The sound of thunder on a beautiful, cloudless day — a reporter’s memories of 9/11
‘An Ordinary Day’
It was nearly 11 p.m. when my plane landed on the runway at JFK. We’d left San Francisco an hour late and circled the airport in New York 45 minutes before finally touching down. And then, after coming to a stop, the plane sat and we waited.
By the time I finally got home to my apartment in Brooklyn, it was 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
I’d spent the previous three days at a symposium, sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper and also my employer. The event was to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of San Francisco and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which, on Sept. 8, 1951, had officially ended hostilities between the United States and Japan.
There had been three long days of panels. Several attendees, including former Japanese Prime Minster, Kiichi Miyazawa, had been involved in the original 1951 conference. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the San Francisco Opera House. There were platitudes about friendship and remembrances of the war dead. I rode in an elevator with former vice president Walter Mondale who’d served as Ambassador to Japan under President Clinton.
I had a rather scornful attitude about all the bromides and good manners. But if I knew then what I know now, I might not have been so dismissive of the expressions of goodwill between two peoples who had been trying to kill each other less than 60 years before.
Our newspaper had flown in a team of reporters and editors from Japan. At the time, we had nearly 10 million paying subscribers and, in retrospect, the event stands out as a last hurrah for the extravagance of a media landscape in which print newspapers were still dominant.
In the evenings, a group of us would head out to one of the city’s Japanese restaurants and gossip about who was going to get promoted. Or I’d meet up with an old friend, David Caploe, a middle-aged professor who was to me the embodiment of an old San Francisco counterculture of lefty politics, hedonism and intellectual energy, which in 2001 was already on the wane.
Things had been going from bad to worse in America since 1973, David told me one night at a dingy bar. Greed, repression and a debased public discourse were afflictions of the day. Although the specifics of his arguments 20 years later are almost entirely forgotten to me, I remember him declaring the myths and delusions of the times as pernicious.
All of this is to say that by the time that I got home to Brooklyn in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, I was exhausted and planned to take the following morning off from work. I’d told the Bureau Chief that I’d come in late that afternoon because there was a mayoral primary election that we needed to cover. The Democrats and Republicans were selecting their nominee to succeed the incumbent, Rudy Giuliani. Nearly eight years earlier, Rudy had succeeded David Dinkins, a decent and polite man, who’d been New York’s first Black mayor.
During Rudy’s first years in office, his pugnacious steamroller style had proven extremely popular with the city’s white voters. But after nearly eight years, most New Yorkers had tired of his tantrums, marital woes and battles with the media, African-American leaders, and much of the city’s establishment. And because the Japanese, like people in the rest of the world, have a special interest in New York and its future, we would have to file a story on the city after Rudy by the midnight deadline on Sept. 11.
I was having breakfast at Katina’s, a diner across the street from where I lived, and noticed people watching the television on the back wall, behind the counter. A news announcer said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I guessed it must have been a small plane, some kind of accident. Still, it was news. We had a noon deadline, and I called the Bureau Chief who, I guessed correctly, had only just gone to bed.
“A plane has hit the World Trade Center,” I said. “Don’t know how bad it is, but wanted to let you know.” She groaned and asked if I’d mind coming into our midtown office to help report the story. So I paid my bill and went back to my apartment to get my briefcase and tape recorder.
‘A New Form of Skyscraper Heralding a New Kind of City’
Like many New Yorkers, I had a long, intimate and not particularly friendly, relationship with the Trade Center, which had opened in April 1973. As a child, I’d watched out the south-facing window in my bedroom as the Twin Towers went up… and up and up. A 13-block district of warehouses, known as Radio Row, that included electronics stores, printers, restaurants and jewelers, had been demolished to clear land for the planned complex.
Now two huge rectangles were swallowing the sky. They were going to be the biggest buildings in the world, 200,000 tons of steel, our schoolteachers told us, facts that captured my boyish imagination. And in ways that even a child could vaguely comprehend, the erection of this new form of skyscraper heralded a new kind of city. In 1960, the year I was born, one in four jobs in New York were manufacturing related. For all of its wealth and opulence, New York was also a blue-collar town.
But as the towers were going up, those factory jobs were migrating south and being replaced by positions in finance and insurance. It wasn’t just manufacturing that was disappearing from New York. By 1970, in the space of just 15 years, close to 90 percent of the city’s longshoremen, many of whom worked on the west side docks of Manhattan, lost their jobs as a result of containerization, a new technology of the shipping industry. Large metal boxes filled with shipped goods were now being lifted on and off ships not by men, but by cranes. Eerily, the Towers being erected on the west side of lower Manhattan resembled two giant shipping containers.
I was back in my apartment and, having gathered my briefcase, was preparing to walk out the door at just after 9 a.m. when I heard a loud boom. It sounded like thunder, but it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. A neighbor, a Brooklyn native, ran out into the building’s courtyard a minute later screaming, “My dawder’s in the city, my dawder’s in the city.”
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the noise I’d heard was the hijacked United Airlines Fight 175 hitting the South Tower. I had worked on the 46th floor of the building in 1985 as a law intern for the New York Attorney General. Every day, I would take the ear-popping express elevator that went directly to the 44th floor before switching over to the local. Back then, because the Trade Center was unable to rent much of its space, many of the tenants were government agencies. It wasn’t until the 1990s that banks, insurance companies and other financial firms came to occupy most of the Trade Center’s office space.
One way to think of the Trade Center was as a vertical enclosed 10-million square foot office park. About 50,000 people worked there, and another 150,000 would pass through it on an average day. Under the lobby there was a concourse of shops — billed as the largest shopping mall in New York —drug stores, newsstands, restaurants, places to drink, a Sam Goody record outlet and clothing stores. If you were coming in by the subway, as most people did, you could enter directly from the Chambers Street station.
The Trade Center complex had the feel of a huge prison to me. The Towers’ 43,000 windows were extremely narrow, about the width between a person’s shoulders, and the entire development was cut off from the city grid and street life, except for a huge and barren outdoor plaza where I would sometimes eat my lunch. In a 1966 appraisal of the Trade Center, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic for New York Times, said the 110-story twin towers could be “the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.”
‘The Sound When They Hit the Street’
I walked down Seventh Avenue, on the south end of Park Slope, heading to the subway. There must have been an easterly wind because there was an otherworldly huge plume of smoke and dust in the sky. On the sidewalk, two young red-faced men dressed like laborers were looking up at the sky. They were Irish immigrants, which was peculiar. Men doing construction in the neighborhood were usually from Mexico or Central America. But these guys were Irish, as if they’d materialized from 30 years earlier when the neighborhood was Irish-American, and immigrants from the Old Country would not have seemed unusual.
“Jesus Christ, Jesus. For fuck’s sake,” one kept saying.
And then the other one, the angry one: “Those fucking bastards. They did it. The fucking bastards.”
They were talking to themselves more than to each other. Somehow they seemed to already know more than I do.
I headed underground and got on the F train. When the train pulled out of the station, we were above ground for two stops. Looking out of the train’s windows to the west, I could see the Towers with smoke pouring out of them. For the next five minutes, before we returned underground, the passengers in our subway car were transfixed. New York’s “gorgeous mosaic” as David Dinkins referred to the city’s inhabitants, was quilted together in horrified wonder.
A white bearded Hasidic Jew had closed his prayer book and a brown-skinned nanny shushed two little blonde-haired children in her care. Near me were two teenagers with backpacks who must have been late to school, an elderly Chinese woman with several plastic bags, and several young professionals holding their newspapers. All were looking out the train’s windows, not knowing what had happened, but knowing this was something. Something big had happened.
My train went out of service at 34th Street, so I walked north to my office, which was located in The Associated Press Building at Rockefeller Center. People were pouring out of buildings and anxious to get home. Everyone seemed to be trying to call someone, but networks were overloaded and cellphone towers had been destroyed.
I made it to the office just minutes after the South Tower, the first one to go, collapsed. One of the Japanese reporters was out of town and another was stuck trying to make it into the city from Westchester. We had a noon deadline, which is midnight in Japan. One guy I worked with was converting the heights of the world’s tallest buildings from feet to meters and making phone calls to airports and hospitals. He kept getting a busy signal.
After the first tower was hit, one of our young American reporters, unable to get a taxi, took off for downtown on roller blades. I was worried about our bureau’s staff photographer. She was good and fearless. I knew she was somewhere downtown.
There were 26 million people who would be reading the next day’s newspaper, and we had about an hour to figure out what was happening. In Japan in 2001, people still depended on newspapers for getting their news. Our bureau’s phone lines were hit and miss, and the internet kept going down too. By this point, those of us in the office were watching everything on television.
At 10:28, the North Tower collapsed.
I managed to find a tenants’ list for the Trade Center. The North Tower — Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank, floors 48 and 49; Asahi Bank, 60th floor; Nishi Nippon, 102nd floor. And the South Tower — Fuji Bank, floors 79 to 82; Mizuho Capital, 80th floor; and Chuo-Mitsui, 83rd floor. There were going to be a lot of Japanese victims.
After the noon deadline, we kept working for the evening edition of the newspaper. The deadline was midnight. So we had some time, and I started worrying about my wife, Joanne, and my daughters who were nine and seven years old. Joanne worked downtown, but on this morning she had been in midtown at the dentist. Her teeth cleaning ended abruptly as it became clear what was happening. When she got outside, she started trying to find a way back to Brooklyn to pick up the kids. The trains weren’t running and people were telling her, incorrectly it turns out, that the Brooklyn Bridge has been shut down.
She hitched a ride from a stranger headed into Queens over the 59th Street Bridge. From there, she flagged down a car service and asked the driver to take her to Brooklyn. But the traffic was bumper to bumper, so she got out somewhere on Eastern Parkway and started to run, hoping to get to the bus stop where the kids are dropped off by 3 p.m. When she arrived at the bus stop, with just minutes to spare, there were only our kids and one other girl on what is usually a full bus.
I would hear about the school day from my daughters the following morning. Their school in Carroll Gardens has windows that faced the Trade Center. During the day, kids talked amongst themselves about the Trade Center having been bombed. Seven-year-old Sarah told me that one boy’s dad, smelling of smoke and sweat and covered in ash, ran into the classroom crying and hugged the teacher, before embracing his son and taking him away.
My nine year-old, Hannah, heard a loud thump that morning. The windows of her fourth grade classroom looking out on lower Manhattan were open. Smoke started billowing in, and the teacher hurriedly closed the windows, which quickly became covered with flaming shreds of paper that stuck to the glass. The kids were spellbound. Just before the second plane hit the South Tower, the class was moved into another room. On the bus ride home, the streets were covered in a brown fog. Hannah worried about what might happen if her parents had died. She thought about “The Little Princess,” “The Secret Garden” and every other orphan movie that she had watched.
But I wouldn’t hear about that, or see my kids, until the next day. The rest of the 11th, we prepared stories for the midnight deadline, trying to get information and transform it into an accurate narrative. That involved talking to our reporter on the scene who was calling in descriptions and giving us quotes of people he interviewed, watching TV footage of the towers crumbling again and again, calling hospitals, going outside and talking to people on the street, waiting to hear from Mayor Giuliani, and trying to confirm with each other what had happened, what was real and what might be apocryphal or exaggerated or misunderstood.
Our Bureau Chief Hiroko Kono was the first woman ever posted to the position by the Yomiuri, and had only arrived in the city several months earlier. She led the team, directing us as we did our reporting, talked to editors and sent out stories.
Shortly after midnight, just after deadline, I noticed our photographer Naoko Yamagishi, standing hunched over by her desk, frozen in place. She had returned to the office at some point in the night. I went over and asked her if she was OK, and she picked up her camera from her desk and showed me some of the photos she had taken. There were people leaning out windows and then more photos of bodies falling through the air. Men in button-down shirts and dark pants. I looked at Naoko and saw her eyes were bloodshot and teary. “The sound when they hit the street,” she said.
One of those photos was printed in the first edition of the newspaper, before Tokyo decided it was too much and pulled it from later editions. Other than that single image, none of what she showed me on her camera was ever published.
‘Is How I Remember Things Really How It Happened?’
A lot happened in the days, weeks and months that followed. People were scared, and everyone expected there would be more attacks. On Sept. 18, someone sent letters containing anthrax to a series of media companies. Five people died and 17 were injured. In the weeks that followed, The Associated Press Building where we worked would be periodically evacuated as letters containing white powder were delivered to the building’s tenants.
As soon as air travel resumed, over 20 of my Japanese colleagues came to New York to cover the story. Several of them spoke barely a word of English. I found them a workspace in the basement of the midtown Hilton on Avenue of the Americas. It was a large and grim windowless space that we called the bunker. My colleagues were as befuddled as everyone else in trying to understand what was going on and what might come next. On Sept. 24 Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi became the first world leader to travel to New York and visited the site of the attacks with Mayor Giuliani.
In November, an American Airlines flight taking off from JFK crashed into the Rockaway peninsula in Queens killing all 260 people on board. Most of us assumed the plane had been brought down by a bomb, but we were wrong. During the autumn, I traveled all over the city and to New Jersey and Long Island interviewing parents and spouses of those who’d perished; psychiatrists and lawyers; terrorism experts; politicians and government officials; and Windows on the World restaurant employees, who, by one quirk of fate or another, had survived when so many of those they worked with had died.
For months on my way to work, I’d find myself sharing the subway platform at the 47th-50th Street station with firefighters in dress uniform who were going to funerals at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Into the following year, there were fires at the Trade Center site burning above and underground. If you were in lower Manhattan, the fumes could be overpowering. It was an acrid smell of burning metals and glass and asbestos and concrete and computers and steel beams. Even when you tried to forget about what had happened, the stench was a reminder.
Twenty years later, those months are largely a blur to me. What happened when exactly? Is how I remember things, all this time later, really how it happened? How has what I read and watched on TV altered my memory of what I experienced in the moment? It’s impossible to know for sure, but there are minor episodes from the week when the Towers fell that have stayed in my mind. They were not noteworthy to others. These personal memories, have helped me understand the shades of darkness and light that descended on us from the firmament.
‘We’re Coming Back; New York Is Where We Live’
On Sept. 12, I called my parents who were up in their summer house in Vermont. They had plans to drive back to New York to their Lower East Side apartment that Friday.
“Don’t come back,” I told them. “The city is a mess, and traffic isn’t allowed below 14th Street. You don’t want to be here now. Wait another week or two weeks.”
“We’re coming back,” my father said. “New York is where we live.”
“It’s going to be different here though. Wait awhile anyway. It’s nice up there.”
“Things are going to be different everywhere,” he said.
My father was an Ashkenazi Jew, but dark skinned enough that he could be mistaken for South Asian, Hispanic or Middle Eastern, and already he understood something that I didn’t.
“I went to get my prescription filled this morning,” he said. “The woman there knows me. I have been going there for over 10 years. And she was terrified when she saw me. I thought she was going to run out of the store. This whole thing is going to make people crazy.”
The historian Tony Judt, watching the Towers burning from his office window at NYU, would later say he realized he was witnessing the beginning of the 21st century. And on the morning after, an inkling of the new century could be experienced at a Ludlow, Vermont pharmacy.
A little more than one year later, on Feb. 15, 2003, my 77-year-old father and 69-year-old mother, would be among a crowd, estimated at 400,000, who came out onto the streets of Manhattan to demonstrate against the United States’ plans to invade Iraq. Crowds filled First Avenue from 49th Street to 72nd Street and spilled out to side streets and west all the way to Third Avenue. The temperature was below freezing, and it seemed even colder due to the winds blowing off the East River. My parents, like many of the demonstrators, were fenced in by police barricades, corralled like livestock.
On that same day, over half a million people demonstrated in London. But there was a sense the street protests wouldn’t change anything. A poison had been unleashed when the planes hit the Towers. Paranoia, a desire for vengeance and a free-floating fear had spread across the land. President George W. Bush, with the acquiescence of Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton, and active encouragement from eager reporters and opinion writers at The New York Times and The Washington Post, would lead America into war. Hundreds of thousands were killed and millions uprooted in the carnage that followed.
Dancing at the White Horse
It was just before midnight Friday, Sept. 14, 2001. Our bureau had filed our final stories. The deadline had passed. We’d been working 16-hour days since Tuesday. I asked a young reporter, David, who was sitting at the desk in front of me, if he wanted to get a drink. He was from Wisconsin, just a kid, a year out of college, and had been working for us for a few months. I’m nearly 20 years older than him, but we got along. I liked his energy and ambition.
David had spent the 11th reporting a couple of blocks from where the towers collapsed and slept that night on the sofa lobby of an apartment building in Battery Park City. He’d arrived back at our office late in the afternoon the following day. He had a hacking cough. I’d been listening to it for three days, and would continue to hear it for the next six months. He’d already recounted to me some of what he saw and heard — the huge ball of smoke and debris as the North Tower collapsed, people covered in ash crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, fire truck hoses spewing black water, a distraught firefighter walking over steel beams and mumbling to himself.
We definitely needed to get a drink. Manhattan, below 14th Street, had been off limits, but Friday the island had been opened up down to Canal Street. In the ephemeral city, with Manhattan’s largest landmark gone and downtown in ruins, I wanted to go to a place that had endured.
I decided we should go to the White Horse on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. The bar opened in 1880 and was for many years frequented mainly by longshoremen who lived in the neighborhood and worked on the nearby docks unloading ship cargo. In the early 1950s, it was a regular drinking place for my father and he would sometimes tell me stories of the nights he spent there. During those years, at least in his telling, the longshoremen mixed with a bohemian crowd.
A bartender might agree to hide pilfered goods from a ship one moment and the next be serving drinks to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who famously drank to excess at the White Horse days before he died. But what my father would go on about the most was listening to the Clancy brothers singing Irish ballads and drinking songs, and talking the night away with his Catholic Worker pals, who believed in racial equality, trade unions and God, and were also known to take a drink. So the White Horse had a mythical place in my imagination before I had set foot in the place.
By the time I finally started going there in the 1980s, the dockworkers, political agitators, writers and musicians were pretty much gone. But the bar itself hadn’t changed. The wood frame exterior of the building was over 100 years old. The place was modest — two small rooms with a tin ceiling, a wooden bar and booths. My girlfriend lived around the corner, so it became a regular local spot for us. In the summer there’d be tables out front. Sometimes we’d see the actor and tap dancer Gregory Hines there.
When we arrived at the bar, there was a burning electric feeling in the air and the smell of smoke lingered. The first people I saw inside were firemen. There were three of them in full gear sitting at a table. It was clear that they’d come from long hours of clearing debris from what had earlier in the week been the World Trade Center towers. 2,871 in lower Manhattan were dead, including 343 firefighters, but during that first week several people had been pulled from the rubble alive, and there was still hope that there might be more survivors.
Young women were consoling the firefighters and strangers kept bringing them drinks. The firemen were real, but their presence seemed like an apparition, almost as if they were angels. The bar was crowded, patrons smiling at each other, hands touching shoulders at the bar. There was camaraderie in the room.
We’d been drinking for a while when I noticed the music. It was the beginning of a Rolling Stones song, “Start Me Up.” A few people, and then more, were rising, up from their booths and chairs. I’d never seen anyone dance in the White Horse. It’s not that kind of place. But people were dancing.
I once saw a photo of the poet Allen Ginsberg at the White Horse, and among those on the floor as the song played there was a bearded man with glasses who looked a little like him. The man was trying to dance, but had lead feet. He was bobbing up and down, as if in prayer, like the ghost of the poet, reciting Ginsberg’s version of the mourner’s Kaddish through the mouth of Mick Jagger.
“You make a grown man cry, you make a grown man cry.”
Could that have been Gregory Hines across the room? I didn’t have my glasses on, but it looked like him. Then I got closer, and, no, it was not Hines. But the guy was moving and sliding across the floor pretty good. He pirouetted and turned, and did a move that looked like the Nijinsky Shuffle as Jagger sang, “Slide it up, slide it up, slide it up.”
I started dancing. David was dancing. Young and old were up and moving, all of us on the ground where the Clancy Brothers sang “Finnegan’s Wake” about Tim Finnegan who had “a love for liquor.” At work, poor Tim fell from a ladder and broke his skull. At his wake those who’d gathered become excited and a bottle broke, splashing whiskey over Tim who was miraculously revived.
Jagger sang, “Start me up, don’t you know, I’ll never stop, never stop, never stop.”
The music played and the three firemen weren’t dancing, but they were looking at all the dancing and smiling; one of them was laughing.
The dancing continued for a while, and then something schmaltzy came on the jukebox and the Holy Spirit left the room. It was time to settle up and leave.
On the subway ride home, there was time to collect my thoughts, shaped as they were by exhaustion, inebriation and emotion, and propelled by the train’s movement under the East River and into Brooklyn.
When we pulled out of Carroll Street and headed above ground, I looked out the west-facing windows into the darkness. Just days earlier, I would have seen the Towers lit up, the downtown skyline’s distinguishing feature. .
The train came to stop as it approached a signal, and I wondered about the people in the Towers that morning. The waiters, cooks and dishwashers, who’d been working on the 106th and 107th floor of Windows on the World in the North Tower. The Japanese bankers — Nakamura, Sugiyama, Takahashi and all the others. And their parents, spouses and children.
After a few minutes, the train started moving, and we descended. On to the next station.
Jacob Margolies is a journalist working in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He is also the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, a literary website focused on true stories set in New York City.