9/11 from the ground: Salon's on-the-scene coverage from 16 years ago

Personal stories from survivors, witnesses and first responders collected in the immediate aftermath of the attacks

By Gabriel Bell
September 11, 2017 9:27PM (UTC)
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(AP/Stuart Ramson)
Sixteen years ago at exactly 8:46:40 a.m., America would find itself under attack. Almost immediately after, Salon writers, editors and correspondents were writing, watching and, most importantly, listening. Here is what they captured in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy that unfolded on September 11, 2001. Warning: Some of these stories include descriptions that may be disturbing.
Laura Miller first realized we were under attack the same way many New Yorkers did that day, through strange sounds and a quick look at the morning news.

It began the way all disasters seem to when you're not in the middle of them, with a minor aggravation. At 8:45 a.m., my Greenwich Village apartment rumbles as I'm getting dressed; a low flying plane. "Must be some kind of military exercise," I grouse, and then pause, realizing that since I moved from San Francisco three years ago I've never once had my windows rattled by flyboys. Weird.

"This just in: There's been some kind of explosion in the top floors of the World Trade Center," said the WNYC announcer. I contemplate heading out to the street for a look. You can see both towers perfectly from 6th Ave. and West 12th St.. But I probably wouldn't even be able to see the smoke. "We've got unconfirmed reports that a plane hit the north tower," he says a minute later, and I'm out the door.

Moments later, David Boyle, an employee in the South Tower, would be heading to the elevator with with only seconds to spare before the second plane hit. Ann Marsh would report his story:

It takes them 10 minutes to reach the 78th floor. During the walk, David’s mind starts working on him. What could cause all that debris? It has to be worse than anyone knows. He has to get out of the building, by the fastest means possible. At the 78th floor, they reach a bank of elevators that can take them directly to the lobby. A man’s voice on a loudspeaker informs workers that there has been an “accident” at Tower 1, but it is completely contained. They should stay calm and remain in their offices. David’s boss, Carlos Delatorre, checks the voice mail on his cellphone and suggests they all go back upstairs. “I don’t want to waste the morning,” Delatorre says. David protests, “Listen, do the math. If it’s nothing we’re back up here in five minutes. If it’s something then we’re safe.”

David looks at his watch. He calculates that it will take at least an hour to inch down to the ground in the already crowded stairwells. He hits the elevator button. Doors open. People in the lobby around him shake their heads. David doesn’t have time to explain: If the “accident” really is contained to Tower 1, he figures, the elevators should be fully functional. He and his colleagues (Michael Black, an Oblix systems engineer, in addition to Delatorre) get in with several others. Though they don’t know it, a jetliner headed their way is about 60 seconds from impact as their elevator hovers on the 78th floor. A friend turns down David’s request to accompany them. She wants to stay behind to watch over people. “I said, ‘Well, good luck to you.’ She’s like, ‘Good luck to you.’ That’s the last time I saw her. I remember all these faces looking at me as the half-empty elevator closed its doors on them.”

The United Airlines Flight 175 would plane hit the South Tower minutes later. Its point of impact was the 78th-floor elevator bank.

"Walking on a bed of ash" Roman Milisic collected survivor stories from the blocks around Ground Zero even as people were still evacuating the scene. Lou Lesce told him:
I was on the 86th floor. The place came down around me. It just filled with smoke, and the whole ceiling fell down. This was No. 1, World Trade Center. There were six of us. We went into an office and sat on the floor. As the smoke increased, we decided to break a window. One of two things could have happened: that the air would rush in, which was fine; or that this would let the smoke in. We broke four windows with a hammer. Fortunately, it gave us air, but it also brought in debris, and flying glass and hot stuff. Then we waited, and were picked up by the Port Authority people, and went down 86 floors. I have to hand it to those people: They stuck by their posts. They were there when everything else was crashing down, personnel comforting one another. And then you’d see the firemen coming up with packs on their backs, weighing 20 or 30 pounds. And they’re going up 86 flights! I got separated from the others, because we kept changing stairwells. As one got crowded we’d move on. When I finally got to the mall, I thought it was fine. And all of a sudden, badoom! An explosion, a windstorm of soot. Concrete. I threw myself to the ground, it all went right over my head. Everything went black. And then half an hour later, another explosion. All black. You had to just bear it out, and keep talking and talking, covered in ash. You couldn’t even see a flashlight. As for the others, I have no idea. One had my jacket. It was difficult, we couldn’t see our way out. I’m going to Bellevue now. I’m just glad to be walking away.
In Washington, Jake Tapper captured the confusion in the capital following reports of a third plane hitting the Pentagon.

Within two blocks of the White House on 17th Street, one police officer hurriedly waved pedestrians west, apparently concerned about imminent danger.

“West, west!” the policeman yelled. “There’s a big white plane headed this way!”

While some D.C. residents rushed down the streets crying, panic painted on their faces, most seemed gravely curious. Small clusters gathered on street corners, exchanging information. Cars stuck in traffic with news radio blasting attracted interested pedestrians.

Sirens wailed continuously as police cars and ambulances attempted to maneuver through the clogged downtown avenues. Commuters cursed their cellphones, many of which had difficulty getting signals. At downtown pay phones, lines formed of individuals wanting to call family members and friends.

An earlier report of an explosion on the Mall — the multiblock field between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial — turned out to have been inaccurate. The smoke that appeared to have been coming from the Mall, if one was north of downtown, actually emanated from the Pentagon, where the explosion was reportedly severe. A 60-foot section of the United States’ military headquarters was ignited in a horrific conflagration and then collapsed. Downtown hospital emergency rooms began admitting casualties from the Pentagon explosion.

Back in New York, Norah Vincent captured how the city that often seems cold and indifferent was anything but that day.

The one good thing that can be said about this terrible day is that New Yorkers have responded admirably — no, beyond admirably — to the needs of their fellow citizens. The lines to donate blood snake around entire blocks outside local hospitals, and people are passing out water to cops and emergency medical technicians. We are a city of tough people united in a massive gesture of compassion and self-sacrifice. I am proud today to be a New Yorker.

Yet, as reporters Michael Scherer and Manya Brachear found while covering the volunteer efforts in lower Manhattan "the second wave of injured from the rubble of the World Trade Center never arrived at hospital emergency rooms and makeshift triage centers."


Even with the influx of mourners, the clergy at St. Vincent’s [Hospital] said they were inundated with pastoral volunteers. The hospital sent away at least 25 as soon as they arrived.

Diane Bonner, a chaplain at St. Vincent’s, told the volunteers they could do more in their own neighborhoods and sanctuaries.

“You’ll need to stand on the corners in front of your churches,” Bonner told two Spanish-speaking sisters and a priest. “Not even that. You’ll turn the corner and there will be a need. This has not begun to hit. We don’t need people here. I wish we did.”

Elsewhere, Christopher Ketcham found himself embedded with the responders doing the hard, grim and often gory work of searching for survivors (and bodies) amid the rubble. What he found was, in his words, "Hiroshima in miniature."

I was given black body bags and Civil Defense body tags and was told to hand them out to the firemen as the dead were brought out, but the bodies were a long time coming. The men dug in groups of two and three, throwing up dust and investment receipts and printer paper and pieces of pipe and wire, and the bucket brigades were just forming. The diggers find flesh; they finger it, hold it up to flashlights; it looks like shredded rope, but “That’s skin,” they say matter-of-factly, then louder, “Think we got a body!” and a dozen men converge. New clues unearthed with hands and shovels: A white knit sweater shredded on tin shrapnel, and a pair of glasses, fully intact — incredible in this mess — and a Nike shoe. “Got a shoe, Chief. Whaddaya think?”

The day after the attack, Amy Reiter and Suzy Hansen would step into Watchtower No. 2, home of New York Fire Department Ladder Company 3, on East 13th Street in Greenwich Village and talk to the men and women waiting for word on their colleagues and family members.
"You feel useless here,” says Kevin Horan, 47, who retired a little more than a year ago after 17 years in Ladder 3. “This is scary, not knowing. When you’re doing it you have control, so it’s not as fearful. But this you have no control over. This, you have to sit and wait and pray."
As it would turn out, Ladder Company 3 was one among the hardest hit by the attacks, losing 12 members including its Captain in the collapse of the North Tower.

That Tuesday, even as anti-Islamic, anti-Arab sentiment began to surface across the country, reporters Eric Boehlert, Suzy Hansen and Jeff Stark would talk to the Muslim residents of nearby Patterson, New Jersey — Americans and immigrants who had suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of their own countrymen. Egyptian Muslim Mausama Abdelradi, who himself was only blocks away from the Towers when the planes struck and whose shoes were still covered with dust said:

"This is not terrorism. This is war. But the United States never expects that there will be war inside."

And as someone who to the average American looks Middle Eastern, Abdelradi has other concerns — for his own welfare and that of his community.

"This action will affect life everywhere. This will hurt everyone. Everyone has family here. And people will be offensive against Muslims. No one’s said anything to me so far, but in an area where someone’s family member was killed, they might react. But I’m not scared. I believe in God."

In the days after, Boehlert would take in the often still, often silent city streets, making his way to Union Square:


All day long hundreds of people gathered at Union Square Park off 14th Street, drawn by the appearance there of 10-foot-long pieces of paper and markers laid out on the ground — an invitation for passersby to share their feelings. Littered with candles and sunflowers purchased at the nearby farmer’s market, the impromptu memorial attracted a wide range of opinions.

Calls for strength and unity and even vengeance abound: “Let’s Get Them”; “We will not turn the other cheek”; “God Bless America”; “The Arabs and Iranians did it!” “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord,” were among the hundreds of messages scrawled out.

Some people had drawn elaborate illustrations, which lay alongside children’s drawings. Notes were written in Chinese, French, Greek and Arabic. “Great embrace from Italy,” read one, followed by “I don’t know how to end this letter because I am sorry and I am confused. From Switzerland.”

Some note writers suggested the bombing was an indictment against America: “This is karma. We can’t meddle in world affairs, be the biggest exporter of weapons and not expect to feel the effects.” Others thought the event would open American eyes: “Palestinians are dying and nobody cares”; “I am in sympathy with America but this is how the rest of the world feels every day.”

One message simply read “Intifada.”

Someone opting for hope quoted this famous exchange:

“Peter: Should I forgive my brother after he sinned against me seven times?

Jesus: Forgive him when he sins against you seventy-seven times.”

Most writers shared pain: “To the children who lost their parents”; “God bless FDNY. Rest in peace.”

And then there was this: “To my darling Cookie; I feel you are somewhere but you have yet to surface. I have prayed up above and I will see you again. Love always, Dann.”

Gabriel Bell

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