It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.
Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001, I was a reporter in New York for BridgeNews, an international news wire then surrounded by corporate bankruptcy, brought to that state by failure to bill all of its clients. Or even know who they were.
I covered natural gas markets and electricity prices, and spent several months covering the United Nations as the UN Security Council wrangled over the fate of the corrupt oil-for-food program in Iraq. It was a fun job with a company full of bright, motivated, intelligent, and often a bit off-the-base people who were all very good at what they did.
I loved working there. And I still miss it.
But there was bankruptcy, and those of us who hadn’t budged – I wasn’t looking very seriously for work – had all received our layoff notices. September 15th was to be our last day.
BridgeNews had its editorial offices in New York on several floors of what was previously called Three World Financial Center (now called 200 Vesey Street) – the world headquarters of American Express – directly across from the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers towered over southern Manhattan, casting shadows in the air as I remember only the western mountains did during dramatic sunrises or sunsets.
I had just arrived at work and was sitting at my desk when I heard it – a series of whistles, each deeper and louder and louder, until there was a horrible squeak. Heads popped over the cabins, looking around, asking a form of “What was that?”
And then the burning debris falling outside my window caught my attention. Huge pieces of building, maybe, or planes, maybe, on fire, plunging 30 stories to the ground below.
It was hard to tell what had just happened. Even the few people with office windows facing the World Trade Center complex itself weren’t sure what they had just seen with their own eyes.
“It was a plane, I think. Hit the tower. At least I think, ”said a colleague.
A group of us gathered in a corner conference room that had a spectacular view of West and Vesey streets from the towers and contemplated the view in front of us. Looking up, we saw a huge, jagged, gaping wound near the top of the North Tower, spewing fire, smoke, and paper. Looking down, the streets were covered with shards of glass and steel and quickly filled with emergency vehicles.
“A plane crashed into the North Tower,” shouted American Express’s building-wide intercom system. “There is no need to be alarmed.”
We did not move, frozen as we were by the disaster unfolding above and below us. I tried calling my wife, but the cell phones were not working. The large southern Manhattan cell phone antenna was on top of the tower which was now on fire.
We stood there watching and speculating; for how long I don’t know. I remember the rest. I heard it first – the sound of that second plane when it appeared. I watched it tilt, it was so close I saw the sunlight streaming through the little oval windows, then this airliner glistening in the bright morning sun … disappeared into the south tower in an explosion of fire and smoke that I could smell across the street and 30 floors above.
There was a great movement of people away from the windows. Neither of us waited for American Express to issue an evacuation order. I grabbed my things and rushed to an elevator when I heard an editor shout, “DON’T TAKE AN ELEVATOR! IF THERE ARE MORE AIRCRAFT TO COME, WE ARE IN THE NEXT HIGHEST BUILDING!
I descended 30 flights of stairs, terrified, within a great flood of humanity. In the street below, I heard a frightened New York City fire captain screaming to head west, up to the retaining wall which is the west side of Lower Manhattan, and then walk towards the North. I walked quickly to the ferry terminal in front of the New York Mercantile Exchange, past a marshalling yard where the injured – a man clearly covered in someone else’s blood – were seated against the side of the World. Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) while the most seriously injured were treated.
As I waited for a ferry to get to New Jersey, to join my wife, Jennifer, I stood in the midst of a large crowd who were panting, begging and shouting “No! ” ” No ! “Stop!” with all the bodies falling from the towers to the ground.
I have seen six people die this way.
And as I watched the two towers ablaze, fire and smoke and great lifts of paper staining an otherwise cloudless sky, I suddenly had words, spoken but not said, in my head – “My love is all that matters, and that’s who I am.
It was Jesus crucified and risen who spoke to me that day, in the midst of terror and death. I know that without a doubt. I’m still trying to figure out what he said and what it means for my life. Above all, I fail.
I managed to get on a ferry, crossed the Hudson River, hugged my wife and sat on a small park bench in front of my waterfront apartment building in Jersey City and I watched the towers crumble. For the next two days, I alternated between numb shock and absolute terror whenever Air Force fighter jets roared above me.
It is not a story that I tell very often. Mostly no one asks. Other days followed. The sun was setting, rising and setting again. Life has recovered, has become normal and routine. I am not as bothered by the noise of planes as I used to be. But for the rest … we always have the impression that it just happened. Like it was yesterday.
And not 20 years ago.
Charles H. Featherstone can be contacted at [email protected]