9/11: I Was There
Bin Laden’s death, however euphoric, was bittersweet for those who either lost people they knew or loved, or who were there when it happened.
Both were my worlds.
In fact, 9/11 was one of the one hundred and one reasons why I left NYC for SoFlo back in 2002.
At the time I was the Public Relations VP for the Staten Island Division of NYC’s now defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital System, and we had a corporate meeting scheduled that Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. at the Motherhouse as we jokingly referred to St Vincent’s in lower Manhattan. Living – and working – on Staten Island, New York’s forgotten borough, I would usually take the S.I. Ferry into the City if I had business, but that morning I instead drove my car over the Bayonne Bridge which connected S.I. to New Jersey and took the PATH subway system which had recently opened a station in Bayonne. It left me off right on Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a short walk to the hospital.
I arrived a bit early, around 8:30, and decided to kill time having an overpriced cup of java at one of the coffee shops on Seventh. Then, at about 8:50 – the time the first plane hit – I began my walk downtown.
Up to then there had been no sounds or commotion, but as I strolled briskly to my destination – Seventh and 12th Street – I noticed more and bystanders looking up. “Why?” I thought until I looked up too. From this vantage point, the WTC usually resembled a picture postcard that tourists from London or Peoria would send to the folks back home. Only now, there was a gaping hole with billowing black smoke right smack in the upper third of one of the towers. Funny, but in person and real time, it looked fake, like a Grade D sifi movie from the 50’s, and actually appeared more real later when I saw the moment replayed again and again on TV.
I called my secretary back on Staten Island and told her to turn on the TV in our office to see what was up. It was the last time that day that I used my cell phone. Apparently there were cell towers on top of the WTC, and soon after our cells’ only use were as paperweights.
When I got to our corporate PR offices in the hospital, my colleagues were glued to the television although we could all see what was transpiring right outside our office window. Everyone probably thought the same thing I did, that a traffic helicopter or small private plane had gone bad. After all, the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane in 1947. But after the second jet plowed into the other Tower, we all knew this was no accident, and our corporate PR boss immediately mobilized us into action teams. You see, St. Vincent’s was the closest hospital to Ground Zero and our job for most of that terrible day was to control the media circus that soon converged at our doors.
Seventh Avenue which fronted St. Vincent’s was closed, the blocks surrounding it barricaded, and ambulances, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare personnel waited patiently for victims that never materialized. Yes, there were casualties, but for the most part, you either walked out of the towers or you were dust. It was there, keeping the press outside at bay, that I witnessed the collapse of the two towers. From that point, ten or so blocks from Ground Zero, there were no sounds of destruction. A thick cloud mushroomed from the site like an atomic bomb, then nothing. It was easy to forget people were still in those buildings.
Health personnel who lived in the area came by to volunteer; and other residents of the Village began forming a line around the perimeter of the hospital to give blood. I remember two gay boys, obviously aware of the ban on blood donations by homosexuals because of the AIDS epidemic, asking me, “Are they taking gay blood too?”
Later in the afternoon, I was assigned to staff one of the tables that had been hastily stationed just outside the hospital entrance, manned with lists of who had been brought to our place. Like zombies out of “Night of the Living Dead,” people who were searching for family or friends in the chaos listlessly came up to our tables to see if we had their loved one. They were obviously exhausted not just from the shock of the day but the fact that the Greater New York Hospital Association had no master list, forcing people to wander nomadically from one hospital to the next. And here, right behind me, on St. Vincent’s brick facing, they began posting those heartbreaking “Have You Seen…” notices that would engulf the City in the weeks ahead.
At about 7, I was released, but because the PATH system was out of commission – the WTC station had been obliterated in the disaster – my strategy was to somehow get to the Staten Island Ferry terminal. I grabbed the subway but when the conductor announced two stops into our ride that there would be no further stops in lower Manhattan, a sea of us fellow Staten Islanders who all shared my strategy vacated the train en masse for the long trek by foot to the terminal which was only a block or so from Ground Zero.
By pure happenstance, I tagged along with two black nurses from Beth Israel who knew the way. No one had any idea whether the Ferry was even running; the rumor that afternoon was that the Ferry terminal on the Staten Island side had been turned into a temporary morgue. The cops we encountered on our hike knew nothing; and we found firefighters and other emergency personnel, shell shocked by the day’s events, sitting on curbs, exhausted or openly crying. Wisely, my new nurse buddies had the good sense to ask for face masks from one of the ambulances along the way, which we put on as we approached our destination.
The scene resembled Pompeii after Vesuvius. A heavy white coating enveloped everything in sight, while in the middle of this surreal world a lone jogger trotted underneath the abandoned West Side Highway, a drop of normalcy in a sea of insanity.
Yes, the Ferry was still running – we would get the last boat out at 9, the last that would run for a week – but as we made our way upstairs to the platform, we could see the terminal had been turned into a temporary trauma center. It was also evident that the dozens of cots that covered the terminal floor had remained untouched.
The first reaction of people that morning, fearing what might happen next, was to get the hell out of lower Manhattan as quickly as possible. For Staten Islanders, many of whom worked in the Financial District, that meant the Ferry. In their haste and panic, some who had been injured in the chaos waited until they got home to come to my own St. Vincent’s to be treated. But the largest influx of victims of 9/11 that we would see in the coming weeks and months were those who came to our Psych ER.
Living in New York City, there was no way to escape the ongoing gloom which descended on its residents for months. It was especially dismal on Staten Island, home to many of the Wall Streeters, cops and firefighters who never walked away from the rubble, where every day our local paper announced dozens of funerals and memorial services. Barbara, the secretary of my CEO, knew Ralph, her firefighter husband and a first responder to the scene, was dead when she saw his rig crushed under the concrete and steel of one of the towers on TV.
I attended Ralph’s funeral at Our Lady of Sorrow Church, a few blocks from the hospital, and there, at the entrance like a receiving line at a wedding, were Barbara; Ralph’s mother, Anne, retired from the hospital’s Maintenance Department; and Sue, his sister, a lab tech. I knew them all.
The Church was standing room only, maybe the only benefit, I thought, of dying young.
And I know Barbara and her family were strangely grateful for another reason.
At least they had something to bury.
Pics from my visit to the 9/11 Museum last fall.