I Submit This Every year on 9/11. I Escaped Ground Zero on a Bicycle I found in the Rubble AMA.
I live at the northwest tip of Manhattan and have been here for almost 20 years. On 9/11 I was working on Broadway at an office across from the famous wall street bull, which is a few blocks south and a couple of blocks east of the WTC. I would take the A train to Broadway-Nassau and exit a couple of blocks east of the towers. That morning my train arrived at the station and as soon as the doors opened I heard a cop yelling "everybody out of the station, there's been an explosion" The fact he said explosion and not fire (fairly common in the NYC subway) kind of pricked at my brain, but I was hung-over and grumpy and just walked to my usual exit.
As I climbed the stairs I could see the street was jam packed with people all standing still and looking up. I turned to look over my shoulder to see what they were staring at and saw both towers on fire, raging fire. I overheard people saying two planes had crashed into the towers and I knew immediately it was a terrorist attack. Then I realized this would be considered an act of war and there would be hell to pay.
At this point I was on Broadway and John St in front of the NASDAQ building, which is a huge black skyscraper adjacent to the towers. The cops were trying to hold everyone back but there were too many people and honestly the cops weren’t trying too hard, they were also staring up at the buildings. I remember seeing what seemed like hundreds of women’s shoes littered all over the place and I realized that a lot of the women commuted wearing sneakers and they kept their shoes under their desks. The blast just blew them out all over the place. Shoes and thousands of sheets of paper were everywhere.
I grabbed a coffee at a nearby deli (as I said I was wickedly hung-over) and made my way back to my spot to watch. We saw people leaping from the windows and it was surreal how long it took them to fall. I remember thinking how horrible it must be up there if the better choice is to jump to your death. I’m not sure how long I was there for but I was just thinking to myself “How the fuck are they going to put these fires out?” when I heard the most almighty sound I’ve ever heard. It was a shrieking, tearing type of groan. Almost like God had grabbed a handful of steel H beams and ripped them in two. At that moment the front of tower 2 just fell off and slightly forward roaring and crumbling.
Everyone panicked. I’ve never seen people move so fast. I ran south down Broadway but after a few steps I thought “Shit I have to see this”. I turned around and saw that the whole building was collapsing; it was simply incredible. Then the debris cloud came barreling up and over the top of the NASDAQ building (which has to be 40-50 stories tall). I can’t quite describe how fast the cloud moved. Those French guys who made the documentary kind of captured it but not quite. That’s when I ran for my life.
I zigzagged down Broadway and the cross streets, looking back over my shoulder as this cloud of debris came rushing up behind me obliterating everything in its path. I could feel small chips and stones tinkling on my neck and hair. Then the cloud blows through the intersection in front of me and I duck into a glass fronted deli (there are 4-5 on every block in that neighborhood BTW). The deli is packed, and as myself and few other people running next to me run through the door someone slams and locks it behind us. All you can see is ash out the windows and then there are people’s hands banging on the door and someone yells “let them in” Someone opens the doors and immediately we all start to cough and choke as the dust and ash pours inside. I stayed in there for quite some time, people weren’t saying much, some were crying. What was interesting is nobody took food or drinks from the deli. I still had my coffee somehow which I sipped to help clear the dust in my throat.
The dust began to settle a little and I could vaguely see the shape of a cop walking around. I had just gone through mortgage application for my co-op which had taken months and was time sensitive. I realized that this area was going to be off limits for a long time and the papers were in my office which was about a block away. If I didn’t close in the next couple of days the papers would expire and I may lose the apartment so I decided to try to get to my office and see if the phone was working. I grabbed some paper towels and put them over my mouth and went out, despite people telling me I was crazy.
A soon as I got outside my throat seized up, I just couldn’t draw a breath. I ran to my office building holding my breath and burst into the lobby. There were several people in there all coughing and retching and 6 or 7 firemen. The fireman had shut down the elevators and were telling everyone to stay put. But the dust was getting worse and we were all having trouble breathing, so they decided to bring us all up to the 3rd floor. As soon as the elevators opened I jumped in one followed by another guy. I told him I had an office in the building and I was going to see if the phones were working, he was welcome to come. He said he worked in the towers and wanted to try and call his mother in NJ to let her know he was ok.
The fireman didn’t see us and we got to my office on the 7th floor. It was so weird walking in the door as everything looked so normal, except the windows were covered in ash which made the light in the office eerie. My phone was working and I called my girlfriend who was still sleeping. I told her to wake up and turn on the TV. I was safe but she needed to take down the guys mothers number in case we were cut off. Then we heard/felt an terrific thundering, rumbling which shook the building. The guy started freaking out “what’s that, what the fuck is that!?” “Is that the 2nd tower babe?” “Yes it’s completely collapsed, my god this is horrible” Then we lost the phones and the world went pitch black outside. I booted up my computer and miraculously my IM was working. A friend was on and we began messaging back and forth. She told me that I should get out of there, the news was saying there may be more attacks and they were worried about gas leak explosions. The guy from NJ said he was going to try and get back across the river and he left. I stayed for awhile as I didn’t want to breath that crap again. Finally I grabbed a spare work shirt which I wrapped around my head and face and proceeded out.
I’ll never forget the scene as I left my building. The closest way I can describe it is to imagine stepping out after a heavy snowstorm. Every inch of every building, car, lamppost, everything was covered in a grey fine dust and pilled 6 inches higher or more. There wasn’t a soul in sight and it was strangely peaceful. Then I looked to my left up Broadway and saw the raging fire coming from the WTC. It was billowing black smoke like an oil well on fire.
I decided to make my way south and then cut west to the river where I could walk the 10 miles home along the bike path. I was genuinely worried that my headgear made me look like a terrorist and some cop would shoot me. Suddenly 4 guys in construction gear coming running out of a building. They saw me and yelled “There’s a gas leak get out of here” and I ran for my life for the second time that day. That block seemed so long as I sprinted for the corner, expecting to be hit with shrapnel at any second. I made it to the corner and sheltered for a minute, my heart beating frantically.
I got to the river where there was a boardwalk?… pier?, I don’t know. It was a pedestrian walkway made of wood running alongside the river, I’d never been there before. That ‘s where I saw all the possessions people had left behind in the panic. The strollers were the weirdest to see. People had been out walking their babies on a beautiful sunny morning and the next minute they’re snatching them up and running for their lives. That’s also when the idea of finding a bike occurred to me and I began to look for one that wasn’t chained up.
At this point I was just a block or so west of the towers. I could see the burning pile of rubble that was the towers and I remember it just blew my mind that 100+ stories could be reduced to such a relatively small pile. There was a fire crew there unrolling a hose and I worried that they would send be back the way I had come, but I literally stepped in between two of them and over the hose and nobody said a word to me. Then I saw what looked like a pizza delivery bike on its side almost completely covered with debris. I looked around nervously as I would never in a million years usually steal a bike. There was a cop not 10 feet from me but he wasn’t paying attention and I realized that he didn’t care, the bike would be thrown in a landfill and I really really didn’t want to walk 10 miles if I could ride instead. So I picked it up, hopped on and cycled away.
Traveling by bike is a very different way to see the world. As I got further away from the burning rubble, through the triages with no patients, the city began to become more and more normal. As I reached my neighborhood a van cut me off and the driver called me an asshole “get out of the way asshole!” he yelled. I was pissed but that bit of NYC normality was comforting in a strange way.
When I got home I washed myself and I washed the bike. I had to. But I left the underside of the seat unwashed. It turned out to be a cheap but new black beach cruiser with whitewalls. I still have it and when I ride it always brings me back to that day.
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