Subj: Escape from New York on 9/11
"Subj: Escape from New York on 9/11"
September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States
By: Kenneth Travis LaPensee
Date: September 21, 2001
About the Author: Ken LaPensee holds advanced degrees in health services research and epidemiology. He was working in Lower Manhattan a few blocks from the World Trade Center towers as they were struck by the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Ken LaPensee, along with hundreds of thousands of others that had witnessed the attacks firsthand, wrestled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including flashbacks of the explosive impacts, an overwhelming sense of dread and unnatural alertness, constantly monitoring the skies for aircraft, and frequently waking with a start in the predawn hours whenever aircraft passed overhead. One of the things that helped him regain a more composed perspective was to respond to requests from family and friends to write a brief account of his experiences on September 11. The source document included here is an e-mail letter that he wrote to address their questions and their need for information to help them with their own efforts to come to terms with the terrorist attacks.
Subj: Escape from New York on 9/11
Date: 21-9–2001 13:06:31 Eastern Daylight Time
I have been asked to provide an account to family and friends regarding my experiences on the day of the World Trade Center attack.
I commuted into New York Tuesday morning by bus from Annandale, N.J. and arrived at my stop in the city at the Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan at about 8:00 AM. My bus route passed right under the World Trade Center, and the stop is only about 100 yards from 1 Liberty Plaza, the building that houses the NASDAQ [stock exchange] and is currently deemed by some as being in danger of collapse. From there I walked one short block east to Broad Street, and 1/12 blocks south past the NYSE to 80 Broad Street and took the elevator up to our offices on the 35th floor. I set up my computer on the company network, got a cup of coffee and prepared for an ordinary workday.
At about 8:50, the first jet hit Tower 1 of the WTC. We went to our north side windows to see an immense plume of smoke rising straight up into the sky. We could not see the hole from our perspective, but soon learned that an airplane had crashed into the tower. We all thought that this was a horrible accident similar to that when an airplane crashed into the Empire State Building years ago. None of us was particularly alarmed, but some of the people who arrived late and had seen the fire from the subway entrance just under the burning tower were very upset. One woman, a junior consultant, was sobbing uncontrollably. She has subsequently fled New York to move in with her parents.
From time to time over the next few minutes I went to the window to monitor the fire. About 20 minutes later as I was watching the tower, I heard a thunderous roar overhead, and then saw a large jet slam into Tower 2, of which we had an unobstructed view. At that point I said aloud, "These are terrorist attacks!" I sent an e-mail to all company members globally saying that the World Trade Center was under attack and that a normal workday should not be expected! That turned out to be the understatement of the century! Over the next few minutes we turned on a speakerphone and dialed into broadcast news, and we heard the first reports of hijacked airplanes. I wondered how the second plane had been allowed to get close to New York after the first attack. The only explanation that I could think of was that the hijackers had duped everyone in our air control system and security establishments into believing it was an accident . . .
. . . The smoke from the first tower had been rising straight up, so there had not yet been any consequences on the street except for a blizzard of floating pieces of office paper descending to the earth from the huge smoke plume. However, with the second impact, the streets began to fill with smoke. Shortly afterwards, our office began to fill with smoke 35 floors up, and we received an order to evacuate the building. Tom, a friend of mine and I made sure all of the staff were out of the office, then headed for the exit, where one of the construction workers that had been working on our uncompleted offices on the top, 36th floor came down to our floor and handed us both paper masks, for which we were very grateful since the fumes and smoke had begun to get very heavy.
We walked down 35 floors in what seemed no time at all. We were wearing business suits, ties, etc., clothing totally inappropriate for any kind of action. When I reached the bottom floor I stuffed my jacket and tie into my nylon computer case and went out onto the street. By that time, the sky was darkening and I felt that breathing was dangerous. Fortunately, the main lobby of our building was open, lit up and air conditioned, and we ducked through the revolving doors into relative safety and filtered air. We stayed in there about an hour and experienced only faint fumes. Some people opened the swing doors to try to make their way out of the area instead of using the revolving doors, so I shouted at them to use only the revolving doors.
After about forty minutes, the smoke over our building and to the South toward the East River had begun to clear due to favorable winds lifting the smoke high overhead, so Tom and I decided to make our way toward the river in hopes of finding a ferry off Manhattan. Just as I walked outside I heard another roar that sounded like another jet coming in for a suicide attack. A huge cloud of smoke and debris came rushing around the corner of the block, so we ducked back into the lobby. The roar turned out to be the collapse of Tower 2, followed soon after by the collapse of Tower 1. The sky grew pitch black and street lights came on outside since the power to buildings only a few blocks away from the WTC was not interrupted.
We remained in the lobby for another hour until the sky began to brighten again in our area. Only once did I feel any physical effect—my heart was racing and I felt a bit dizzy for about a minute, then it passed. Finally we could see blue sky over the river, so Tom and I bade the others good-bye and headed south toward the water with our paper masks on. There was still a lot of grit, dust and microscopic glass particles in the air . . .
We walked south about 1/4 mile to the river and saw a sea of humanity walking slowly and sadly across the Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic was blocked and only pedestrians were walking across. It turns out that bridges from Manhattan to the North such as the 59th Street Bridge were closed to pedestrians as well as cars. Nobody has explained the logic of this to me yet and I find it difficult to understand. Suffice to say that people were forced to walk south to the Brooklyn Bridge to cross the river there. Perhaps a million people trying to get out of Manhattan were forced to walk 6 miles or more to Brooklyn where they presumably could catch buses to their destinations.
We were about to follow the crowd over to Brooklyn when we heard megaphones from the ferries announcing that they were headed to Hoboken and Jersey City. We walked down off the bridge and down under to the ferry piers where we got on a ferry bound for Hoboken, which we knew to be a big transportation hub for New Jersey.
As we crossed the river at high speed, we could see the devastation of lower Manhattan. The scene resembled my imagination of an atomic bomb hit on the city of New York. There was not a trace of the two 1/4 mile high towers that I have known since the 1960s. There was a gaping hole in the skyline of New York as people say, and I felt a gaping hole in my heart as I looked back over the river. It was the saddest feeling I have ever felt other than grieving for a loved one, because I knew that many thousands of people so much like me had died, just ordinary, hard working people trying to make a living . . .
I had just come back from China with our new daughter Aimee the week before, and I recall going into work in Lower Manhattan all that week with a feeling that this bastion of capitalism was vulnerable and had enemies. I thought this feeling was just a natural adjustment reaction after two intense weeks in China and some sort of appreciation of the freedom and prosperity that many of us enjoy and take for granted . . .
Most of the people on the ferry crowded over to the port side to look at the awesome fire. The ferry started to list. Tom and I hung back, fearing that if we joined them, the ferry would capsize, which would be a bitterly ironic exclamation mark on the morning's events.
Although our ferry was originally headed for Hoboken, it was diverted to Jersey City. We were all told to get off because the ferry was needed to evacuate the injured from Lower Manhattan. Later it turned out that not enough people survived to make a massive med-evac necessary. As we departed the pier at Jersey City, rescue crews gave us bottled water, which I gargled because my throat was sore from breathing the grit and fumes. My eyes were also sore. I had contact lens rewetting drops in my computer case that I used to bathe my eyes (I had thrown away my contacts back in the building lobby because I felt they might trap grit).
We walked a few blocks to a place where people with megaphones told us we could catch buses to Hoboken and Newark. Tom and I got in the Newark line, and a free New Jersey Transit bus picked us up about 20 minutes later.
New Jersey Transit was generally very good to us and helped with free evacuation transportation out of the metropolitan area. However, when I got to Penn Station in Newark and said good-bye to Tom, who was going to Princeton, I was ordered off the train to Annandale (Clinton) by conductors who told me I would expose my family to asbestos if I didn't get "decontaminated." It turns out that a whole bunch of people were told to stay off the trains, but nobody gave us any instruction as to how we could get cleaned off. I saw a big rain puddle in front of Penn Station, so I stepped into it to wash off my shoes, then started heading back into the station. However, a policeman tapped me on the shoulder and told me I should head over toward the South side of the station toward a bunch of ambulances to get cleaned off. I and about 50 other people went over there, but when we got to the ambulances, they loudly yelled at us to stay away and said they could do nothing for us. Finally somebody who had a good head on his shoulders said, "Let these people out of here." So we went back to the station and I caught a later train. By this time it was about 2:00 p.m..
The train ride out was free, and the conductors on the second train were very nice and empathetic. I had purchased a ticket using a station vending machine. The conductor told me to save it for another day. I still have the ticket as a memento, with the date September 11, 2001 printed across the bottom.
One older man in a business suit ...was grinning foolishly, twitching, and talking to himself. A conductor radioed ahead to the next stop where an ambulance was waiting for this guy.
Even though the train was only scheduled to go out to Raritan, the conductors took a survey, found that many of the passengers lived west of there, and announced that the train was going to take us all the way out to our home destinations. When I finally got to Annandale, police and rescue squad workers met us. We were briefly detained and asked whether we wanted to get a ride to the hospital. I had them check my pulse and blood pressure, and then waived the ambulance ride. I walked about a half mile to the Annandale bus stop where I had parked my car. As I walked through the pretty, peaceful streets of Annandale, when parents were just welcoming their children getting off school buses, again I felt a heavy sadness just thinking about how delicate and vulnerable our daily lives in this country really are.
I reached my car and drove home. When I arrived there, I took off my suit, covered with white soot, and threw it into the trash barrel. I also threw away my shirt and tie. Then I went into the house and showered. I had been trying to contact my wife all day long by cell phone but it wouldn't work. I called using landlines from phone booths, but only got the answering machine. She did not learn I was safe until she reached home and found me there. When we saw each other we cried.
Now I am trying to resume ordinary life. Our company has been incapacitated because our offices (and all of Lower Manhattan) are off limits. Telephone communication to staff members' homes has been almost impossible due to overloaded circuits and technical difficulties. It has been hard to get business rolling again and I had to cancel important client presentations because we were not ready. When I visit clients in offices even as close as Princeton I am amazed at how we can devote barely a minute to talking about the attack before the client wants to move on and jump into business, as though the attack had never happened. This coming Monday we will meet at a prearranged site somewhere either in Midtown or at somebody's home in New Jersey near NYC. Our firm is relatively lucky. Hundreds of small companies have been wiped off the face of the Earth by the attack.
Several times over the past week I have sat bolt upright in bed, roused from sleep by the sound of an airplane over our house 50 miles west of Manhattan in the hills of Hunterdon County. My daughter, fresh from China, tracks planes flying overhead. Because she is just beginning to learn English, her understanding of what has happened is dim and confused.
This is my story . . . Please feel free to forward it to whomever you feel might be interested.
The attacks on the World Trade Center were unique among acts of terrorism in the comprehensiveness of their effects on the target society, which were at once sociocultural, epidemiological, psychological, and economic.
From his greatly circumscribed vantage point on Broad Street in the canyon-like surroundings near the New York Stock Exchange, it was impossible for LaPensee to apprehend the complex reaction of the city government and the populace to the attacks. What he witnessed was actually an extremely narrow slice of the event that in New York local terms began at 8:47a.m. when American Airlines flight 11, carrying 20,000 gallons of fuel, crashed into the North Tower, killing the 92 passengers and crew, and within minutes turning the upper ten floors of the building into an inferno.
The city's response was quick: by 8:59, a nearby television studio lot at Chelsea Piers was turned into an emergency trauma unit and by 9:00, two-hundred firefighters were at the World Trade Center, many of them already climbing the stairwells to rescue occupants. While they were on their way up, the South Tower was hit by a second jet at 9:02. Because news was initially fragmented, neither the firefighters climbing the stairs nor the occupants walking down in the extreme heat, some slipping on the sweat of those that had gone before them, realized that the second tower had been attacked until someone in the stairwell received the news on his pager. Complicating matters, the building sprinkler system activated, and the water flowed down the stairs, making the descent even more dangerous. By the time people reached the escalators to the mall underneath the trade center, the flowing water had created noisy waterfalls that the disoriented survivors had to shout over to communicate directions to safety.
By 9:09, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani checked in at a fire department command post right in the trade center that soon had to be abandoned because of cascading debris. The mayor and senior firefighters first relocated one block north, but that also was much too close, and the command post had to be established elsewhere. The determination of city officials, police and firefighters to be as close as possible to the center of the catastrophe was admirable in the extreme, but in view of the unanticipated events that ensued, it compounded the tragedy.
At 9:21, the New York-New Jersey Port Authority closed all bridges and tunnels into Manhattan. Only foot and emergency traffic were allowed. Closer to LaPensee in the financial district, the New York Stock Exchange delayed all trading at 9:25. At 9:30, the Stock exchange was evacuated and all trading was suspended.
At about this time, the first report of casualties (6 dead and 1000 injured) was broadcast. Estimates would swell to as many as 40,000 dead before they were revised down to several thousand in the days immediately following September 11.
Twenty minutes later at 9:50, the South Tower collapsed unexpectedly. This event completely changed the character of the scene by bringing the fire and the enormous cloud of debris down to ground level. It was at this point, when the whole area was darkened and filled with fumes, that further normal business or residential activity anywhere in Lower Manhattan became impossible. Videotape captured the flight north on Church Street of crowds of people who had been spectators up to that moment, running to escape the rapidly expanding cloud of debris.
The nature of the catastrophe was such that most of the immediate casualties were killed rather than injured. Only a few hundred were physically injured, and the anticipated numbers of trauma victims never materialized. The extensive preparations for enormous numbers of injured at the makeshift trauma center at Chelsea Piers proved unnecessary. The Weil-Cornell Burn Center received only 25 patients. There was far greater need for temporary morgues than for trauma centers.
Friedman, Thomas L. Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World after September 11. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2002.
One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2001.