Under Twin Shadows

Downtown Rising: A Story of Resilience and Recovery After 9/11

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On September 11th downtown residents were knocked down … Hard.

On September 12th they shakily, but resolutely Stood Back Up.

By Jeffrey Howard

Director – Municipal Bond Trader – CIBC World Markets / Oppenheimer

Here is New York by E. B. White

The subtlest change is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm. It used to be that the Statue of Liberty was the signpost that proclaimed New York and translated it for all the world. Today Liberty shares the role with death.  
Published 1949

Prologue

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”
George Bernard Shaw, 1950

No Point of Reference.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was at work at my office at One World Financial Center (across the street from the World Trade Center). My office windows look northeast, facing the Trade Center, providing a direct horrific view of 9/11 from its onset until our evacuation after the second hit. No superlative can do the day justice; only an understatement approaches the pureness of the horror. It was a bad day.

In the most important way, I was more fortunate than most down-towners. My losses were miraculously minimal. I didn’t lose a single friend or colleague; in this respect, I am an anomaly. Few residents or workers downtown can make such a fortuitous statement. Those devastated by deep, hard, personal losses surround me. Some lost relatives, others friends and colleagues, and some lost all the above. I don’t think I could write of 9/11 had I suffered as grievous a loss. But of course, the losses that day are overwhelming to all, including those of us without direct personal loss.

In those first few days after the tragedy, I was at wit’s end over how to deal with the horror of the day. How does one come to terms with the irreconcilable? I didn’t know, but as the days and weeks went by, I started writing about some of my experiences and thoughts on the tragedy, and from that musing arose this rambling essay of post 9/11 life. It didn’t provide relief or comfort, but it felt somewhat constructive. If nothing else, perhaps it will provide a structural and chronological framework of events as the specificity of what I saw fades into the fog of passing years.

In reading about my experiences that day, if you find my descriptions to be rather hyper and breathless, then I have aptly described my state of mind in those first few September days. But, in fact, in resurrecting my thoughts from that day, what struck me was my relative detachment at the time from the human losses we were witnessing. I’m not sure why. I don’t believe it was solely because we were so scared for our safety that the day’s losses failed to completely register with us, although there were indeed elements of this. Quite frankly, we weren’t that scared (most of the time). Instead, I suspect the events were so unexpected and unprecedented that there was a suspension of belief in the translation of the horrific images we were seeing into a coherent realization of the number of lives the calamity was claiming.

For some in the area (including me) our emotional response was very slow, very muted. Until we got out of the danger zone, I felt little fear and limited horror, at least relative to the scale of horror shrouding the day. My stupefied brain simply wasn’t processing the information very well.

SOB’s

While my description of the sights, sounds and horror of the day itself might be of note, my real interest lies in the aftermath of 9/11. And while I apologize for any “woe is me” divergences, it is the story less told. It’s reporting the trials and tribulations downtown residents and workers (and the city as a whole) faced in the recovery process. It’s a story of being afraid but holding your ground. For most New Yorkers, the days, weeks, and even months after 9/11 were as nerve-wracking as the actual day itself.

A familiar presumption is that New Yorkers, in general, are not the most patriotic people in the country. The criticism is on the mark if one’s definition of patriotism is of the flag-waving, apple-pie, go-team-go variety. But instead of fleeing the area, these people, as a whole, stood their ground. Shakily? Undoubtedly, but also with steadfast resolve and determination. New York’s response was the most patriotic and civic-minded endeavor I have ever witnessed and set a high standard for others to emulate if our country is ever attacked again in such a horrific manner.

It is said that in some ways, the first mistake Al Qeda made was in underestimating the resolve of the American people. I concur completely. Perhaps the second mistake they made was in choosing New York and the Pentagon as their targets – two areas populated by some of the most obstinate SOBs in the country.

First Impressions

I moved to NYC over 20 years ago (one month to the day after John Lennon’s death) to attend graduate school. Not knowing anyone in NYC and never having been there, I thought it prudent to learn a few details about the city before I ventured off.

I remember trying to figure out the city’s layout by pouring over a tourist map of the city, which drew out the many neighborhoods of New York and pinpointed areas and buildings of interest. I cross-referenced some of this information with a book I had picked up written by Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic for the New York Times and one of the pre-eminent voices of the New York architecture scene. The book was entitled: New York – The City Observed. A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan was published in 1977 (about four years after the Towers’ completion).

Naturally, there was a critique of the World Trade Center, but this critic was no fan of the Towers. To read it now in the aftermath of September 11th, it seems almost malicious in its critique. Still, in the context of the time it was written (and without the post-9/11 sympathies factored in), most architectural critics considered the author’s viewpoint right on the mark (one early critic referred to it as the world’s largest aluminum siding job.) Personally, I find Mr. Goldberger’s candid examination refreshing after the non-stop dosage of inflated adoration of the building’s design by so many in the press after 9/11, including some who felt no such admiration before its demise.

Following is a short excerpt of his critique.

“It is big. It is bigger than anything you thought could be… It’s impact on the city, in terms of everything from the skyline to the ambience of downtown to the state of the office rental market has been overwhelming. But the buildings themselves are boring, so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha. Two big, tall boxes, with a few dainty, short boxes in a front yard too big and uncomfortable for any of them; absolutely no relationship to anything around the site-to either the river or the surrounding streets… The buildings are pretentious and arrogant; it is hard not to be insulted by Minoru Yamasaki’s belief that a few cute allusions to Gothic tracery at the bottom and the top could make a 110-story tower humane. While the load-bearing walls are a remarkable engineering accomplishment – they are, in effect like a mesh cage supporting the weight of the entire building, making these towers a different breed entirely from conventional steel-frame construction – their structure has led to windows that are mean slivers, unconscionably denying office workers the panoramic views that should be their just compensation for putting up with the place… By now the twin towers are icons… We have all come to some sort of accommodation with the towers… But the buildings remain an occasion to mourn: They never should have happened, they were never really needed, and if they say anything at all about the city, it is that we retreat into banality when the opportunity comes for greatness. “

Upon arriving in New York and seeing the towers for myself, I never quite agreed with the noted critic. For one reason, new buildings had already filled the surrounding area extensively, removing some edgy abruptness. And while I may have understood the bland reference, I found the scale of the Towers so commanding and awe-inspiring that they more than compensated for their lack of decorative beauty.

As a newcomer to the city, I also appreciated the Tower’s compass point dominance over the rest of the skyline, helping me get my bearings in my new home. Still, in the months and years that followed, if the situation called for it or if I were in one of my (not infrequent) argumentative moods, I would find myself dismissing the towers, sometimes parroting Mr. Goldberger words so closely that I must have ventured close to copyright violations. But in truth, I treasured the Towers and all that they represented, as I think most New Yorkers’ did.

Whatever one felt about the building’s aesthetics from the ground, what was indisputable was the magnificence of the spectacular views from the observation deck (over 20,000 visitors daily). As a graduate student working for a professor with a grant from the “I Love New York” tourism campaign I surveyed tourists in the Empire State Building and in the World Trade Center. In my first year of grad school I must had been up on the observation deck of the South Tower 20-25 times and in the following years with all the visits from family and friends the number multiplied from there. The view never failed to amaze me with its on-top-of-the-world grandeur. There may have been times I had begged off from going up with out-of-town guests, but whenever I did go, I was as impressed with the view as on my first visit. By my conjecture, and by most others as well, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were more stately and beautiful than the World Trade Center, but in truth, it was the two soaring Towers that embodied all that is New York. Big, brash, and chock-full of an in-your-face arrogance impossible to ignore.

Dress Rehearsal

It was a cold, snowy day in February (2/26/93) when I witnessed the first tragic catastrophe at the World Trade Center. It happened, as they say, out of the blue. I was staring out my office window, pondering lunch options, when the center of my window suddenly and inexplicably started “expanding” towards me. I never moved. I never thought of moving. My only thought was, “huh?” Fortunately, the window did not shatter; instead, it sprang back to its original position with a loud clatter just as a sonic boom type of concussion shook my building. What the …..!

Looking out across the street, I could see thick jet-black smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center from both the West Street entrance and the ramp (in the middle of West Street) leading down to the WTC garage. Later, one of my salesmen would remark that when our building shook, he had thought a plane had crashed into it. But of course, there wasn’t any plane crash that day. What we were eyewitnesses to instead was the subterranean bombing of the North Tower.

Throughout that extraordinary day, we had skybox seats to this most horrific crime and its aftermath. For over six hours, we watched blackened-faced evacuees pour out of the towers. For many, their personal escape was measured in hours rather than minutes after enduring a snail-paced crawl through narrow pitch-black smoky stairwells and hallways.

Drew, our bond underwriter, worked for Dean Witter on the 59th floor at the time. His experience sheds some light on the painstakingly slow and backward evacuation the buildings’ occupants faced that day. He describes hearing the initial explosion but feeling no more than a slight shudder (the building was so large and had so much sway built-in that it made for a poor sensitivity barometer).
Looking out their South Tower window, they could see the same black smoke billowing out of the garage ramp that I could see (the layout was such that my building was closer to the parking ramp than either of the towers). Accordingly, they didn’t think either of the towers had been hit.

Five minutes later, Drew walked off the trading floor into the hallway and was shocked to see smoke seeping in from the elevator shafts. Rushing back into the trading room, he yells for everyone to evacuate (no alarms, sirens, or alerts had gone off yet from building management or his company).

Immediately the floor empties, and Drew and his group start navigating through a confusing maze of stairwells and hallways. The problem, as Drew explains it, was that sections of the stairs only ran for about eight to ten flights, then they had to walk down a short crossover that would function as sort of a switchback, and then they proceeded on down another eight to ten sets before repeating the process all over again (the whole time it was a matter of taking a few steps, wait …, take a few more steps, wait, and so on). Then at designated floors, the stairwells would end, and they would find themselves detoured into an upper floor lobby/hallway waiting to continue down a new stairwell set up in the same backward fashion as the preceding sets.

It took Drew over two hours to escape the smoky building. The trip took much longer for others not leaving as quickly as Drew’s crew. Notwithstanding the lives lost, the positive ramification of the ‘93 bombing is that it exposed the insane backwardness of this evacuation setup and the resulting improvements undoubtedly saved countless lives on September 11th, 2001.
In the months after the 1993 bombing, a not infrequent discussion was a consideration of the unimaginable. What would have happened if one or both of the towers had collapsed? My thought was always that depending on the direction of the fall the causalities could easily surpass 100,000 given the population density of the downtown area and the immense breadth of the Towers’ scale. Inevitably such ominous conversations would end with a shudder and a change of topic. The question negated to the like of other macabre subjects, such as a nuclear attack, global pandemics, or leaving NYC, dire subjects that were, for me, simply too ominous for serious thought.