Ten years ago, I was lying in bed with a cold.
At the time, I was living in a group house in lower Manhattan in a closet sized room with barely space for a twin mattress and an iMac. I had forgotten to turn off my radio alarm clock, which went off at 7:45am. I let the radio play (“1010WINS, you give us 10 minutes, we give you the world…“) as I half dozed.
Around 8:50am, the anchorman said that some kind of accident has happened at the World Trade Center and smoke was pouring from it. In my half-asleep stupor my mind registered that something serious bad was about to happen.
I stumbled downstairs to the common dining area. Four or five of my housemates were there having breakfast. I turned on the television and switched to CNN. One of my housemates said, “Is this a movie?”
It was a nightmare that we couldn’t wake from.
We watched stunned as smoke poured from the North Tower. And then all gasped at 9:03am as the second plane hit the South Tower. Then the horrible truth became clear, this was not an accident, this was an attack. We were fucking being attacked by planes.
My mind raced and I thought of what other places might be targets. The White House for sure. And the United Nations. Goddamit, I had staff in the United Nations.
I was at that time membership director of a peace organization called the World Federalist Movement, that had their offices at 777 UN Plaza, just across from the main United Nations complex. It was a little after 9am. My staff would soon be arriving, some might already be there.
I ran to my room and picked up the phone to call my office manager, our executive director, anyone who might already be there. Finally I got Staci, our financial officer, who was there. I told her to shut down the office and send home anyone who was already there. Between us, we would call all of our staff to make sure that no one would come in.
It was good too, because as soon as it became clear this was a terrorist attack, the United Nations went into lockdown. Thousands of employees were herded into the basement of the main building and kept there for a few hours. The emergency PA system wasn’t working, so no one knew what was happening, other than there was some kind of bombing, and the United Nations might be the next target. And they were locked inside the United Nations.
Not the best planning by the UN security force.
Meanwhile, at around 10am and then 10:30am we saw first the North Tower and then the South Tower collapse live on television. There was a heavy smoke in the air, so for awhile you couldn’t tell what was left of either building. But slowly it became clear that the entire tower structure had just crumbled into itself. A few minutes ago, a 110 story building was there, and now it was all gone.
My cold forgotten, I decided to bike down to lower Manhattan to see if I could help in any way. I got as far as maybe Houston or Canal Street when police were holding people back. You couldn’t see anything but smoke, and dusty people walking in a daze northward. Lots of people were crying, others were in shock. No one’s phones worked. I had never felt so helpless.
It was just the beginning of the nightmare, that continued for weeks after that. The air stank of burning rubber and something else horrible, fires continued to burn long afterwards, emergency and construction personnel poured in from all over the country. There wasn’t much we could do other than place candles at makeshift memorials and look at endless pictures posted on fences and walls of those who were lost or missing, but not confirmed dead. I gave blood that wasn’t needed.
I wondered who could hate us so much, and what I could do to prevent this from ever happening again.