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 Not long afterward, he wrote a heretofore unpublished account, which we present in two parts. – Ed.
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.
Part II on September 11.