Aftermath Journal 9/11
Sept 11, 2001
Municipal and other police in Essex County identified the red Pontiac as one of two vehicles
wanted by the FBI in connection with the World Trade Center attack.
Federal authorities had put out a bulletin on two vehicles, a van with gold trim and a red
Pontiac; one had Ohio license plates, the other from Florida.
Police confirmed the Pontiac and began pursuit, through Essex County. Some officers were
confused by another Pontiac, and veered off, although a Port Authority police vehicle maintained
pursuit into Staten Island. Federal authorities promptly closed down all exits from Staten Island,
and the Pontiac found police officers blocking the Verzano bridge and stopped in the middle, got
out, and leaped off into the water.
Marine units and aircraft converged on the area on the report of a man in the water at the foot of
A twenty-eight foot boat was apparently trying to make its way out of the harbor, but got turned
away at the foot of the bridge, burned back to the Arthur Kill. Police labeled it as suspicious and
claimed two foreigners were on the boat.
All this came off the scanner as I made my way to work. Although I had written tales of the
disaster for the newspaper, I hadn't dared broach the matter for my own.
Each moment chills me as I struggle to come to grips with the magnitude of the situation.
I went out to the 14th Street pier twice since the planes struck the World Trade Center Towers.
The day after the event, only a handful of people were making their way across the Hudson, the
horror still beyond them and me. No one was yet reporting deaths, except for police and
firefighters. The stories from the towers had not yet filtered down to the general public, although
my deli guys talked about a nephew calling home from his office to say good bye. That day, the
day after the crashes, we had not yet heard talk of hundred even thousands who had come to area
hospitals carrying photographs of the missing. We had not year heard of the cell phone calls from
the airplanes giving loved ones messages about the final moments before their dying, about the
uprising of the passengers in the one plane out of Newark who -- after they had heard about the
crash into the towers -- decided to take the plane back from the terrorists and forced it to crash
in Pennsylvania. Many like me had walked out to the end of the peir to stare down the river at the
place where the towers had stood up until the day before.
Years ago, when my best friend Frank Quackenbush died; I had a tooth removed. Every time my
tongue wanders to that spot in my mouth, I feel the pain of his loss. Staring out at that missing
space, I felt as if New York City was missing a tooth and that for the rest of our lives, the pain of
the lost people would haunt us in the same way.
I went back this morning as New York City began to open up again, and the crowds of people
waited at the rail for the ferry to come. They looked as if they were at a wake. Those who
weren't reading newspapers stared into space, but not in the direction of the smoke still rising
from the site of the former towers. They stared across at midtown or up towards the George
Washington Bridge, those places on that side the river that at a distance seem unscarred by the
Many look angry. Many look sad. Most looked numb -- a second numbness due to the massive
wreckage. No film of bodies yet. No reports of numbers. Just picture after picture of rubble, and
deep inside each of us, is the knowledge that under it are thousands of bodies.
Gone is the usual made rush to catch the ferry, as if each person must go on with the old routine,
but feels none of the former urgency. Each seems to see Manhattan as one vast grave yard with
workers there digging up the bodies instead of burying them.
I had gone to Secaucus on September 11 to get a photograph for an even I had missed the
previous Saturday. If I had thought to look over my shoulder as I drove, I would have seen the
first plane crash into the north tower -- both towers visible for my own ride to Secaucus.
But like most people I had taken the sight of those towers for granted and didn't glance at them
unless something attracted my attention. Even as I drove along, I took no notice of the flowing of
smoke from one of the towers. I could not have heard the sound of the crash or the subsequent
explosion. I drove with my mind bent on getting my photo and getting myself to the office so I
could write the week's worth of stories.
I parked behind town hall, talked with several people, none of whom seemed any more aware of
anything unusual than I was. I didn't even get a sense of disaster when I walked over to the senior
housing buildings, even though if I had chosen to look in the direction of the towers, I would
have seen the smoke. Inside, I waited for one of the officials to get me the photo I needed. Then,
someone said they had heard on the radio of an accidental plane crash into the top of the north
We rushed to the top of the taller senior building, which commands a wide view of Southern
Secaucus. On top, we saw smoke pouring out from the distant building. We could see nearly all
of the north tower, but not the south tower. In 1993, I had missed most of this sight, when people
had fled to the roof to seek rescue. But almost from the first moment, I knew this was worse. I
imagined the hundreds of firefighters climbing the south tower in order to help control the blaze,
knowing deep down that no amount of fire suppression would put out the fire we saw raging in
the other tower.
Later films showed the hole made by the craft through the northern wall, but all we saw from the
distance was a massive cloud of smoke pouring out from the front and back of the tower and
flickers of orange suggesting flame. One of the housing workers came up with a world war two
era set of binoculars, and I got to glimpse the building through them, seeing some of the details,
but not the falling bodies people closer to the scene said they could see.
I was up there with Mike Altilio, one of the upper staff at the housing authority and he looked
towards Newark and spotted a large jet flying low.
"What is that idiot doing?" he asked.
We presumed it was some kind of fire suppression effort, and turned away, only to turn back
when we saw a bubble of flame flowing out from a side of the tower we could not see directly.
We didn't see the new plane strike the second building and didn't know what within minutes
another plane far south of us in Washington D.C. was then crashing into the Pentagon.
We just stared. We only then suspected that the event was not an accident, a matter confirmed
when we came back into the building where people watched the community room TV and told us
two planes had been involved. Down below, people began to gather at the wall to the stadium,
from which they had a clear view of the towers -- each filled with rumors that suggested a
massive planned attack on America.
I met Tom Troyer there and Kathy McFarlane, two political figures, both of whom looked pale.
But there were others, trickling down to the wall, all staring, all of them shaking their heads, all
of them mumbling "this is worse than Pearl Harbor."
Later, I made my ways to the Office of Emergency Management where scenes from the two
remaining New York television stations showed smoke pouring out of holes both towers --
although each repeated the film of the second aircraft striking the south tower, the horror of the
assault more a cartoon than reality. Then, the first of the towers fell, the debris looking more like
clouds of smoke, than anything solid. We later realized that it was both, floor after floor
collapsing in on stairways and halls packed with people. But the men that were around me, fire
fighters and police officer, they knew, and they began to cry, tough men who could see in their
minds eye the real disaster, and in their heads they could hear the scream of the people crushed
by the symbol of American economics.