By Jerry Gordon ~
I was finishing a diplomatic outreach committee meeting at the national headquarters of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) near Third Avenue and 56th Streets, when the executive director of the New York City (NYC) chapter rushed in to say they heard reports of a plane crashing into one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center (WTC) complex, at the tip of Manhattan. My first reaction was concern for the safety of a fellow AJC NYC chapter board member and friend whose law offices were located on the 84th floor of the north tower. Incredibly, my cousins, who live in Israel found on the Internet a Los Angeles Times interview with WTC survivors that included remarks by this sobered but safe friend.
I was headed to a meeting at 140 Broadway adjacent to the WTC complex crash site, so I immediately called. There was no answer. Failing to make contact, I called my son, a partner at a New York law firm. I walked briskly down Lexington Avenue to his office. Along the way, passing a storefront, I chanced to look at TV images of the sickening curling smoke from the first and shortly second crashes into the south and north towers of the WTC complex. A bystander who said he was from Egypt asked what was going on. I told him that terrorists had seized two aircraft and deliberately flown them into the twin towers. He said that no self-respecting Muslim would do that, it must have been “others ” who did that.
When I got to my son’s law offices, he guided me up to a vantage point on the 38th floor that had a clear view south towards the WTC complex. We watched as first the south tower and then the north tower crumbled into the sickening plumes that rose emblazoned against an azure clear blue sky. We immediately speculated about how many tens of thousands of workers were present in their offices in the WTC complex or transiting below it via the PATH tubes from New Jersey and several subway lines. Our immediate concern was for the thousands of dead, injured and their surviving families. My own thoughts were for several professional acquaintances that may have been at work that fateful day at the WTC complex. Several of them would miraculously survive. Unfortunately, several others were ultimately dead or missing.
As the weeks unfolded, the ache and burden of attending funerals and memorial services were unbearable. Even today, the memories bring back grief for the souls of the dead. All caused by heedless, mindless hate. Hate from afar, hate from a stranger, hate from fanatic Muslim killers. The grief was instant, somber, deep and sobering.
Turning to my son and one of his partners my initial reaction was that this Islamic terrorist event was the ‘Pearl Harbor of the 21st century.’ Sept. 11th was the first day of a war against the Islamic terrorists. They agreed. We also agreed that the Islamic terrorist perpetrators did this because they hated everything that we stood for: liberty, human rights, modernity, and equal treatment of women. But we demurred, when my son’s law partner said this was their way of getting back at us for not having fostered and abetted peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. I said that after the Palestinian rejection of the generous offer from former Israeli Prime Minister Barak at Camp David in 2000, this attack was unwarranted, as the Palestinians had lost their chance for peace.
We watched and listened incredulously to reports of similar attacks on the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and the crash in Pennsylvania. Later, my son and daughter-in-law would learn that a fellow law school graduate, news commentator Barbara Olson, wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, died along with other passengers in the Pentagon plane attack.
About mid afternoon, my son came into the office I was using and said that the first trains from nearby Grand Central station were heading north. We joined a colleague who lived in suburban Westchester while throngs of traumatized commuters walked down a sun splashed Lexington Avenue towards the rail station complex on 42nd Street. Along the way we noticed that police had put crime scene tape around the entrances to the City’s subway system that had been shut down. When we reached Grand Central it was jammed with thousands desperate to get out of the city to the northern suburbs in Westchester County, N.Y. and Connecticut. My son’s colleague and I were fortunate to be on one of the first trains out.
There were survivors among us of the actual attack and destruction of the twin WTC towers. They were covered with ash from head to foot, eyes glazed, muttering how fortunate they were to have survived. They described the first moments of the attacks. The awful sights of desperately trapped people on the upper floors of the twin towers whose bodies came hurtling down to sounds of sickening thuds against the streets and concrete aprons surrounding the WTC complex. They told vivid stories about the valiant heroic, fire, police and emergency service personnel who assisted survivors in escaping. They described incredible scenes wrought by the collapse of the twin towers.
They told of teeming thousands of traumatized survivors trudging north along the canyons of lower Manhattan to safety.
The hours, weeks, months, and decade since 9/11/2001 have not dulled my memories of that traumatic day.
Jerry Gordon is a correspondent and commentator formerly of Fairfield and now of Pensacola, Fla.