My wife and I were excited for our wedding, approaching in less than 3 weeks.
We left our Brooklyn apartment, just south of Prospect Park, by car, a little later than usual that morning. We drove through the Battery Tunnel, up West Street, and passed alongside the Twin Towers at 8:30, 15 minutes before the first plane hit.
We, of course, had no idea. There was no thought of "we better hurry up before the first plane hits." That Tuesday morning had a perfect Simpson's blue sky. It was a perfect, beautiful September day.
Shortly after getting to work, a co-worker got a call from her mom that two plane hit the World Trade Center. What? Two planes hit one tower? Two towers? One each? A small commuter plane? Two??? I was very confused as I turned on the radio and dialed in on my modem onto AOL, in those days before broadband and Facebook.
I worked at West 57th Street, my soon-to-be wife on West 23rd. She worked for a small start-up and was the only one in her office that day. She was taking calls from everyone and their spouses, as people wanted to make sure everyone else was okay. She could look down 5th Avenue and see smoke.
Up on 57th Street, I was on AOL, and friends were asking me what was going on. I told then that if they were watching TV, they had a better view of it than I did.
And then they fell. One at a time. I heard the description on the radio. I could not believe it. How could a plane on a top floor cause the destruction of the building below it?
After a while, we went to lunch. 57th Street was almost complete denial. The chatter in the restaurant was oblivious to events just a couple of miles south on the same island. It was surreal. We had lunch as if nothing had happened under that picture-perfect Simpson-sky. The only indication that anything was amiss was that the Starbucks had closed. I later found out that the owner was concerned about a possible terrorist attack, as cafes were a popular target in other venues.
We went back to the office and did no work. I felt like I had to do something, but there was nothing to do. Then the radio announced that there was an urgent call for blood. There was still hope that there would be survivors. I walked a few blocks to my local hospital, and there was a 3 hour wait to give blood. So I walked to the Red Cross building, which was around 66th Street, a short walk, and found another 3 hour wait.
I went back to the office and heard that the Red Cross was calling for mental health professionals to come and serve as grief counselors. I had some training and skills, so I went back to the Red Cross building. After a while, I was picked for a group, and we walked over to a pier on the Hudson River. There, looking down that extension of West Street, I saw the smoke for the first time.
I said out loud that it looked like the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. A policeman replied that at least, with the volcano, we know what is in the smoke.
We got to the pier at around 5 pm, where they were setting up a makeshift morgue. I started wondering what the hell I was going to say to a grieving spouse or child. Almost forgotten was that this Tuesday in September was Primary Day. The primaries were cancelled of course. One of the other counselors joked that one of the losing candidates was behind this.
And we waited.
Finally, at around 9 pm, we found out that this makeshift morgue would not be ready for a while, and they told us to go home. I walked back to my office, where my fiance was waiting, on the way to the parking garage we saw fire trucks we did not recognize. Fire companies from as far as Pennsylvania and Delaware had driven here to help.
Now our question was, how to get home? We could not go south. We had to go north to cross the East River into Queens to then go south to Brooklyn. At intervals, there were military checkpoints and closed expressways. We got home after midnight.
The wind from lower Manhattan had blown towards our neighborhood. Our street was littered with inches of greasy brown scraps of ledgers and computer printouts. And the smell of burnt flesh.
Of all that I described, the thing I remember most is the thing most indescribable: the smell. It lingered for weeks.
Yet, 19 days later, on September 30th, we got married. Many of my friends took their first plane rides since "The tragedy," as it was called back then. The next day, we too took a plane, to honeymoon on Maui. In Hawaii, we were the first people the residents and other tourists knew who had been in New York that day, so I got to tell this story a few times.
It was there, on our honeymoon, that I grasped a distination. Back home, this had happened to New York. Away from home, this had happened to America. X