Deirdre Kelly

9/11: I Was There


On September 11, 2001, I was in New York City covering Fashion Week for my newspaper, The Globe and Mail, when one and then two jets crashed into the World Trade Center, just blocks from where I was reporting on the latest runway looks. That day was chaotic. People running, screaming, falling, bleeding, begging me to use my cellphone, practically the only one working on that day of carnage. I did not hand it over, not even for the fist full of dollars waved in my face. I used my phone to dictate back to Toronto what I was witnessing in the streets of New York today, the voices of the people who had survived the collapse of their office building, their clothes, what I was meant to report on that day, completely torn away or else’s covered in the dust of destruction. Here is the first story I narrated for the sidewalks of Manhattan.

Day of Infamy Eye Witness International News Special Report

‘I can’t get to anyone I love. I hate this’ The attacks brought New York’s frenetic pace to a crawl, DEIRDRE KELLY writes. With traffic gridlocked and the subways shut down, shell-shocked people had nowhere to go and nothing to do but virtually sleepwalk through the streets.

NEW YORK — At Times Square, it was like New Year’s Eve. About 9 a.m. yesterday, a crowd stared up at the Teletrons — watching on one screen a scene of billowing smoke, reading on another a ticker tape that reported that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

With the city’s enormous skyscrapers evacuated, people made their way toward Times Square for information. Traffic hit a standstill. Masses of people wandered up and down the famous avenues of Manhattan, stuck, like prisoners, on an island.

All that could be heard were sirens and strange moments of silence, when everyone would gather around any radio available.

I was in New York to cover the fashion shows, I didn’t think that my report from the runways would become a report from a virtual war zone.

At Bryant Park near Broadway, where New York’s Fashion Week has been unfolding in various tents since Friday, the first show of the morning began. The runway models for the Liz Lange Maternity line and expectant mothers in the audience were blissfully unaware that death and disaster on a massive scale had hit the city.

But about 9:35 a.m., word was out that Manhattan was under siege. Immediately, leggy models backstage ripped off their curlers, tore out of their makeup chairs and ran, cellphones in hand, in high-heeled boots onto the street.

One panic-stricken fashion model managed to nab a taxi. Others weren’t so lucky, because by then panic had started to sweep through the streets. In a city where taxis are as abundant as wheat on the Prairies, not a cab was to be found.

Security — seven men and women in a line dressed head to toe in black — swiftly stationed themselves on the steps leading into the fashion shows behind hastily erected metal barricades.

People poured out of the train stations, which closed for fear there would be more sabotage. The only public transportation operating was buses running in the opposite direction of the World Trade Center down 6th Avenue, crammed with people desperate to get away.

The front panel of the buses that usually announces their final destination instead delivered the message: “Emergency, call police.”

People frantically dialled their cellphones, trying to reach loved ones, but many were unable to get through. Lineups for public telephones snaked down the street as people tried to circumvent the jammed airwaves to contact their friends, employers and relatives.

Debbie Bloom, 22, a student at Katherine Gibbs business school, was trying to reach her mother, who worked in the World Trade Center. “Come on, mom, pick up the phone,” she said as the phone rang. Her mother’s voice mail answered, so Bloom left a message: “Mom, mom, are you there? If they let you in the building at some point — anyways, hopefully I’ll see you later. I love you, mom.”

Bloom hung up the phone and started to cry. “I feel powerless,” she said. “I don’t know whether to cry or to scream. People are either hysterical, or they’re telling you to shut up because they don’t want to worry about it themselves. . . .

“I can’t get to anyone I love. I hate this.”

Brenda Moultrie, who works for an insurance company in financial district, was trying to head for home when she got caught up in the panic after the second building collapsed. “Everyone panicked and started running,” she said after she emerged from the hospital with a bandaged eye. “With all the dust, people couldn’t see. It was pitch black. People started falling over each other. I was pushed to the ground. I couldn’t see anything. The dust was in my throat and in my eyes. It was difficult to breathe. . . .

“I had a bump on my head . . . and I also sprained my ankle. You don’t know whether you’re going to make it. You figure this is it.”

People wandered around like zombies, with nowhere to go. Some who worked in the World Trade Center managed to move uptown before the gridlock set in.

Businessmen from the financial district sat in stony silence, nursing paper cups of coffee and shaking their heads in disbelief. Those who spoke did so in whispers, their eyes glazed like soldiers who have just come from the front lines.

Sam Rivera, 44, who worked in the World Trade Center for Credit Suisse, fled the building after the first plane hit, but watched as people still trapped inside on the 70th floor and higher jumped from the windows. “It doesn’t make a difference if they fell or leapt — they are now dead,” Rivera said. “What could they do? It was either be consumed by flames or jump to the sidewalk.”

For Bart DiChiaro, 51, a vice-president of Credit Suisse, this was a haunting replay of disaster. “It’s terrible, it’s absolutely shocking. . . . We all work there and we were there when they bombed it in 1993. It has always been a target. . . . The noise was tremendous. The building shook. . . . Outside, it was chaos. People were tripping on the street.”

Nanda Sandilya, 27, who arrived in the United States two years ago from India and works as a software consultant in the World Trade Center, expressed anger and disbelief. Sandilya happened to be late for work yesterday. “I was in the Newark Penn station, I could see the plane from the station. I smelled and I saw the smoke. It’s terrifying.

“How the hell can a country like the United States that calls itself a superpower and which can monitor a small bridge in the Middle East the other side of the world, why can’t they monitor their own country? I now have second thoughts about staying here.

“They’re targeting the normal guy, who’s just working for his livelihood. Did they hit a politician? No.”

The attacks conjured up images of war, and some, given the U.S. position internationally, said that perhaps the disaster was inevitable. “America bullies half the world so you have to expect it,” Lisa Doyne, a 31-year-old photographer who lives beside the World Trade Center.

Mary Lawlor, 69, fashion editor at Wear Magazine in Boston, was in New York for the fashion shows, and added: “I’m old enough to remember World War II. It’s the same feeling, that this is war. It’s very frightening. I think we’ve all had a fear that something like this was going to happen.”

Although Bryant Park is about 40 blocks west of the World Trade Center, the tension was palpable. At midday, a loud bang went off at the park and people, their nerves raw, started running, screaming, and falling. There were rumours of a bomb scare in nearby Grand Central Station.

Police cleared Bryant Park, ringing it with red security tape. But with the subway shut down and other transportation limited, people lingered on its perimeter. “Get out of the park,” one officer said. “It’s for your protection. We don’t want a stampede.”

In the face of tragedy, the normal rudeness and freneticism of New York vanished. Pedestrians slowed to a stroll because there is nowhere to go. Some looked as though they were sleepwalking.

Rich and poor were united out of fear for their country. Construction workers stood shoulder to shoulder with businessmen, all assembled around the radio on steps of a subway station. Others gathered around a Toyota Tercel that pulled up onto the sidewalk, blasting President George W. Bush’s address to the nation.

Seven hours after the first plane hit the building, three blocks from the World Trade Center, only a jagged outline of a structure could be seen, a hump of rubble still licked by flames, defying the onslaught of water raging from the hoses of hundreds of firefighters on the scene.

Smoke, like a horrible bruise, darkened an otherwise bright-blue sky under the 27-degree temperatures.

The air was pungent with the smell of burning tar and paper, the wails of sirens piercing the cries of emergency workers pushing people farther and farther away from the scene.

People stumbled and pushed back in confusion and panic. Private cars leaving the disaster area covered with a grey debris, like a fine clay, were being hosed down by firefighers.

Military personnel mingled with tense police while enterprising New Yorkers, eager to witness the event, grabbed bicycles and made the trip through back streets and alleys to avoid the closed-off main arteries. Plain blue sedans were stopped around the streets, red police flashers propped on their roofs.

As crowds were being pushed back, emergency workers continued in a steady stream down West Broadway toward the disaster. New York transit buses were filled with workers wearing hard hats and rubber gloves, ambulances and fire trucks rushed back and forth and the skies were dotted by helicopters and military aircraft.

A steady stream of private vehicles rushed by, full of medical personnel wearing surgeon’s scrubs.

In downtown Manhattan last night, thousands of dump trucks lined the streets waiting to remove debris from the disaster zone, as a convoy of John Deere tractors moved in to aid in the cleanup.

In the streets of Greenwich Village, makeshift posters appeared on walls and fluttered from balconies, urging people to go to hospitals immediately and donate blood.

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