Another Morning in America

Did I ever tell you about how my daughter and I walked home together on the morning that members of an Islamic paramilitary group named Al Quaeda crashed two jet liners into the World Trade Center in New York City? I don't mean to wax nostalgic or anything, much less to illustrate any kind of political point. I know that most people have effectively forgotten that day, except for being reminded by politicians and the like who trot it out whenever they think they can profit by it in some way. I know you are probably sick of hearing, or even thinking, about it if the subject ever does come up. I know I am.

And I know that the events of that morning don't mean much in the larger scheme of things. A couple of buildings were destroyed, nearly three thousand people died. We already know that any particular assemblage of matter is only temporary. One can become nauseous, or at least very bored, listing events both recent and more distant in which so many more buildings and so many more people were disassembled.

It was another day at the office. Another beautiful day. I'd gotten up early and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. A September day. The clear blue sky. The summer heat had just broken. The morning air was crisp and pleasant. Everyone had a spring to their step. The city was vibrant.

I hadn't been at the office very long when a colleague came in, his hair and shoulders covered with little pieces of paper like confetti. An airplane had hit the World Trade Center, he said when asked, one of the towers was on fire. Did he know what happened? No. He thought it was hit by a small plane.

It was New York. We were cool. Shit, as we know, happens. A couple of the guys went out to take a look. The rest of us went back to work. But, after a few minutes, I told myself that I was being stupid not to go out and see it. So I went down to the corner and saw it. Four blocks away. On one side, two or three floors were burning. I didn't see much smoke. Buildings were blocking the big black plume. Although it would be awhile before it descended, I had entered the culture of the giant cloud.

That was the beginning of that under-whelming feeling of unreality that was such a part of the day. I don't mean to be melodramatic or imply that my unreality was any more unreal than yours. But even though I am not you and probably cannot feel what you felt, I will say that being in the neighborhood of the burning buildings had to have had more of a physical impact than watching it on tv. Unlike those people who witnessed what was shown out in tv land, I still cough up little pieces of the World Trade Center. I know that those buildings and their contents will be with me for the rest of my life. And perhaps they will grow there in my lungs or other organs, engulfing me forever in the experience. And I know that what seemed so unreal for us had been, and continued to be, daily reality for large chunks of the human population over the years. Maybe being in the vicinity of large scale death and destruction continues to feel unreal no matter how many times one is subjected to it? I don't know and I don't want to speculate, or find out. Nor do I want to jump ahead of the story. There is no depth here, just simple reporting. You'll have to bear with me.

To this point, I've only gotten a half block from the office. I'm at the corner of Maiden Lane and William Street. Confetti rains down like a snowstorm. I'm looking up at one of the towers. Flames are licking out of two or three floors from one corner. Of course in times like these, one thinks of opportunities lost. I didn't have my camera although I carried it most days. Just not that one, damn it. In a suddenly bad mood on such a fine day, I walked up the street a block to a drug store and bought a throwaway camera.

The second plane hit just after I'd walked out the door. The morning's events were visceral from the beginning but now I really felt it in the gut. The concussion from the explosion was literally a body blow. In the first instant I wondered if my life was over. I looked up expecting to be showered with glass from broken windows, if not to see the building toppling down on me. In that same instant, any doubt I might have had as to the cause of the disaster was gone before the first shock waves had ebbed.

Still alive but shaken, I walked to the corner where I took the first pictures. Of course my first reaction was to take shots of the burning towers. Fortunately, my photojournalistic training kicked in and I snapped a couple shots of the people on the block. It was just the beginning, but that look on their faces was one of the strongest impressions that never quite made it out to tv land where the focus was on colorful explosions repeated over and over again in ultra slow motion. It was the look of a human face struggling with an overwhelming sense of the unreal while facing reality for the very first time. I'd see that same look on hundreds, perhaps thousands of people before my daughter and I got out of the giant cloud.

But, I don't want to jump ahead. It would still be awhile before she entered the story physically, although her existential presence would soon make itself known. At that moment, I was still in downtown Manhattan at the corner of Fulton and William Streets with an unobstructed view of a burning tower. She was across the East River at school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I know you want to see her, but first I have to get myself across the river, and then some.

I debated heading directly up Fulton Street to the base of the towers, but decided to take a more circular approach to City Hall where there was a lot of open space and a very good view. On my way, I saw an injured man. His bald head and face were covered with blood. He was staggering. People tried to help get him to the hospital, but he waved them off. He was heading in the right direction, but I don't know if he was actually going there or just wondering around in shock. I badly wanted to take his picture, but felt, guiltily, that it was more important to respect his pain. In that sense, the whole morning was an illustration of why I never became a photojournalist.

By the time I reached city hall, eight or ten floors on both towers were engulfed in flame and the thick black smoke that so epitomizes the early part of the episode was billowing across the blue September sky. Everyone eventually seemed so shocked forty five minutes or so later when the buildings collapsed, but a lot of people who were standing at City Hall looking up at the north tower were discussing it as a likely possibility. The fire was burning intensely on the northeast corner of the tower. From our vantage point, it appeared that if that corner were to give in, the top twenty five or thirty floors would topple in our direction.

Sometime around then, the overwhelming realization hit that everyone on or above the burning floors was dead, or about to die. I worked in that neighborhood and often went over by the World Trade Center at lunch. I didn't know anyone who worked there, but I saw those people every day and knew many people who had friends that worked there. They were not abstractions to me like when those who die horribly in other places. They were real and I understood how stupid it was to kill them for nothing more than an idea, and not a very good one at that. Had I not lived in New York and got to know those types of people; had I not been there when it happened, I probably would have had a lot less sympathy for the dead. I wasn't blind to the symbolism of destroying the World Trade Center. In abstract terms, I didn't mind the idea of World Trade taking a blow or two. But, I felt those deaths deep in my chest. I knew from daily experience that the people in that building might be unthinking cogs in the machinery of World Trade, but they were no worse as a group in human terms than any other group. I knew they had families and small children who would suffer their loss. I imagined them thinking of their families as the fire approached and they faced their imminent deaths. Then I saw people falling from the top floors of the burning towers. They were not big from that distance, little more than small black lines in the sky, but you could definitely see that they were people. Seeing them fall caused a feeling like a body blow, just as bad if not worse than the actual explosion-a truly sick feeling deep down inside. There is simply no way to describe it.

It was at this point that I realized my life had changed. I was debating with myself whether to walk toward the burning buildings, take a few pictures and soak up the atmosphere or to get farther away and watch for awhile. My first instinct was to buy some more throwaway cameras and get as close as I could to the base of the buildings. Or should I walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, pick up my daughter, and be safe? You may think that the answer is obvious, but for almost my entire life I would have chosen to see it all up close without any internal debate. Now I was going back and forth. Perhaps it would have been different if I had my camera? But from a photojournalistic perspective, there was not much I could do. Any work I produced with the throwaway camera would likely be worthless. I did not want to risk getting in the way of the professional firefighters and paramedics that were trying to save people's lives. I pondered the altruistic idea of going over and trying to help, but thought it better to defer to the professionals on the scene, who were many. And finally I thought of my own life and of my family. This was not something worth risking my life over. And I really did not want to see what it looked like when someone hit the pavement after falling from 80 or 100 stories. I thought of my daughter across the river and chose to go pick her up from school.

So I'm getting close to picking up my daughter and describing our epic journey through the giant cloud, at least from a narrative perspective. Physically, I haven't moved much.

The film in my throwaway camera got me almost all the way across the bridge. I wasted most of it on nearly identical pictures of the burning towers. You can see a slight progression, more floors burning, thicker, longer billows of black smoke, a slightly more distant vantage point. Again, I snapped out of it long enough to take a couple shots of people fleeing the city. They all have that look of people faced with the real trying to keep it in the realm of the unreal. I saw the running man rush into the arms of his wife or girlfriend on the other side.

Walking through Borough Hall, which is Brooklyn's government district, the rumors were flying fast on the street. The Pentagon had been hit. The White House was destroyed. No, terrorists had the secret codes to Air Force One. The president was in hiding. Planes were crashing into buildings all over the country. The farther away I got from the World Trade Center, the more reality returned to normal. People who weren't there didn't have the look. There was paper in the air and the smell, but not anywhere near as thick as in downtown Manhattan.

I wasn't the first parent to arrive at the school, but I was one of the first. I was told that school would not be dismissed, but that any parent who wanted, could get their child. They said they would send someone to get my daughter and that I could wait out in the hall. I sat on a bench next to a young girl, she must have been 10 or 11, who was sobbing. An older women, I don't know if she was a teacher, a counselor, or someone in administration, was trying to console her. Your father's all right, she assured the girl, he was going to leave work early. The girl broke into full-fledged crying. Apparently she wasn't the type to believe reassuring lies. It was still early. The clock read 10:35.

I waited 15 minutes for my daughter to come down. It would be a long time before I found out exactly what happened up there. Her classroom was on the fifth floor. One long wall was made up of large windows with a clear and impressive view of lower Manhattan. They had seen it all from immediately after the first plane strike to the collapse of the first tower. The teacher, unprepared for what to do if Manhattan was ever bombed, let them watch until the first tower collapsed. Then all of the classrooms were evacuated to the auditorium. That's where I found my daughter. She seemed okay, even cheerful.

The air was thick with smoke and debris when we left the school, but still breathable. Someone in the school office had said that one of the towers collapsed, but I didn't believe it any more than I believed any of the other rumors. I didn't disbelieve anything either. There was just no way to know. It turned out that my daughter knew all about it, having just witnessed it, but she wasn't talking. When I asked her what she'd seen, she said that she had seen nothing. I would later learn from the teacher that the entire class had seen everything from the first explosion to the collapse of the south tower. It would be a year before my daughter admitted she had seen anything beyond the thick smoke and burning towers.

But things were different that morning. None of had any experience in the aftermath of a major urban bomb run. Anyone with eyes and a view of lower Manhattan could see that thousands of people were dead, dying, or about to die. And many of their deaths would be horrible. Crouching on the 110th floor, feeling the heat of the ascending flames, nowhere to go but up, then nowhere to go. To burn alive or to take that long dive? That was the question. The realization that people we knew could be dead or have family that was dead or at least know somebody who was dead was something we just hadn't experienced before and we did not know how to act.

I suggested to my daughter that we walk back down to the bridge to have a view of We walked down to Court Street hoping to catch a bus. I wasn't about to risk getting on the subway, even if it was running. The chance of getting caught for an interminable time in a crowded car underground was not worth the risk. The cloud became so thick we could hardly see or breathe so we ducked in a diner for a cheeseburger and fries. It was an Arab run diner. The man behind the counter was already scared of the likely reverberations. After the cheeseburger we walked and walked, finally ascending out of the giant cloud into Park Slope where life was almost normal but felt far more unreal at that moment than the lives we'd left behind in the giant cloud. We spent most the rest of the day watching what we could on tv. The reception was not good. Late that night, I took a walk around the neighborhood and breathed deeply the familiar air of the giant cloud. It was like being back home, away from the unreality of television land. Working downtown, I'd continue to smell that smell for many months. And I'd get a whiff of it every now and then for several years on rare occasions when a heavy rain would kick up some remaining WTC dust.

For a year the cheeseburger seemed to be my daughter's main memory from 9/11 and it was a fond one. She steadfastly refused to admit she had seen anything. But around the first anniversary they brought in counselors to the school to talk about it. Talk about what, I said, I thought you didn't see anything? Dad, duh. I saw it all.

Michael Webster