This article was originally published in the September 28, 2001 issue of Commonweal.
Like most people, I had no idea as I walked to work September 11 that four planes had been hijacked and one of them had slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. When Quanda Williams, Commonweal’s administrative assistant, asked me as I passed her desk if I’d heard about the plane that hit the World Trade Center, I dismissed the incident as a tragic accident. Maybe a small plane had clipped one of the towers. That was 9 a.m. As is routine for me, I sat down in front of my computer, opened the New York Times web page, and sipped coffee. The page took longer than usual to load. Something was amiss.
By the time the page loaded, United Flight 175 had already been driven through the south tower. Looking for news, I frantically went from site to site, trying to get video of the events. CNN, no. MSNBC, nothing. Paul Kane, our business manager, suggested the BBC. Bingo. They had live coverage. As the office gathered around the computer screen, the horrors unfolded. “They hit the Pentagon.” “The south tower just collapsed.” The rumors proliferated. “A third unidentified plane circling New York. They can’t find it.” All of us in the office stood watching the monitor, the video of the south tower’s collapse played again and again. Hands covered mouths. Then the other tower went. At low resolution we saw the building fall.
The phones were useless for much of the day, but as the hours passed more information came. A terrorist attack, for sure. No third plane circling Manhattan. Everything closed: subways, commuter rail, bridges and tunnels, highways. The island went on lockdown. By the end of the workday, almost everyone had left. Staff members who live outside Manhattan had an uncertain journey ahead of them after limited outbound transit resumed. I was nervous about leaving, feeling decidedly agoraphobic.
The walk home, thirteen blocks away, like so much that day, was surreal. I had never heard Broadway so quiet. Downtown traffic was sparse. Pedestrian traffic was diminished. Many people huddled around television sets in restaurants and bars. Several people cried openly, on other people’s shoulders, into cupped hands. Everyone was in shock, watching the ground as they walked more slowly than usual. I needed to stop at an ATM, and hated having to do so. The triviality of the act left me feeling cheap and disconnected. Once I reached my block, I ducked into church, slouching into a pew in the back corner. I knelt, tried to pray, but found I couldn’t. Four others were present with me. We wept together.
When my cellular phone finally came back up at 8 p.m., I had fifteen voicemail messages. The first was from a good friend. “Grant, this is Izzy Casaletto. It’s like nine [a.m.] or something.... I am standing outside the Hoboken PATH train, looking up at the World Trade Center, and the top twenty floors are belching smoke. This is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. Wow. I actually think I can see somebody...I don’t know...I don’t know what it is....” Izzy boarded a train and rode into the city. When he exited Christopher Street in lower Manhattan, he saw the chaos up close.