Elinor J Brecher | September 11 Remembered
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September 11 Remembered

September 11 Remembered

Fourteen years ago tomorrow, I was in New York City at my parents’ apartment. Sen. Joe Leiberman was running for president, and the Miami Herald had sent me to New York to follow his wife, Hadassah, on the campaign trail.

My folks were not television watchers. Months went by without anyone turning on their one tiny, antiquated set. Nor was the radio on that morning. So when my brother called from Boston about 9 a.m. on Sept. 11 and told me to turn on the tv, I knew something was wrong. What I saw was one of the World Trade Center towers crippled and aflame. No one knew yet that this was the opening act to a day of unimaginable horror, but when a plane goes into a skyscraper, it’s big news, so I knew I had to get there.  As you will read below in a story I later wrote for the Herald, I got there – and stayed in and around Ground Zero practically around the clock for the next five days.

I’ve moved several times since then and retired from the Herald. The notebooks I used that week are in a box somewhere, and as I continue to excavate the piles of boxes in the garage, I’ll find them someday. I wonder if they’ll still smell like the smoke that hung heavily over Lower Manhattan after the attack, saturating hair, clothes, lungs. That acrid scent did cling to the notebooks for years, because I kept them in a desk drawer at work, and once in awhile, I would take them out and press them to my face.

Miami Herald, The (FL) (Published as The Miami Herald) – September 16, 2001Browse Issues
  • Author/Byline: ELINOR J. BRECHERebrecher@herald.com
  • Edition: Final
  • Section: Front
  • Page: 30A

A plane hit a building and suddenly, all the rules had changed.I was on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on Tuesday morning when kamikazes slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower. It was rush hour, when it’s difficult to get a cab under normal circumstances. I jumped into York Avenue traffic and flagged down a southbound limousine.

The driver – who otherwise would have regarded me as little more than a traffic hazard – motioned me in. By then, the second plane had found its target. He’d get me as close to the blast site as possible, he said. He never mentioned money.

During the next four days, this stereotypically callous city would rise to an unprecedented occasion with empathy and grace, indulging its most generous impulses. I’d hitch rides with school-safety employees, air-conditioning contractors, hospital van drivers, even out-of-town police officers weary after a long-day’s shift at the epicenter. The disaster has erased every traditional boundary of suspicion and distrust, transforming a huge city of congenitally wary people into a neighborly small town.

Strangers allowed me into their apartments to make phone calls and wash up. One left me alone while she walked her cocker spaniel, offering ice water on the way out. Rhode Island firefighters let me work from their SUV after they marched into the blast zone.

On Tuesday morning, inching down the FDR drive along the East River, we could see the wounded towers spewing black smoke the way a knife gash gushes blood. A thick band of it streaked the downtown sky, blowing east to Brooklyn, easily visible from the Upper East Side. A radio announcer was talking to a woman eyewitnessing the event from a building adjacent to the towers. In the moment we turned a corner and lost sight of the towers, the woman shrieked. The north tower was collapsing. I leaped from the car, flinging bills at the driver, and ran toward the hole just torn in the New York sky.

On Broadway, 15 blocks northeast of the blast site, thousands clogged the streets. Most hurried north, heads down. Others stood still and gaped at the smoke-and-dust cloud boiling into the air. People wept in each other’s arms.

As I reached Reade and Church streets, seven blocks north of the remaining tower, the human wave surged toward me. Joe, a building engineer who had escaped from the north building lobby moments before it came down, stumbled forward, hacking and spitting into his wadded-up yellow windbreaker. Tan mud covered him from head to toe, crusting his hair and eyebrows. His inflamed eyes poured tears as he tried to talk.

“I saw the plane, and I dove into a basement,” he said. “Then the building fell and I said: `I’m not going to die in a basement,’ and I started running.”

I turned around. Seconds later, gravity joined evil in erasing the remaining tower from the skyline. The building’s skin slid earthward, engulfed in a volcanic debris cloud. It sounded like a million empty Dumpsters hitting the pavement under Niagara Falls. Its tall steel mast pitched forward, javelining toward the earth. Police officers screamed at people to run. But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t take my eyes off the advancing tidal wave. It weakened to a drift as it reached me, carrying a blizzard of singed paperwork and khaki-colored grit. I plucked a May 1997 Bloomberg Magazine page from the ash, an ad for a financial seminar. It featured two flaming red dice, plummeting meteorlike toward the reader. “Ask yourself,” the copy reads, “Do I feel lucky?”

Then it was quiet, as if the explosion had sucked all sound from the world.

Since then I have been to Ground Zero as the fires raged, secondary explosions popped and skyscraper-window shards crashed like shattering ice cubes. I’ve called the hysterical wives of Brooklyn firefighters to reassure them their husbands are safe. I’ve sat with hospital workers waiting for the injured who don’t come.

I’ve been with cops on loan from the Miami Police Department manning barricades outside a New York police precinct where grim-faced officers worried about two missing colleagues.

I’ve been small comfort to frantic relatives distributing missing-persons fliers. I’ve scratched the ears of exhausted search-and-rescue dogs as volunteer vets bandaged their torn footpads. The sounds of silence quickly turned to sounds of sirens. Now military helicopters chop the sky. Dump trucks haul off incalculable tons of rubble.

Across Lower Manhattan, voices mesh and collide. At a church service, pacificists despair of certain violent retaliation. Outside, pedestrians plot nuclear attack as a medical examiner’s van screams past. A boa-wearing Israeli artist/bar owner offers dazed firefighters a bed on her leatherette banquettes. A frightened Egyptian cab driver removes his mandatory name tag from the dashboard. The Stars and Stripes flies from hard hats, tenement windows and car antennas. It begins to rain.