Wednesday, September 26, 2001

I wrote this and the following post (the one that beings "horrific, apocalyptic, cataclysmic...") as emails to friends about my experiences covering the WTC calamity. It was really more for friends that are outside NYC, as many of us in the city have similar stories...


Went to blood bank on Upper East Side. Truly tremendous response ... the center did not open until 8 a.m.; at 7 a.m. there was a line 100 people deep. Many waited for hours in line; I spoke to one man who on Tuesday ran from his financial services job downtown to his apartment on 86th street, hitting seven different hospitals in his quest to donate his type O (universal donor blood). All turned him away, they had been so overwhelmed by donations. A lot of people were being turned away even at this specialized blood donation center, the New York Blood Center. And plenty of people were there volunteering.

Later, I went down to the stationhouse of the Emergency Services Squad No. 1 on E. 21st Street ... the Emergency Services Unit (ESU) is the city's elite police squad, trained to deal with everything and anything. Heavy security made the squad tough to get to; the street was closed off in both directions for security reasons. Finally made it though. Asked a seargent about his missing buddies, he said they're just one of the thousands of stories. "Cops and firefighters, we do our jobs, and grieve in private."

There are many many cops on the street, many National Guard (basically, the Army and Army reservists) on the street, many police cadets on the street. But not that many cars or buses or civilians. The mayor asked most people to stay home.


The mood in the city is sullen, there's no other way to put it. Everyone is thinking about this 24/7. On the subway, the conductor ended the trip by saying, "have a blessed day," and one lady laughed bitterly. "Have a blessed day," she spat. "You're blessed today if you're alive."

Assigned to the city armory, a huge building on Lexington Ave. that spans between E. 25 and E. 26th Streets. This was where thousands of friends and families were going to register their loved ones missing, taking with them dental records and toothbrushes for DNA samples. Many were plastering the area with "missing" fliers and still had hope that their loved ones would be found ... the media was kept across the street behind police barricades, which was fine with us because so many came over to talk to us. (One man even waited in line to tell me his story). There were so many stories ... one woman told me how the last conversation she had was with her husband, who worked in the WTC and his routine was to call every day at 8:30 a.m., as their 4 and 6 year old daughters got ready for school and preschool. "Ask them what kind of gum they want," he said; it was his tradition to bring them home a present every day. The answer was strawberry.

I boiled down questions to a routine: what was his/her name? Age? What did he/she do? What's their relationship to you? Where were they, what tower and what floor? Did they get out any word to you? (About a third that I talked to, did). What can you tell me about them? '

"He was a loving son, a loving son that any mother would love to have," replied one middle-aged black woman from Harlem with a quiet dignity.

It was a bit overwhelming and numbing -- but it would be very selfish to complain about people telling me their stories of tragedy, when I didn't lose anyone in there. As Gov. Pataki said, that seems so small in comparison, and we just have to be strong for them.

Late in the day, a woman tapped me on the shoulder: "hey, Daily News, you want a story?" She told me how her cousin worked in the lobby as a security guard, and surely could have made it out -- but it was always in her nature to be helping people. But I couldn't even call it in; there were so many other stories, and we only have so much room, I knew the rewrite guy wouldn't be interested.

By the end of the day, trees, phone booths, mail drop boxes -- everything in the area was plastered with "missing" fliers. There's been a couple moments about this that I'll never forget: seeing the devastation for the first time, running over the Queensboro bridge about an hour after the first attack and racing through midtown on foot, with people pouring into the street ... and walking past this fence covered in "missing" posters that night, as a woman played a violin quietly off to one side.

I talked to six people who told me they had seen their loved one listed as "fine" (or "injured") on a list located at , but they hadn't heard from them, despite searching all the area hospitals. This one man was overjoyed to learn his son was fine -- but then couldn't find him, and his elation had turned to despair; he now regarded the list as a fraud. I think what must happened is this site started a list where anyone could report anyone else as "okay," and people's co-workers perhaps thought they were; maybe they made it out of the building but were killed during the collapse, or something ... the alternative, that someone posted these names maliciously, is just to cruel to consider. I think it was just a thoughtless, idiotic blunder by this website.

(check out for another list ... also for a terribly moving front page photo by our competitor ...)


Back to the scene. It's raining and is better-guarded now; it takes me a long time to sneak through the perimeter along Chambers Street, but finally I do, blending in with a bunch of transit workers heading south following President Bush's visit. Once I'm in, I'm very nervous about being arrested ... but no one asks questions, everyone I guess assumes you belong. There's plenty of other people in civilian clothes who don't look like construction workers there.

The devastation is still there, but it's a bit more orderly now. It again makes me sick to my stomach at first, but you get used to it, as terrible as that sounds.

They're using heavy machinery, so there's not a lot for most people to do. I find another reporter from the paper and we walk around for a bit ... end up south of the towers, on West Street (the West Side Highway), by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. New Yorkers, even buildings across from West Street in Battery Park City suffered some heavy structural damage. It's just incredible. Things that were taxis, cars and buses sit in heaps. There's thousands of people here, doing risky work amid the rubble. At one point One Liberty Plaza, a maybe 30 or 40 story building across the street from the towers, buckles. Someone yells "run!", and everyone scrambles away, running as fast as they can. But the building holds.

Spray painted on red on the marble of the plaza is a giant arrow. "MORGUE. Two Blocks. Fed-Ex Building. 90 Trinity Pl."

When I left around 10 p.m., the men were at work, using cranes to erect a huge gigantic crane -- and hoping against hope that there still might be someone left alive, trapped somewhere deep in that mountain of rubble.

Horrific, apocalyptic, cataclysmic ... I can't really do justice to the scene that lay before me last night.


One WTC looked like it had been chopped off at the seventh floor. The remains of an empty skeleton jutted up at odd angles from the south tower. The courtyard between the two buildings was a jumble of shapes.

Police cruisers lay on the streets, smashed and burnt-out. One was nearly incinerated. Papers were strewn everywhere; I picked up one sheet that talked about accounting costs and losses.

An inch of a thick white soot covered everything. In the street it mixed with the water from the firefighters' hoses to create a grimy paste. We had to dodge pools of water and twisted debris to get around, and soon my sneakers were soeaked and covered in grime.

I saw a woman's shoe lying on the ground, and then a small teddy bear, grimy from the dust. A photographer with me propped it up on the hulk of an ambulance to take pictures. 

The air was acrid, difficult to breathe, even through the white mask I had strapped around my head. The wind at times whipped up the soot and it rose, stinging my eyes.

The whole scene made me want to vomit, but I hadn't eaten for hours.

Police and firefighters were everywhere. Two ladder companies sprayed water on the remains of the northern tower. Around the corner on Liberty Street, hundreds of firefighters were on top of the mountain of rubble. Somewhere down in there they were trying to rescue two Port Authority cops, who were conscious and talking but pinned. A gas leak meant this rescue would have to be accomplished without blow cutters.

"These are guys we work with, day in, day out," said one of several port authority cops, watching from the sidelines. Some 70 had been in the building; 15 were unaccounted for.

At the remains of a Burger King across the street, the police department had set up a relief station and were serving weary cops and firefighters drinks and rations. A Starbucks nearby had also been commandereed.

The area was a ghost town, with no power or no lights for blocks. The independent photog and I had dodged and wheedled our way through cops and a maze of streets to get this far, heading west when we ran into a cop we couldn't persuade to let us past. At the moment, we were the only press I saw, although later I ran into my buddy Daryl from the Times and a Post photog.

Across from the towers were the remains of the Millennium Hilton Hotel and the Century 21 department stores, their windows blown out for stories, their exteriors covered in soot.
In the courtyard, some flags still flew. And a huge tattered American flag had been strapped from the arm of a traffic light.

"I guess what that says," said one firefighter, "is you can bring the city to it's knees, but you can't hurt America."

Someone had written "God Bless America" in the soot that covered the marble of a nearby courtyard. Some of the larger vehicles had another word written in the soot on them: "empty."

My cell phones were useless; the pay phones inoperable. It was nearly 11 p.m. If I left, I knew I'd have a tough time getting back in. The story of the port authority resuce was the news here, I knew. Did I stay and hope for a dramatic rescue? Or leave and call in what details I had? I ran around a bit, trying to find a firefighter I had heard was part of the "line" handing the trapped cops food, water and oxygen until he himself was overcome by smoke.

Inside One Liberty Plaza was a massive triage center, was he in there? Could he talk to me? I didn't get far before I was kicked out.

I ran from dead pay phone to dead pay phone. I ducked inside 190 Broadway, another skyscraper. The air in the lobby was a welcome respite from the dust outside. No one was in the building; there were chairs arranged around a TV that blared news. I grabbed a phone at the guard station and looked at the building's command console, with monitors and switches and flashing lights. Jesus. But no luck, just a fast busy signal.

I grabbed a Snapple from a huge 20 pack from a tray and beat it. Finally, in the darkness some six blocks from the scene: a working pay phone! I reached an editor, but it was chaos in the newsroom. "Can you call back in 20 minutes," Sal said. "Everyone's in a meeting." Ack. But I understood, I guess. And in the darkness, I was in no position to read anyone my notes anyways.

I headed back in, but didn't make it. Cops had secured the perimeter better, turning the area into a "frozen zone." I ran a hospital, the only building with working lights in all of downtown, but even their phones weren't working. I tried to get back in again, only to get yelled at and shoved by a cop.

I beat it to call in; after about a mile, my phone finally started working again. Finally. I ran a bit longer, grabbed a cab and crashed at my friend Jon's pad, only to find sleep elusive.

I knew what I guess we all knew: nothing would ever be the same again.