Photo taken two weeks after the attacks
from my vantage point during the collapse of the South Tower.
Three Blocks from Ground Zero
A personal account of the South Tower collapse
by Paul Bacon
The morning starts like this: I'm descending the stairs into the 1&9 subway station on 14th Street when I hear a plane going by overhead. It sounds much lower than usual, and I look into the sky for it, but I don't see anything. I think little of it at the time.
When I get down into the station, my train is just pulling in. I remember that my unlimited ride MetroCard is supposed to expire today, and on any other day, I would just saunter over to the vending machine and get a new card. The 1 and 9 trains run very frequently, and I'm usually in no hurry to catch them.
But today, I want to see if I can break the land speed record for getting a new card and racing to catch the train I am actually in no real hurry. I just want to see if I can do it. It is pure envelope-pushing. I always brag about how fast these machines work, and I want to put them to the test.
So, I dart over to the machine, tap all the appropriate on-screen buttons, feed it a $20 bill, then swish! Out comes my card. I run to the turnstile, swipe the card, but it won't let me through. "TOO FAST. SWIPE CARD AGAIN," it says. I swipe it again. Same thing. The train is still in the station. I finally swipe it slowly enough, and I make it through. I sprint to the stairs and get caught behind a very slow moving woman, but I decide not to be too stupid about getting to the train. I don't want to injure anyone for my little experiment.
As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I hear the little "poong-pong" tone that tells everyone the doors are about to close. I slide around the slow woman, then literally jump in sideways as the doors shut. Everyone in the train looks at me like "what an idiot."
I'm very pleased with my performance, and I take a seat with my hands full of things that would normally have already been in my wallet by now: my change from the MetroCard purchase, my receipt, and the MetroCard itself. A few stops later, the conductor says over the PA system: "This train will not be stopping at Cortland station." Cortland is the World Trade Center station, which is more or less exactly below the Twin Towers. Some people grumble about this announcement, but I don't care because my stop is the next one after that.
Our train stops in the middle of nowhere for a while. We're two stops away from Cortland, in between stations. None of us know it, but by now, both towers have been hit. If anyone in charge had known what is about to happen in a matter of minutes, we probably wouldn't have moved another inch.
But we start moving again, and as promised, we zip right through Cortland station. I see a policeman standing on the track, looking around suspiciously. There is a distinct chance that that man is no longer alive.
We arrive at my stop, and I come up to ground level to see that this is no ordinary Tuesday morning on Wall Street. Police cars are everywhere, and a huge plume of smoke is coming from the general direction of the World Trade Center. I can't actually see the towers, so I figure it's just another fire. Big deal.
When I reach my 26th-floor office, no one is around. I walk into the north-facing conference room, look out the window and see that the south tower of the World Trade Center is belching smoke from around the 70th floor. This is a big deal.
I immediately pick up the phone and call a friend in Washington, D.C. "Guess what I'm looking at?" I say. "The World Trade Center?" he says.
He's watching the scene on TV, and I give him the details from my vantage point. I'm so close to the south tower that I have to crane my neck to see the top. What I see are hundreds of shiny objects floating around the top of the building like little flies. They're so bright, they look metallic, but I assume they're just pieces of white paper reflecting the morning sun. Every minute or so, another chunk of the building's aluminum skin peels off and floats downward, spinning. Also, from one corner of the building, there are periodic explosions of papers, as if someone were chucking them out as fast as they could gather them. The smoke is a menacing blackish-brown. It's very focused, almost a tube.
I can see down Broadway, where hundreds of people are gathered just two blocks from the south tower. They're gawking like me, but from a much more perilous position.
For some reason, I can't get on the Internet, and I have no TV, so my friend puts the phone up to his set and lets me listen as the president vows to get to the bottom of this thing. Wow. The president is already on TV talking about something that hadn't happened when I walked out the door to go to work. I think I've grasped the seriousness of the situation at this point, but I really have no idea. I figure a few dozen people got killed, and they're gonna have a hell of a time cleaning the smoke off the side of that building. Plus, it will take weeks, if not months, to put things back in ship-shape, and we'll have all that time to think about how scary this was. What a nightmare, I think.
A female coworker comes into the conference room to look out the window, and we take turns impressing each other about what we know about the goings-on in Washington. "They hit the Pentagon," I say, knowingly. "The White House was evacuated," she says, smugly. We are too cool for each other. She leaves, and I haven't seen her since.
Then, the horizontal seam from which the smoke has been pouring grows from about one story high to three. A heavy rumble shakes the window in front of me, and my adrenaline starts to...do whatever it is adrenaline does. Flow. I think it flows.
I have often gazed at the Twin Towers, pondering their audacious scale and wondering what it would look like if they fell. Unlike my cartoonish vision, the building does not fall over sideways and go "bonk." Rather, it collapses downward, sadly, like it was being sucked into the earth as some kind of punishment. Its retreat is very balanced, very symmetrical. It seems almost orderly.
From where I'm standing, I can't see any of the people trapped in the falling building, so it's scary but in a totally fascinating way. I am glued to the window. It's such an unreal sight that it doesn't occur to me that I or anyone else is in danger. I have seen many movies in which New York is destroyed by bombs, alien invasions and tidal waves. After suspending disbelief and absorbing these fabricated catastrophes, I walk outside and see that my city and I have come away unscathed.
Watching the real thing has the opposite effect: I find myself suspending my *belief* in order to comprehend what I'm seeing. The immense monolith that was once the most permanent-seeming fixture of my visual environment is now disappearing before my eyes. My notions of possibility and impossibility are completely upended, and as much as these distinctions rule my every waking moment, I am floating in space, not even in my own body. Nothing can hurt me.
About two seconds later, I am brought back down to earth. The massive change in air pressure slams open a window on the other side of the corner conference room, and I can hear the collective shriek of hundreds of people below. Reality slaps me in the face. I am smack in the middle of a disaster. The entertainment portion of the experience comes to an abrupt halt. Still, I am frozen in place. I don't think about moving away from the window. I don't even think I could if I wanted to.
Then, the building begins to change form. What was once a building--100-plus stories of steel, concrete, carpet, desks, chairs, computers, light bulbs, reams of paper, and tens of thousands of human beings--is instantly ground into dust. The cloud of dust billows upward, swallowing the roof of the building as it falls to earth. This seems like the final eerie act, but it continues. As the dust was reaching for the sky, it was also rushing outward, filling all possible spaces between neighboring buildings. I don't see this growth until it comes shooting out from behind a building and covers Broadway, where just moments ago I had seen so many people standing.
For the first time, the disaster feels like a tragedy. All I can say to my friend on the phone is, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God." My words seem to echo on the line, because I can still hear his TV, and the reporter is saying the exactly what I'm saying. This is not only disorienting, but it makes everything seem so much worse. Reporters have license to use to dramatic language, but they aren't supposed to say, "Oh, my God."
As this sinks in, an elder coworker bursts into the conference room and screams, "Paul, what the hell are you doing? Come on! Get out of here!" He sounds more angry than concerned, and my panic is immediately replaced by overwhelming guilt. My adrenaline flowing and my emotions at their peak, I suddenly feel as if I had just brought down the World Trade Center. I drop the phone without saying good-bye to my friend, then rush out of the room into the windowless hallway and close the door behind me.
I feel very lucky that all I had to do was close a door get to safety. My thoughts and prayers go out to those who didn't have it so easy.
# # #
One of many possible postcards in the future.