Tens of thousands of stunned, dust-covered office workers surged over the Brooklyn Bridge toward me, the devastated skyline at their backs. It was midmorning, September 11, 2001. The second World Trade Center tower had collapsed 20 minutes before; New York’s two tallest buildings reduced to rubble. I had heard on the radio that as many as six other planes had been hijacked. This later proved untrue. But at that moment, no one knew what might come next.
The impact of the second plane had rattled the windows of my Brooklyn Heights apartment so violently I had thought they might break. I’d rushed to my roof to see the towers first burn, then fall. The falling steel and shards of glass glinted in the glorious late-summer sun as a low volcanic roar swept across the water.
“You’re going the wrong way,” someone shouted. I kept walking, unable to say why. On the bridge were people of every race, ethnicity and social class, but they all wore the same look of terror. A wailing torrent of emergency vehicles set off dust swirls racing to the scene. The closer I got to Manhattan, the darker and smokier it became. As I walked closer, I had to pull my T shirt up over my mouth to breathe. I kept on going, as if the burning hole in the skyline was sucking me into itself.
Part of what was driving me was what Sebastian Junger has called an “amoral sense of awe” in the face of destruction, although after a few years as a young war correspondent in South Asia, I’d thought I’d gotten over this necessary journalistic evil. But as I passed police headquarters just over the bridge, I realized there was something else at work. New York is a big city, but for me, part of a family that has had four generations of New York City cops, it was a town, in distress as never before, and I was a townie. And so, for that day at least, “the ways of my people” eclipsed my reportorial instincts. I became a first responder, looking for some way, any way, to help.
At 10:45 that morning, City Hall Park was dusted with four inches of ash. Clouds of smoke and dust choked the streets off lower Broadway. A couple of loud “BA-BOOMS” shook the air—exploding ordnance in the arsenal that the U.S. Secret Service kept in its World Trade Center bunker, I learned later. As I stood dumbstruck across from the Woolworth Building on Broadway, a maniacal, motley-clad man in his 30s came out of the clouds. Pushing a cart loaded with bottles of drinking water, he looked like an extra from the film “Mad Max.” He had pulled a red T shirt over his face, completely obscuring it, and was wearing a pair of outsized aviator glasses. I asked him where the Red Cross was and where volunteers should report. “Just pick up some water and give it out,” he shouted, handing me some water bottles and a paper facemask. “God bless you, sir,” he said over his shoulder as he disappeared into the smoke. “God bless you.”
Then another man, this one in late middle age, staggered out of the clouds, wheezing badly. Wearing a smudged brown suit, he was carrying a preposterous, bulging brown leather briefcase. Grabbing him beneath the arms, I walked him two blocks up Broadway to an oxygen station. The man said he was a senior manager for FEMA. “I dove behind a truck,” he gasped. “That’s the only reason I’m alive. There were people behind me, but I don’t think they made it. There was seven feet of debris on the street.” Nearby, regrouping cops were so covered in dust you could hardly tell their uniforms were blue. Along with battered helmets, they were wearing the proverbial “thousand-yard stare.” They had been among the first at the scene, hit hard by cascading concrete and steel. One, who couldn’t have been more than 22, had been blinded by the debris.
I joined up with several nurses and doctors, some in scrubs, and headed over to a triage center at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. The side streets there were even darker, the air even more noxious. As we double-timed it, a Fire Department paramedic supervisor walking with us took a quick survey. “What skills do we have? Who can do what?” he asked our group. “Who’s a doctor? Nurse? RN? NP? Paramedic? EMT?” First Aid and CPR, I volunteered, sheepishly, skills learned long before as a Central Park ranger.
We passed the Federal Reserve Bank, home to a few billion dollars in U.S. gold reserves. There, the acrid fog was so thick we literally bumped into a phalanx of guards with assault weapons at the ready. The adrenaline level was very high all around.
The chief of the New York Fire Department’s Emergency Media Services briefed us at the terminal. Ours would be a standard triage with three zones: green for minor injuries, yellow for the next level and red for really serious cases. “There will be no freelancing,” the EMS commander ordered. “If you don’t know something, ask.” As we raced to assemble blood-pressure cuffs and blood-plasma trolleys, a couple of thirsty firemen used their emergency crowbars to try to open a couple of soda machines standing against a wall. They dented the machines but could not open them. Someone just brought down two of the world’s biggest buildings and somehow these soda machines were impregnable.
I was assigned to keep patients hydrated, to help wash out eyes and to keep track of names. “Got any Scotch?” asked one shaken elderly man when I handed him a cup of water. Almost everyone we treated spoke of ducking or diving into doorways to avoid debris and choking dust. Few had serious injuries; people either got away from the towers or they got killed. But the screams of the few in the red zone were chilling. Around 12:30 p.m., I heard two EMTs whispering to each other, not realizing I was in earshot. “We lost a lot of guys,” one said out of the side of his mouth. “They set up the command center right at the base of the South Tower and a lot of our guys got hit when the second plane went in.”
“How many we talking about?” his colleague asked, blank-faced. “How many unaccounted for?”
“Don’t know,” the first one said, grimacing. “But we’re talking whole companies, whole squads. Rescue One. Ladder Three. Ladder Four. A whole bunch of chiefs. Some companies, they can’t find anyone.”
In a corner, talking to a minister, a Russian woman in her early 20s was hysterical. Her younger sister, a very recent immigrant who had been working in the South Tower was missing. “I just feel like going there and digging, digging, digging with my bare hands to find her,” the woman sobbed, clawing the air.
Hardly anyone came in after 2:30. I decided to walk to another triage center, where I would make inquiries about the Russian woman’s younger sister. It was actually quite easy to get around. With a face mask and blue surgical gloves, no one stopped me.
Soon I was moving up the bottom of Broadway, passing Arturo Di Modica’s charging bull sculpture, which looked odd in the ashen desolation. Overhead, a few skyscrapers were on fire, burning debris sailing downward. Street-level was equally apocalyptic. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars were scattered around, many crushed, without glass. A few of the fire trucks had their noses stuck in the debris with their backsides raised in the air. Some overturned cars were still burning, flames licking out of windshields and passenger windows. The sirens on some of the police and fire cars were still squealing, though in that weird sonic environment, the smoke muffled everything, as if it all was happening underwater.
Without the towers as markers, I was feeling lost. As it turned out, I was on the corner of Liberty Street and West Street: right at Ground Zero itself. There was only about 100 feet visibility. Occasionally the wind would shift. Then, eerily, like an iceberg breaking through the mist, the towers’ jagged facade would emerge. The break in the smoke would also allow a glimpse of rescuers on rubble, which was still burning in some spots. There was no sense of the scale of the devastation, which would only become apparent in coming days. Then the wind would shift again and the whiteout would resume.
Firemen were sitting on piles of wreckage, legs spread apart like uncomprehending 5-year-olds. Others had taken refuge in a darkened grocery store, sitting dazed and hollow-eyed in the dark. Rescue vehicles churned up muck as if it were snow in a blizzard. Huge padlocks had been placed on expensive, now evacuated, co-op buildings to secure them from looters. Around the marina at the World Financial Center, exhausted firemen sat in chairs usually reserved for cocktail-sipping bankers and brokers checking out the boats.
Finding it difficult to get to the other triage center, I made my way back to Ground Zero. More of the jagged facade of the collapsed towers was visible from this new angle, as was the burning hulk of 7 World Trade Center, flames roaring sideways out of that 50-story building before curling toward the blackened sky. The fire here now officially out of control, and fire supervisors were trying to clear the area before the now-inevitable collapse. “Get out of here! Go now!” one ordered.
Drifting over to a staging area along the West Side Highway, I found myself in a sea of firemen and rescue cops. Some were readying to go in, keeping the anxiety and stress at bay with jokes and verbal jabs, the air thick with New York accents. Others who had been there all day were cooling off, their overalls rolled down.
In the past seeing these kind of guys had prompted an awkward self-consciousness, my townie side being something that I often found difficult to acknowledge, especially in Manhattan’s snootier social and professional circles. But that day I felt nothing but pride both to be among them and to be one of them. I thought about the workings of fate: what if I had become a cop? By now I might be a captain or an inspector. I might be standing there formulating orders. Or I might be buried somewhere down the street, along with the first responders under my command.
On the far lip of the restricted zone, a young cop stood looking into the chaos. “I’m not supposed to be down here,” he explained, admitting he had left his assigned post further uptown. His dusty face was creased with sweat, and he stabbed his cell phone for what must have been the thousandth time that day. “But my brother’s a firemen and my mother just called me and said he might still be in there.”
In a bar on my way home, people were cringing and yelping as a TV news anchor announced that 7 World Trade Center, burning all day, was about to come down. Outside the street was on the edge of anarchy, as the building collapsed and its roaring cloud of smoke and dust chased panicking onlookers further uptown. “Everything will be back to normal in a couple of days, don’t worry,” a doorman at the Tribeca Grand Hotel reassured tourists, convincing no one.
With the Brooklyn Bridge now closed, and no trains running, I had to limp, sore-footed, across the Manhattan Bridge. The sunset sky was a beautiful aquamarine, streaked with red and purple. But the familiar skyline was now gouged, in a way that was almost human. It was as if somebody had had his nose ripped from his face or his teeth smashed from his mouth. A blood-orange sun sank into a black cloud of soot. Later that night, I looked into the mirror and saw a guy standing there with the same thousand-yard stare I’d seen all day long on the cops and firemen and medics I’d been with. I would wear that expression for more than a week.
McGowan is the author of “Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka” and “Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism.” A regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, his book: “Gray Lady Down: How The New York Times Broke Faith With America” will be published next year.