Shortly before 9 a.m., while a customer was waiting for his bialy to be toasted, the owner of Grace Deli at 198 Broadway rushed in. "There was an explosion at the World Trade Center." The customer asked if he was joking, but the owner shook his head grimly. About half a dozen of the people in the deli rushed out to see the twin towers, right across the street.
All we could see was a darkened band near the top, something like the band around a cigar, that was spreading. It was the first moment in a day that witnesses, those who survived, may never forget, a day when two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and the buildings completely collapsed. It was, officials say, the worst act of terrorism in United States history. For the rest of the day, people who saw what happened were walking around, telling the story of what they had seen, of what they had lived through, to anyone who would listen.
Rob Ercoreca had a closer view. He was walking through a courtyard at 4 World Financial Center when the first plane hit. "Glass and concrete were flying down. I went under a bench. People started jumping, and they would literally explode when they hit the ground. I ran towards them. I don't know why. Maybe you never know if someone might be alive."
At about the same time, Nigel Scott, a bond broker, was working on the 55th floor. He felt the building shake. He looked out the window, and saw flames on the sister tower. "The flames were rolling across the building... I saw people jumping from the building, right in front of me."
Security came over the loud speakers and told everyone to stay put. He called his girlfriend, to tell her he was okay.
Then the second plane hit; this time, his tower. "The sound was huge. I heard a jet, and then an explosion. Everyone was thrown to the floor. My head is still ringing. I will never forget that sound."
Frank Broughton, who works for the Bank of New York at 101 Barclay, saw the second plane hit from his office. "The plane came in, and then looked like it was trying to veer off. It was too late. I saw people jumping out the window to get out of the way." He said after the first attack, security told everyone to stay in the building and move to the north end. After the second attack though, Broughton got out; "I was thinking, I have family, I need to talk to my family."
At 10 a.m, the first building collapsed. It was slow motion movie-life; an explosion of flames, the building crumbling, the great rumble reaching the crowd, and then a cloud of ash, first in a bubble low to the ground.
Momentarily, the crowd was paralyzed, not seeming to accept what had happened.
Then the cloud spread. There was a heavy rush of debris, as thick as an avalanche, as frightening as nuclear fall-out, looking like Mount St. Helen's had erupted in downtown Manhattan. It was nearly impossible to breathe. The cops yelled; "Run, run. That's asbestos in there. Don't walk, run!" People ducked in buildings, behind cars, in locked doorways.
Covered in about an inch of the finely-ground white-grey ash, an African-American woman who now looked white was limping alongside a man in the middle of Fulton Street. "It's ok, I'm here, I'm here, I'm here, it's ok, I'm here," the man said to her, as she cried.
People were stumbling east away from the towers, trying to escape. Some hid in doorways, trying to shield their faces.
After the cloud had settled a little, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani walked through the street, looking straight ahead. "Everyone should remain calm and head north above Canal" He told the people surrounding him that he had contact with the president. "Stay calm."
"Move north, move north," an emergency services personnel was yelling out. "Don't go east"
If the ground concrete and glass formed a blanket several inches thick on the street, the burned bits of memos, day planners, bills floated in the air all the way across the river several miles away to neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, where the dust and soot settled on cars. Politicians who had planned to spend the day handing out campaign literature on the street instead passed out dust masks.
Shortly after 11am, local bars were full of people watching television, giving their own eye witness accounts and talking about friends and relatives who work in Lower Manhattan.
Others, looking to help in any way possible, went to the local hospitals and helped organize anyone who passed by on the street to go to a nearby blood donation center.
"I don't work with anyone or any organization. I'm just a volunteer. I figured I'd stand here and help," said William Burton, a Carroll Gardens resident. Burton gathered groups of three or four people, then flagged down a car to serve as a make-shift shuttle.
By 12:45pm, over 200 people lined up outside the blood donation center on Lawrence Street near Borough Hall.
"I just wanted to do something," said Lisa Abernathy, a college student at the City University of New York. "I could only watch the TV so long. When I heard they needed blood, I figured it was something I could do, even if it was small."
At one point, workers at the blood bank were so overwhelmed they handed out donation forms for people to fill out and asked them to return after 6:00pm.
With limited subway service and area bridges closed, the Brooklyn Bridge filled with a parade of what looked like refugees--Wall Street traders in blue jackets, business people in suits covered in grey dust, and mothers and children with dust masks--being evacuated from lower Manhattan.
One woman met her grandmother at the base of the bridge, where they embraced and wept.
Near Borough Hall, police tried to direct people to buses that would take them to Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Far Rockaway. One woman wondered how she could get to Staten Island.
"All the bridges are closed," an officer told her. "No one is going over the Verrazano Bridge and no one is going back into Manhattan." Across the city, all fire fighters and police, including off duty and those on vacation, were called in. Even young police recruits were brought in to help direct traffic and flag down car service for elderly and handicapped people.
September 11th, 2001 had started with candidates for mayor voting early in front of the cameras. It was a light turnout. "The difference between American and a lot of other places is that we can vote, we have a democracy," one of the candidates told reporters."It's a shame that such a small percentage of Americans take the opportunity."
Seven hours later, at 3 p.m., the fact that this was Election Day was all but forgotten, and Mayor Giuliani was giving a press conference at "undisclosed location." After explaining what they knew, and assuring New Yorkers that the city was safe, he asked everybody to pray for strength. "American democracy is much stronger than vicious cowardly terrorism, and we're going to overcome this."
By Mark Berkey-Gerard, Jonathan Mandell, and David Schwartz
Posted 4:30 p.m., September 11
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Last Updated (Mar 22, 2012)