Ian Williams' Lost 9/11 Chronicle
Ian Williams' Lost 9/11 Chronicle

By Ian Williams

On 9/11, noted reporter and author, and Foreign Policy in Focus contributor, Ian Williams lived near the World Trade Center and reported on the attacks for Canadian Broadcasting. Not long afterward, he wrote a heretofore unpublished account.

I moved from midtown to lower Manhattan in late August 2001. South Street Seaport seemed like home to someone who left Liverpool twelve years before. Indeed in some ways I had hardly left. The plaque on the esplanade mentioned that it was built on rubble landfill from blitzed London that returning supply ships used as ballast. Those ships actually came from bombed Liverpool. I’d used it to illustrate my thesis that American civilian experience of war was vicarious and inaccurate compared with that of Europeans, even younger ones like me brought up playing in bomb sites and listening to tales of evacuations and bomb shelters from older family members.

I had developed a routine in the new apartment. A brisk cycle ride round the southern tip of the island, past Battery Park and up the new bike path up the Hudson that begins by running through the dark valley between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center. On the morning of September 11, I began my day as usual by checking my email as I swigged my first mug of tea, sitting, I must confess, in stark naked comfort.

The email brought several promising commissions, and so I decided to postpone my daily ride, even though the blue skies and equable temperature outside promised one of New York’s few sweet spots between its more customary extremes of frigidity and torridity. Instead I began work on an article for Punch, on the underlying wobbliness of the American economy.

I had written “The” when I heard the bang. It sounded like a building collapsing, so I ran to the window to look out. The fish porters from the Fulton market were standing in the square of Peck Slip staring up as if at the Second Coming. I pulled on clothes and ran down with a cell phone, recorder, binoculars and a camera. If this was indeed the second coming, it was the early stages, the arrival of Satan on Earth. The World Trade Center’s north tower had an exit wound some three quarters of the way up, with flames erupting from the northeast corner, and thick black smoke framing the brightness.

“Look there’re people jumping” a woman shouted in anguish. As far as I could see, what she thought were people was in fact metal siding drifting downwards on the wind. However, my reassurance was premature: shortly afterwards, that’s just what people trapped in the upper floors began doing.

I began trying to call various newsrooms on my cell phone, to no avail. Either everyone else in Lower Manhattan was hitting their dial buttons at the same time, or, I suspected, the antennae were on top of the Twin Towers.

I ran inside to call from my desk phone, but Canadian Broadcasting’s Toronto newsroom was already calling. Ducking between my fire escape platform and the phone, I began to tell them what was happening. The other tower exploding at a slightly lower level. Then the apocalyptic crash as it collapsed.

Up the East River Drive, the FDR, I could see along the shore line as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars fought the rush hour traffic to get closer. Then the evacuees began to trudge by. I had seen refugees in war zones before, but to see endless columns of necktied office workers was a new experience. Most of them marched onwards stolidly without a backward glance, perhaps not realizing that this stretch of their route offered a direct view of the disaster they were fleeing.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, the marching files were silhouetted against the sky like a scene from an Eisenstein film. But then, even those who still stood transfixed in the square had no view. A white cloud, like Pliny’s description of Vesuvius spread from the tower. Heavy, choking, white ash, which fell like snow over the area. By then, most of the rubberneckers had joined the majority marching out the city. A few optimistic ones tried to stop yellow cabs, which sensibly wanted nothing to do with them: just to get out.

In the square some young Indian women had lost their shoes in the rush, and were bleeding from head wounds. My girlfriend invited them to wash off in the bathroom and phone relatives before setting off. A young African man, probably illegal since he did not want to give his name, waited anxiously. He’d been taking his three year old son to pre-school and had lost him in the stampede. In one of the day’s happy stories, he found him, intact at the nearby hospital where some passerby had taken him. He stood in the square in front of us, hugging him thankfully and staring at the column of smoke that marked the site.

I’d been describing the scene from my fire escape for CBC in Toronto, who told me to stand by for ninety seconds for “local announcements.” As they did so, the second tower collapsed. It was the first time I lost my calm. I bellowed down the phone, cursing them and telling them what to do with their local announcements, but to no avail. I had to hold the line open as it was transferred from editor to editor, producer to producer, mostly ignoring the call waiting signals which represented the more successful attempts of friends and family to check on our safety. As the news spread, inward circuits were blocked as people across the world tried to do the same.

A second cloud headed across Manhattan, adding more white ash to the dust that drifted like snow across downtown. By now I was recounting the morning’s events for the BBC, while wrestling with an illustrative side issue. I had mentioned to another editor earlier that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had built his $16 million dollar command and control center for emergencies and disasters in the World Trade Center. She commissioned an immediate piece.

I thought it was a potent metaphor for the inefficacy of expensive Star Wars defence systems against this type of attack and spent several hours alternating between radio interviews by phone and checking my memories. It was true. The “bunker,” widely derided as a grandiose folly when it was built, was indeed on the 23rd floor of number 7 WTC, already aflame and later to collapse.

I clicked the send button and as the call volume fell, the adrenaline aftershock set in. Coughing and hoarse with dust and talking, I decided I could take it no longer. I had to go to see what was happening closer to the scene.

The Pompeii parallels became more apt outside. On Fulton Street, the local deli’s display of flowers was shrouded in ash. A fish porter’s breakfast lay in its foil tray, similarly coated, and the little mobile hot dog stands stood abandoned, their bagels and buns buried in a drift of grey dust.

Smoke streamed across towards Brooklyn, and the emergency vehicles stirred up dust devils as if on a desert road as they sped through the police lines to the epicenter. Looking straight down Fulton Street, I expected to see a stump, a pyramid of rubble. But who’d a thought the old towers had so little substance in them. It was clear that despite the column of smoke, there was nothing to be seen.

I could flee, or carry on working. First, I wanted to pay my debts so we went to the downtown hospital to give blood. They were not accepting it, and what’s more, there was what I thought of as a “fee fo fi fum” warning out. The blood of Englishmen smelt of mad cow disease and was not acceptable.

So, brandishing a tape recorder I approached Alex MacLain, a junior doctor at NYU hospital. She had been on duty forty hours, she recalled just as she was leaving. She described an early rush of burn victims -- “glove injuries.” She explained. “Like one woman came in, and all the skin on her arm and shoulder came off.” Then there was a rush of impact injuries and fractures: followed by an ominous hiatus. She had come to the corner of Fulton Street to see what was happening.

As we spoke, behind us I could the lighthouse-shaped Titanic monument. In front of us the world was ending in fire, not ice. Coughing despite the masks that the local hospital was distributing, I suddenly had a terrible thought. We were breathing people. There was no way that everyone could have escaped. This smoke, these ashes, were from a massive funeral pyre: the Windows on the World had become a peephole into Hell.

Blowing around in the ashes, the memories of the world’s life were flashing by in the form of charred and chewed papers. Plans for environmental projects financed by Wall Street bonds, cheques for unimaginable numbers of zeroes, bunkering invoices from Pakistan, Japanese investment reports, and personnel files. I learned from a police deposition that a Ms. Watkins earned $500 a day in a massage parlour, charging $40 for a hand job, $80 for oral sex and $150 for full sex. But it had done her little good since her pimp took the lot. Down by Wall Street, in front of Federal Hall, where George Washington was proclaimed the first president, his statue overlooked his handiwork, his hair appropriately powdered like a Georgian wig for the first time in two centuries.

The NYPD working press pass says it entitles the bearer to cross police lines. It had never worked before, so I was not surprised to be greeted with customary brusqueness when I probed the police perimeter to get closer. I moved south and discovered a motley Dunkirk-style line of tour boats and tug boats at Battery Park, waiting for evacuees. It was a weak link in the cordon and I sidled through.

On the Hudson side of Manhattan, the debris, smashed vehicles and even deeper ashes made for an even more apocalyptic scene. We were closer and the wind blew from the west into the fire, giving a clearer view of the firefighters trying to control the blaze in the surrounding buildings. Next to us, lines of hoses led from the fireboats which normally only seemed to provide water displays for the visiting cruise liners. Now they were pumping thousands of tons of Hudson water into the ruins.

I lent my cell phone to several exhausted firemen, checking on children, wives and friends. Someone had forced open a local deli, and they were helping themselves to water and snacks. Even though it was technically looting, no one took more than they needed, except one young man, who looked like a local resident. He helped himself to a pack of cigarettes, paused, and then took two more. Tobacco does that to a person, I thought, even as I wondered at an ash-covered fireman who came out with a huge lit cheroot in his mouth. How much smoke can you take!

Another fireman came out of the store. Caked in dust and sweat, he was voraciously stuffing a banana into his mouth in between gulps of water. He looked around with a sort of pugnacious puzzlement at the ash, the debris, the mud, and the smoke. “Can you believe it?” he asked me, “I’m looking for a fucking garbage can!” He threw the peel at the ashes on the floor as if it were a demonstration against the lack of civilization in the neighbourhood.

One of the firemen who had used my phone was telling me bitterly “You know, three hundred of our guys got caught when they collapsed.” He then said, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but we just gotta go in and nuke the whole fucking Middle East now.” It was timely reminder. It was early days, and no one had fingered the perpetrators, but somehow, I didn’t want to remind him of Timothy McVeigh and the anti-Arab hysteria that the media had perpetrated before it had happened.

It was now eight hours from the first crash. I had enough local colour, and thought that I was in danger of degenerating from a reporter to a rubbernecker, so I decided to make my way back and file. I headed south only to meet a more than usually implacable police cordon on the Hudson River promenade. “Get on the boat,” they said, pointing to a tug whose bow was nudging the sea wall. “No thanks, ” I said politely, waving my press card. “You have to. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m press -- it’s my job to take risks. I’ve been in Beirut and the Balkans. No one’s shooting at me here, I told him, brandishing my press card.

“Get on, or we put you on. We already put two of you guys on,” he said with “make my day” relish. The tug took us to New Jersey, and dropped us at a pier with large signs saying “Condemned structure. No trespassing.” I had no idea how to get back into Manhattan to file, or to wash or change for that matter.

The view from the boat was almost worth it. The sun setting behind us was lighting up the intact windows of lower Manhattan as if they too were on fire, and tingeing the column of smoke with an appropriately bloody hue. All weekend I had been sailing on the Hudson from the Manhattan Yacht Club out of the North Cove in the shadow of the WTC. We had used the two towers as our navigation aids as we practiced tacking up and down the harbour. Their absence was even more striking. And I remembered, so was that of my fellow crew member, a Brit I had met for the first time, who had just arrived and was working on the 25th floor of one of the towers. He only had an office number. Death moved from wholesale to personal.

In New Jersey, waiting on the pier were police. Paramedics -- Red Cross -- waited for casualties. They had spent hours watching the pyre burn across the Hudson: they wanted desperately to help, but we were disappointments for their eleemosynary instincts, deportees more than evacuees. Lines of ambulances and doctors waited on the other side. No casualties emerged, except as smoke.

Hours later, a train from New Jersey to midtown and a long hike down the East River side brought us home. The police manned checkpoints on all the roads, but as so often in New York, the bike paths and foot paths are invisible to drivers. The police overlooked the route along the esplanade, and it became my own personal route for several days. At home, the power was gone, so were the phone lines. And a week later they still were.

Downtown reminded me of divided Berlin or Beirut. To the north of the police perimeter, there were bright lights, shops, bars and restaurants open for teeming crowds. To the south the inhabitants stumbled about in the dark. If they trudged north to resupply, they were shaken down at innumerable checkpoints by a motley array of military and police uniforms. I suspect, despite rather than because of them, there was little of the looting or lawlessness that the stereotype of New York City would suggest. The only vehicles moving were official vehicles with flashing lights on top. Looking for light relief, I suggested, “Hey, if aliens were looking on, they’d think it was the lights made them move!”

At the end of the week, the police commissioner reported that crime was way down. Even the criminal classes rose to the occasion. Radio reports dwelt on the few crimes. A man appropriated a fireman’s jacket, a retired warder stole some watches while someone else broke into Brooks Brothers. Brooks Brothers! Did he need a suit to start work on Monday? One thing was sure. He would pay some small part of the price for the absent perpetrators when the courts opened.

Our recently stocked refrigerator was thawing rapidly. On the first night, exhausted, dusty and thirsty I made an executive decision. There was a bottle of champagne in the fridge, still cool. We knocked it back before it could warm and sank into fitful sleep, punctuated by long vigils at the window watching as the first convoys of armoured cars and troops arrived along the FDR, and noting the absence of ambulances among the sporadic bursts of traffic.

We began an ironic tribute to the Paris Zoo menu from the siege of 1870. A born-again carnivore with a cholesterol problem, I had stocked up on venison, buffalo burgers and ostrich loin. No fricassee of elephant trunk at the back of the freezer, but we ate our way through the rest.

Just around the corner, our problem was writ large, much larger in fact. There was no power for the Fulton Street fish market, where millions of dollars worth of fish waited in freezers without power. Never particularly sweet smelling, I quailed at the thought of their eventual exhumation.

Two days later, the police allowed in generators for them, and trucks to ship some out. I went down to check. “Is this fish being dumped or sold?” “It’s still in ice, it’s fine,” they told me, as I made a mental note to drop fish from my menu for a few weeks. In a way, it was a reassuring sign of the return of the commercial impulse. One bleak reminder of the shock of the tragedy was that no umbrella sellers appeared on the streets to sell their wares when the rain of dust fell. After two days, in Chinatown, a storekeeper was selling visitors photo postcards of the explosions at 2 for three dollars. And of course there were flags, a dollar each.

The flags began to appear two days later. CBC wanted a series of interviews for their local stations, so I got up at 6 and went down to the river side so my cell phone could get a strong signal from across the East River in Brooklyn. Half an inch of rain had fallen, and more was bucketing down. I shuddered at the thought of the murky slurry that the rescuers would be working in.

In the grey morning light, the low clouds obscured the smoke and the rain even quelled the ubiquitous smell and dust. Under the shelter of the elevated highway, life had returned to normal. Elderly Chinese from nearby Chinatown did their exercises, and one solitary man brandished a sword in an intricate series of balletic movements. He did not pause as a column of a steel workers formed up in bright yellow waterproofs and hard hats with their union local number written on the side. Led by a large stars and stripes they headed south into the inferno.

About a dozen homeless usually live in the vicinity and four of them who seemed to make a virtual family were inspired to mount their own surreal march. Pushing the one in a wheelchair, they paraded with a placard, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall. New York City/The World.” Pausing in between radio interviews, I asked “Why?” “Gotta a ciggy?” one replied in an London accent. “No, sorry!” I apologized as the phone rang, from, of all places, Iquiluit in the Inuit new territories. 

I’ve never understood flag fetishism, but I could see why people would want to respond. Over the next few days, the flags proliferated, but in almost reverse proportion to the distance from what the news reports were calling Ground Zero. “Positive patriotism” is all too often sullied with xenophobia, which is never an exact science. Maronite Churches were firebombed along with Sikh temples. Maronite and Sikh enthusiasm for Islam, let alone Islamic fundamentalism, has been historically someone tenuous, as anyone should know. But few voters in the world’s only superpower ever take time to study the world, which was perhaps precisely why I was standing in a disaster zone.

Another friend called, with semi-light relief, but again with a dark side.

His friend Mohammed worked in a restaurant where 11 of the 14 waiters were also called Mohammed. They used their colleges as names. “Hi Princeton! Hi Columbia!” He was earnestly seeking advice on how to change his name. Quickly.

You could almost tell how foreign a storekeeper, or a yellow cab driver felt from how many flags they were flying or sticking like talismans on their doors and windows. And the more I spoke to people, I could see solid reasons for the fear. “Someone must be punished,” is a universal cry. I did a radio interview for the left-wing station Pacifica in California. The anchorman on the other side of the continent, said “We have to punish them.” Inhaling the smoke from what was after all a near-miss for me personally, I asked, “How do you punish eighteen people who have just killed themselves? And if they had accomplices, can you trust the ideologues round this administration, the Cheneys and Rumsfelds, to identify the real perpetrators rather than use the opportunity to hit at their own perverse enemies’ list?”

I could trust Powell, who knows that even gestures have their price, but the others worried me. Each day, the news brought more suggestions of right-wing wish lists being tacked across the stable door after the Trojan horse had already exploded. More wire taps, tougher immigration, more defence spending, and calls for action all the more ominous for being so nebulously targeted.

I had seen the best side of New York and America in the long lines of volunteers, the heroism of the rescuers, the donations of food, clothes, and money, and the flood of resources available when the will was there. But the urge to do something could be as innocuous as standing on street corners with candles, or it could lead to applause for the incineration of other faraway cities of which they know or care little.

As Sunday drew on, Mayor Giuliani opened the way to Wall Street. Back to normalcy. Radio advertisements told Americans that the way to show their patriotism was to show their support for American companies. “Buy stock,” the broker harangued. I did a double take: it was genuine, not some subversive parody. And within sniffing distance, an army of rescuers used muscle power to sift the still smouldering ruins, looking with almost certain futility for survivors among the five thousand lives snuffed out in less than an hour on bright sunny morning in Manhattan.

 

- Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus

 

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"Ian Williams' Lost 9/11 Chronicle "

 

 

 

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