the Shadow of Terror
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
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
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
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.