Friday, September 11, 2015

Journey to Liberty and Broadway

A makeshift memorial at the corner of Liberty & Broadway, November 9, 2001
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall

ach year, as the anniversary of 9/11 nears, I reflect on how I happened to travel to New York City the afternoon of Monday, September 10, 2001. 

I rarely traveled to Manhattan. Every other time I did manage a trip, it seemed some calamity would befall the town.  For instance, on a visit in August 1999, the subway system flooded after an unexpected deluge of rain courtesy Hurricane Dennis—the Menace.  

But, serendipitously, a meeting with a top city official I had told a client I could set up sometime in the fall was suddenly of great interest; and when I called to set it up, we picked September 10th. 

So, a week after Labor Day, I boarded an Amtrak train bound for New York just before noon to arrive in time for my 5 p.m. appointment.  The meeting would take place just a few blocks from the still-standing Twin Towers. Afterwards, I was going to have dinner with my friend John, and fully intended to return to Washington on 9/11.  But, after my 3 p.m. arrival in Penn Station, nothing went as planned.  I couldn’t seem to catch a break.

Exiting the train station, I decided to walk from 34th Street to my hotel in Midtown. I love New York and its jam-packed sidewalks teaming with pedestrians—and just relished the opportunity to soak in the city color. As a struggling writer, I relished saving money, too—in this case the cab fare. 

As I walked, rain-threatening clouds soon gathered, quickly turning ominously darker, sending me scurrying to reach my hotel before the skies burst.  But, a torrential downpour soon forced me to run for cover inside a restaurant.

About ten to four, I finally reached my destination.  (I was staying at the Chemists’ Club on 45th Street through my membership at Washington’s historic City Tavern Club, frequented by founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.)  But, no sooner did I begin settling into my room, than I discovered, to my dismay, that the air conditioning was broken—necessitating a call to maintenance. They came right away; so, of course, I couldn't get ready for my appointment.  

Clearly, on-time arrival for my 5 p.m. wasn’t going to happen.  

So I called the official—an old friend— impressively ensconced in his penthouse suite in the shadow of the Twin Towers, hoping to reschedule for early the next morning. He told me to come when I could—he was working late and was flexible. 

Shortly after 5 p.m., finally on my way, I hustled down 45th Street to Grand Central Station, and braved more driving rains—this time aided by a helpful New Yorker. Then, I endured the passengers-packed-in-like-sardines-in-a-can subway experience. 

But, it was all worth it: Exiting the Wall Street station, I saw—with my naked eye, for the first time in my life—that heroic statue of George Washington heralding the New York Stock Exchange.  How impressive!  The whole scene captured my imagination for a brief transfixing moment—before more rain and my impending appointment yanked me back to reality.  A reality that put me on track to arrive an hour late—at 6 p.m.!

It was a lovely appointment in which we reminisced about the good old days: we had met at the Reagan-Bush Midterm Reunion in 1982! And, he was very helpful as to the business purpose of my visit—authorizing a $2500 seed grant by the time the appointment wrapped at 6:30 p.m.

After saying goodbye, I was, of course, blissfully unaware as I exited the building, how blessed I was that, in spite of all the obstacles, we had not rescheduled for the morning of 9/11.  Such a plan would likely have put me either on the subway, approaching Wall Street, as the terrorists slammed 747s into the North Tower, or outside looking up in horror at the towering inferno—this time running for cover not from rain, but falling debris.  

But, all these “what ifs” were now non-existent.  I had had my appointment.  Now, it was onto the business of soaking in more awe-inspiring sights, if not more rain—on my own.  You see, John, the one I was due to have dinner with, was taking his good old time returning from his country estate on Lake George—so depressed was he over his mounting stock market losses.

Walking along Lower Manhattan, I soon stumbled onto a now-shuttered restaurant at the top of 14 Wall Street, J.P. Morgan’s old apartment, and followed the labyrinthine passages to the top.  Entering the restaurant, the view of the beautiful Statue of Liberty standing majestically out in the harbor, was overwhelming. Little wonder J.P. Morgan chose this space as his living quarters! 

As I gazed upon this powerful symbol and essence of American Democracy from that lofty perch, September 10th, I had no doubt, was an evening I would never forget.

Statue of Liberty, October 6, 2008.
It was closed for three years after 9/11, and was not completely open until 2009.

But, it couldn’t last for long—especially since I was by myself.  So, stepping off cloud 9, I departed, heading back down the labyrinthine passageways.

Once outside, I made my way back to the Wall Street subway—amidst, you guessed it, the rain.

Arriving at Grand Central Station, the continuing driving rains made it impossible for me to walk the few blocks along 45th Street back to the Chemists’ Club. But, as I had experienced earlier, my walk back to the Club was again eased by the hospitality of a wonderful New Yorker—this time an investment banker from Switzerland named Pierre, who had worked in the city for 15 years.

As he dropped me off at the Club, I expressed heartfelt appreciation and, smiling warmly, he exhorted to me, “Now say nice things about New Yorkers.”  Pierre’s statement—prescient, even omniscient—echoed in my mind after the September 11th attacks, after which, all anyone had to say about New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath was of the most positive, affirmative nature. 

he morning of September 11th, the bright sun warmly bathed the city and clear blue sky cheered the heart. I woke up about 8:30 a.m., having stayed up late the night before meticulously planning the next day’s complicated and busy itinerary.

When I groggily arrived in the Chemist Club lounge around 9 a.m. for a much-needed cup of coffee, local news was covering a story—a seeming replay, I thought, of my August 1999 visit, highlighting yet another emergency caused by the city’s aging infrastructure.

But, a coffee sip later, I awoke to the tragic reality unfolding before my eyes and that of the gathering crowd in that little lounge. A plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers—the North Tower—shortly before 9 a.m.

Within minutes, a second plane crashed into the South Tower.

Everyone watched the unfolding drama, witnessing—along with the rest of the world—those two iconic skyscrapers transformed into towering infernos. 

As the minutes ticked away, the tension rose concerning the fate of these world famous buildings and, more importantly, everyone inside of them.  Then, at 9:59 a.m., our worst fears were realized as the South Tower collapsed—less than an hour after being hit.

Stunned silence gave way to more tension and more apprehension, as we waited and watched—the seemingly inevitable coming at 10:28 a.m., when the North Tower collapsed.   It had burned for 102 minutes.

Both towers had collapsed like sandcastles on the beach children petulantly destroy. Only now, the attackers were no innocents but rather twisted terrorists intent on destroying the symbols of American wealth at the heart of our financial empire.

hat afternoon, I joined my friend John atop his building at 57th and Park as we sat somberly watching in the distance smoke billow up from Lower Manhattan. It was surreal. New York City was soon reduced to a near ghost town.

Later than evening at Elaine’s, John and I witnessed another incredible scene at this “bastion of artists and liberal Upper East Side aristocracy,” as he described it, frequented by the likes of Woody Allen, George Plimpton, Michael Cain, and others. Conservative Republicans generally and President George W. Bush, in particular, were a breed apart—as incompatible as Texas oil to their creative water at Elaine’s, recently shuttered, in the wake of the owner, Elaine Kaufman’s death.  

Yet, as President addressed the nation, and the world, on television twelve hours after the terrorist attacks, customers in Elaine’s immediately began hushing everyone to “Be quiet, be quiet!,” so anxious were they to listen, intent on hearing his every word.  You could literally hear a pin drop—unheard of for liberal Elaine’s. 

If there was anyplace in America that could demonstrate right and left were now determined to fight and destroy this terrorist menace—together—it was Elaine’s!

In spite of the huge attack earlier in the day—some 3,000 souls lost, impacting their families and the surviving rescue workers—John recently noted how “life went on for almost everyone else.”

It was true—at least for the moment.  There we were at Elaine’s enjoying a delicious steak dinner at the Woody Allen table, as Elaine, her usual gracious self, was playing her nightly role: den mother, leading lady of society, and, most importantly, guardian the Upper East Side Café Society.

But, make no mistake, our life had changed.  The Army was about to “stand up” the Joint Personnel Effects Depot to deal with the casualties of this first attack in what, would soon be christened The Global War on Terror; and young, or not so young, were enlisting, or re-enlisting, in the military services to join the effort. 

Smaller, tangible reminders of the attack were, of course, everywhere.  The next day I will never forget when the wind shifted and the Midtown Manhattan condo where I was staying, owned by John’s merchant banking firm, was suddenly enveloped with putrid air billowing up from Ground Zero—a grisly combination of toxic waste and burning human remains.

Then there was the reality that no restaurants were open in the immediate aftermath—except the wonderful Jewish Delis. There, I shared stories with stranded visitors like myself, including a grounded airline pilot from Australia, as well as shell-shocked New Yorkers like Al Sarnoff, the nephew of David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, who, coincidentally, knew a friend of mine, TV programming legend Mike Dann. 

Sarnoff, expressing what everyone was feeling, suggested I contact the big wigs I knew in Washington to tell the President to get up here and fast.  Of course, plans were already being laid and the day I left, Friday, September 14, Bush visited Ground Zero, and famously stood on that pile of rubble and addressed the firefighters, and the world.  

When he started speaking, the firefighters said they couldn’t hear him, and he said, “I can’t talk any louder” and, using the bullhorn, began communicating as best he could, telling them, “I want you all to know that America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people who lost their lives here...” As he continued, the firefighters again said they couldn’t hear him, at which point, in a moment historians say, Bush became president, he blared into that bullhorn, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked all of these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” 

It had been a week of Big Apple Big Chill moments with friends and strangers alike—extending over several days, because I was leery of returning to Washington via train.  But, I finally traveled back to Washington by car with a friend on Friday, after she finished a weeklong seminar at IBM’s White Plains Headquarters. Once home, I exhaled. My little apartment never looked so good!

Finishing the Journey...  

wo months later, the figurative and literal dust having settled, I felt magnetically drawn to the city again and, on November 8th, traded in my September 11th Amtrak ticket for a visit I prayed would turn out much differently.

The only hotel available through my City Tavern Club membership this time was in Lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero, which was very fortuitous. While, officially, I had come to New York to screen a friend’s film in the Miramax building on Greenwich Street, and try to advance my screenwriting projects; my real purpose was to come to terms with the enormous catastrophe of two months earlier. 

So, after settling into my room, I soon ventured out and discovered that the closest city officials would allow visitors to the World Trade Center pit was the intersection of Liberty & Broadway—near the very tip of Manhattan Island.  The symbolism was riveting.

Corner of Liberty & Broadway, November 9, 2001.
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall
The next day, starting at Liberty & Broadway, I did a few “man on the street” interviews and soon rediscovered the truth that America’s wealth lies in her people.

Two telephone technicians, Thomas and Joe, were working diligently to extend communications cut off by the attack. They talked with me, my tape-recorder rolling, in front of Old St. Paul’s Church steps from Ground Zero. (Miraculously, St. Paulhad sustained no damage whatsoever.)

“Everyone,” said Thomas “is still in shock.” He reported that his close friend, an FDNY firefighter in Ladder 10 a few blocks away, had died—his body just recovered the previous week. “There wasn’t much left of him,” he said—DNA providing essential proof of his identity. Asked if it helped knowing their friends died “in the line of duty,” they both chimed in, it was “small consolation.”  But, in fact, their heroism was great consolation. As Joe said, “The firefighters (like cops)—they run in, they don’t care, they take their job with real heart…You got to have a big heart to be a firefighter—no matter where you are.” 

Ground Zero, corner of Liberty & Broadway, November 9, 2001.
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall
In a nearby coffee shop, workers for Blackman Moring Steamatic (BMS) Catastrophe Restoration shared their perspective. BMS’s catastrophe division had opened in 1981 to help restore large commercial loss and was now the premier contractor for large loss insurers. But, in all those years, they had never seen anything like the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster: “Property loss is one thing.” But, the loss of so many lives—“incomprehensible!”

Nancy Leo, BMS Vice President and Regional Director, told me she had worked for the New York Port Authority for 10 years and that the clean-up after the February 1993 World Trade Center terrorist bombing required “running 3000 people” a day.  The morning of September 11th she was scheduled to meet with Larry Silverstein’s operations people to secure his new investment. The meeting, she said, was providentially pushed back to later that morning.

With weary sadness in her eyes, she told me, nineteen of her friends and associates, plus 700 other Port Authority employees, were not so lucky.

Author at Ground Zero, corner of Liberty & Broadway,
while conducting "man on the street" interviews, November 9, 2001
Next on my spontaneous itinerary was a visit to Our Lady of Victory Church, where I spoke with Fr. Peter Gnanashekar.

The morning of September 11th at 8:47 a.m., he said, “time seemed to stand still.”  

While assisting at mass he said he heard a “big sound” after which a man, covered in debris, rushed in to report the attack followed by someone reporting a man, covered in blood, had dragged himself to the Church, seeking the Last Rites. Fr. Peter’s colleague, Father Andrew Cieszkowksi, immediately administered the sacrament to this man, who had been struck by flying debris. He was, said Fr. Peter, Ground Zero’s first visible victim.

Others, going out to see the scene with their own eyes, came back in utter disbelief.
Spurred on by the mayhem, Fr. Peter said everyone began to pray fervently “in the front of the tabernacle and Blessed Mother’s statue,” and then, “spontaneously to pray aloud.”

As the dust came pouring in, people started taking altar cloths to cover themselves, holding tight through the final 10:30 a.m. tower collapse.

Then, as the debris in the Church cleared, everyone—in a state of shock—began going to confession, asking for a quick absolution, believing their demise was imminent.

Various angles of Our Lady of Victory Church, November 9, 2001.
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall 
Every Wednesday after September 11th, he told me, Our Lady of Victory held an hour of prayer to help people cope with grief and to provide mental and spiritual solace. The purpose, he said, was “to share, to heal, (and) to grow as we try to face this one with faith.”

On my way back to Penn Station for the return trip to Washington, I spoke with a man on the subway. Like all the others, he expressed a profound sense of loss and emotional shellshock. Every time, he said, he got off the subway near Ground Zero to walk to his home or place of work, the foul odor emanating from the burning pit “always makes me feel immediately depressed.”

But he found one silver lining.  In spite of widespread communications and social disruptions—phones and buildings rendered totally unusable—human innovation and ingenuity, he said with a smile, helped their community to adapt. Young children would run around the neighborhood taping notices to all the front doors to announce scheduled meetings taking place in the park or significant news.

Then, his thoughts and spirit slumped back as he lamented, “If only human emotion could adapt as quickly.”

Note: My interview with Fr. Peter Gnanashekar at Our Lady of Victory was also included in my companion piece for National Catholic Register, titled “Journey to Liberty and Forgiveness.”  See .