I was reading on another typical commute. A commotion rippled through the train car about the World Trade Center and a fire and a plane, so I looked out the window, and indeed, there was smoke issuing from one of the towers. There was a circular area just a couple of floors down from the top, covering an area of maybe twenty floors, and smoke. People were exchanging updates with each other, more and more people became aware of it; the consensus emerging from radio news and phone calls and wireless internet was that a plane had crashed into it.

I put my magazine away to instead focus on the smoking tower. I would be seeing this first-hand today, I thought, as my commute takes me right through the World Trade Center. Wow. An airplane hitting the tower. I recalled the weekend before from Liberty State Park in New Jersey how I had seen two open-cockpit planes flying in formation just in front of the two towers and how I had been struck with just how tall the towers were: the two planes, up in the air, passed in front of the towers and were maybe two thirds of the height of the buildings. That is impressive. So I had visions of a plane like that accidentally crashing into the building.

But the building was standing tall; yes there was a circular burned-out area, and there was smoke, but I felt confident that that would be the extent of the damage. The sprinkler system was no doubt curtailing any fires, and there would be some terrible clean up (where had the plane fallen on the street?), but all in all, it would be an incident to reinforce the amazingness of the structural superiority of these types of sky-scrapers.

My train ride from Hackensack lasts about 20 minutes, and the Manhattan skyline is visible for about the last fifteen minutes, with the World Trade Center growing in dominance as the train approaches Hoboken. There is a tunnel shortly before the final arrival in Hoboken. I was feeling a very slight growing discomfort in that the smoke seemed to be increasing, and there along the bottom of the burn damage, all along that floor, that orange stuff – was that flame? There were helicopters flying around, those idiot local news teams – get those 'copters out of the way before they have an accident in all that smoke!

After we came out of the tunnel, there was the south side of Manhattan in full view, just across the river, now out of the right side window. From across the aisle I could see smoke, possible flames, and just too much air traffic! Those 'copters, and… a silver streak of an airplane, flying through all that smoke – why do they let these idiots fly around there?!– and then we pulled into the station. Someone said something about another plane crashing into it. But he was laughing. It was some sick joke. He saw all the smoke and what seemed like all that air traffic too, and was making some stupid idiot joke. Why don't people just shut up?

It had been announced that PATH service (underground trains) to Manhattan had been suspended. It wasn't clear which service, the loudspeakers didn't work too well. There was a point where everyone in the car finally actually shushed a girl talking too loudly into her cell-phone as they strained to hear the announcement. People were calling all over on their cell phones, and I was forced to overhear their inane chatter as they speculated on what had happened and what was going to happen. I wish they all would have been shushed. (But then again what information I did have was gained through overhearing these self-same folk, some who had radios, some who had someone on the other end of the line with actual information.) The local car conductor then came on the PA much stronger to announce that, “as you can see, there's no point in trying to go the World Trade Center today.”

So no PATH, but I usually take the ferry in the mornings anyway, to enjoy the view. And what a view I would have today! The ferry from Hoboken goes straight to the World Financial Center, which is basically the extension of the World Trade Center to the river. The view is dominated by the two twin towers.

So I set out for the ferry as most people milled around trying to figure out how they would be getting into work with PATH service suspended.

There seemed to be a long line outside the ferry terminal, but that turned out to be people standing staring at the burning World Trade Center. So I walked past them, not bothering to maneuver for a view at that time, since I figured I'd be getting a much better view from the boat if I could just get on before all the other people who were just figuring out the ferry was the only other alternative to the PATH.

But they were just closing the terminal down as I walked in. People were walking back from the dock, obviously turned back off the ferry. There would be no more service to Manhattan for right now.

OK, I thought, fair enough. An hour or two for them to get things cleaned up there.

I joined the crowd staring across the river at the ferry terminal entrance.

A second plane, crashed into the other tower, the Pentagon hit too, Pittsburgh also hit; people unaware that anything had happened, people more concerned about getting into work…

The second tower had indeed been hit. A freak accident? How terrible! Like rubbernecking on the highway at the scene of one tragedy causing another… Or wait a minute? Accident? A hit like this? Come on, no... those bastards targeted the World Trade Center again! The first bombing attempt, bad as it had been, hadn't really caused any real telegenic damage like I'm sure they were hoping for. So, here they go again. Bastards!

But: ha! The towers were both still standing! Ha! What, did you think you could knock them down? Yeah, wouldn't that play well on the local news? Bastards! But those fires will soon be out, and even though there will be a lot of damage, those two towers will be standing there, defiantly! Bastards.

Only…

The flames were spreading. Down, floor by floor. The second building didn't seem as bad as the first, so where was all that smoke coming from? And there, was that flame coming from an untouched floor in the middle of the second tower? Damn! Come on, flames, go out! Out!

I remember a special on PBS: NOVA about fires in modern buildings. The footage from São Paulo in the seventies. The more recent building in Philadelphia that had burned so fiercely that the ensuing structural damage forced them to have to take the building down. Damn, there was going to be structural damage if the fire kept up… Why was it the sprinklers weren't doing more? Surely they have firefighters on the scene now, trying to contain the worst of it that the sprinklers can't get. They should be well prepared. The stage rehearsal with the bombing addressed lots of problems, the building should be up to code, the best prepared if anything for this kind of thing.

But look at the flames. Towering Inferno. Wow. This was the reality. And of course there are no firefighters up there, at least not with water – how can there be? That was the whole point of Towering Inferno the movie – you can't fight this sort of thing the conventional hook-and-ladder way… But surely the sprinklers and who knows what other magical techniques all those hard working engineers know about that goes into these buildings of which I am ignorant…

And the announcements. No PATH service. No ferry service. Manhattan is effectively shut down. Total schedule changes to allow all trains to run back where they came from. Go home.

And the people -- mercifully -- mostly disperse, trying to figure out where to go. I figure to stay here. Might as well watch it live as over TV, especially the bad TV reception we have at our apartment (originating from that gigantic antenna up there on the burning tower). We'll see, and then we'll figure out what to do.

Police lines drawn, step away this way please. Are they trying to keep people from being able to see the burning towers? But of course not: they're trying to get organized for the chaos the train station and schedule have become – people arriving, can't leave, now turning service around, running trains when none normally run, so people can go home.

President Bush, on the radio, terrorist attack. What happened? What's happening? People telling the important story of what THEY were doing as THEY saw it; people dealing by yammering. ShutupshutupSHUTUP!

Must be cell phone hell. People trying two different cell phones at once, don't seem to be able to get through. All the payphones have people lined up at them. I can't tear my eyes away anyway. In a bit, things'll calm down, I'll call, let people know I'm alright. I'm alright, that's the main thing, and if I call now or in 40 minutes, makes no real difference to that fundamental fact.

…And then the south tower collapses…

Collapses. Falls. Buckles into itself so slowly and inevitably and falls and falls and falls…

A big plume of smoke to the left. It really fell. It fell down. It collapsed. The big huge building, it fell, like we joked about trying to understand its awesome tallness as we stared up at it from just outside our work building: So if that puppy fell over, think it'd reach here to where we're standing, two blocks away? It's silly to think about. It can't fall. Look at the sky scrapers of Los Angles and San Francisco after earthquakes: they're fine! These huge towers, totally unaffected! Look at this one right there: it swallowed a bomb explosion with no visible sign. These things are super-engineered. They can't, they won't, they are unable, to just fall down!

(…And those bastards won! THOSE FUCKING BASTARDS! Damnthemdamnthemdamnthem…)

It fell away. It fell away. God, all those people, all the everything the tower, it just fell and fell and there was nothing you could do and it just melted into smoke.

New York. The skyline. The symbolism. The tragedy. The people…

Tears ran down my face and I uttered strangled cries and the world fell out from beneath me as I stood on too solid ground and watched the death of thousands of people, people I probably passed and saw and maybe spoke to everyday, my neighbors at work and the building just fell, fell, fell…

And most people seemed unaware -- how I wished they would shut up! The sensation-seeking idiots rushing up like a dog to a rotted carcass, eagerly asking for the worst: what happened, what happened? Did it collapse, did people die, is it really, really terrible? And most not believing, not realizing; from our vantage point the north tower blocked most of the south tower, and there was all this smoke, you couldn't now see that the south tower was NOT there, and how was I going to get home and I wonder if they stopped trading early today, maybe I should call my sister's cousin's mother-in-law and speculate with her?

And mercifully most of them went away again. And for the first time since I first saw smoke coming out of a world trade center tower I spoke, I answered a few late-coming questioners, confirming that the tower had collapsed. Collapsed. Gone. That much I had seen with my own eyes. That much, unfortunately, I knew to be irrefutably true.

And now what? The worst had happened: a tower had collapsed. Completely. Like it had been demolished on purpose with specially set charges.

And a plane roared overhead. But instinctively we knew it wasn't a threat. It was a fighter jet. A protective angel. Screaming in impotence over the fallen building. An F-15. Beautiful in its power, beautiful in its promise, totally impotent. Mourning the loss of what it was unable to prevent, howling its rage into the sky. You GO! You fly there! You PROTECT us! You AVENGE us!

And the other tower burned on. And it seemed to be spreading, not diminishing. Big huge flames were now dancing in the middle of the damaged area. And a bright line was moving down along the floor line, ever down, now down to maybe three-quarters the way up. And smoke was issuing from the building, all around. The huge antenna and the platform of the top couple floors seemed solid enough, but the black stain on the silver, stainless-steel tower was spreading, spreading, and smoke, smoke was pouring out around the top from all sides.

And I realized this building would not be able to be left standing after all this structural damage. It would have to come down, like it's twin.

But not LIKE its twin!

I hope they rebuild those towers, twice as tall! Let them stand defiantly to face down those fucking terrorist bastards, fuck them all, here's the building again, and twice as big as before, you fuckers!

A helicopter flew in, into that inferno of smoke. Then it flew out again.

And I stood and watched and realized this one could come down too, just LIKE its twin.

And numb, I watched.

And numb, I saw.

This time people cried out and screamed and prayed. There was no other building to shield the view of what was happening. There was no familiar landmark still standing to let you fool yourself into thinking nothing had happened. The twin towers, the dominating landmarks, were gone.

The giant antenna suddenly falling, like the ground had been pulled out from under it. Engulfed in smoke and debris. Debis pluming out underneath it. And painfully slowly, with a sense of vertigo it falls into the burning area. Stop! Stop! That's enough! Stop there! But it just keeps going. The debris plumes out and down. And down. And down. And then it's all down. A bit of a skeleton of upright beams remains as the debris stops falling, and then it too melts away -- and there is nothing left. The twin towers... are... gone...

And I was numb. Wishing these hypocrites would just shut up. The end had already come twenty minutes earlier, but they hadn't wanted to see it.

And the ground shook.

And dazed I wandered around the train station, amazed to see they were setting up and preparing for triage, had water, everything well prepared.

Wandered out into the street, to the harborfront, but was herded back by police who were cordoning the whole area off.

And eventually got on the train back home. Borrowed someone's cell phone to call and say I was safe and going back home.

Staring at the smoking ruins of where that old skyline used to be.


It wasn't until later that I had confirmed that it was hijacked passenger jets (with passengers! with passengers!) that they used. I can't even process that. I'd kind of assumed that it was hijacked planes, or something of the kind, kind of like Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor – only the reality was much, MUCH worse than ever imagined in fiction – figuring the hijackers must have been pilots too, because they could never, never get a pilot to do that, could they? No, never! No pilot, under no threat would be able to do that, so they must have killed the flight crew and then…
I can't bear it. I just cannot process this.

Fortunately I was unable to see detail enough to see any actual people jumping, falling, burning, whatever. There was talk, there were claims. I tried to shut it out. I remember the footage of São Paulo. It is terrible, terrible! I vaguely knew what must be going on, but I thank God I couldn't actually see any of it first hand. Debris I saw fall. I didn't want to know more.


Today I saw thousands of people die. I was entirely helpless. The buildings fell in front of me and there is nothing I can do.


--Karl Wagenführ
September 11, 2001
©2001