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NYC Eyewitness Report: From Shock to Hope

From Shock to Hope
Some Observations of New York in the Days after the Attack on WTC


By Kate Monahan

On Tuesday morning the world as we knew it came crashing down. I had just arrived at work in Rockefeller Center in mid-town Manhattan. It was just after 9am. We were doing the usual morning things – checking e-mail, standing around chatting, getting coffee when someone said the words that would change everything in a single moment: “Have you heard the news? Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center”.

We ran to the conference room to watch the television. Like most people around the US and the world, we watched the attack unfold before our eyes. It was unbelievable. Utterly horrifying to watch the grey smoke and fire billowing, then the collapse of South Tower, plummeting in a massive cloud of debris that swept down Wall Street like a tidal wave. The North Tower fell less than half and hour later, peeling down from the top to change the face of New York forever. The skyline covered in smoke, a city with its heart ripped out.

I knew people down there. Until 4 weeks ago I had worked at Goldman Sachs, an investment firm near the seaport, only a few blocks from the WTC buildings. I know the streets and buildings well. After work we would sometimes walk up Maiden Lane to catch the train from Chambers Street subway under the WTC, or head up to a local bar for a drink. Watching this inconceivable act of terrorism and destruction I felt sick, numb, shocked, in disbelief. People ran out of the conference room to use the phones. Everyone seemed to know someone – a friend of a friend, neighbours, family that had been effected. We didn’t really know what had happened and who was safe.

The Time & Life Building where I work is a good 100 blocks or so from the WTC, so we were relatively safe although there was a fear that all major tourist sites and icons were potential targets. Security evacuated us around 11am. Subways were closed so we had to walk; we had to get out of the central city. The streets were packed with people making a mass exodus home out of Manhattan or uptown. People were like walking zombies. I think everyone was in shock, it was eerily quiet except for the fire trucks and ambulances and the gridlock of traffic further south.

We walked southeast about 20 blocks to meet a friend who was home alone, and then back to the Upper West Side another 60 blocks. We wanted to stick together. People covered in white dust walked with us - they must have been in the vicinity of the WTC when it fell. Some people must have walked for hours and hours to get home. There was no other way out. The streets were cleared for ambulances, emergency rescue teams and the fire trucks. They drove past sirens blaring, full of men and women with determination etched on their faces. A man in an unmarked car drove with one hand on the steering wheel, holding his police badge out the window as he was waved through the congested streets.

A crowd was forming around restaurants and bars watching the news develop on TV. Every time we stopped to check, the situation had gotten worse. At that stage all air traffic had been grounded and the borders to Canada and Mexico closed. It was strange. New York was officially a disaster zone, under high terrorist alert - isolated from the rest of the world. There was no way on or off the island except on foot. In fact, noone was allowed back into Manhattan except emergency personal.

The streets were crowded with people walking up towards the bridges, business people walking alone covered in dust still holding briefcases, couples holding hands, people desperately calling on a pay phone. Cell phones weren’t working and it was difficult to get reception. Many of the cell phone towers had been on top of the WTC buildings. Some faces showed panic but most people were just quiet, numb with shock. And all of this under a blue blue sky on a hot summers day. There was only one cloud in the sky. A bellowing mass of white and grey in the place where the twin towers used to be.

Walking up 3rd Ave to 67th street we saw a line of people which stretched around two corners of the block. The lines to donate blood were 4 to 5 hours long - all kinds of people waiting in the hot sun to help out. Later, stories of heroism and generosity inspired pride in the spirit of New Yorkers. Individuals and rescue crews from New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and even further afield drove hours to volunteer their services. People gave donations of what was needed - clothes, drink and food, torches and disinfectant cream. They have given so much that the Red Cross have asked volunteers and donors to hold off for now as they have received more than enough.

On day two it began to seem more real. My friend at work echoed my feelings when she told me “I woke up this morning and told my husband that I had had a terrible dream. The World Trade Centre exploded. He said, honey it wasn’t a dream.”

Many stores were closed for a national day of mourning although some of us who could, did come in to work. I live only 24 blocks north of Rockefeller Centre, so although the subways were still closed on some lines, I was able to walk in to work easily. It was a ghost town. Noone was really at work. Walking back home through Central Park in the warm summer sun it seems unreal. The natural peace and beauty of the park seemed to defy the very harsh reality that 30 minutes downtown people are struggling for their lives in a Mars-like wasteland. Searchers were desperately hunting for the living trapped under the massive piles of broken concrete and steel.

I know that a lot of my friends may have been caught in the area of the collapse – in the vicinity of the fall-out zone. One friend told me that he was standing outside looking up at the burning buildings a few blocks up Wall Street when the first tower collapsed. A huge tsunami of dust came barreling down the street like a wave. He thought it was poisonous gas. Security screamed at them to run and everyone ran towards the water. Some people ran in front of cars on the West Side highway. Shoes were lying in the street. They couldn’t see anyone as the cloud enveloped them. I can’t imagine what went through their minds, nor the minds of people caught in worse situations - trapped in the rubble even now. It’s just a terrible tragic horrifying thing that most of us can’t begin to cope with. The loss of life is already huge - and they say it is going to be in the thousands - lots of firemen and cops that were in the building trying to rescue people at the time of the first collapse, as well as all the people in the higher floors of the tower. It’s just all very very sad and surreal and numbing.

One story sticks in my mind. A man who called his wife from the top of the tower to reassure her, saying not to worry, that helicopters were on the way to pick them up. We all saw the towers collapse in front of us on live TV. No hope for so many brave men and women trapped in the building and those attempting to rescue them. Now people wait at home, not knowing what has become of the person who hasn’t come home yet. Radio and TV have been a vehicle for people searching for family members. They canvas hospital after hospital. Lampposts and walls are pasted with missing people posters. It is heartbreaking to see so many. Not knowing is painful. A friend who walked 3 hours home from the financial district with blisters on his feet and coated in dust told me immediately afterwards: “One of my good friends is missing. She worked in World Financial 1. It's horrible. I keep imagining her burning or under rubble alive. I keep calling her cell.”

Yet there are stories of miraculous escapes. A colleague told me that when he left work on Tuesday night he had thought his neighbour was dead. He had dropped her off at the PATH (train connecting New Jersey directly through to WTC) around 8am and she worked on the 103rd floor. He thought there was no way that she was going to get out. She had been working there for a number of years so had experienced the bomb attack in 1993. As soon as she heard the explosion she knew she had to get out. She caught the elevator to the around the 70th floor, transferred, took an elevator to the 40th floor and then ran down the stair well. When she got to about the 10th floor she heard the second plane hit. The lights went off, the ceiling was cracking, they could see and smell smoke. She got out and just ran. She made it with 15 minutes to spare.

What comes next is unsure. How will New York City and the nation pick itself up from such tragedy? New York has lost many of its workers, fire fighters and police. The world has lost citizens of all nations. Life will continue in many respects of course. Gradually it is becoming business as usual. Most Manhattan offices have opened for business above Canal Street. Wall Street will open for trading on Monday. One friend who works off Wall Street told me “I know it sounds crazy, but I just don't want to go back there. I don't want to see how it is.” The TV pictures show a mess of tangled metal, crushed cars and a cover of debris and dust.

To me, a New Zealander, but resident of New York for over a year, I still see this as a personal attack. This happened in my backyard, down where I used to work. I see the effects on every face I pass in the street.

To many Americans it’s a threat to national security and democracy. We know that some kind of retaliatory action is inevitable. It’s all very scary. I feel torn between concerns for peace and healing, and feelings of anger. Emotions change throughout the day as we all struggle to come to terms with this, some people more personally effected than others.

As we get over the shock, the reaction is one of strength, solidarity and patriotism. The mood of the city is one of defiance against those that would threaten the freedom of the American spirit. Many people wore Stars and Stripes today. Flags have sold out in the stores. Anger and grief are mixed with pride in the heroes that are still out there risking their lives in the search for survivors. Hope is a prevailing human emotion too, after so much horror. People have been miraculously pulled out of the rubble alive. And we so desperately need to hear some good news, to have some hope. As the days wear on, hope burns less bright.

People are joining together to help one another, to search for loved ones, to express their horror and grief. And hope. On Friday 14th of September at 10pm a candle vigil will be held across the country. People are encouraged to go outside holding candles. It will be a sign of unity and hope as New York struggles to cope with this terrible tragedy. A light in a cloud of darkness that threatens to envelope the psyche of this city and this nation.

AUTHOR NOTE - Kate Monahan. is a 26 year old New Zealander who has been living and working in Manhattan for just over one year. I was at work in mid-town when the tragic events at the World Trade Centre began to unfold Tuesday morning.

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