I was probably less than a mile away, but I didn’t see the airplanes. I was on the train, heading in to Brooklyn for my second day on the job as a law clerk in the Eastern District of New York. My route was the A train from 207th to Brooklyn. I was on schedule to be in Brooklyn just before 9.
At Canal Street, around a quarter till nine, the train suddenly stopped. (For those unfamiliar with the city, this is one stop before Chambers; the A line runs a block to the east of the trade center itself). The train waited for about fifteen minutes. Everyone was getting antsy and frustrated. But New York subways are sometimes prone to unexplained stops.
A woman boarded the train, all out of breath. She was talking about a terrible accident, that an airplane had crashed into a building. One or two people asked her questions. Everyone else ignored her, reading their newspaper or listening to their headphones.
The doors closed, and the train moved on. We skipped the Chambers stop, with no announcement as to what was going on. A few riders — who were apparently intending to get off there — were unhappy. We stopped at Broadway Nassau. Now three or four more people got on, and they were talking with each other about the airplane (or was it airplanes?). More passengers listened in. The atmosphere on the train car became a little more agitated, but still, at least half of the car continued to simply read or listen to music.
Finally, we reached High Street. I was a little annoyed because I had been meaning to arrive earlier, and it was ten past nine by then — not a good sign for day two of the job.
The ticket agent had a crowd around the booth, all agitated and asking questions. What was going on? But I needed to get to work quickly. I would check online later to see what the news was. I stepped out of the station at High street, just across the river from Manhattan, two and a half miles from the trade center. I wasn’t all that familiar with the setting, since it was only the third time I had gotten off at that stop. I looked around me to get my bearings. The twin towers were on fire.
My first impression, strangely enough, was that the fire was in the wrong place. On those symmetrical buildings, one fire was distinctly lower than the other.
I had no idea what to do next. I needed to get to work, sit down, and figure out what was going on. I walked across the park and into the courthouse, and went up to chambers. Our courtroom deputy was there. The intern called a few minutes later to say that he wouldn’t be coming in, because the Staten Island ferries were not running. I said that I thought that would be fine.
The judge wasn’t in, he had been planning on getting in later. So I sat down and worked on a few edits I had been making the day before. I really didn’t know what to do. I could see the burning buildings from my office if I looked at the right angle. Every few minutes, I got up and looked over at them. The judge called in and I told him I was editing. He said not to worry about work, and that everyone should go home as soon as they could.
Going home wasn’t really an option, though. Trains weren’t running, and the streets were jammed. The Brooklyn bridge and the Manhattan bridge were bumper-to-bumper cars, mostly leaving Manhattan. Every few minutes, we heard sirens pass. Fire trucks from all over Brooklyn were racing over to help.
Clerks, deputies, and interns from other chambers were in and out, discussing what was going on. I sat down and continued editing — what else was I going to do? Then our courtroom deputy said that one of the towers had fallen. We looked out the window, and sure enough, there was just a cloud of dust. A few minutes later, the second tower fell too. We sat in shocked silence for a moment, and then everyone seemed to have the thought at the same time. Oh no, all of those fire trucks, all of those fire fighters.
The TV was full of news, and it was changing minute to minute: There were more planes on the way to attack. There was sarin gas and anthrax on the Manhattan planes. The police had foiled an attack on the George Washington Bridge. And then CNN announced that all federal buildings had been evacuated — and showed footage of people leaving buildings in Ohio — while we sat and watched inside a federal building, two miles from the trade center.
Finally, around 1 p.m., the marshals told everyone to leave the building. Several of us had no where to go, really. One of my classmates clerking down the hall from me lived in Brooklyn, so several of us went to his apartment. The dust cloud covered most of the Manhattan bridge by now. An American flag waved above the cloud of dust.
We stayed at my classmate’s apartment for a few hours, sitting on his couch and watching CNN. Wackiness abounded — people saying that there was anthrax on the planes, connecting the attacks to Palestinians, homegrown militants, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and bin Laden. A few of the ideas eventually turned out to be right, but the signal-to-noise ratio was not particularly great.
I was mostly worried about getting home. I had had trouble calling home earlier, but eventually got through. I told my wife that I was okay, and would be home as soon as I could. I contemplated the possibility of a fifteen-mile walk across chaotic Manhattan. Then, at about 3, Rudy Giuliani announced that the trains were running again. I went down to the A station and waited for an hour, and the train showed up. It took another two hours to get back to 207th. I wasn’t complaining. God bless Rudy Giuliani. I have disagreed with his politics at times, but in that moment he really came through.
The weeks that followed were heartbreaking. Every subway station was filled with handmade posters: “Have you seen my Dad? Name: ___. Brown hair, thirty-five years old. [Picture]. Please call ___.” “Have you seen our daughter? Blond hair, twenty-two. A heart tattoo on one ankle. [Picture]. Please call ___.”
And over the next few weeks, rumors abounded. An air pocket full of survivors had been found. (No, it hadn’t). More survivors had been located. (No, they hadn’t).
Slowly, life settled in to its usual routines.
It was fascinating during my year as a law clerk to read about the development of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. (One of my immediate predecessor clerks ended up working at the Fund.) It was also fascinating to see legal and political responses around the country. 9/11 changed law in many ways, not all of them good. I was very grateful that my own judge remained a stalwart supporter of human rights. And another classmate of mine (also a successor clerk with the judge) went on to defend the rights of Guantánamo detainees.
And then I went to work at a law firm, and then a law school. And life went on, with occasional stops to remember.
On the tenth anniversary of the attacks, news venues are running dozens of retrospectives, from figures like politicians, reporters, and national religious leaders. Ten years later, we are still learning some of the fascinating stories tied to 9/11.
My own story is a small one, but it’s what I’ll be remembering today.
What’s your 9/11 story?
(Image credit: Wikicommons.)