Archive for September, 2011

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9/11: An Eyewitness Account

September 11, 2011

Originally published on September 11, 2003. Republishing for the 10th anniversary of this terrible, world-changing event.

Personal background: Michael Frenchman is my “not-father” (an interesting title that I coined with a history of accusation, assumption, adoption, and eventual DNA test), a dear-but-distant friend to our family, and a videographer/producer/diver/etc. He and his wife, Karen, reside on West 27th Street, in New York City. Coincidence brought him very close to the tragedy, and his well-written perspective goes well beyond the sound bites we (especially today) are accustomed to hearing from NYC residents.

From: Michael Frenchman
Sent: Thursday, September 13, 2001 13:23
Subject: Where were you…

Sorry to have been out of touch in the last few days. We still can’t get long distance service and even email is sporadic.

Karen and I arose early on Tuesday morning, preparing to drive to the Staten Island car-ferry and another day working on our rental apartments there. We were running late and began to think we would miss the 8:45 boat. Our best route was straight down 7th Ave. to Vesey St. and then right a block to take the West Side Highway a few blocks further downtown to the ferry entrance at South Ferry. I suppose we turned onto Vesey Street at about 8:44 and onto the West Side Hwy at about 8:45. That corner is the northern base of the World Trade Center. We had the radio on. As we pulled into the ferry area, I heard one brief report that there had been an explosion at the WTC. Looking nearly straight up, we saw smoke and clouds of paper flying towards the east, to Brooklyn.

As soon as our car was loaded on board the ferry, we scrambled to the rear upper deck and watched in amazement as nasty gray-white smoke poured from the northwestern tower looming above us. Someone said they’d just heard that a twin-engine plane had hit the tower. Karen thought it might have been an accident—a small-plane pilot having a heart attack or some such and losing control. But I was convinced it was a deliberate act, by whom, I could only begin to guess.

A few other passengers joined us on that rear deck as the ferry pulled away from the terminal. The skies were crystal clear and blue. A foreign couple gazed in shocked amazement and tried to get a better look through the 25-cent binoculars. They offered us a peek. But the unaided view was clear enough from our close south side vantagepoint. We could see numerous plumes of smoke and tongues of flame pouring from broken out windows. We could not, of course, see the huge and gaping diagonal slash on the opposite north side of the building where the first plane had hit.

The ferry was perhaps a half-mile from the towers when we saw a silver and blue two-engine jetliner flying unusually low and slow up the harbor in-between us and the Statue of Liberty, passing less than a thousand feet to the west of our boat. People who often land at LaGuardia Airport know that the pilots frequently treat the passengers to a run up the Hudson River for a spectacular view of the city. The sentence was only half formed in my mind that the pilot of this jet must have been trying to see and show what was going on at the Trade Center when the actual trajectory of his course became frighteningly clear. As the plane banked slightly to its right, I said aloud “He’s going to hit it!” We stood fixed in horror for the 5 to 10 seconds it took for my prediction to be realized. Set against a perfectly clear and blue sky, our reality transformed into a wide screen movie as each frame presented a new millisecond of action: the jet angling for its final alignment, the glide of the now-irrevocable projectile, the counterclockwise-tilted plane disappearing into the building, a fractional moment of black gashed wall instantanously billowing out one-two-three conjoined black and orange balls of fire and debris, the slap of thunder three or four seconds after the impact.

“We’re under attack,” I said twice.

We watched as long as we could from the open deck until two police officers on board ushered everyone inside, I don’t know why except for some irrational and false sense of control in the midst of the surreal. We watched through the windows as all the other passengers gathered, some crying, some staring in disbelief, some talking excitedly on cell phones, many still all but oblivious to the event and unwitting as to it’s meaning. Karen and I touched the arm of a nearly frantic woman crying on her cell phone as if she were in communication with someone in the doomed buildings. There was nothing for us to say or comprehend.

Once off the ferry, we drove half wild to our apartments and sat with one of our tenants to watch the terrible drama unfold on TV just like the rest of the world. We are now somewhat like those hundreds of people who were in Daley Plaza in Dallas and had a glimpse of the Kennedy motorcade and those awful moments and who then watched that eternal frame replayed and replayed for the past forty years. Our actual memory: the sights, the unwarned, unformed reactions, the smells of the harbor, the brush of the breeze, the heat of the early morning sun, the murmur of the other passengers, the rumble of the ferry engines, the hand of Karen in mine, the raw surprise as the world tipped on a new and unexpected pathway. All this will now blend and merge into the TV images of others’ amateur video, of traffic-helicopter cameras and sky cams on network TV buildings uptown.

I remember that in the plaza in front of where the towers stood was/is a sculpture depicting two pyramids—an allusion to the notion that these structures would last as long as their antecedents at Giza. Like you, we watched them melt to the ground and blow like so much desert dust.

So that is where I was and what I saw on one of those days which we will all always remember. “Where were you when ….?”

Karen and I spent the rest of Tuesday alternating between the TV and our chores at the apartment. What else could we do? We spent the night with friends on Staten Island, obviously unable to return to a besieged and cut-off Manhattan.

By late afternoon yesterday (Weds.), enough access had opened into the City that we were able to wend our way across the Verrazano Bridge, up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, past the prohibited Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridge entrances, onto the Long Island Expressway, past the “show your driver’s license” check point at the Midtown Tunnel and back into a quiet and subdued city. We have traveled a lot this summer. No time away has seemed as long as these 36 hours.

Thanks to everyone who called to see how we were. We were never in any real danger except during the moments we were driving below the base of the now-disappeared twin towers. We’ll never know what flaming debris may have fallen to the street yards behind our passing car. But our personal story is so many orders of magnitude less significant than that of the thousands dead and injured and directly traumatized and so picayune compared to the onrushing and unpredictable consequences of this ugly act that I even hesitate to retell it.

We hope you are all well and that some good ultimately comes out of this tragedy.

Love and peace,
Michael and Karen