Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Isn't it 9/11?

The calendar says that today is Sept. 11, but you wouldn't know it here in New York. Local newspapers gave the anniversary a minimum of attention, focusing on aspects like the controversy over where a commemoration for victims' families would be held, or an exhibition of photographs at a civic museum. It doesn't seem right that such a monumental development in the lives of all of us who were here on that day six years ago would go unremembered. So here's a one-person protest, in the form of my recollections. They start, curiously enough, with an Afghani in foodservice whites.

I'd come out of the subway in Greenwich Village, a decidedly non-corporate area of the city about a mile north of the World Trade Towers. As I stood at the window of a cart that sold coffee and breakfast pastries, I could see the sky just south of me filling with black smoke. It seemed to hover over New York University, where I'd gone to school and where I knew one of the science facilities had a nuclear science program. I figured it had blown up.

The guy inside the cart saw me looking. "A plane hit World Trade Sen-tair," he told me emphatically. "I see it!" I would learn later that he had come from Afghanistan to sling cruellers and muffins from a two-by-five cart five mornings a week, rain or shine, during heat wave or cold snap. The tip-off was the pro-American signs he'd post in his wagon after we invaded his homeland and some Americans got a little testy with any Muslim they encountered.

Figuring some dim-wit in a Cessna had flown too close to the Towers during a sight-seeing expedition, I grabbed my bagel and coffee and headed up to my office. By the time the elevator doors opened, the second airliner had hit. A colleague told me as I was walking onto a floor that normally would have been abuzz with editorial activity. The only sounds were the click-clacks of computer keyboards and telephone touch pads as we tried to get word about what was happening. We could see the burning towers outside our windows, but had no sense of the larger picture. The internet was jammed, phone systems—land-line and cell—were overloaded, and TV reception was already shaky (one of the city's main broadcast antennas was atop one of the towers).

A few of us managed to get a call through to loved ones in other parts of the country, who relayed what they were watching on TV. But one of our co-workers, a young woman who now works as a restaurant publicist, was unable to locate a brother who worked on Wall Street and lived across the street from the Trade Center. He would later be located, but his wife was missing until she was tracked down to a hospital bed. She'd been injured while walking their dog when the first tower collapsed.

Back at the office, we didn't know what to do. We had very little information, hordes of people covered in soot were marching up from Ground Zero, and we were still sketchy on the details. For instance, some of our telephone contacts said that other planes were still in the air and authorities thought they may be part of the attack.

We'd have gone home, but the city was virtually quarantined by that point. No train service in or out, all vehicular traffic across the bridges was stopped, and you couldn't even walk across most of them. Sirens were wailing, and National Guardsmen were out in full combat gear, with police vehicles zooming through the streets. And we were stuck right in the middle of it.

Knowing that my wife worked across the street from Madison Square Garden and down the street from the Empire State Building—two likely targets if another attack came—I tried to coax her to leave her office and meet me for lunch, as far from any landmark as I could get. We agreed to meet in a park midway between us.

The streets were packed with people marching up from the World Trade Center, looking like ghosts because of the soot. Yet no one spoke. It was quieter than church until suddenly we all stopped and looked skyward, where a plane was clearly visible. By that time, we knew all commercial aircraft had been ordered out of the sky. Was this plane heading toward another building in the city?

"It's okay," someone shouted. "It's a fighter plane." The whole crowd, thousands of us, broke into nervous laughter. Then someone said in a pained voice, "But is it one of ours?" Suddenly, the silence resumed.

But it proved not to be a peril, so the silent trek resumed. I met my wife and tried to get into one of the few restaurants near the park that was open. Most never fired up their fryers and ovens because deliveries had been turned back at the city's borders, and workers couldn't get into Manhattan because the subways and buses were grounded.

This was a hotel restaurant, and it was doing gangbuster business. It just didn't want ours. "We're only serving guests, since we don't know when we're going to get another delivery," the host brusquely informed us.

So off we trekked, to my wife's office. She knew that someone at her company had scored a few pizzas. The concern had set up a relief center in its boardroom, with soft drinks and the pizza. Most amazingly of all, it had good TV reception. We decided to camp out there, in part because we could peer across the street at Penn Station, where we'd be catching a train if they ever started running again.

Her company, Thomson Financial, had a satellite office down at the World Trade Center. Without telephone service, no one at the midtown office knew how the people at the Center had fared. But as we were eating, they started showing up one by one. No one had known if they were alive or not, so the reunions were tearful ones. Each person arriving would be pumped with information about who else they'd seen either leaving the office or walking uptown. Some people already knew that colleagues from Thomson's Boston headquarters had been on one of the flights that struck a tower. And my wife knew that a competing company was holding a conference that morning in Windows on the World, the restaurant atop one of the Towers. We assumed that everyone there would be gone.

In total, the company lost eight people. It would make a large donation to one of the recovery funds, a fact that still fills my wife with pride.

Our train line started running again in mid-afternoon, after Penn Station was cleared by a bomb scare. By then we knew about the crash of the plane in Pennsylvania, and were pretty sure that no other craft were in the air. But we knew that life would never be quite the same again.

Six years later, we all know how true that intuition was.

Sorry to meander off on a personal reminiscence that has little to do with foodservice. But for the sake of the 74 Windows on the World employees who died that morning, it seems important to remember that day. And I plan to do it every Sept. 11 for as long as I live.


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