I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to write this and relive the day, the week, the month….the years since. But I read Hotlead’s post and figured, ok, sure…let’s try.
On September 10, 2001 my girlfriend at the time, Ashley, and I were working for Pallotta Teamworks and had either volunteered or were assigned to assist with the bicycle retrieval for the Canada>US AIDS Vaccine Ride in Manhattan. We picked up a UHaul truck and loaded bike racks in the back and headed home to our loft in the old furniture factory on the corner of 19th and 5th on the southern end of Park Slope. We parked the small box truck on our street and on the way in to our loft we ran in to our neighbor, Cid, a transguy who had been living in the city for a couple years but was originally from Ithaca.
Ashley had graduated from Cornell so they had this Ithaca connection and somehow in the short conversation she happened to ask where Cid worked. He told us that he worked for Blue Cross as an IT guy and that his office was located at the World Trade Center. I already knew this as he and I spoke more often than Ashley or Jean-Marie did but it never once occurred to me to ask if it was weird working there after the bombing that had happened a few years earlier but there was Ashley…asking…thinking…processing that anxiety that had never even crossed my mind.
It was dark or dusk at the time I remember. It was after 8pm. I wanted to not hold Cid up. It had been a long day. It’s always a long day in event production even if you’re not working an event.
We had to get up earlier than usual to get the truck and racks over to this parking lot off Delancey where our events often held their bike retrievals for NY participants. I was driving the truck. I like driving trucks and I had more experience driving them in NYC than Ashley did. We were running late. I hate being late.
We were stuck in traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. I had the radio on. “Ohio” by CSNY was playing.
Ashley was reading quietly but in the moments before I first saw the first plane she began read aloud a funny excerpt from “Holidays on Ice” by David Sedaris.
I was looking ahead. I saw the first plane sweep down out of the sky toward us. Its right wing jerked down and it made an abrupt turn, still flying lower and lower. I thought, god, that plane is moving awfully fast. I followed it with my eyes as it went to my left and just milliseconds before it hit the first tower I thought, and may have even said out loud, “holy crap, it looks like its going to…”
I must’ve screamed. Ashley looked up from her book at what I was staring at. I remember her asking, “What happened?!”
I don’t know if I was speaking in full sentences. I had expected the plane to crash through the other side of the building. It didn’t.
I could see debris flying out the other side of the building and what I believe were….bodies. It was snowing paper and people. Smoke billowed in one huge streaming cloud from the crash site.
Traffic began moving again.
I had to drive. I couldn’t stay there, even though I was too in shock to be behind the wheel of anything.
We got down to Canal Street and made our way toward the parking lot on Delancey Street. McCollister’s Moving had already unloaded a couple hundred very nice bikes on to the sidewalk outside the Delancey Street side of the parking lot because the Logistics Manager of that ride had never confirmed or paid for use of the lot. They hadn’t been expecting us.
Trying to deal with what I had just seen and figure out what to do with two hundred bikes sitting on the friggin’ sidewalk was too much. Cell phones weren’t working. We were trying to call our office in midtown. Our first instructions were to “deal with it”. So we tried. In the meantime, the second plane had hit.
The driver of the McCollister’s truck was this Russian or Polish dude who was a complete asshole. We argued with him about getting the bikes back on the truck as fast as possible. He said he couldn’t do that. I said he had to and that it wasn’t like he was going to be able to go anywhere. They were closing the bridges and shutting down public transit.
Now the buildings were starting to fall.
People were running out of the city on foot and over the bridges.
We were literally at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.
One lady came to get her bike but was freaking out about the planes hitting the buildings. She was convinced that they were cargo planes. I remember having to get in her face a little to convince her that they weren’t cargo planes.
"I saw the first plane. I saw it so close I could see the people in the windows. It was an American Airlines passenger jet."
I was almost yelling at her.
Her face changed, still, staring at me as she processed that information.
People who were escaping the city, in their moment of desperation and irrational behavior, really thought we had brought these $2000 bikes down for them to escape on. One man, shorter, Caucasian man with blonde-ish hair started fighting with Ashley because he wanted one of our bikes. She was standing on one end of the pile of bikes and I was at the other end, closer to the bridge.
Fuck you dude, you do NOT talk to my girlfriend like that! I got protective of her and he got in my face. He was only about my height and at that moment I was in the fight part of the fight or flight instinct. But I was not going to give up a bike.He called me names, the obvious ones like “You fucking….lesbian!” I only told him to come up with a better insult next time. I was not amused.
People were walking past us that were covered in ash. We asked if they were ok. Physically they were, but clearly they were in shock.
These bikes needed to get on this fucking truck!
I remember yelling at the driver. He pantomimed pulling shit out of his ass. I suppose he was calling me a piece of shit. There was another McCollister’s employee there who honestly I barely remember but he was trying to stop us from fighting.
From a payphone we called our offices in midtown again. This time WE were calling the shots.
"We are in the middle of a fucking war zone. We are NOT staying here. You have NO IDEA what it is like down here right now. We are leaving the truck parked on (whatever street it was on) and we are fucking going home. We are not staying here to fight with the fucking truck driver and risk our lives anymore!"
From the other end I just remember Brian saying, “ok.”
We left. Still trying our cell phones to get in touch with family. Not much luck.
We started walking over the Williamsburg Bridge. We got to the other side and walked down to Broadway. We actually flagged down a woman in a pick up truck. She had just moved to NYC from DC. She told us what she knew from the news while kindly taking us to Clinton Hill. It was closer than our house and I still had some keys to Leslie, Alison and Beth’s loft from when we’d been subletting Alison’s room just a couple months or so prior.
They weren’t home. I couldn’t get them on the phone. And one of the locks that was never locked on their door was for some reason locked so we couldn’t get in because that was the one key I didn’t have.
We went back outside and I think we finally got in touch with my family on one of our cell phones. No one was thinking rationally. Everyone was crying. We needed each other and we couldn’t get to each other. We were separated by water, bridges that were closed, public transit that was shut down.
"I’ll be ok, I just need to get home. We’ll be safe there and I will call you again later."
Emergency escape routes were being thought up. None were possible. I was stuck in Brooklyn…now that I was finally there.
We walked all the way from Clinton Hill to Park Slope. When we got to our neighborhood we began seeing ash everywhere. It was snowing ash in South Slope. Dust masks were already gone from the shelves at the corner bodega. Ashley went in to Earthquake disaster mode having lived through the Loma Prieta Quake in 1989 in Los Gatos and the Santa Cruz Mtns. Bottled water, maybe some canned goods. I just wanted to get inside. I wanted to make sure Cid was ok.
I remember turning the corner on to 19th and the street looked like it had been snowed on. Cars were covered in an inch or so of this gray, off-white ash.
We got inside, the window in the kitchen had been open because it was warm. The kitchen was covered in ash.
We lived in a duplex, the spiral staircase from street level took us below ground to the basement area where we’d built “sleeping cubicles”. From there you could access this old brick lined tunnel that went to the laundry room and the other half of the building. I ran down the hall to Cid’s apartment. I knocked and when he finally answered he was shirtless and looked exhausted.
"I wanted to make sure you were ok."
He told me he was walking his dogs around the block when one of our other ground floor neighbors stuck her head out the window and told him the tower had been hit by a plane. He ran inside, grabbed his stuff and ran to the subway. He wanted to get in to the building to see if he could help anyone and at the very least do an assessment of their offices. The train came but got stuck underground. I forget how long he said they were stuck but the train eventually reversed and brought everyone back to wherever they had come from.
It was two days before any of us really left our apartment.
People I knew and loved were mostly safe and accounted for. People who I knew who worked in the towers had either been late to work or decided, randomly, to take the day off that day. I felt lucky. But I did not feel safe.
I would never have the same relationship with NYC again.