(This web photo-essay was made a few days after the attack. These are my experiences and interpretations as they occured at the time. I have chosen to leave them as they are, even though world events continue to shape my views and opinions. Thanks for looking and reading. - Pierre)

September 11, 2001

The Day My City Was Attacked by Terrorists

 

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, my life changed forever. The life of everyone I know changed forever. My city was attacked by terrorists. Typing those words seems like a surrealist joke. It doesn’t seem real. I can’t comprehend the things I have witnessed with my own eyes in the last two days. I could have never imagined the things I have seen, except as a concept for a script for a conspiracy action movie.
Now the date Tuesday, September 11 will live in the collective memory of the world forever. It will be marked in the history books as the day when the United States was attacked by four hijacked planes, killing thousands of people.
Here’s how that day unfolded for me: I woke up at 6AM to go to work at 85 Broad Street, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I was sitting in my office when I saw hundreds of pieces of paper fluttering down to the street from the air all around the street outside my window. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the Twin Towers. At first I thought a politician had rented a blimp and had dropped thousands of leaflets on the city, because it was the day of the mayoral primaries. The papers were of all different shapes and sizes, and I watched from the 24th floor as they serenely fluttered down to the streets and rooftops below. It was a beautiful end-of-summer day. Then I heard one of the students of the training center where I work say "there’s a fire in one of the Twin Towers!" I turned on the television in the control room where I was sitting and saw that the tower was on fire. Then a second one was on fire, and people were talking about planes hitting the Twin Towers. Then things happened really fast. People were talking about terrorist attacks. I put CNN on the big projection screens in the classroom next door and turned up the volume. The newscaster mentioned two planes hitting the two Twin Towers. Everyone immediately knew something was drastically wrong. "They want us to evacuate the building!"

I grabbed my backpack and ran to the stairway. It was packed with people. I ran to another stairway and made my way down from the 24th floor. That descent down from the 24th floor was a tense moment for me. I was trying to be calm. Everyone was walking in an orderly fashion, trying not to run or panic. Looking back on it now, I realize that as Americans, we never expect that we are going to die. Americans do not die in terrorist attacks on Wall street. But I was counting the floors; 19, 18, 17, 16, 15… A girl in front of me stumbled and twisted her ankle. A group of bankers below me were talking about the airplanes, saying that the first one was on purpose, the second one was a mistake. I turned to a man next to me and said "How do you fly a plane into the World Trade Center by mistake? It was an attack." We walked down, down, down. Finally I was out in the street. Everyone had their cell phones out but they were all blocked. I heard people saying "Get away from the Stock Exchange." At this point it was obvious to everyone that the US was under attack. I started to walk towards the water when I remembered my bike, locked up on Broad Street. I went back and got it, then rode to the waterside. The streets were packed with bankers, many of them sobbing and crying. I rode around looking for a payphone. There were lines at every phone, women crying, yelling, panicking. I rode over to 180 Maiden lane to see if I could find my boss or any of my co-workers from that building. From there, I could clearly see the towers burning. A massive crowd of bankers watched in disbelief, many crying. My survival instinct won over my curiosity, and I rode to the South Street seaport. There, a bar had the TV on. A crowd of people watched in horror as the towers burned. A man and a woman next to me told me they had just left the 44th floor of one of the Towers. "We're lucky to be alive."
I rode my bike home amidst throngs of people walking east along South Street. Once home, I called Steffie. She was frantic with worry. I reassured her that I was OK, then left an outgoing message on my answering machine telling everyone that I was OK. I took a picture of the Twin Towers burning from my window, then went up on my roof. There was a crowd of my neighbors gathered on my roof, most with cameras. As we watched, the South Tower exploded and then collapsed. I could hear screams of horror and disbelief from every voice in Manhattan from my roof, less than a mile away from the towers. I took pictures of the tower collapsing.

 

Realizing that something more destructive, violent, and dangerous than I could imagine was going on, I went back to my apartment and sent out a mass e-mail to all my family and friends saying I was alive and well. I said I had been working a few blocks from the towers but that I had been able to evacuate and I was OK. Then my desire was to document history.
I got back on my bike with my camera and I began to ride around the city. I went up Canal Street and started taking pictures of the hundreds and thousands of people walking in a mass migration away from Wall Street.

At the corner of Canal and Catherine Slip, I stopped in a huge group of people and watched as the second tower fell. I took pictures of the horrified faces in the crowd around me.

My body felt slightly limp, I couldn't quite fathom what I was seeing. The sheer destructive magnitude of the event was beyond comprehension. I don’t think humans can react appropriately to such event, because it surpasses the capacity for fear, compassion, or anger. Basically the brain kind of shuts down, and one begins to live and function as if one is an actor in a movie.
As I write this on Thursday, September 13 at 12:30AM (Friday morning) I am still functioning in that dream state, that unreal, non-reactive reality. I think it is a function of self-preservation on one hand. On the other I have seen this in films and on TV as a work of fiction so many times, I am prepared and trained to deal with it that way.

So I rode my bike all around the city, through Chinatown, up to Little Italy, through the East Village, around Soho, over to Canal Street, photographing people against the backdrop of this burning, destroyed monument. I made a huge loop, then the police started to block off the streets below Canal, and I rode back east on Canal.

Screams of horror were heard all around the city as people watched the second tower implode and collapse.

A city employee on his cell phone, weeping. Thousands of people evacuating north on Lafayette and Astor Place.

At the river, I saw an exodus of thousands of pedestrians crossing the bridge towards Brooklyn.

Police barricades all along Canal Street.

A car covered in ash and dust flees the wreckage.

When I got home again, I got a call from Alexi, and from Steffie who was worried that I had gone too close to the Towers when they crumbled. We decided to all meet at Washington Square park. We were all shell-shocked and in need of each other’s company. I went to the park and saw two of my dearest friends and immediately hugged and kissed them. We were alive. We knew that life had changed forever. We knew that thousands of people would be dead on this day. It was a beautiful, sparkling day, the birds were singing. How could so much death and destruction be happening a few blocks away?

We went back to Mike’s house in the blazing sun. Heather and Georgine came home, and Alexi decided to walk back to Harlem. The rest of us went to Heather’s friend Nadine’s house on 9th and C to have and drink on the roof and try to relax. There was nothing else to do. Unfortunately, I was having an allergic reaction to something in the air and I could barely breathe. Steffie and I had one beer on the roof, with the smoke rising into the sky a few miles away, then we walked home. We heard that all airports in the nation had been shut down, but then we heard a roar in the sky. We looked up, and there was a military fighter jet above us.
At Delancey Street there was a roadblock. I showed my ID and we went past. We got to my place and took a shower. We felt helpless and exhausted.

As we looked out of my window, we could see the smoking remains of the wreckage going into the sky and we felt violated. We turned on the TV, and we only had two channels left, 2 and 11. The rest were based on the top of the Twin Towers and they had been knocked out.

That night we decided to go meet everyone somewhere for a drink. We did not want to be at home, staring out my window at the burning wreckage where the towers had once stood.

We left the house at about 8PM that night, and my neighborhood was like a police state. There were roadblocks on every major street, and no cars around. We walked over to a restaurant to meet Kristin and Mike and eat but it was closed. We ended up going to 7A and having dinner. Every conversation was about the attack. The air was bad and we were exhausted. We rode home past the checkpoint at Delancey where we had to show ID to get by. At home, I could still see the smoke rising from my window into the night sky, lit by the bright hurricane lamps.

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