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Today is the Tenth Anniversary

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

On this day, September 11, 2011, I can think of no words better than these, from I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM, my new book:

Though there are hints of autumn‘s coming in the air, the morning dawns with all the glory of a perfect summer day. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers reluctantly make their ways to school or work, and dreaming of playing hooky on a day so gorgeous that it seems to tempt the fates.

At 8:46am a loud noise that seems at once distant and immediate jolts the seasoned urbanites who hear it into thinking ―huge traffic accident. The sound of steel being crushed echoes across the canyons of Lower Manhattan. The noise is followed almost immediately by the ―whomp‖ of a shock wave that is felt in buildings located as much as a mile away. This isn‘t something that can be attributed to routine New York City din.

Filmmaker Pam Yates knows what happened. She was just cycling down the Hudson River bike path when a commercial jet zoomed over her left shoulder with a deafening roar.2 It dipped one wing, almost as if it were taking aim, and then smashed into the North Tower. Now Pam sees an enormous ball of fire explode from the tower showering Lower Manhattan with debris. Having been in the midst of wars and crises all her professional life, Yates calmly reaches into her bag, pulls out a cell phone and dials 911. To her amazement, she is not the first caller to report that something utterly incomprehensible has happened.Heads pop out of windows, radios and televisions are turned on. The first reports say a small plane has flown off course, hitting the quarter-mile-high tower that forms one peak of the World Trade Center mountain that dominates the New York City skyline.

Thousands of commuters and residents stop in their tracks, stare for a moment, perhaps take a photograph, and then in classic Gotham fashion go on about their daily business. Those who know history might be reminded of the 1937 explosion in nearby New Jersey of the German zeppelin Hindenburg.Enormous clouds of dense black smoke, produced by 3,000 gallons of burning jet fuel, belch out of the tower‘s 94th to 98th floors as an immense fireball engulfs much of the interior, its flames licking out to taste the smoke. The jet, which had commenced its deadly journey at Boston‘s Logan Airport just forty-seven minutes earlier, slammed the tower with a Richter earthquake force of 0.9 -- - so hard, that much of the aircraft pierced clean through the immense tower. The jet‘s landing gear shot through the building, and propelled by the blast force soared southward another five blocks, landing in a Rector Street intersection. Passenger life jackets spewed forward, past WTC #2, over the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and onto the roof of the Banker‘s Trust headquarters. In less than two seconds an estimated 3,000 gallons of jet fuel ignited, producing a conflagration of the targeted floors and flamed outwards from the tower.From a nearby rooftop I3 stare at the flames, describing them over a mobile phone to a newspaper editor 50 miles away. In a few seconds that editor sees the images on his television; within an hour more than a billion people bear witness to these events, brought to them by virtually every television network in the world.

In the bowels of Lower Manhattan, subway train driver Hector Ramirez is heading to the Cortlandt Street station directly beneath the World Trade Center. Ahead of him the tunnels suddenly fill with thick smoke. A dispatcher orders Ramirez to bypass the Cortlandt Street station, saying it is too dangerous. But Ramirez sees hundreds of frantic people crowded onto the platform there, and he defies orders. He stops and loads passengers until not one more human being can fit into the train. Other train operators and transit workers are taking similar personal risks on the transit platforms beneath the World Trade Center, guiding terrified passengers out of the smoke and stench to safer streets.4Seventeen minutes after the North Tower erupted in flames

I‘m talking with my editor from a Brooklyn rooftop when I look south toward the Statue of Liberty and see another jet flying towards Manhattan, adjusting direction at the last minute, then slicing neatly across the South Tower just above midlevel. United Airlines Flight 175 had left Logan Airport fifty nine minutes previously, and now smashes into the South Tower. It is 9:02:54am. In seconds my mobile phone signal dies, burning jet fuel produces a second belching of flame and viscous black smoke, and thousands of people, fleeing the first impact, begin to arrive at the western end of the Brooklyn Bridge — the beginning of an exodus to the perceived safety of the borough across the river. In that moment there can be no doubt that the two plane crashes were deliberate: the crushing uncertainty is whether or not they form the first wave of a much larger attack.

Is this war?

Elizabeth Eucchiaro abandons her Battery Park home blocks from the World Trade Center as flames shoot from the South Tower. Smoke and stench fill the air as she fights her way north, towards City Hall, and then the Brooklyn Bridge. Half way across the Bridge, with the flaming Towers at her back, Eucchiaro shakes visibly as she tells me, ―I saw the second plane! I saw it. We saw it circle long and low and deliberately go into the building. It was no pilot error!‖

Over Eucchiaro‘s shoulder a man affirms her statement, and then waves his arms in the air, exclaiming, "People were jumping out of the windows!"

I ignored the man, finding his claim unbelievable, and make my way towards Manhattan along the Brooklyn Bridge, walking against the increasingly dense stream of fleeing humanity. Michael Gressham, a tall African-American man, is also heading towards Manhattan. He bumps into me, apologizes, and then explains that he is a destruction worker, an expert in bringing buildings down. A tool belt is strapped around his hips, and from his shoulders hangs heavy construction equipment. Gressham was on a job in downtown Brooklyn when he saw something that was, "like a movie."

Gressham pauses, watching the silent, debris-covered people shuffling past him, then says firmly, "I‘m going to see if I can help somebody. I‘m a former Marine. I know about casualties. I was in Vietnam. I can help somebody."

With that, Gressham disappears headlong into the crowd. Andy Reeves, a Wall Street computer programmer materializes from the throng completely covered in a dark gray film that gives him a ghost-like appearance. Looking down at himself, as if snapping out of a daze Reeves exclaims, "I‘m completely covered in the World Trade Center. I came outside – it was like snowing. Snowing the World Trade Center."

Farther on, near the Manhattan anchorage of the Bridge, I encounter casually dressed, India-born Biraj Dugar and, American-born Joe Whitaker, who wears a tailored suit. Apparently without realizing it, the men are holding hands; and both are caked in World Trade Center debris. Each insists that the other saved his life. "We are brothers now," Whitaker proclaims, "We just met. We are looking after each other."

They had each emerged onto the sidewalk from the Chambers Street subway station just when there was a loud BOOM, Whitaker recalls, and then "People were running at us from the building. We started running, too," Dugar explains. "Then we saw the fire and we ran to the Trinity Church and came out and there was a second explosion. We kept each other going."

If one man stumbled or seemed lost, the other grabbed him, often blinded by the ash and debris, they groped their way to the bridge.The newly bonded friends let me snap their picture, the burning towers framed between them less than a quarter mile away. As I click the shutter for a second photo, the top of the World Trade Center‘s South Tower buckles, tips to the side, and then the entire tower collapses, exhaling an immense SWOOSH of gray. It takes but seconds before the gray cloud envelops all of lower Manhattan, blocking all sunlight for those standing beneath it and entirely obscuring the high-rises of Wall Street from outside view. Then the cloud mushrooms upwards, gets caught in the breeze and blows straight towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Within moments shredded World Trade Center is raining down on lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront: Family photos, bits of computer printouts, credit card bills, bank statements, shreds of books, unidentifiable bits of plastic and steel stick to the ground, trees and buildings all across the area.It is 10:06am. Dugar and Whitaker, like nearly everyone on the Bridge, turn to witness the final instants of the Tower‘s collapse.

"It‘s terrible," gasps Dugar, choking on his emotions. Whitaker says he knows who‘s behind this, an obscure Islamic group called al-Qaeda, which, he says, has "really made a statement. We‘ve been living a happy, simple life. And it‘s all changing now."