I have a number of photos of the old World Trade Center, which began construction in 1970 and was destroyed by terrorists on September 11, 2001. To this point, though, I haven’t told the story of my activities on that day mainly because they are so prosaic compared to the tens of thousands who worked in rescue and safety operations that day and in the weeks thereafter, or compared to the thousands who perished and their families. I suppose I will relate them here so after a 19 years’ remove, you can compare them to your own.
I have a number of photos of the WTC taken by others, and an entire folder with photos of its ongoing destruction, also taken by other photographers; since I don’t indulge in what I consider terror porn, I won’t show any of those here. I do have some photos in which the WTC appears in the background, since the towers tended to pop into view from wherever you were around town. The above photo is of Middleton Street looking west from Broadway in Williamsburg; I was walking down Broadway in mid-1999 in search of old painted signs on buildings (most of those have since disappeared).
I was 44 years old and an office jockey at Macy’s, writing blurbs for their catalogs, mainly in house furnishings and bedding. It was not a smooth road because the person who hired me had been shuffled into a different department and I had a different boss. I worked in the 17th floor in their offices, which were accessible from an unobtrusive doorway on 7th Avenue and West 35th. Penn Station was across the street, so reaching the office was an easy ride via the Long Island Rail Road from Flushing. I had gotten to my “cubicle” around 8:50 when a teammate, Alyssa, said, “are you aware that an airplane has hit the World Trade Center?” I thought, like perhaps many in that moment, that a small plane had gone off course and hit the building; this had happened before to the Empire State Building in 1945.
I did not have immediate access to a television set at the office, though some knew where to find one. In fact I also did not have access to the internet because the way the office was set up, all workstations had composition and layout software (Word, QuarkXPress and so on) but not internet access, which was restricted to one terminal on the floor; we copywriters had to access product information on the internet on that one terminal. Of course as the morning went on it became clear that two hijacked airliners had been flown into both towers, the Pentagon in Washington, and that a fourth airplane, presumed then to have also been hijacked, crashed in Pennsylvania. I remember saying something like, “Mr. Bush, you’ve got a war now.” I could not reach the old man in Bay Ridge via a direct call, so I called Mary Beth at work in Port Washington, and she was able to reach him to let him know I was alive.
There was no panic in the office. Looking back on this, I am surprised that was the case. We had a balcony on the 17th floor that I occasionally wandered out on for work breaks. Today, we saw scrambling fighter jets in the sky. The balcony faced west, not south, so I saw none of the towers.
We were given a free lunch. Then, as now, Macy’s restaurants were in the basement, referred to as The Cellar; at the time, kitchenware was also displayed there. We quietly got our lunch from a buffet and took it back up to our desks. I’ve said there was no panic, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself, is this my last meal if NYC is indeed under attack?
The afternoon passed and people drifted out. Around four I crossed the street to Penn Station. The regular train schedule had broken down, and trains were leaving when they were adjudged to have enough people to make a run. Yes, trains were still coming into Manhattan, as well. I was lucky to find a train going to Flushing soon enough. On Tuesday nights, I worked at the Queens Times-Ledger, a newspaper chain, as a compositor. Needless to say it was sort of a late night and I was working there till about 1 or 2 AM.
I went into Macy’s the next day to find just a handful of people there including my supervisor. There was only one ad to work on that day, a public service ad by Macy’s; I don’t recall what the copy was. The floor was fairly unoccupied for a couple of weeks, as people much more affected by the act of terror than I was dealt with their grief.
I remember, perhaps a couple of weeks later, I was sitting at a Blimpie which was located in a basement on 5th Avenue and West 35th, staring at the murals on the wall. Did any tears come, finally? Maybe they did.