Anyone who was just about anywhere in the New York Metropolitan area on the morning of September 11, 2001 will always remember that day, and where they were. I know in our family that’s the case. My wife Sue was at work at Hampton Street School in Mineola. Our oldest son Billy was in his second year at Ithaca College, and his brother and sister, Krissi and Kenny, were sophomores at Mineola High School. I was at work at WABC Radio, 17 floors above Penn Station.
I remember it was a great looking, if uneventful, September morning. There was just a touch of fall in the air – it was one of those special kinds of days we get after the humidity of summer leaves. I was, as usual, on the 7:24 LIRR train from Mineola to Penn Station. As I said, a totally uneventful September morning in all respects….but that was soon to change.
Shortly after the first plane hit at 8:46 AM, word started to come into the newsroom that a plane had hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. It was primary day in New York, and there were reporters around the city for the various TV morning shows. Almost immediately, Dick Oliver of channel 5 went on the air from Park Row, just outside of City Hall. They weren’t the best shots, but you definitely could see the fire and damage to the tower. Everyone assumed that it was a small plane that had hit and no one could understand how someone could have missed seeing a structure as big as the World Trade Center on a beautiful, clear morning. There was speculation of a student pilot, or someone who had a heart attack – just about anything, but what had really happened, which up until that point was unthinkable to most of us.
By 9 o’clock, better pictures of the damage were available on TV, including long shots of the buildings from further uptown. Just before 9:03 AM, I was standing in studio 17E next to Chief Engineer Kevin Plumb, when we noticed a plane flying into the frame of the shot. Assuming we were looking at a small plane trying to get a better view of what was happening, one of us commented, “what the heck is that plane trying to do?” At 9:03 we were shocked when we saw that plane (which we later found out was a Boeing 767) crash into the South Tower and explode in a ball of flames. In that moment, everyone who saw that happen live, knew that life as we had known it up until that moment was over, and that there was a brand new reality.
I remember all hell breaking loose at the station as we all went into high gear. There was an incredible amount of misinformation flying around, and frankly, open fear from some. Everyone tried to act professionally, but since no one knew exactly what was going on, and since we were all working 17 floors above Penn Station and a couple of blocks west of the Empire State Building, many wondered if we might be in the target zone too. The next hour was a blur of news reports, discussion and speculation. Shortly after the first plane hit, our morning anchor George Weber took off downtown armed with a cell phone and a recorder. He phoned in a couple of reports about what he was seeing, but as the cell phone system overloaded, we stopped hearing from him. Then at 9:59 AM, the South Tower collapsed. Faces stared at the TV pictures, and as a group, were almost unable to fathom what we’d seen. Less than 30 minutes later the North Tower collapsed, and these twin buildings, which were so identified with the skyline of New York City, were incredibly gone, along with close to 3,000 of our fellow New Yorkers.
So many questions hit us all at once…who would do this, how did it happen, how could these two huge buildings collapse, and one that was on all our minds at WABC, where was George Weber? The news reports continued, but with all the confusion it was hard to tell what was true and what wasn’t. Were there more hijacked planes out there, and had other attacks taken place in Washington and elsewhere around the country? Getting a landline phone call was very hard; cell service was pretty non-existent, communications among families and friends was almost impossible. It was over an hour later when we heard from George. He’d walked for blocks from the WTC site and had waited on a line at a pay phone before he was finally able to check in with the station. Okay, we knew one of our friends and coworkers was alive…but what about everyone else.
WABC’s 2001 9/11 Montage
The day dragged on, and we watched TV as they tried to figure out what had happened, and what was happening. One of the hardest tasks of the day was getting in touch with friends and family, finding out if they were okay, and assuring them that I was fine. The first response of the city was to shut down, and a lot of us wondered how we’d get home. Being above Penn Station, we kept looking down at the crowds milling around a closed Penn Station. We also kept looking a couple of blocks to the east at the Empire State Building and realizing it was once again the tallest building in New York!
Later that day, the Long Island Rail Road started running and those of us from Long Island headed downstairs, and like every other commuter that day, got on any train as long are it was leaving New York City! As we came out of the tunnel into Queens, everyone looked to the south where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had been on the way in that morning, but now were replaced by smoke. It was very quiet in the train as everyone realized that those two buildings we’d seen every day on our commute into Manhattan were gone, along with all the folks who were working in them.
The days after September 11th were very strange to say the least. The fact that there were absolutely no planes in the sky made for a very eerie quiet that was very unlike the norm. I know that for weeks after the planes started flying again, every time one flew over I would find myself stopping and looking at it. Taking the LIRR into the city in the days after September 11th was also different. There was an uneasy quiet on the trains, that I guess came from a lot of folks who would rather be somewhere else, but who had responsibilities and had to do what they were doing. I remember not seeing people that had been regulars on our trains, and wondering if they were in the towers when they came down, or were they perhaps too scared to venture into Manhattan again. Questions I’d never have the answers to….
One thing that made the post 9/11 strangeness livable was the feeling that we were all in it together. There were American flags on houses, cars, businesses…virtually everywhere! Groups were banding together collecting items for families that were affected, or to help rescue workers at Ground Zero. People were friendlier to each other and more respectful…even politicians! From New York City to Washington, the political discourse had a united front. We weren’t Republicans or Democrats, Liberals or Conservatives, we were Americans. There was no finger pointing, just everyone shouldering the load and helping to move forward. If every cloud has to have a silver lining, that was September 11th’s.
Too bad that these many years later, so many seem to have forgotten. There’s no way that anyone who lived through that day will not be thinking today about their experiences, about all the New Yorkers who are no longer with us and about how the rest of us pulled together as a team. I’ll also be thinking about my friends who were involved after the towers came down. People like NYPD ESU Officer Scott Strauss who pulled the last survivor out of the rubble, or PAPD Detective Don McMahon who spent the next 6 months at the on site morgue, or the many Fire Men I know, both NYFD and others who spent so many hours on the pile digging. Thank God there are so many people among us who run towards trouble as the rest of us run away! Thank you for your service and for your friendship and for setting an example for the rest of us.
Even in our new world, I know we live in a better world because people like Scott and Donnie are a part of it. As we remember those who died that day, I hope we will all also remember the heroes of September 11th. Friends, neighbors, family members, and people whose names we will never know, who stepped up on that horrible day. Ordinary folks who did extrodinary things, and renewed our faith in our fellow human beings. That’s the lesson I try to take from that horrible day.
WABC’s 2002 9/11 Montage put together for the first anniversary