Calling both sides of the lucky coin

Published 10:00 am Saturday, September 11, 2021

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Vail Stewart Rumley wrote the original version of this column on Sept. 15, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. 

I prepared to go to work Friday, like any other day. I took a shower, dried my hair, got dressed. That’s where the day departed from the usual. I sat on my bed for an hour, staring at nothing, listening to nothing but distant sirens and the occasional roar of fighter jets criss-crossing the air above the city. It was the rain, the wind, the first cold and dreary day of fall that prevented my body from obeying the “Go” message my brain was sending. It was the crowded subway platforms and general confusion that awaited me — confusion I knew would remind me of the first day back at school and hundreds of kids trying to navigate unfamiliar halls to new classrooms without showing fear. It was exhaustion. It was police presence on Canal Street.

I got up, walked over to the computer, and instant messaged my boss.

VSRumley: I can’t come in. Not today.

MFELDNY: Are you okay? Did something happen?

I almost laughed.

I’d walked to work every day this summer. The path was always the same: up Henry Street through the heart of brownstone Brooklyn Heights, up the damp, dank stairs smelling slightly of urine, to the pedestrian crossing over the Brooklyn Bridge and down the slope that emptied into the plaza in front of City Hall. On to Broadway, take a right; just past Leonard Street, stop at the deli and get breakfast; next street up, take a left over to Church Street; go right, check the time on the clock set atop an ornate iron base in front of the Tribeca Grand Hotel; cross Canal Street; get office keys out of bag.

Routine. Habit.

I was so proud of myself. Exercise. Being a New Yorker. Taking advantage of the view that so many, far and wide, came to photograph, to “ooh” and “ahh” over: the New York skyline, the expanse of harbor, the Statue of Liberty. I was so pleased that I could call it all my own — the visual accessories for my “thinking time.” And every day, without fail, my gaze would be drawn to the Twin Towers, some days finding them silhouetted against a sapphire sky; others, their massive grey faces disappearing mysteriously into low-lying clouds. I’d watch the shadows of small cumulous clouds drift across their silver expanse. Every day it was the same and different.

Until Tuesday. Tuesday, I walked up the shallow steps to Brooklyn Bridge, checking my bag for my Walkman; making sure I had it so I could listen to the Mets game on the walk home — “Mets Extra” at 6:30 p.m. my cue to leave work. But when I reached the top of the stairs, I stopped short at the bizarre panorama spread before me. A sea of humanity washed towards me from Manhattan, emptying into Brooklyn. My first reaction was annoyance — “My bridge, keep off.” Then, “Where the hell is this rally heading?” Determined faces, strides purposeful, calm presiding. “What’s it for?”

I began to slowly make my way up the incline, then looked up — not a rally, Oh-my-God, the towers are on fire, thick, black smoke billowing out across such a blue September sky, tiny orange spots of flame flickering against steel. What happened?

I asked two men, outfitted with headsets and cell phones, rushing toward the city.

“Two planes,” they answered simultaneously, barely glancing at me.

“A terrorist attack?”

“That’s a safe assumption,” one replied, sneering at the obvious question, and passed me by.

I moved to the outer edge of the walkway, the path of least resistance, and walked against the crowd, dodging suspension wires and oncoming shoulders.

“I’m going to be late for work,” I thought.

In the shadow of the tall stone arches at the top of the rise, where I normally breathe a sigh of relief as I walk around the tower, and the cool wind rides up from the river, I stopped another man walking toward me.

“Why is everyone leaving? Are they afraid something else is going to happen?”

“You don’t want to go in there,” he answered, vaguely looking over his shoulder. He gestured toward the city with the hand holding his suit jacket. “Everyone’s out in the street. Too many people.”

I walked on, face raised to the burning spectacle. I walked, brushing against countless people, glancing at their faces and seeing nothing but mild concern, like they all needed to be someplace in a hurry. I walked until I reached the downward slope on the Manhattan side of the bridge. But there, confronted by the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of people waiting, siphoning slowly onto the bridge, I stopped. And turned back. I wouldn’t be able to make it through that crowd. I joined the easy flow from the city, stepping in time with both those in front and those behind. If there was conversation around me, I didn’t hear it.

No thought. No thought. No thought.

But when I hit mid-bridge, doubts crept in. The trains from Brooklyn Heights into downtown Manhattan would all be stopped; I had a lot more work to do on a project we were demo-ing on Thursday. They were expecting me. I can make it — it just might take awhile.

Resolutely, I again turned back to the city and retraced my steps, noticing the two men I had initially encountered perched on a side rail, watching the towers burn. Commenting, like spectators at a ball game.

I had reached practically the same spot where I’d stopped before. I don’t know what made me look up — a grating, earth-shattering roar from the previously silent towers; the collective gasp and high-pitched screams that were silent in comparison; the vibration of wooden planks under my sandals. For one moment, all movement stopped, and I watched, frozen, the top stories of the first tower, mangled and broken, falling, erupting in ash and smoke, stopping momentarily as they hit the remaining floors and floors and floors, then crushing them screaming downward, until it all disappeared into a wave of gray soot crashing over lower Manhattan. It roiled, 20 stories high, through the streets between the buildings, then consumed the buildings themselves.

Reality blindsided me, forced tears from eyes and a string of obscenities held behind clenched jaw. This is real. This is real. No thought to turning on a heel and one foot in front of the other, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, headphones on, where did they come from?, relaying “Hit the Pentagon, too” to the people an all sides.

“Pentagon…Pentagon…Pentagon…” voices echoed back. The smell of pot. A jet overhead and ice down my spine, looking up, tripping over two women holding hands in front of me, “I’m sorry” not sounding like my voice at all. American lives, the next place to hit — the bridge, the fleeing tide of people. What to hold on to? Suspension wire, the decision, and a momentary picture of the bridge, shattered, me clutching a dangling wire miles and miles above the East River.

Get off the bridge. Get off the bridge. A woman’s voice far behind me, calmly calling out, “Step it up, folks. The smoke is coming.” Looking over my shoulder, and Manhattan was gone, a stormcloud of ash riding our heels. Then, safety, down the stairs, feet on solid Brooklyn, soot falling, acrid, rubbery smoke drifting down tree-lined streets, and home not so far away.

I stopped at my favorite deli. The second tower just fell, someone said. I didn’t react and bought two muffins. At some point, I’d ditched the headphones.

I made my way back down Henry Street, the way I’d come barely an hour before. Everything remained the same, marred only by a haze of smoke and a light shower of metallic, silver ash falling on my bare arms. It smeared across my skin when I tried to brush it off.

I opened the front door to classical music and a blissfully ignorant husband who heard the words I said, accompanied by the expression, and did not doubt for an instant.

“There’s been a terrorist attack. I just watched one of the Twin Towers fall.”

We tried to go up on the roof, but the ash and smoke were so thick we couldn’t see to the end of Atlantic Avenue. We turned on the TV to no avail — the World Trade Center was gone, therefore our reception gone too — and turned on the radio instead. We made phone calls, a constant “all circuits busy” message, so I emailed my sister in LA to tell my parents in NC that we were fine. Safe, that is. We went to give blood, the lines six hours long at 11 a.m. At sundown, we walked to the Brooklyn promenade and saw our new, fiery skyline for the first time — some other city’s silhouette had replaced ours. Debris floated on a breeze that stung our eyes with smoke. Papers, singed and twisting, reflecting the gold of the setting sun, sailed above our heads, occasionally landing within reach. I watched the descent of one, gliding into a low branch. The man beneath saw too: a printout of a spreadsheet. We found our own pieces scattered among the other trash on the abandoned warehouse streets below the Promenade: a brittle sheet of plain paper, black at the edges; a section of paint peeled by heat; a whole sheet of microfiche covered in ash on both sides. The charred smell told us their origins. At 8:30 p.m., we climbed up to our roof and listened to the President’s address, the smoldering city glowing across the river.

Wednesday: relief.

Thursday: debate, thought — what does this mean for our country?

Friday: nothing.

Friday: “I watched thousands of people die. They were jumping out of gaping holes on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center Towers, and I was worried I’d be late for work.”

Yes, I know that my reaction — the focus on getting to work instead of a terrorist attack and the death spread before me — was simply a coping mechanism. I know that continuing into the city as the towers streamed black smoke across the sky was a form of denial. I know I had an extremely traumatic experience, one I keep trying to minimize, using the rationale that I didn’t have it bad at all, thousands of other people had the same experience, from different angles, different distances. I didn’t know anyone in the World Trade Center. I didn’t lose a family member, a friend, a husband, a child, my home, my job — I’m lucky.

But convincing myself I’m lucky doesn’t keep me from jumping at every loud noise. It doesn’t keep me from feeling that fist reach into my chest to squeeze my heart, stopping its beat just a moment, when I watch the scene replay on TV. It doesn’t keep me from having to stifle tears at random moments. And it doesn’t keep me from closing my eyes and seeing it happen, over and over again.

No, none of us are lucky. And those who witnessed this tragedy, whether from the street immediately beneath the towers, from a beautiful waterfront park in New Jersey, or standing beside me on the Brooklyn Bridge, all share the unique privilege of feeling guilty for calling both sides of the lucky coin.

Friday: Did something happen? Yes. Yes, it did.

Friday: Are you OK? No. We are not OK.