Ready or Not

9.11 4
By Sean Gregory


Like so many New Yorkers who lived through 11 September 2001, my first memory of that day is the sky. Blue, beautiful, so clear you could spot the smallest of pigeons. It was a big day, that Tuesday. It was the mayoral primary: since the Class of 2002 had entered Columbia at the beginning of August, most of our stories grappled with the challenges that would face the new mayor of New York City. To the joy of many residents of Longwood, the section of the South Bronx I covered, term limits were about to boot Rudolph Giuliani out of office. The Republican was tough on crime, but this policy had a price. Aggressive policing had alienated many residents of the South Bronx.

One of the four Democratic candidates — public advocate Mark Green, Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, City Council speaker Peter Vallone — would surely be elected mayor. In the November general election, the Republicans were going to run some rich guy with no political experience, Michael Bloomberg. He would get crushed.

This 11 September election would shape the future of New York City, and we Columbia students were about to cover it.
 I lived, and still do, in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the northwestern part of the Bronx. To get to Longwood by subway, I had to take the Number 1 train, which was a few blocks from my apartment, down to the 96th street station in Manhattan. From there, I would transfer to the uptown number 2 train, which ping-ponged me back into the Bronx.

On my way downtown, I peeked outside the subway window, and could see a plume of smoke in the distance (the Number 1 train runs on elevated tracks in the Bronx and northern Manhattan). I did not think much of it — must be some fire — until a few stops later, when I heard a man shouting. “Those f—ing Arabs! It was the Arabs! They did this! We’ve got to get them!” The word started to spread on the train, like a sickness. A plane had hit the World Trade Center.

At the 137th street station, the conductor kicked everyone off the subway. The system was shutting down. People stole glances at one another, not sure what to do next. There were no Blackberries, no Twitter back then. Everyone was trying to reach loved ones on cell phones. The flood of calls overloaded the airwaves. Strangers were asking one another for updates.

A second plane had hit. Not fully comprehending the enormity of the situation — and hit with a dose of rookie news judgment — I tried to hail a cab to Longwood. What about the primary?

A very different assignment awaited. I heard that a building had collapsed. I tried to call my father, but only got beeps. Then, I suddenly remembered: Oh shit, Kevin. My younger brother, who had finished college that spring, just started a job near the World Trade Center. Could he be in the middle of all this? I somehow found that cab — they were sparse, since people were fleeing — and got through to my father as we sat in traffic near the Willis Avenue Bridge, one of the small Harlem river spans connecting Manhattan and the Bronx. He told me the second building fell.

He had spoken to Kevin, who was fine, though scared. Kevin arrived in the World Trade Center area around the time the second plane hit, and had to dodge chunks of metal falling from the sky.

Once I got into the Bronx, the journalism genes kicked in. I realized that I was in an important spot. A tidal wave of people, many of whom walked the ten miles from the World Trade Center, would soon be hitting the Harlem River bridges, in order to reach points north (Manhattan public transportation had shut down.) I could paint that surreal picture — people were so tired and blank, they looked like zombies — and probe New York’s state of mind. If they were near the World Trade Center when the attacks took place, I would ask them what they saw.

They saw the unspeakable: people jumping out of buildings, choosing one form of death over another. Masses of terrorized people running for their lives, covered in ash. One of my sources on the bridge was my brother, who made that sweaty trip from downtown. When he reached the Bronx, the tails of his shirt covering his pants, we talked about his close call.

Then, it was time to go. Our mother, who worked in the Bronx, picked us up in her car, and drove us home. We both started thinking about a couple of friends who worked in the towers. Did they make it out? (They did not) Anyone who knows Kevin will tell you he is a talker. That ride was silent.

Writing about that day was my first real journalistic test. I was exhausted, and wanted to curl up on the couch with my wife, and contemplate what this all meant. A month before, to the day, we were married.

But I remembered that I came to Columbia to learn journalism. I had to try to do a story. The writing was therapeutic. Focusing on the words on the computer, rather than the sickening images on television, was healthy. Not that, at about two in the morning, I did not start to cry.

I wrote one story about the scene, and another about Kevin’s experience. I started out that piece as if he were just another source. Kevin told me he had one thought in his mind: “I am going to get hit with something, and I am going to be dead.” About midway through, however, I revealed the connection, and let the reader know this was personal. I ended with a sentence that I can recall verbatim, even though I have written thousands upon thousands of words in the decade since that day. “I just got lucky, and that’s it”.

11 September changed everything. But those feelings have not changed one bit.

 

Sean Gregory is a staff writer/sports columnist for Time magazine and Time.com. This article was originally written for The Uptown Chronicle.

 

11 September 2011

 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren