tears and sweat ran down his chin and neck. Someone asked him where he was going. He said today was not his day to die and that he was going to Brooklyn to drink a beer.

I stumbled over a shoe in the street and saw an open umbrella drift to the ground. I walked up and down my street three or four times until sanity crept back and I realized I wanted to live.

I started walking north on Broadway, away from Ground Zero. Soon I found myself in a mass exodus...every block the group of people got bigger and bigger, and everyone was helping each other out. Grocery stores wheeled out carts of water and gave it free to anyone in need. Some people were even handing out surgical masks...I was given one and was very thankful.

Looking back I realize traversing the streets moments after the disaster wasn't smart. I was in complete shock and my first reaction was to document history with my camera. Amazed to be so close to something so terrible, I even developed the photos the same afternoon. Seeing them convinced me of one thing: I had been too close for safety.

It's been two months since all this happened, but it's etched into my mind as if it happened yesterday. And I'm no exception: I know the entire world feels this way.

Although I was literally in the shadow of the event, I know geographical distance doesn't soften the blow. Whether it's terrorist attacks or homespun anthrax scares, I realize we must unite and trudge into this great unknown. It is with this hope I confront my future here in New York City and the future of this great nation.

I have begun to understand patriotism and its comfort to a nation in need. I am thankful for it. I never understood when my grandparents and parents spoke of patriotism with firsthand conviction. I couldn't relate.

Now I can.