How It Was in Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village on Sept. 11

How It Was in Greenwich Village

I used to have the most wonderful view of the World Trade Center. In fact it was one of the few good features of my apartment, being able to see the WTC clearly in good weather.

You always knew how bad it was really raining or snowing because then the two gleaming, bluish buildings would disappear by degrees. During so-called hurricanes, like Gloria or Hugo, the Twin Towers completely vanished.

But on a crisp day there was nothing better than to open my living room shades and see the two buildings shining like lighthouses. At night, the WTC was lit up with office lights. From my roof under dark blue ink skies those lights twinkled like Christmas bulbs.

A year ago this morning, just around quarter to nine, the first plane was overhead buzzing its way to Wall Street. It was loud enough that it caught everyone in my courtyard by surprise. You think New York is noisy, but it's not entirely. Our pentagonal courtyard rarely has a sound other than an occasional baby crying. So the buzzing plane was unusual.

By the time I got to the rear windows facing the Trade Center, Dick Oliver was reporting on the local Fox 5 TV station that a private plane had lost its way and crashed. This seemed highly unlikely, and even as there was discussion of this on TV, my phone was ringing.

On the phone, talking with my friend Bruce MacDonald who lives in Battery Park City right across the street from the Towers, I remember saying, "Bruce don't you think you should get out of there?" "No," he replied, "I watched the 1993 bombing from here. I'm all set."

There must have been a couple of minutes more conversation, and I do remember saying: "This is so funny, there's another plane by the World Trade Center. That can't be a coincidence."

We didn't hear from Bruce again until much later that night. When Tower 2 came down, black smoke enveloped his apartment, pushing its way though the open windows.

He grabbed his keys and ran down 14 floors to the basement of his building where he and other neighbors waited for an hour. Then they were evacuated to Liberty State Park. For some time neither his wife nor his friends had any idea what had happened to him.

At the same, we were all very concerned about our friend Joan, who worked for Morgan Stanley in Tower 2. I can still remember watching the smoke pouring out of the tower as I called our mutual friend in London and shouted, "Which floor is Joan on?"

The answer came back: 77. This did not sound good, but there was no way to reach her husband in New Jersey since all our phones and cell phones in Greenwich Village had ceased to function. This would be another waiting game.

Many hours later we learned that Joan had been uncharacteristically late dropping her kids off at school. When she got to the concourse between the Towers, the first plane had just hit. With strangers she ran for cover, then ran west toward the Hudson River with those clouds of smoke and debris following her. Her children still do not know how close she came to dying.

Then there were my parents. They'd left Heathrow Airport at 7 a.m. EST bound home for New York after a two-week trip. When the explosions occurred, they were over the Atlantic. American Airlines could not tell me or my brothers if their flight had been affected, or even if it hadn't.

This went on for what seemed like hours. Eventually, the plane landed in St. John's, Newfoundland, where they were told at last what had happened in New York. They were kept on their plane for 12 more hours after landing, and then spent five days in Newfoundland waiting for the airports to reopen.

In the end we were all lucky. Somehow we'd escaped the ultimate tragedy.

Down in the Village, the first hour after the Towers fell was surreal. As things were happening you could hear people gasping. A gasp is generally not loud, but this was like the sound extras make in courtroom scenes. With each new collapse, you could hear dozens, hundreds of people give a collective "Oh!" out their open apartment windows.

You could also hear the clanking of store grates shutting one after the other. Stores that had been open only an hour that morning were closing quickly. You got the sense that the rats were abandoning the ship.

The bakery and sandwich shop people at the corner tossed me a big bag of stuff to take uptown to my brother's house rather than throw it all out. It seemed like the end had come.

And then up the avenue came the people, huge crowds of Wall Streeters walking home. I thought they'd be screaming. I thought we'd all be screaming.

On TV, there were the reports of the Pentagon and the plane in Pennsylvania. No one knew what was going on. And yet for miles, a sea of people, most of them in suits, ties and dresses, walked silently up past our block.

Hardly anyone said a word. The only sound, and it was the sound for days and weeks to come, was of ambulances racing back and forth.

In the end, I left for several days. The overriding reason was the acrid smell in the air. No one ever quite described it on TV, but it was the smell of burning. Burning what, that was the question. Metal, rubber, people. Maybe asbestos. Even as the days wore on you could smell it. It was very strong and extremely unpleasant.

There was a lot of Farmer's Almanac talk among the neighbors about the wind shifting, but the wind shifted and nothing changed. A couple of days later I drove back downtown to this block and left my car outside for an hour. When I came out, you could write your name in the dust that had piled up. But what was it composed of, this dust? And what were we breathing?

A year later, there is still a chain-link fence near St. Vincent's Hospital with memorials to the dead. For days hopeful friends and family kept circling the neighborhood with fliers, but of course no one was found. The fliers stayed around long after the people finally gave up, until winter in some cases.

Our fire station, like most others, was decimated. Seven men were gone. I don't think up to that moment anyone had given much thought to the fire house on West 10th Street, which was always open and bursting with fresh-faced, friendly firemen who chatted with the neighbors while waiting for something to happen. A collection was taken up for their families right away, but the damage was done.

A few days later a friend came down from Maine and persuaded me to go with her to see Ground Zero. Since there were no cars allowed below Canal Street, we took a PediCab as close as we could get.

It felt like one of those movies where a visiting general takes a Jeep or a rickshaw through a war zone. Everything was closed. Stores were covered in -- not layers, but feet -- of gray soot.

William Barthman -- a jewelry store that sells very expensive watches to Wall Street guys -- lay in waste, blown out, boarded up, finished.

You could only think, they'll never put this place back together again. But guess what? They're back, it's all been swept away. Barthman is selling Rolexes today like nothing happened.

But that's New York. We're tougher than Usama bin Laden realized. We go on. But we're never going to forget.

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