ON THE GROUND AT THE TRADE CENTER AS TOWERS FELL
Dealing with the Lingering Effects a Decade later
Looking back at 9/11 | A special Villager supplement | Out of the Ashes
Published in: The Villager, New York, Volume 81, Number 15 | September 8 - 14, 2011
Two shell-shocked, dust-covered women huddle together at Foley Square
after the World Trade Center attack, thankful to have escaped with their lives.
Remembering 9/11 is like viewing an avant-garde filmstrip with several deleted frames. Some images are absolutely clear but there is no continuity of information or connection to what happened before or what came next.
This is the first time I have written anything about what happened to Elsa and me on that day. It is not that we ignore the memories; we just do not deal with them. Besides, other people had more profound and significant personal catastrophes. I have never found any kind of psych people I could identify with. Elsa does not believe in this kind of help. So our memories remain private. Unsettled. This is a brief from that day.
On Sept. 11 at about 9 a.m. Elsa commented that a plane passed VERY low overhead. A few minutes later Jeremiah Newton phoned and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Elsa and I rushed down to the J and M subway station and got off at Chambers St. just as the whole transit system was being shut down.
When we got to street level we could see the burning building and worked our way toward it. We saw airplane parts strewn on the street and people running north. We were told to leave for our safety, but because this is our city we pressed forward. Our voice is equal to the corporate media. We worked our way over to the command center on the West Side Highway. What we found there was a tremendous amount of confusion as the area was slowly getting set up.
I knew that we had to blend into a group of people if we were going to get closer to the building and the action. We could not be with the firemen or the cops, so we gathered with a Hatzolah emergency team. Soon a highly excited cop started to scream at us to get off the block and followed us north. As soon as he was out of sight, we headed back south.
At 100 Church St. a group of officials, one being Chief Allee, were standing together in the doorway. We heard that another plane was coming. We turned left and ended up across from Seven World Trade Center.
Since this was a side street and not one of the main arteries carrying the masses of evacuating people north, it was somewhat secluded.
There were around 10 to 15 people looking up. One of the individuals was Detective Swain from the Seventh Precinct, others were wearing F.B.I. jackets, or casual clothes. One guy had on a Warzone band T-shirt. Detective Swain recognized us from the neighborhood and he let us hang with this group.
Elsa and I took turns with the video camera and I shot the still photos.
The worst images burned into our memory were, of course, people jumping. A person near the top floor had broken a window and was waving a large white cloth. Then a helicopter appeared and we hoped an evacuation from the roof was possible. The chopper went forward and then backward and suddenly flew away.
As I looked up I saw an absolutely beautiful image. The clear, deep-blue sky was all of a sudden filled with what looked like sparkling diamonds. Seconds later it sounded like a side of a mountain had dropped off. The sparkles were shards of glass as the collapsing building compressed the glass, causing it to explode outward.
I looked across the street at Seven W.T.C., and I thought I saw what looked like one of the exterior wall pipes — similar to those that vent Chinatown sweatshop factories — only this was a small funnel of a flame bursting out of the building’s exterior.
I turned around and all the people were gone. The last image I saw was the yellow F.B.I. letters on the back of a blue jacket disappearing around the corner. Now the street was completely empty. Where was Elsa? She was gone.
I made my way to the corner. Around the corner I found Elsa, by herself, leaning against a car. She was disoriented and trying to adjust her glasses. It seems someone yelled, “Run!” pushed her and she fell down, smacking her head on the sidewalk, also breaking the video camera. She was dazed. I never found out till later, she lost a shoe.
A lump on her temple was swelling up. I held her up as we started to walk out of the area. As a couple of people came out of a residential building, I asked if they had some ice and they said no. We made it to a grocery store. Got some ice. I think it was here Elsa lost her cap. We never found the cap, her shoe, and later, no matter how hard we looked, that store again.
We looked down the avenue and saw the other building collapse and the dust bellowed. First the dust followed the building falling down, and then raged and churned upward, gathering force until it climbed about 10 stories in height; then the dark mass started to roll outward and came rushing down the avenue like a monstrous, angry, ocean wave crashing toward the beach.
Finally we got to City Hall. A couple of ambulance personnel were assisting those covered in dirt. Elsa wanted to leave, so we began the long walk home, made longer because Elsa had only one shoe and what later was diagnosed as a concussion.
Another clear visual memory was looking at the dust on the ground and thinking, “Oh my G-d.” Mixed in the dust was what looked like asbestos fibers, strands like the kind sprayed on the pipes and steel beams of the skeleton of a building. Another observation was that you could see the line on the ground where the dust storm exhausted its reach. The line was similar to the wet watermark left in the sand at the highest point where the tide rolls over the beach. This was where the dust ended.
Not sure of the timing...was it the next day? Elsa was in pain and we heard St. Vincent’s was the hospital to go to. We got to the hospital. Outside of the emergency entrance were a slew of doctors in white coats waiting for the pending injured masses to show up. Because I had a camera on me I was not allowed in. I hung around outside taking pictures of the press conference.
And finally I had enough. Found my way in a side door. Once through the door they were not going to stop me, I found Elsa. She was unhappy. It seems the X-ray tech was so flustered he forgot to put in the film in the machine. A second round of X-raying her injured wrist, but not her head. We came home.
Out of this disaster one of our greatest blessings is the Red Cross-sponsored 9/11 survivors medical program. We go to the program at Bellevue Medical Center. Elsa still has some issues that are related to her head injury, which is being dealt with now. We both ended up with asthma. And Elsa has a skin disorder on her forearms known as the “9/11 rash.”
Because of our experience we are a part of the 9/11 group. We attended the Moussaoui trial, which was shown on closed circuit TV in a 500 Pearl St. courtroom. Elsa attended almost every day and I occasionally went when not dealing with the home front.
We were against the war in Iraq. The terrorists mostly came from Saudi Arabia, not Iraq. Iraq had been contained by the first Bush. We wanted bin Laden dealt with, which Bush did not and Obama did. This was our one moment of victory.
My greatest and deepest regret is that Elsa did not want to get close to the disaster and I did. She would never have left my side, so her injuries and issues stemming from that day rest squarely on my shoulders and I have to bear that load. The physical damage I suffered is just the price I must accept to do what I do.
Beyond the human suffering, one of the more destructive political elements attached to that day is how divided America became. So many believe our government was behind the attack. Instead of bringing the country closer together, the divide just kept getting wider and wider, and all our millionaire politicians are not dealing with any of our real problems.
William Allee, chief of detectives of the New York Police Department, center,
and other officials and law enforcement officers huddle outside 99 Church St. on 9/11.
The first plane had already hit the World Trade Center,
and word was that another was on the way.
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