By Michael Johnsen
I wrote this on March 11, 2002. Six months would have passed since the day now referred to simply as the date "9-11." We still live with the cliché: "The world has changed."
On that sunny morning of blue skies and spring-like weather, I was traveling from my uptown apartment to a 9:30am client meeting on what is commonly known as the No. 3 express train. A New York Times article about the attempted assassination of the leader of the Mujahaddin faction in Afghanistan occupied my time during the 20-minute subway ride to Chambers Street. It was interesting, but Afghanistan was far away.
At about 9:10am, I had reached Chambers Street, where I would walk across the platform to the local "1' or "9" trains to finish my journey. An announcement from the conductor that those trains were closed made me grumble. I’d now have to take a taxi.
I never made it. Not even my own experience as a Marine in the Gulf War prepared me for what I saw once I walked up those stairs.
Their horns and sirens blaring, the FDNY trucks filled with unknowing but ill-fated firefighters barreled down Church Street. Crying, shaken and shocked people were falling over each other to get out of the way and also because their legs had given out from the sheer horror of what they were witnessing. Already, people were falling and jumping out of one of the World Trade Center buildings to escape the flames.
My first reaction was that there must be a fire connected with the air conditioning unit at the Towers. I had to get a better look. "It was a plane!" someone yelled. "There were two of them! I saw the second one!" another person cried. Was it a propeller plane that went off course? "Naw, a 747! I saw it!" he confirmed.
"My God", I thought, "we’ve been attacked." Twice cannot be due to pilot error. We hadn’t heard the news yet, but many on the street had already reached the same conclusion.
An NYPD helicopter was already flying around the gaping holes and maneuvering about the thick, black smoke and pieces of debris that were dropping like rain from the giant silver structures. This was reassuring. It and the others on their way would surely be able to save those trapped in the building and on the roof — at least that’s what so many of us assumed.
We civilians on the ground couldn’t do anything but watch. It was gut-wrenching to see another helpless person jump from the building. The crowd’s shriek of pain at witnessing those deaths is forever embedded in my memory. The fall itself seemed to last an eternity.
Unfortunately, those helicopter rescuers never had a chance to save anyone. Suddenly, a sound that might seem familiar to anyone who has been on the receiving end of an artillery barrage engulfed the entire street. It was a deep, continuous thunder. The north tower was imploding. Those of us on the street ran north for safety; the people in the building had no such opportunity.
Once the first tower had crumbled it was fairly obvious that the second would follow. Would the rescuers be able to save any others? It seemed not. Moments later, the second tower imploded. Again, the thunder and smoke and debris sent us fleeing around the corners of the street.
Fighter jets whizzed over us at this point, while we all wondered if what we’d witnessed was real. Did this just happen in America?
Following the madness came silence. No car horns, no talking. Just shuffling throngs of stunned people heading north to safety.
Certainly, the world had changed.
Photos by Michael Johnsen