'El Diablo es aqui': A firsthand account of NYC on Sept. 11, 2001

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Ben McCanna

For a few minutes on Sept. 11, 2001, I hid.

When the second plane struck the World Trade Center, I walked to the nearest bathroom in the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan and sat in a toilet stall.

In a nearby office, my co-workers continued watching the news unfold on television, but I simply hid.

I sat in a trembling heap and silently wondered how many other planes would fall.

Twenty? Thirty?

More?

I was 27.

A few months earlier, my wife and I had moved to New York on a whim. We stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in Westchester County, about 30 miles north of the city, and looked for jobs.

Finding work was difficult in summer 2001. The economy was showing signs of recession and few companies were hiring.

In late August, however, I caught a break at Time-Life Company. An office assistant for Health Magazine had taken a four-week vacation, and the editor needed a temp.

On the morning of Sept. 11, I left for work earlier than usual. I had a 9 a.m. appointment with a human resources director to discuss full-time opportunities within the company. With my foot already in the door at Time-Life, I wanted to plead my case for a permanent position.

At 8:40 a.m., I walked across Sixth Avenue and looked south.

The Avenue of the Americas, as it’s known, stretches north to south, from Central Park to Lower Manhattan. It’s a long, straight street bordered by tall buildings on either side.

From the middle of the crosswalk, the World Trade Center towers were clearly visible, gleaming in morning light on a backdrop of vivid blue sky.

This southward glance was becoming a ritual during my morning walks from Grand Central Station to the Time-Life Building. Each day, I’d turn my head in their direction and gaze in wonder.

At the time, it was a popular sentiment in New York City to say the buildings were architecturally bland. Perhaps in the early 1970s, the World Trade Center had stood as testament to sleek modernity, but, in the new millennium, the buildings looked dated, clumsy and out of place.

I didn’t care.

To me — a country bumpkin from Northern New England — the buildings signified an arrival of sorts. The World Trade Center was so undeniably bold it felt like a flag post at the center of the universe. To be near the towers, to linger under their shadow, meant that you, too, were at the heart of what was happening within humanity.

In a little more than an hour, however, those Twin Towers would be gone.

It’s been said everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of the attacks.

I first learned of the attack when the elevator doors opened on the 40th floor of the Time-Life Building.

But, it would take a while longer before I’d grasp what was truly happening.

There, in the otherwise empty and darkened lobby of Time Magazine, two janitors leaned on their brooms and watched a wall-mounted television.

One of the men turned to me as I walked into the room.

“Hey, a small plane just hit the World Trade Center,” he said.

It was a plainspoken, somewhat aloof delivery of what would become the biggest tragedy of the new century, so I took the news with the same air of nonchalance as it was given.

I glanced at the television and saw a live image of a hole in the north side of the North Tower. A light trail of smoke trickled skyward from the crash site.

My mind immediately recalled the story when, on a foggy night in 1945, an Army Air Corps B-25 bomber slammed into the 78th and 79th floors of the Empire State Building. Fourteen people were killed, but — more than a half-century later — there are no visible signs that an accident had ever occurred there.

I imagined this latest crash was similar. Perhaps it was the outcome of some kooky biplane pilot who was performing loop-de-loops in his aviation goggles and a long, trailing scarf. Maybe he had become disoriented and smashed through some windows, I thought. Maybe the pilot was OK.

More importantly, if the Trade Center was anything like the Time-Life Building, surely very few people had shown up for work so early in the morning.

I summed up my reaction to the janitor’s news in a single word.

“Huh?”

From there, it was business as usual for the next few minutes.

I walked to the HR office and arrived early for my appointment. I took a seat in the lobby and waited quietly alongside four other people who were doing the same.

At one point, I addressed the other people in the room as an afterthought.

“Hey,” I said. “Did you guys hear a small plane hit the World Trade Center a few minutes ago?”

“Huh?” they said.

My appointment with the HR director was short. We met early, a few minutes before 9 a.m., and I was told times were tough. Time Life was in the midst of a hiring freeze. But, they’d keep my application on file.

Neither of us made any mention of what was happening fewer than four miles away.

It was shortly after 9 a.m. when I showed up at Health Magazine on the 21st floor.

Nearly everyone had arrived for work, but no one was at their desks. Instead, the staff had gathered in the editor’s office to watch the news on television.

Thick black smoke was now billowing out of the North Tower, and the news reported the airplane had been a passenger jet, perhaps a small commuter plane.

Everyone in the room was perfectly silent with their eyes glued to a long-view image of both towers on TV.

Suddenly, a fireball burst from the South Tower. Countless sheets of white paper fluttered toward the ground far below.

People around me screamed. I jumped nearly two feet off the floor.

On TV, the news department instantly replayed the image in slow motion, and a broadcaster pointed out a plane steeply banking toward the building moments before the explosion.

The full magnitude sunk in.

This was an attack.

I imagined dozens of planes raining down upon the city throughout the morning.

I spoke to no one in particular.

“Why are we still here?” I asked.

“Let’s stay put until we learn more,” the editor said.

Even while I hid in the bathroom, I knew it was a foolish plan.

The idea came from tornado disasters.

From deep in my mind, I recalled what to do if a tornado strikes. If you can’t get to a basement, hide in a bathtub.

Naturally, there are no bathtubs in the Time-Life Building, so I did what seemed like the next best thing — I sat in a toilet stall.

Eventually, however, the images of destruction I’d seen on live TV eroded the notion that bathroom tiles and stall doors would provide some measure of protection.

There was no safe place to hide.

Shortly after rejoining the group in the editor’s office, the news reported the Pentagon attack and added that 25 unaccounted planes were presumed to be airborne, and presumed to be threats.

Meanwhile, a staff writer in the room relayed information from her husband. The husband had called from Lower Manhattan where he could see people jumping to their deaths from the burning buildings.

The editor made a phone call to a higher-up at Time Life.

The response — evacuate.

Years earlier, in a high school psychology class, a teacher told me the mind can sometimes become as overwhelmed as a circuit breaker: if an image is too horrific, too damaging, the mind will click off and refuse to perceive what the eyes can clearly see.

I remember thinking that was a dubious notion.

Shortly after the evacuation order, the concept was affirmed.

On any given day, as people trickle in and out of work, the main lobby of the Time-Life Building is a throng of pedestrians. People would stand shoulder-to-shoulder waiting their turn to board the elevators or exit the doors onto Sixth Avenue.

On this day, however, with thousands of people simultaneously evacuating the building, I knew the main lobby would be a morass of panicked humanity, and I wanted no part of it.

Instead, I took the stairs to the eighth floor where an outdoor terrace overlooks Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center and the Avenue of the Americas.

I stepped onto the empty terrace, stood alone at its southeastern corner, and looked down the length of Sixth Avenue.

It’s difficult to explain what I saw next — and I might spend the rest of my life trying to understand it — but I watched with my own two eyes as the South Tower collapsed into rubble.

The trick of it is this: although I clearly saw the tower fall — and have vivid memories of dust and debris filling Lower Manhattan — it would be another 30 minutes before my mind perceived what it had just witnessed.

A few minutes later, I decided the main lobby must have been clear for travel.

I walked the remaining stairs and exited the building. Sixth Avenue was a gridlock of traffic and the sidewalks were packed.

My goal was to walk eight blocks north to Central Park. No buildings meant no targets.

If there was a safe place to hide, Central Park was it.

At 58th Street — one block from the park — I glanced again toward the World Trade Center. And, I saw a now-familiar sight.

The North Tower collapsed right before my eyes, but I still didn’t realize what had happened.

Moments later, on the corner of 58th Street, a man yelled into his cell phone.

“The other tower just fell,” he said. “They’re gone. They’re both gone.”

Finally, I understood what I had seen.

I clutched my hair with both hands and cried. Ahead of me, I watched as a fit woman in business clothes stopped running southward through the crowd.

She couldn’t catch her breath because she was wracked by sobs.

After reaching Central Park, I decided to walk home to Westchester County. I had learned in the meantime that all subways and trains had stopped running and bridges and tunnels were closed to traffic. The only way off the island was on foot.

So I walked.

For hours I walked the length of Central Park, Harlem and across the Harlem River and into the Bronx. Eventually, I met up with my brother-in-law in the Bronx, who drove me the rest of the way home.

On any given day, walking through those neighborhoods would have been ill advised. But, on Sept. 11, a wave of dumbfounded white-collar workers strolled homeward through blighted streets without hassle.

At one point in Harlem, I was confronted by an angry panhandler.

Although he didn’t speak English, I could sense he was unaware of what happened on the far side of the island.

In my struggle to convey the news to him in Spanish, I simply pointed to the billowing smoke on the southern horizon and said, “El Diablo es aqui.”

He left me alone.

The first anniversary of the attacks was the hardest.

In the intervening months after the event, I sought counseling, my wife and I had moved to an apartment in Manhattan, and I landed a job with a publisher of academic books in midtown.

As Sept. 11, 2002 approached, my new boss announced that anyone who might find it too difficult to work on the first anniversary was welcome to stay home that day.

I didn’t go to work, but I didn’t stay home.

Instead, I retraced my steps from a year earlier. I walked from Grand Central Station to the Time-Life Building to Central Park, Harlem, and across the bridge into the Bronx.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I thought that conjuring those deep feelings of fear, anger and mourning would somehow do justice to the dead.

Ten years later, I have a different perspective.

Recently, I drove past a barn in Northern New England, where I’ve returned to live.

There, someone had painted a mural of an American flag, the Twin Towers, and the words “Never Forget.”

The paint had faded, cracked and peeled over the years since it was created.

It remains impossible to hide from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but if we’re lucky, perhaps our feelings can continue to fade under the sunlight of each new day.

Our responsibility to the dead isn’t to re-conjure the fear, anger and mourning. Instead, we should live every day on behalf of those who cannot.

Continue walking, but lay those tough feelings to rest.

Ben McCanna is a former Craig Daily Press reporter. He now lives in Vassalboro, Maine. He can be reached at ben.mccanna@gmail.com.

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