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BELOW IS A PIECE I WROTE ABOUT MY DAY AT GROUND ZERO ON 9/11

This year we solemnly remember the 14th anniversary of the attack on the WTC. Many people wonder out loud “Why are we still remembering this? Move on already.” I get what they’re saying as the only way to truly survive in this life is to keep pushing and moving forward no matter what has happened. September 11th, 2001 though is an unforgettable day. We all knew someone who lost a mother, father, sister, brother – people lost not just family members but also their lifelong friends and buddies. Many of us knew a Cop, Fireman, or EMT who lost their lives. Our friends who lost a son or daughter, a spouse, a lover, will never be able to forget. It is on their minds everyday. They yearn to touch and hear and smell their loved ones one more time. I think about the people who barely made it out alive, the thousands traveling down the tight stair cases, fear pushing them down the stairs, not knowing if they would get out alive. I think of the ones who knew they were going to die leaving phone messages of “I love you’s” and “Goodbye’s”. I ache with the thought of people suffering from the knowledge that the buildings were collapsing.

 

And as we mark another memorial, I wanted to share something I wrote on September 12, 2001 shortly after midnight. I have added to it over the years when new memories arrive, unannounced, about that day. Here is what I’ve compiled so far.
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It’s 8:40 am and I just dropped my 5 year old boy PJ off to his second day of school.  I’m driving back on a beautiful sunny September day when a few minutes later I hear a report on 1010 WINS – a plane has crashed into the Twin Towers. What? I go home to my wife Melisa and 3 year old son Zachary and we watch the news as the tragedy unfolds. I call my mother to check in and we begin to talk about whether this is an accident or an attack. I tell her it is definitely an attack. We’re still on the phone when a few minutes later we watch the second plane crash into the South Tower. At that moment I scream at the tv, “Motherfuckers!” and just go nuts. I’m raging and have to do something.

Melisa and I decide she should take our baby Zachary to her friend’s house in Staten Island. I put my .22 Remington rifle in my car and head for the city. As I enter the highway, I get this weird feeling and voice in my head that says “Pick up the kid”. For some reason I originally thought he’d be fine in school. I get off at the next exit and go to the school to pick up my son. I get to the school and the women in the office think I’m insane. They’re telling me “Don’t worry, it’s just a plane crash”. I say “It’s two planes, this is a terrorist attack. No way the crash is an accident”. This is PJ’s second day of school and I’m bolting into the office as calmly as I can but they’re all ready to call the police on me. Suddenly, one of the teachers comes running in saying her husband called and told her it was an attack. All of the women in the office head to the phones and start calling loved ones. I’m the first to grab my kid out of the school and as we’re leaving, hundreds of parents are desperately sprinting towards the school to do the same.

Melisa is now in Staten Island with the baby. I try to get over the Verrazano Bridge but it’s already closed. I’m turned away by a cop, one cop. I should’ve just driven right by him to get to my family. I decide that I need to do something.  I drop PJ off with his grandparents on 55th street in Sunset Park Brooklyn – I can see the Towers burning from their stoop. I tell my father-in-law, Sico, whats going on. I tell him I have to go to the city but he asks me to stay here. I hug him and say goodbye. I grab my son and squeeze as hard as I can.  I tell him I love him and to be a good boy. In my head I’m thinking I’ll never see him again.

I jump in my car and start driving towards the city. I’m speeding on 3rd Ave, underneath the BQE/Gowanus Highway. The radio is giving updates about closures and alerts. Most people are not yet aware of what’s going on. I yell at these sanitation workers blocking the road still collecting trash “Yo, move the truck”! One of the guys says “Relax pal. Where you going”? I jump out of the car, “Dude, two huge planes have crashed into both Twin Towers. I’m not joking; we’re under attack”! He doesn’t even react to me. He drops the can he was holding, jumps into his truck and pulls away.

 

I start running all the lights and get as far as the Brooklyn Battery tunnel which is now also closed. I jump out of my car and run into the tunnel. Cops were yelling “Stop stop! Where you going?” “Red Cross”!, I yell.  I see people walking out of the tunnel, dazed, looking like they’d been through a war zone. Some were screaming, some were tired of walking, all had just trekked the mile and a half through the tunnel. I must have passed a couple of thousand people. Some construction worker gives me his hardhat.I’m running and walking as quickly as I can but I’m out of shape. Suddenly, the tunnel becomes completely empty and I start questioning my plan. What the hell is happening? I get about a quarter mile from the end when I see this black man who is slumped over a railing, covered in some sort of gray dust. I ask him “Are you ok?”, and he barely says “Can’t breathe”.

 

The tunnel is eerily quiet with just the two of us. He’s struggling to breathe as I wipe away the soot and smut from his nostrils. I keep telling him “Its going to be ok; someone’s on the way”.  We sit there for about ten minutes before an ambulance comes through. I help this dude onto the bus and start to walk away. The paramedic yells to me “Where you going?” I say, “To the city”, and I continue walking.  An MTA emergency van comes from Brooklyn looking for people so I get in the van and head towards the city. I ask the guy what’s happening and he says “Not completely sure. They were saying they’re evacuating the area surrounding the World Trade Center and they’ve closed all tunnels and bridges and that we’re on full alert?”. As we head for the exit it becomes impossible to see. Dust and smoke fill the entrance to the tunnel and we’re going five miles an hour through thick gray smoke.  We keep hearing loud bangs and when we come out I’m not prepared for what I see: its like witnessing the nuclear apocalypse. I tell the guy to let me out. He asks me if I’m crazy and at this point I’m not sure.

 

I start traveling north on Trinity Place, tasting the thick metal smoke consuming the air. I can only see about ten feet over my head and five feet ahead. There is an awful sound coming from the area of the Towers. It’s like hearing a thousand car crashes all at once, just one explosion after the next. I’m still not understanding what is happening. I keep thinking something is going to fly through the air and hit me. I meet up with two correction officers dressed in goggles and masks. They’re completely covered in dust and heavy dirt. I ask them if they’ve seen anyone and the one guy starts to cry “Everyone is dead, they’re all dead. The Twin Towers are gone, they’re gone”.  I’m thinking “What is this guy talking about? Impossible”. I’m not getting what he means. I jump into a building, the High School of Economics, and some guy gives me goggles and a mask. Walking up, I realize there are no emergency vehicles.  No police, No firemen, no ambulances. Nobody…

 

 

CATHERINE LEUTHOLD

CATHERINE LEUTHOLD

 

 

 

I get a block away from the Towers and I see something that I wish I hadn’t. The only thing left standing is this one piece of the World Trade Center Towers, hanging on to the rubble about three or four stories in the air. It reminds me of that scene at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, when we see the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand. WTC 5 is burning out of control, every floor is completely engulfed with heavy orange flames shooting out of the windows. Nothing much is happening in terms of activity though. A few people running around, a priest, a cop, one firefighter with a hose barely spewing water, that was it. I’m not sure what to do when all of sudden I hear yelling. I look through the smoke and see about ten firemen just laying on the side of Century 21 building. Their truck has been burned to the ground, their faces black with smoke. They call out to me “Water man, get water, Water”!

 

 

 

I run into a Burger King but the water pressure is gone and there’s no water on site. I notice a deli and check the door but it’s locked. I take a garbage can, throw it through the window and break in. I load up two huge bags of bottled water and head back to the firemen. I’m walking on top of rubble to get to them, having no idea what I’m stepping on or over. It’s hard metal at times and mounds of papers at others. I notice two reporters taking pictures. They look like they’re half dead, snapping away at the dead city. I’m on Church and Dey passing out water to all the firemen I see. Each just looking at me and saying “Thanks Bro”. This becomes my mission for the next hour or so. Walking back and forth to where the other buildings are still burning out of control, the heat is unbearable, at times I think my skin will just melt off. As I take a breath of air I look up to see a beautiful sight. The American flag is flying high through the smoke and fire, completely untouched.At this point I become hopeful. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

CATHERINE LEUTHOLD

 

I begin walking up these massive steel beams with an iron worker. He says his brother is somewhere in there. We walk up three stories on hot metal. The heat and steam coming off the pile is intense. The guy is so quick on the steel he literally disappears into some hole with smoke. I’m yelling “Hello, anyone there?, Can you here me?, hello, hello?”, I keep yelling for a few minutes. As I come off the pile, a bunch of top police brass and more firemen start showing up. All of the people arriving on the scene look around for a minute then they spring into action. They decide to make the Burger King at Liberty and Church the command post. It’s at the foot of the Towers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We begin clearing the area outside of the Burger King so people can get in and out. This effort takes four of us, all civilians, close to an hour to clear the front. Shoveling debris from the Towers, the sidewalk is four feet under us, four feet of papers and other debris. We move the debris to a big pile of rubble. My sides burn as if I’m doing crunches but I can’t stop. This dust and dirt just will not quit, they’re everywhere, in my eyes, throat, nose, and taste like I’ve just eaten a handful of metal as fine as sand. Now the area is filling up with more emergency personnel. The only people really working at the moment are the firemen. They work in shifts, with squads moving down west on Liberty towards West St – the Deustche Bank building and 90 West are engulfed in heavy fire. When the firemen come back up the block, I resume my waterboy thing. I stand at Liberty and Church with a shopping cart full of bottled water with my buddy Rob from my neighborhood and some other construction worker. The three of us pass out thousands of bottles of water, taking turns walking down to the men.

 

 

 

 

They can’t get enough to quench the thirst so they hardly speak. I’m pouring water into their mouths and all over their heads and neck.  They’re all exhausted, yet even through all of this the men say with a strained breath or motion “Thanks”. At one point someone shouts out “Shutup! I hear something”. A couple of thousand people suddenly fall completely silent.They find someone, a civilian, alive but in very bad condition. This is the last person to be found for over four hours. I expect to see thousands of people dead or alive but, nothing. No one was there; where was everyone?

 

 

It’s now 8pm or so and starting to become dark. I’ve been at the scene for ten hours. Every part of my body hurts but I can’t stop, and looking around I just cannot complain. The firemen are now staying down the street, too tired to walk back and forth. I start thinking that these fireman really don’t get the support they deserve.  They’re expected to fight the fire until they drop and when they drop they’re expected to take a short break and get back on the line again.  The dedication is staggering. We start moving down to the west with six gallons of water at a time. Word comes down that over 250 of their brothers are lost, but nobody complains or stops.  They just continue to battle the blaze. I’m feeling a little dizzy and am coughing up some heavy black phlegm. I go into One Liberty where the triage has been set up. Some nurse grabs my arm and cleans off my face and eyes and then feeds me oxygen. I can now breathe freely again. Laying on a gurney I feel like I’m fading off. I’m looking around at all this activity – construction trucks are moving in and out, ironworkers and carpenters are climbing twisted piles looking for people, doctors and nurses are attending to the wounded. I rest.

 

 

I’m feeling better and head back to my friends. When I get back, the shopping cart is gone and there’s a police command post truck in its place. I watch some of the cops waiting to go onto the pile to search. They all take a moment to absorb the sight and then move into action. The next job is passing out these small little flashlights called Garrity lights. I have no idea what they are, these little four inch lights that look like the ones you buy your kid at the circus. I pass out a couple of thousand “little lights”. As I’m doing this, the firemen are literally running to them.  I realize later that these little lights save lives; they’re waterproof and the light cuts through the smoke. I feel very satisfied being able to help these men in any way I can, wishing I were able to do more.

It’s now close to 10pm and I’m exhausted, both physically and mentally.  Some Red Cross people finally show up and I decide to go home, rest, be with my family and return the next day.  But I don’t want to leave. I don’t feel that I did enough. I hear ferry shuttles are running from Battery Park to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn where I live. I walk the half mile down to the ferry only to find out it stopped ten minutes earlier. I then proceed to hitch a ride from a Poland Spring water truck to the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s closed to traffic so I have to walk. As I hike over the bridge, I stop in the middle when the realization of what has transpired and what I was just part of all hits me. I look back at the city from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Twin Towers are no longer part of the Manhattan skyline. All I can see is smoke rising up from were I was just standing. How? Why?

pjfirsttwin

 

 

 

I hitch another ride, I’m full of debris so I’m on the hood of a car of these four teenagers driving to “see all the action”.  I tell them what my day was like and they decide to go home and watch CNN instead. They drop me off in front of my good old 1990 Buick near the Battery Tunnel; I was never so happy to see that car. I get in and drive home. I pull up in front of my house and tell my wife to bring down a towel. My neighbor Eric is asking me what happened and as I’m telling him the story I completely strip down naked; he doesn’t blink an eye transfixed on the words coming out of my mouth. I go to the hose and wash myself with soap. I throw my clothes in a bag and the bag in the garbage.  I get upstairs and lay down with my children, safely in their bed. I watch the news and still can’t believe what I’m seeing. I tell Melisa that I was right there, pointing to the footage on TV, and that it’s much worse than they could ever report.  Melisa will be working the next several days down at Bellevue Emergency Ward where she is a Registered Nurse. They expect to receive a minimum of several thousand people there in the next few days. I’m going to try to get back down tomorrow. But right now, I just hug my kids to sleep…