Twenty four hours, twenty years ago.
12 September 2021
For four of the five years that I lived in beautiful New York, this was the view north from my little railroad apartment, a 5th floor walk up, one tiny segment of the top floor of a splendid turn of the century row of buildings on King Street.
It was a view I loved. It made me feel so alive, so happy, every time I got home; every time I woke up. And if you went on the roof of the building and looked south, you’d see the Towers rising over the wonderful cast iron roofs and water towers of SoHo.
No one in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001 can ever forget.I’d woken up so early that day. It was such a beautiful morning, and I was incredibly excited. The evening before, on the Monday, I’d had my very first client meeting with my own very first client whom I was bringing into the architectural office where I worked. I was keen to get the notes written up early, before the day began properly. I walked from my little apartment on King Street, along Bleecker Street, up to the office, in the Meat Packing District – Gansevoort Street. Brought my coffee and a bacon roll as usual. The day was clear and bright and full of promise. I was the first person in the office. I unlocked and opened up the shutters.
Literally, at 8.47 that morning, less than a minute after the first plane hit, the office phone rang. It was a call from Roger, the site foreman of a townhouse project that I was running on West 11th Street. I knew he’d been up early that morning. At dawn, the street had been closed for the contractors. They were loading heavy mechanical equipment onto the roof of the house – a difficult task that needed a huge crane, and a gang of men on the roof, to guide everything safely in to place. The sort of thing you want to do very early, before the city wakes up. So from about 6 that morning, they’d all been on the roof for this delicate and complicated task. I was acutely conscious that it was happening, and that things could quite easily go wrong.
Just as they were coming to an end, the first plane few incredibly low just overhead. Roger told me they could see people through the windows. Not believing their eyes, they watched as the plane floated gently into the tower. And then, for some reason, I’m not sure why, Roger thought he needed to call me. “Ben, it’s like a movie out there, we’ve just seen the most terrible thing, a plane has just flown straight into the twin towers. You must go and see”. As I write, 20 years later, my fingers are trembling, a horrific chill has just gone down my spine. I remember that call as if it happened this morning.
I ran out of the office. I was still the only person there. Remembered to lock the door. Past Florent. Nothing wrong on the street. People out and about, sweeping the pavement, unloading stuff. I got to the end of Gansevoort, to the West Side Highway, where we looked down the huge wide stretch of the Hudson River down to the towers. And very clearly, there was smoke billowing out of one of the towers. Unreal. A tiny, curious group of people were beginning to gather. Many of them were of course meat packing workers, tired from a night of processing and rendering; their white coats stained and blooded. They had the usual banter. It seemed surreal, unreal, but also as if time was balanced, not moving.
I walked back to the office. I wanted to call Dad, back home in England. Still the only person in. maybe 2 or 3 minutes to nine. I called Dad but just got the familiar click of the answerphone. “Hello, we’re not here to answer your call at the moment, so please leave a message!” (followed by the sound of Dad fumbling to turn off the recorder, forever recorded on their message). “Hi Dad, it’s Ben here – just to let you both know, I’m completely fine. All well. Will call you soon”. My parents had been out doing a shop. They returned to a mysterious message. Of course, I had forgotten to say quite why I was calling.
I felt I should carry on working but I couldn’t. A minute later I walked out again, down to the end of the street. A larger crowd now. More banter “HEY, CAN YOU STILL CALL THEM THE TWIN TOWERS IF ONE OF THEM BURNS DOWN GUYS?” in a thick New Jersey accent. that sort of thing. But I was staring, mesmerised. The towers were a long way away but unmistakably I could see tiny pricks of smoke opening up all around the building, above the flames, like a perforation. People smashing windows and smoke pouring out. I felt sick to my stomach. Something told me, this must be an accident, but this cannot have been accidental.
And then, and then. Another plane, what seemed like a tiny little thing, came in from the side. “OH LOOK AT THAT, said banter man, more serious, in that split second… “it must be a government spotter plane, a fire department pl….” He never got to finish his sentence. The second tower exploded. People screamed, fear was tangible in the streets, people were crying.
I felt astonishingly calm at that moment. I knew something terrible was happening, that we were under attack, my beautiful city, this beautiful life. I ran back to the office again. Someone just arriving at work – I said – go and see at the end of the road. Run!
I ran back up to the desk and called Dad once more. Still the answerphone. The sound of his voice, again. the familiar clicks. I couldn’t bear being so far away. I burst into tears. “Dad, it’s me, I just need to let you both know, I’m fine, I’m fine, but it’s just so awful, I’ve just seen the second plane hit”. I was streaming with tears.
My brother sent an email. “everything okay over there? Seems like something bad is happening Ben?” I called Tim, let him know what I’d seen, that I was fine, call Dad, get hold of him for me. Please. And then I began calling friends.
I went to get a coffee. I was in the corner store. Suddenly a woman hurtled in, tiny, red haired, with a crazed look in her eyes. I watched amazed as she scooped up every bag of pasta in the shop and paid for it and ran out. I remember thinking – whatever is happening, we are not going to starve. And I left and walked back, many more people now in. Strangers on the street, hugging. Florent opening their doors. Anne and Richard, my bosses, were in, being brilliant.
And then for me perhaps the most frightening moment – I now know, 9.37, Diamond Ann, our receptionist, on the phone with her sister – who was watching TV at home – screaming “OH GOD, OH GOD – the Pentagon’s been hit”. And that felt like a terrible, terrible moment. This was bigger than we knew.
Finally I got to speak to Dad. Agonising for them. I wasn’t really in a good way.
We had no TV in the office, but there was a flat upstairs. I remember being up there watching in a crowd. Bizarre to see on screen what we could see with our own eyes. I remember walking back out to see the buildings. And then coming back down Gansevoort, and in that moment, the South Tower fell. And then the next crumbled in front of our eyes. And as far as we knew then, perhaps 10,000, 20,000, maybe 30,000 were dead.
My best friend Valentina had walked up from Hudson Street. We hugged like never before. She’d seen the thousands of dusty, terrified workers heading north. Like me she’d been calling friends, finding out who was safe. Terrified for those we hadn’t heard from.
Anne and Richard – so brilliant at that moment – said to us all, the entire office – come on, let’s all have lunch at Florent, it’s the only thing we can do, then we close the office and then we look after each other and ourselves and we go home and get as safe as we can. Val came too. And then we headed back to her flat. Later I tried to get home, but Houston Street had been sealed off – the exclusion zone, and my passport and bills were at home, and I had no ID with my address on. I couldn’t pass the security cordon.
Our friends Adam and Nathan were safe, they’d gone to rescue their dogs from their apartment so close to the towers, on West Broadway. We went to Becky & Josh’s apartment that evening. Hours passed, as if we were in a dream. I remember Mayor Guiliani sounding so calm, so clear, so reassuring (strange writing this; but that was then, this is now). I shall never forget when we all went for a walk out to the west side highway. New Yorkers, totally silent, staring down the Hudson River in shock, huge clouds of smoke rising, the sound of sirens wailing into the clear, warm evening light, the horrific stench of burning – well, burning everything – thick in the air.
Finally, maybe it was around midnight, Val and I got to the Houston Street checkpoint and, one final time, I managed to persuade a policemen that my apartment was just over there – just down there on King Street – and he took pity on me. And let me go home. I stumbled past the fire station, already filled with tragedy and exhaustion, across the street, hugged Chucky at Le Pescadou, the owner of our corner bar. Stumbled home. Home. Climbed the stairs, all five flights, my legs full of lead, my heart full of dread. I showered, crawled into bed, listened to the wail of sirens all night long, cried and cried, and cried, and woke thick-headed, bleary eyed, in the grey dawn of Wednesday September 12th.
It’s strange, looking back, to realise how 20 years can pass in the blink of an eye, but also to realise that love, truly, conquers all.