As the anniversary of 911 approaches all of the coverage has brought back powerful memories and emotions. From escaping the city, to organizing the nation wide public service announcement campaign for the American Red Cross, to my work on the production team for the Concert for New York City, all of these events and my role in them are now part of history. Nothing was more life changing than 911 iteself. On September 11, 2001, I was at my desk in Times Square in Manhattan tending to the start of the day. What would transpire over the next 19 hours is something I will never forget. At the time, I sat down and wrote about what had happened on that day as I experienced it. I shared it with my family and friends. Today, in memory of this solemn day, I am sharing it with all of you. It was written on September 12, 2001 and appears exactly as it was then… errors and all!
Hi Everyone! First of all, I am fine and the family is fine. I appreciate all of the calls of concern and your thoughts for our safety and well being. Needless to say this was a day I will never forget. Like most epic tragedies there are golden tales of the incredible quality of the human spirit and the spirit of our country. I was able to witness a few of them and I thought I would share them with all of you.
I was on a conference call with some folks up in Boston this morning, Tuesday, September 11, 2001 sitting in my office on the 20th floor of the Viacom building in the heart of Times Square. Being in the TV business we all have televisions in our offices. Mine was on NBC4. As we were talking on the phone I saw a shot of the World Trade Center with one of the towers burning. It looked to me like there was some sort of fire. Since I wasn’t paying that much attention I continued with my call. As we were talking I heard a loud noise when I turn and looked at the TV I saw the plane slam into the second tower. Now I knew that something strange was happening. I gave my counterparts a little play by play from what I could see. Then the sirens started and all I could see out my window was emergency vehicles racing trough times square and the picture of the burning towers on the Giant TV screen on top of the ABC studios which my office looks right down on. A little while later I saw the report about the Pentagon being struck. Realizing we were still on the phone I ended the call and I tried to call home but I could not get through. Then I checked my email and Nora had sent a message for me to try and call. I sent her one back to let her know I was trying.
Still not having grip on what was happening, I took a lap around my floor to see what was going on from my co-workers. We were getting reports that they were closing the building. As I spoke with a colleague we both agreed that since we did not know what was going on and that we were in the heart of Times Square our best course of action was to send everyone home and try to get folks out of Manhattan. As we began rounding up folks into groups to travel together (folks going to Brooklyn, folks going to Queens, folks going to Jersey and folks who need a place for safety in the city) we saw the first tower go down. At that point people began to cry and we decide to move folks out of the building… fast.
Before we headed to the elevators to exit the building I tried to call home one last time and got through! I was able to tell Nora what my plan was to get out of Manhattan and try to get to Hoboken. I told her I would try to call her later to update her on my progress if my phone would work.
I figured that our best strategy would be to get to Jersey any way possible. Once in Jersey I would have lots of options. In Manhattan I knew they would be few.
We had a team of ten people heading for Jersey. The big question was how? Trains… Closed. Buses… Closed. Subway… Closed. Tunnels… Closed!
That left one way out. WATER!
We were probably a mile or so from the Hudson River (About 6 long Blocks) where we knew there were ferries that usually ran to New Jersey. We were not sure they would be running but we didn’t have any other choice. And, we thought, if they were not running we were ready to pay a private boat to get us off the Island. So off we went.
As we walked down 42nd street I was amazed by the calm. No running. No screaming. Just people moving in all directions. We walked by the Port Authority Bus Terminal and it was indeed closed. Another guy I worked with, Jed walked on point. I followed up the rear so we could keep the group of ten together. It was a bright sunny day. Under normal circumstances it would be a perfect day for a walk.
Once we reach 12th Ave (the Hudson River) we looked to our right. Circle Line had all their boats at dock and nothing was moving. We looked to the left and NY Waterways had a line of people gathered. I then looked to the left again and there, where I was used to seeing the two towers of the World Trade Center, was a huge plum of orange and black smoke and dust. I just gasped. I could not believe my eyes. It was tragic. It made us more anxious to get off the Island since we really had no idea what was going on.
We quickly found our spot at the end of the Ferry line. It wasn’t that long of a line at the time. It was at most a s short block and a half. Since our offices were relatively close to this part of town and we left the office quickly I am sure we beat most of the rush. Not very many people used, let alone were aware of, the water ferries. So, I am sure it took a while for many folks to realize this was an option.
Once on line, we sent a scout to find out what the situation was. She came back in 10 minutes with the report they were running one Ferry to NJ. All the others were down by the Trade Center to help evacuate people from there. I tried to call Nora several times and finally got through. I let her know the Ferry was running and would take me to Weehauken. She was concerned about her brother and sister who both work in Manhattan. I told her to tell them to get to the Ferry as quickly as possible. Phones in NYC were not working so she tried email and was able to get through to them that way. I asked her to call the rental car companies in Hoboken. Maybe I could rent a car and drive out. No luck. All the companies were out of cars or closing. At that point I figured I would worry about it when I got to NJ.
The line was now snaking around the terminal and was getting longer very quickly as folks were coming from all directions. That is when I had my first great humanity moment.
There were thousands of people lining up for Ferry in a very orderly way. No police, no panic. Just a bunch of people waiting patiently (New Yorkers DO NOT wait patiently for ANYTHING!) for their turn to get on the Ferry. This small simple act was very inspiring. My great humanity moment was quickly followed by Bomb Scare #1. Some one yelled there was a bomb. At that point everyone began to run… in all directions. Jed and I kept our group together. We really didn’t move much but the line in front of us just disappeared. A manager told everyone not to panic that it was a false alarm. People quickly settled down and the line reformed. They added another Ferry, the line began to move faster, then two more Ferry’s were added and before you know it we were on the boat.
We took our group to the back of the boat. The Captain told us that buses were running from the dock in Weehauken down to Hoboken. I knew that once I was in Hoboken that my transportation options would dramatically increase.
As we were pulling away from Manhattan, Jed and I went to the stern of the boat. We stared at the skyline and the plume of smoke. I just stared with great intensity, burning the image of this tragic day in my mind. Jed pulled out a disposable camera and took some photographs. Then we just stared at the city until the boat reaches dock in New Jersey.
Mission #1 Get To New Jersey- Accomplished! 12 Noon. Not bad at all. I had a great sense of relief that we were out of any immediate danger. I was able to get through to Nora again to let her know I was off the Island and almost to NJ. I would try to call her once I got to Hoboken.
As we got off the boat we listened for instructions about the busses. Then we gathered to determine who would be going where. The group split up with 4 of us going to Hoboken and the others deciding to take buses to other locations. We got on the bus, waited a few moments and then off we went! Three folks that I traveled with got off just as we hit Hoboken. They gave me their phone numbers in case I got stuck and needed a place to stay. Then they were off. I was now going solo.
We finally arrived at the Hoboken Terminal. This is where the PATH trains go into NYC at the World Trade Center. Another Ferry runs to Wall Street from here. NJ transit has trains and buses that run out of there as well. I got off the bus and looked around. Some people were mulling around and there were some NJ Transit buses gathered. No one had a clue what was going on. I ask some NJ transit leaders if they have any idea about the buses running. Anything to Newark? Anything going west? They said they were trying to figure it out but to check at the train station. As I headed to the station a guy comes out and says no trains are running. Great. Now I was stuck. No trains, No buses, No Cars and even if I had a car the roads in and out of Hoboken were closed. But, I was happy I was out of Manhattan!
As I am trying to think of what to do next I here I guy yell “we need volunteers! Anyone want to volunteer to help?” I knew I was stuck there with no where to go at the time. I knew my family was safe. It would take the transit authority a few hours to figure out what they were going to do. So I thought I might as well make myself useful. “I’ll help!” I said… as did about 10 other people. “Great,,” he said. “Right this way!”
They took us through the barricade and brought us to the triage area that was just being set-up outside the terminal. We signed in, were given tags based on any special skills (CPR, Emergency Medical Service, Foreign Language) Mine just said “volunteer” on the front and a long tag across my back with the same word.
Next were the instructions: Volunteers were needed to help guide the thousands of people that will be evacuated from the World Trade Center Area. The injured would have tags with color bars in descending order: Black, Red, Yellow, and Green. If green was the lowest color it just meant that the person was mostly in some form of mild shock or emotional distress. Yellow meant minor, non-life threatening injury, red meant major injury… possibly life threatening injury and would be given priority treatment at every stage of the evacuation. Black meant… well let’s just say we would never see any black tags. They passed out handfuls of surgical gloves (we were required to change after each person we touched) and we were off and running.
I needed a place to put my briefcase. I was instructed to put by the station exit since it was not open. So, I wrapped my strap to the handrail and went back for my instructions.
Emergency tents were set-up with colored mats to match the tags (except for black) We helped set up the tents, moving medical supplies, water, I.V. bags, etc. Once we were done we were given instructions on how to greet people and get a sense for any problems they may have. Mostly, we were there to provide a friendly face and a comforting hand for these folks who had been through this great trauma.
Once people were taken off the Ferry they were put into two groups Tagged and Untagged. EVERYONE had to go through decontamination because most people were covered in dust comprised largely of what was thought to be asbestos (turns out it was just pulverized concrete) and there was some concern about the presence of Anthrax (which ended up not being an issue). Decontamination basically was soaking everyone in a water-based solvent. And I mean SOAKING WET. People were coming through in Armani suits and expensive dresses as well as T-shirts and jeans and everything in between. Everyone got dowsed. As a result, everyone we greeted was soaking wet and wrapped in a towel or blanket (actually it was mostly thin sheets. Some were mildly grumpy about being wet… but very happy to have escaped the World Trade Center.
Bomb Scare #2 – So we are all set up. The first wave of people start to come in and then there was a bomb scare. Someone over heard the police radio saying there was an unidentified package and it was suspected to be a bomb. People begin to run from the Ferry dock. I find an officer to ask what was happening and he said “We have an unidentified bag by the terminal exit.” I said… Is it black?” “Yes” said the officer. “That’s not a bomb… that is my briefcase!” “Are you sure?” Take me there and I will show you. The officer escorted me to the area where the brief case which was now roped off in red tape. “That’s it!” I said. He called in to call of the alert and took my name and identification for the record. That made me feel terrible. My god… all of these people scrambling and police moving stuff around because of where I put MY brief. I wanted to crawl away. The other volunteers razzed me a little but also encouraged me to stay… as long as I let someone know where my bag was!
While we were working I was removed from what was going on as far as the attacks, who did it, why, what else was hit, etc. But we did get some rumors. “They took out the Sears Tower in Chicago!” one said. “Seattle Space Needle” said another. Someone else weighed in with “The Supreme Court.” 8 planes had been hijacked. Camp David was hit. We never really new what was fact and what was fiction other than what we were looking at directly across from our makeshift MASH like unit, on the other side of the Hudson River in the smoke filled crater that used to be the World Trade Center. That was our backdrop.
Now we were getting into a routine. Ferry comes in. Badly hurt to red triage, everyone else into decontamination. And no one… NO ONE leaves the secure area before having a doctor check them out (mostly to ensure there were no respiratory problems)
It got to the point where I was working with the volunteer leader at the entry point for everyone. After seeing how they had us set-up we went to the incident commander (the person in charge of the whole area) and recommended a better plan for receiving and directing people. Our plan would allow those that did not need medical attention to be greeted and guided out of the are and directly to public transportation so they could begin the process of finding their way home. He agreed so we reset the area, had water tables brought in and made sure we had enough people up with us to catch and guide people to be sure they were OK and to help them understand what option they had for getting home.
We started to try and lighten the mood a little bit. “Welcome to Hoboken” we would say with great enthusiasm. “Beautiful Downtown Hoboken!” Many people were glad to be there. Others laughed at the line. Some would look up and smirked at the absurdity of a welcoming party in Hoboken. Some guy cracked “it was nice for the chamber of commerce to send out a greeting party.” After all… it is HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY! It certainly helped us cheer people up.
Jersey City? Some one would say. Go to the right and take the bus. What about the train? Trust me take the bus. Another would say “I want to get to northern Jersey. How about the bus. We became very blunt with folks. Here is your option. Go into the terminal get on the train and get off in Newark. Once you are in Newark you will have plenty of options. But, my best advice for you is to “get the hell out of Hoboken and head west. The fasted way out of here and the fasted way to anywhere BUT here is the train.” We discouraged anyone from taking the bus unless they were locals because the bus set-up was a mess and most of the main roads around the area were closed down. We began echoing the old saying “Go West Young Man” since Newark was about 10 miles to the west.
By 3:00 I had been standing out in the bright sun for more than 5 hours. This was becoming a problem. As many of you know I have inherited my grandfather hair line (or lack of one to be more precise) which was now feeling like it had a become a color resembling something akin to the color of a fully cooked lobster… fire engine red. Realizing I needed a lid for my dome I took a break to leave the security area in search of a hat. Unfortunately, every store, bar, pharmacy I walked into in a few block radius had nothing. Finally, I hit a New York Health Club and saw in the window one of those blue floppy beach hats with their logo. It was no fashion statement but I knew my forehead would not mind.
Hat on head (as opposed to in hand) I returned to the security area. They were now requiring us to wear complete white body suits with attached booties. So, there I am in this all white zippered jump suit with attached gray booties… and a floppy blue hat! This came in handy since it gave me a distinct look. For Curious George it was the Man in the Yellow Hat. In Hoboken, I became the guy in the Funny Blue Hat!
The reason for the extra precautions with the body suits was because we were expecting a massive amount of people coming over from the World Trade Center in a very short amount of time. They were right.
The Ferries were being loaded at Battery Park (at the foot of the World Trade Center) and scrambled out as fast as possible. Thousands of severely wounded were being sent to Jersey City, Liberty State Park other areas became a temporary morgue. We were getting all of the yellow and green tagged folks plus anyone else who made their way to the launch area inside the quarantined zone in Manhattan.
For the next three and half-hours we went non-stop as thousands and thousands of people came through our station. Few were wearing the red tags. The ones that were came on stretchers and body boards. Many were frightened, hundreds were without shelter, and most were reduced to wanting the basic items of human need: food, shelter and something we all have yet to find… security.
During this time my brother in law Allen (who lives in Hoboken and my sister in-law Amy called to let me know they had made it home. I asked them to come down and lend a hand…, which they did. It was nice to have some familiar faces around. Things started to slow down. In came pizzas and water. Folks were eating in quick order. After about an hour Amy and Allen left to get food. Amy came back with a hoagie and iced tea for me. Just what I needed! During this break to eat I went over to one of the EMS trucks. It had “Scotch Plains Rescue” on the side. This was comforting since this is the rescue squad from our hometown. We spent a few minutes visiting while I inhaled my sandwich. I had a great sense of pride in our town having them there.
Before I went back to work I was able to call home and speak with Nora about what was going on. Natalie was very worried and upset. Andrew kept asking “Dada OK? Dada OK?” They both knew something was up because of all the phone calls and because I was not there. I was able to talk to them both so they knew I was OK. I told them both I would wake them when I came home… not really knowing when that would be.
After the massive wave of refugees from Manhattan came through many of the volunteers started to leave. I went to the watch commander and let him know that we needed information about what was happening so we would be able to keep people to help. Were more ferry’s coming? Was this the end? Beginning? Middle? No one really knew. So he said, come with me. He took me into the command center and made another volunteer and I responsible for organizing the next wave of volunteers for the evening. The little fireball of a lady from the city EMS group had folks signing in new volunteers and began to instruct us about what to do with the new group. We were to take the new folks and train them on what we had been doing all day. It was my turn to tell them about the tags and what the colors meant and position everyone t were they would be needed. By 8:00 the commander came by look at me and asked “How long have you been here?” “A while” I said. One of the staff people who were there when I first came in said. He’s been here all day. “Time for you to take a break.” Train this person to do what you have been doing and I do not want to see you back here for 3 hours.
The nice thing about Hoboken is my brother in-law lives there. So I had him pick me up and we went back to his place. It was there that I saw the television reports for the first time and was able to here President Bush’s speech to the nation. I was able to call Sandi to let her know I was OK. Called Nora again, check on some of my staff and rested on the couch.
By 10:30 I was ready to go back. I asked Allen to come with me. If they needed the help we would stay. If not, I could head home.
When we got the station I was impressed that everything was lit up with floodlights. Some of the folks I had worked with earlier were back from break. “What’s going on?” I asked. “They keep telling us we are supposed to get a lot of injured… but nothing has been coming. We really do not know?” I told Allen I was going to hang out for a few minutes then probably go home. So he went back to his place. I spoke to some more folks who said no one has come through in hours. I looked over and saw the lines of ambulances. The Scotch Plains crew was in the same spot. Nothing was happening.
I went to the one person, James, who I had worked with the most. He was an EMS volunteer leader. He looked at me and said “I think we are probably done here.” “Why?” I asked.
“Because there is no one to rescue. The hospitals in New York are staffed and waiting… but no one is coming through. Everyone is dead or they are already at the hospitals and treatment centers. There is no one left for us to help.”
As his words sank in I reached out to shake his hand. We embraced. “Time for me to get home.” And with that I got my now infamous briefcase, took off my body suit, twisted my blue hat, and headed into the subway.
The station was quite. No one was there. I was tired, both mentally and physically. The days activities and emotions began to sink in. As I got on the PATH train to Newark I look around. One long train…. Just 3 people! It was very strange. If I took the PATH the other direction the next stop would be the World Trade Center. I looked up from my seat to see the PATH map with the stops all listed. There was the last stop “World Trade Center.” I just kept thinking “How could that stop and those buildings no longer be there?” The reality and enormity continued to sink in.
“Jersey City”, the conductor would call out. “Pavoinia/Newport” a few minutes later “Grove Street” then “Journal Square.” After about 20 minutes I finally heard, “Last stop Newark!” The train came to a stop. As I got off I look around. Everything was just deserted. A few people here or there. But it seemed like a ghost town.
Having started the day with only about 20 bucks in my pocket and having given half of that to someone else so they could get home I figured I could not get a cab for 10 bucks to Scotch Plains. So I went to the ATM and took out $100.
“Taxi” I yelled. The van pulled forward and I jumped in. “Where you heading” the driver asked. “Home” I said. And off to Scotch Plains we went. We drove for about 30 minutes and just talked about the day. What it was like for him as he was driving passengers around. Some trying to get from Newark Airport to hotels. One guy he drove with for 4 hours as he tried to get into New York. The passenger finally got out of the cab 4 miles from the George Washington Bridge and decided to walk. We spoke of terrorism and tolerance. Of the evil imposed on us and the goodness that emerged. It was comforting just to talk to some one about what it all meant… then agreeing that neither of us had a clue.
He took me to where I park my car (I take the bus in through the Lincoln Tunnel every day) “How much for the ride?” “30 dollars.” He said. “Here’s $60. Thanks for the company and be careful going home!” He was a nice guy struggling to make a buck on a horrible day. But he was kind and warm as we chatted. After a day like today we all could use a nice tip. I got in my car. As I turned the key I realized how different the world was now from the 19 hours earlier when I parked here. Then I drove home.
As I came into the house most of the lights were out. I went upstairs and gave Nora a hug and a kiss. Then I tucked Andrew in and let him sleep. As I entered Natalie’s room she popped up rubbing her eyes. “Daddy!” She said excitedly through a yawn. “You’re OK” “Yes P, I am OK.” (I call her P, which is short for Peanut, which is a name I have called her since the first day she was born) After a huge hug she asked “Why did the bad men knock down the building?” “I wish I knew P… I wish I knew. But I am home and we are all safe.” “Did you help all the people from the building, Daddy?” “I helped as many as I could, sweetheart. Now time to go back to sleep and I will see you in the morning.” “OK, Dada” and off to sleep she went.
I went downstairs to get a drink and then sat on the couch. It is a ritual I do for the most significant life changing moments in my life. I sat on this couch the evening Natalie was born in September, 1995. I did the same with Andrew in September,1999. In both instance I felt such a sense of wonderment about how our live and our world had been transformed (for the better!) with the arrival of each child.
Tonight was one of those life-changing moments. Just like the others in magnitude… and nothing like the others in emotion. As I sat and reflected on the day: The things I saw, the fear, the anger, the disillusionment, the hate, the kindness, the humor and the tears. The grief still to come was off in the distance. The joy to be alive and safe the blessing for the moment.
How could this happen? Where would this go? What would be next? What does this mean? And how do I protect my family? Questions, Images, Sights and Sounds all swirling together.
I thought about how the day’s events were suddenly reshaping our world. And as I had done with the other life-changing moments in my life and as the enormity of the day’s events set in, I sat on my couch… and cried.
What happened on September 12, 2001? Here is that story.