OUT OF THE ASHES, SURVIVORS’ GHOSTLY WALK

Bud wrote this column after his experince living through 9/11 in NYC.  It is being reprieved in honor of the 10th anniversary:

New York, NY — The ghosts of New York’s Third Avenue will stay with me.It was Black Tuesday, 12 days ago, and the ghosts were easily identified: those survivors able to walk away from the shambles of the World Trade Center – ashen apparitions, dirty-faced, smudged by debris, coated with the grime of tragedy. They were among those surging northward on clotted sidewalks, refugees marching to the unending threnody of sirens and the barking horns of fire trucks headed way downtown.Anxious, but not acting panicked, they were fleeing the billowing cloud at the south end of the island, the mountain of smoke marring an otherwise clear azure sky. Offices, schools, and apartments were emptying. When I encountered survivors, the horror of the day took on life and reality.

Tina Clark was one of the ghosts in flight. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks as she said into the cellphone: “Mommy, I’m all right. . . . I’m alive.”She had been able to hold it all in as she staggered, dazed, away from flaming disaster. But now, reconnecting with her world, she wept in relief after a stranger, offering her the phone, asked, “Miss, do your people know you’re safe?”

Safe. Yes, somehow Clark, a tall, 34-year-old clerical worker from an office across the street from the vanished towers, was safe though she was coated with the vestiges of closest of calls. Splattered with the grime and dust of fallen buildings through which she waded, Clark had begun her getaway, stumbling, staggering, dazed, pointed toward home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At least Tina’s mother knew at last, about three hours after the attacks: “I’m OK, Mommy. Don’t worry.”

Clark had been walking for about three miles, and had about three to go. “I just got out of the subway near my office, Health First, on Broadway when the first plane hit. Lucky I was late for work, so I wasn’t in the building. I began running. I saw the second plane coming – unbelievable! A 747, I think. It hit the building. . . . I don’t know how I got here.” Onward she lurched.

Traffic was snarled. A man named Jeff Klein was able to maneuver out of gridlock to a space beside the curb on 41st Street and got out of his car. “I don’t have enough gas to last through this standstill,” he said. “I’m just gonna find a bar with a TV and camp. The car is on its own.”

“Walk north! Walk north!” cops were shouting. “You can walk over the 59th Street Bridge to Queens.”

Otherwise, Manhattan was a shut-in island.

There was no escape that Tuesday for this Bostonian. I had been swimming in the pool at the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel on East 44th Street. The pool deck offers a splendid view of Manhattan through a glass wall on the south side of the 27th floor. While I swam I heard a man, obviously not a New Yorker, exclaim to a companion, “Hey, there’s a penthouse on fire.”

Curious, I climbed from the water to recognize a World Trade Center tower aflame. By the time I got to a TV the other had been hit. Evacuees were pouring from the nearby United Nations complex.

John’s Cafe at the corner of 44th and Second Avenue, was crowded yet almost silent. Usually it’s a clamorous, jovial mini UN, as orders are yelled in Greek, Spanish, and English at Anwar, the short-order cook from Bangladesh, or Peter, the owner from Greece. However, the clientele was concentrating on a TV screen that day, a set almost never used, and tears flowed like coffee. Nobody knew if more brutal surprises were to come – or where.

My friend Aurelio and I headed to Third, then downtown, and the apparitions began appearing.

People were rediscovering their feet. No transportation available. People like Joseph (who withheld his last name), an engineer in his 60s with the Port Authority in the South Tower. “I was in my office on the 74th floor. I felt the building shake when the plane hit, and I headed for the stairs. This is my second one – I was here for the car bomb in ’93.

“So I walked down 74 flights into the concourse. The ceiling fell on me, and . . .”

The ceiling?

“Yeah, just sheet rock, but I got out.” Joseph was a mess, but a meticulous mess. Though his clothes were ruined, his necktie was in place, his hair freshly combed. He was standing at a bus stop.

“Do you need anything?” a solicitous woman asked.

“Just a bus. I don’t know if it’ll come. But I want to get home to Westchester. Maybe,” he sighed, “it’s time to retire.”

Shyamal Roy, an investment banker who escaped the 13th floor of the South Tower, hadn’t bothered to comb his hair, which looked beaded, speckled with chunks of a catastrophic morning.

“I’m pinching myself. I can’t believe I’m alive. I thought I was dead several times. We thought the first hit maybe was a rocket, or the weather helicopter in an accident. I got to the street somehow, tried to run . . . this way, that way, through the rubble. The smoke, God, the smoke. You couldn’t see or breathe.

“Then the North Tower went down like a pack of cards. Right in front of me. The noise! Ooooh! Buh-buh-buh-boooom! Then . . . quiet.”

His tightly drawn face creased in a sudden smile. “I’m alive. But worried about my friends. When that building went down, death moved in. Dark. Hushed.”

A middle-aged man named Bob (holding back his last name) looked very businesslike. Well-cut gray suit, yellow-figured tie, attache case – except that he was streaked with sludge. “I got out of the building and ran with others down into a parking garage. Smoky, dark. We thought somebody had closed the doors. But, no, it was dark everywhere. I guess our country has been invaded.”

Walking south, you couldn’t avoid the grim bloom of smoke. At 34th and Fifth Avenue – a strangely vehicle-free thoroughfare – a policeman shouted at the walkers: “Move east! Move east! Now! Get going!”

Why? One policeman said there’d been a gas leak. Another said they didn’t want anybody near the Empire State Building in case that landmark – once again New York’s tallest – was attacked.

A young man on a bicycle had Broadway to himself. He was pedaling and shouting, “Go downtown . . . go downtown! Blood donors are needed badly!”

Farther south, yellow police lines kept gawkers about 12 blocks from the dirty tower of smoke that had replaced New York’s loftiest cloudscrapers.

A bystander asked a cop what he could do.

“Get over to St. Vincent’s Hospital,” said Officer Jason Arbeeny. “They’re dying for blood.”

People stood in clusters listening to the turned-up radios of workmen’s parked panel trucks. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians had no work to go to.

An unmarked car with a flashing red light stopped near a couple of policemen to consult. The driver identified himself only as Bob, FBI. The car was covered in soot. Bob had been down there. “Words can’t describe it,” he said gloomily. “Massive death.”

Neil Pellone was out of a job. “Until they move me to another place,” he said from beneath his layer of filth. “I’m with Ace Elevator, maintaining the elevators in the towers. Uh, the former towers.

“I escaped death at least three times. Everything was on fire. Cars, everything. Breathing was tough. The building imploded . . . bodies were flying everywhere. Sickening. I’m lucky. I made my way to Battery Park, ready to go into the water if I had to.”

Ambulances kept coming and going, their chilling claxons nonstop. A young paralegal, Emery Ailes, was in Brooklyn when he heard: “My fiancee works in Manhattan. I had to get here. They said Manhattan was closed, forget it. Closed? Like a department store? Closed. Could you believe it? Believe anything today?”

But he did make it when one bridge opened, satisfied that his lady was well out of harm.

Travel, of course, will never be the same. Having experienced so much shoddy so-called security at numerous airports, I wondered if state and federal governments would really get serious about the problem. Anybody who has flown in or out of Israel knows what painstaking, thoroughgoing security-checking is – and knows that it demands much time and patience on the part of the traveler.

As Black Tuesday waned, free buses were provided to carry people north. Getting out near Times Square, a woman handed the driver a $5 tip. He handed it back with, “Thanks, but we’re all in this together.”

St. Patrick’s Cathedral was jammed for a late afternoon Mass. A survivor, one of the ghosts swathed in grit, was kneeling, crying. Another of the lucky on a very unlucky day.

 

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