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Witness to Pain

I watched the New York skyline — and the world — change forever. I had arrived the night before at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn and was asleep on the couch when Matt, my host, woke me up. The TV was on, he was on the phone, and a thick streak of smoke, which I could see was coming from the northernmost building of the twin towers, flanked Brooklyn. We could see all of Manhattan from Battery Park to midtown, and the towers, one wrapped in black smoke, were front and center. By now, my girlfriend, Ronni, stood by the window, asking what had happened. Matt put his finger on the glass, turned to us and said, “Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”

I don’t usually wake up easily, but this made me instantly alert. We watched, and glanced nervously at each other. The thought of what must have been a big plane hitting a skyscraper was alarming enough, but it would get worse. A few minutes later, we all watched, in plain view, a second plane strike the south tower, and as the orange-black pulse of flame swept up the length of the building, fear set in: We suddenly knew this was not an accident.

By now, the news was talking terrorism, but not for long — New York’s most powerful broadcast antenna was atop Tower 1, and shortly after the second blast there was no TV. (Matt has no cable.) We eventually found one working channel (there was one other, but it was showing a cartoon with beavers dressed in Arthurian garb), and this was our sole source of information as the scope of the attack became clear. There were sirens coming from every direction, and the phones weren’t working. When we heard a plane had ditched into the Pentagon, Ronni grabbed my arm and Matt clutched his head. Disbelief. “What,” he asked, “is happening?”

Before long, the television reports were full of numbers: 767, 757, Flight 11, Flight 77, Flight 93, Flight 175, 92 passengers, 64 passengers, 45 passengers, 65 passengers. Nobody knew what the numbers on the ground were, or what would happen if those two 1,300-foot columns were to come down.

Enormous tragedies or disasters breed a kind of nervous excitement. With the smoking towers behind us, I started making the bed. Matt accidentally set his shirt on fire. I put on my shoes (in case we had to run) and started getting frantic about reaching a friend who lives a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Ronni started packing and said we should throw our plane tickets away and drive home, to Los Angeles. Matt is an architecture student, and he was wondering aloud about how to fight a fire so high, or how the damaged towers could be rebuilt. “What are they going to do with these things now?”

Just then, Ronni let out a cry like I’ve never heard. I turned to see the colossal edifice of the south tower flake apart. I think we were lifted out of our bodies that moment. I tingled light and heavy, cold and hot. In a few seconds, the building was gone. The entire end of the island was obscured by smoke. And that’s when I started crying. Seeing this thing disintegrate made it clear what we were witnessing. “I was comforted that the buildings were still there,” Matt said. “It was still a situation that seemed in control.” There was now a sense of escalation: first one horrific attack, then another, and then an unprecedented structural landslide right before our eyes. Is there more? Are we safe? What is happening?

I used my cell phone to try to find a rental car. “And go where?” Matt asked. “The only way out of the city is that way, and it’s all closed.” “Maybe we’ll go out to the end of the Long Island,” I said. All the agencies were closed, but I was seriously concerned that these attacks might be coordinated around biological or chemical or even nuclear weapons. In graduate school at Columbia I happened to take a course called, simply, “Terrorism,” for which I did research on the city’s preparedness for an attack involving weapons of mass destruction. I had written about how easy a target, and how unprepared, we would be, and I was ready to get out of the city. During my research, the professor thought my approach extreme. “Why bother with all that?” he said. “Look at something simple and more likely, like bombs. Conventional weapons are far more likely than nuclear or biological or even chemical weapons.” Neither of us thought to look into the use of commercial aircraft as high-stakes kamikaze vehicles.

When the second tower collapsed half an hour later, the CBS news banner changed from “World Trade Center Attacked” to “World Trade Center Attacked and Destroyed.” President Bush was making announcements about hunting down the people responsible. The solemn evocations of a second Pearl Harbor were starting to appear. A newscaster, strangely, described the scene as “one of those techno-future thrillers where everything seems wrong.” All the TV reports featured shocked bystanders saying it was like something you would see on television. But it was nothing like TV. Even seeing the tape later on TV was different. The point of emotional impact was watching that building collapse before us: That’s when I realized I was watching people die. But for all the chatter and tepid commentary on the news, one interviewee, covered in soot and dust, found the right words. Shaken and frightened, he recounted his escape: “Everything changed this morning.”


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