9/11: An eyewitness remembers
Editor's note: This essay was written in December 2001, when author John Avlon, now a CNN senior political analyst and anchor, was chief speechwriter for then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. It appeared in the anthology "Empire City: New York Through the Centuries." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Three-hundred and forty-one New York City firefighters. Twenty-three New York City police officers. Thirty-seven Port Authority police officers. Three court officers. Two EMS workers. Thousands of innocent civilians. Numbers alone, of course, cannot do them justice.
A whole portrait of America was taken from us in an instant: individuals of every race, religion, and ethnicity; fathers and mothers, children and newlyweds, brothers, sisters, and best friends. Amid our grief we now see that New York had been distracted by flash and wit and cash for too long.
The heroic actions of those we lost reawakened us to the essential importance of personal courage. Overnight, and somewhat to our surprise, New York has been embraced as the nation's symbol of resilience, the indomitable heart of America.
On my desk is a list of every firefighter, police officer, and uniformed service member who died in the line of duty on that day. Their names fill 47 pages. As Mayor Giuliani's speechwriter, it has been my responsibility to write or edit each of their eulogies.
The New York City Fire Department had lost 778 men from its founding in 1865 until September 10, 2001. In the course of one morning, it lost nearly half that historic total. Nothing had prepared the city or the department for this volume of loss. And so it fell to four of us in our small office to do the best we could to do them justice, to say thank you, to provide some measure of comfort to their families on behalf of their city.
It should not be forgotten that September 11 began as a beautiful blue-sky day. Primary elections were being held throughout the city, and as people were lining up to vote at polling places or dropping their children off at school, suddenly they stopped and turned their heads toward a rumble in the sky. It was 8:46 a.m.
The pilot of the first hijacked airplane, Mohammed Atta, was flying American Airlines Flight 11 low and loud down the length of Manhattan with the lives of 92 passengers in his hands, above stores, churches, and finally past the Washington Square Arch as he aimed for the heart of the Twin Towers.
The first plane flew by my window. I was sleeping late after a long weekend of work, when my girlfriend heard the roar of its engines approaching. She shook me and we both saw its silver underbelly pass by the window of my fifth-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. We assumed it was going to crash, but the plane seemed strangely in control to be flying so low.
We waited for impact, heard a faint sound, and then saw the beginning of the black smoke curl above the trees, beyond the church steeple of Our Lady of Pompeii. Then the first sirens of that long day sounded in the distance. I recalled that a plane had once crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. Despite the cloudless sky, I tried to convince myself that this also could have been an accident.
At 9:03, the second plane banked sickly toward the south tower as the world watched on television. An orange blossom of flame exploded on our screens as a new reality dawned. As I left the apartment for City Hall, fire companies from around the city were already racing to join those who had already arrived at what would become ground zero.
On the streets people stood frozen in mid-commute, gathered at street corners, talking to strangers or on their cell phones, gazing at the blazing scars cut into the sides of the Twin Towers. I passed a kindergarten playground opposite a firehouse where children were still playing as their teachers looked over their shoulders at the buildings burning in the distance.
A stunned city
The steel seemed to have melted around the impact zone and it reflected the sunlight, giving the edges a quicksilver sheen, like an overwrought special effect. Despite the horror of the scene, there was an assumption that the worst had already occurred; few people thought that the towers would actually come down. After all, they had been bombed before in 1993, and though six people had died and thousands were injured, the Twin Towers still stood.
Subways were shut down and taxis proved impossible to find, so I made my way down Broadway against a sea of people evacuating uptown. Black smoke now filled the sky, evident from anywhere on the island. I expected to see mass panic, but instead the exodus was relatively calm and orderly. It was the response of a civil society to a massive attack.
Friends and colleagues were standing on the steps of City Hall, staring up at the towers burning less than three blocks away. Inside the hall there was concern and controlled panic — grim glances passed between co-workers worried that sites like Times Square and the United Nations would be targeted next.
Reporters were calling the press office for comment. I looked at a newspaper someone had thrown across the desk and committed the date to memory. Its contents were instantly irrelevant, news from another century. Three blocks away, people were throwing themselves from upper floors of the World Trade Center. One observer recalled them hitting the ground "like melons," as the music piped into the plaza played "How Deep Is Your Love?"
Firefighters in full bunker gear were rushing up the stairs of the trade center as workers tried to get down to safety. This was the image that survivors would repeat over and over, "as we were going down, they were going up."
In City Hall, we received word that the mayor was getting ready to do a press conference on a street one block from the burning buildings. The purpose was not only to get information out to the general public but also to get information up to those who were still trapped above the flames in the Twin Towers. They were calling out to family and friends, asking if there was anything that could be done, and in some cases, saying goodbye.
At 10:05, the south tower shuddered and collapsed; 23 minutes later the north tower fell as well. It was an avalanche in Lower Manhattan, reaching 2.4 on the Richter scale. The rumble of the buildings coming down was like a thousand jets taking off at once. Below the roar you could almost hear the collective sigh of human life, the disbelief, horror, and resignation as the steel finally buckled and 110 stories imploded, floor upon floor.
A gray cloud of debris rolled violently toward us across City Hall Park, an unforgiving wall of pulverized concrete against the still briefly blue sky. Then it hit City Hall, and everything became dark as night and quiet, except for the patter of debris hitting the roof of the old stone building. For a moment, we thought that we might all die, if not from the building collapse itself then from some biological agent swirling around in the air.
Rescuers, heroes, victims
Base alloys of emotion bubbled up to the surface. Tough women with children at home curled up in the rotunda at the foot of the grand staircase. Some men grew silent, scared. Others shouted conflicting orders. After several minutes, the dust cleared enough to let some light through, and we could see that Lower Manhattan had been transformed into a gray wasteland of ash and smoke, pierced by sirens.
It seemed that every New Yorker knew someone in the towers. In City Hall, we worked alongside the uniformed services every day: They were friends and, in some cases, family.
Capt. Terence S. Hatton was the leader of Rescue One, the city's elite rescue unit. He and the mayor's executive assistant Beth had been married four years before in a ceremony at Gracie Mansion. His photograph on her desk — face covered in soot after fighting a fire — was a constant reminder of who we really worked for and what real courage looked like.
Terry Hatton could have been anything he wanted to be. He was 6-foot-4, with the inner dignity of a young Gary Cooper. He could have been a movie star. But if he had been a movie star, his job would have been playing people like Terry Hatton — impossibly courageous and down to earth, possessing both integrity and intelligence.
Like his father before him, Terry Hatton loved being a New York City firefighter. He had been decorated for bravery 19 times in his 21-year career. In August 2001, Terry had rescued eight people stuck in an elevator shaft near the 80th floor of the World Trade Center. Rescue units were among the first responders, and on the 11th of September they were presumably the highest up the towers, racing to put out the fires and save the people who were stranded. Rescue One lost 10 of its men that day.
We lost so many of the best of New York's bravest, including 60 off-duty firefighters who rushed to the towers when they heard of the attack. The legendary Capt. Paddy Brown was by some accounts the most decorated firefighter in the nation. He'd served two tours as a Marine in Vietnam, come back home to Queens and devoted his life to fighting fires and saving lives; lately, he'd taken up yoga and teaching blind people martial arts.
We lost Father Mychal Judge, the beloved department chaplain who shepherded families through the tragedies ranging from fires to the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island.
We lost Chief of Special Operations Ray Downey, a 40-year veteran who led the recovery mission after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, and then FEMA's rescue effort after the attack at Oklahoma City. In return for his heroics and battlefield expertise, Downey had been appointed to serve on the president's anti-terrorism task force.
His sons, also in the FDNY, would spend the better part of the next month digging through ground zero, looking for their father.
Giuliani inspires the city
In the hours and days immediately following the attack, New York City was transformed into something like Battle of Britain-era London, with whole sections of the city evacuated and a military presence on street corners.
The acrid smell of smoke and ash hung in the air, and people walked around shell-shocked — with a mixture of adrenaline and despair — as they waited for what many assumed was the inevitable next attack.
Four hours after he had almost been killed in the collapse of the south tower, Mayor Giuliani appeared in front of reporters at the Police Academy on East 20th Street. He was asked how many people had been killed. "More than any of us can bear," he said promptly.
He spoke without notes and inspired confidence in a hurt world because of his directness, honesty, and compassion. That evening he returned to ground zero to supervise the recovery effort and strode around the wreckage of the city he loved like a latter-day Winston Churchill. In his morning and evening executive staff meetings away from the cameras, the mayor transformed himself into a wartime leader, decisively organizing massive amounts of information and directing the recovery effort.
Giuliani was now spontaneously applauded when he walked down the street. His tireless courage inspired us to rise above the devastation. Working around the clock, we met whatever challenges we faced — after all, the extraordinary is ordinary to the people experiencing it.
The city's emergency command center had been destroyed in the attack, but 72 hours later, a new command center was fully operational within a pier near 52nd Street by the Hudson River. Outside the mayor's office in the new command center we pinned a Revolutionary War-era flag to the wall bearing the phrase "Don't Tread on Me."
The morning after the attack, I returned to City Hall. FDR Drive was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles, and we drove down it with lights and sirens flashing. The beauty of the blue-sky day ignored what had occurred 24 hours before.
The absence of the Twin Towers in the skyline was jarring, as was the sight of tanks and Humvees posted along Park Row. Crushed police cars were lined up along the side of the road. On storefront windows, messages had been written into the dust on the glass: "Rest in peace to all the people who died today 9/11/01."
City Hall was dark and empty except for a few guards. In the mayor's office, the portrait of Fiorello La Guardia stared intensely into the tomblike silence. Outside, somebody had taken care to lower the flags to half-staff.
I wandered down to St. Paul's Chapel off the southern tip of City Hall Park, passing rescue workers trudging back from the smoking skeletal wreckage of ground zero, discouraged to their bones that so few survivors had been found.
When St. Paul's had been built in 1766, the land around it was considered countryside. George Washington had walked there to pray after he was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. Since 1973, St. Paul's had stood across the street from the World Trade Center. Now in the chapel's graveyard, trees were torn out at their roots, 200-year-old tombstones were cracked or knocked over entirely, ripped sections of Venetian blinds rattled amid branches, and a 6-inch-thick blanket of papers, debris, and ash coated the ground.
Upon closer inspection these were pieces of bills, bank statements, old photographs, and company ledgers from people who had worked in the World Trade Center. What once seemed important was brutally exposed as irrelevant.
Outside the gates of the graveyard, on the edge of ground zero, an advertisement for Investor's Business Daily above a subway entrance was still intact: It read "Choose success."
One minor miracle was apparent amid the devastation — St. Paul's Chapel had escaped the towers' collapse without a single broken window.
'Greater love have no man than this...'
As city government mobilized to overcome the effects of the attack, the speechwriting department began to plan for the inevitable memorial services. Remote historic figures such as Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt gained new relevance with their themes of courage, defiance, and freedom from fear. A biblical quote, John 15:13 — "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" — resonated because hundreds had laid down their lives for thousands of strangers.
But for us, the greatest inspiration by far came from the deep grief of ordinary New Yorkers: makeshift memorials of notes and melting candles in parks outside firehouses; the American flags that hung from almost every apartment building; the steadfast souls who stood along the West Side Highway every hour of the day and night for more than a month, holding handwritten signs and cheering the rescue workers on their way to and from ground zero.
This was the spirit of a resilient city — outraged, engaged, and unified. Slowly the eulogies began to take shape, common themes woven through the contours of their extraordinary individual lives.
On September 15, the first funeral was held. It was for Father Mychal Judge, the beloved Fire Department chaplain who had been killed by debris as he administered last rites to a fallen firefighter. Three months later to the day, we laid to rest Chief Ray Downey. In between, there were more than 400 other heroes of the uniformed services and thousands of civilians from 83 nations. Their stories were told again and again in an attempt to assimilate the tragedy, to comprehend the incomprehensible.
There was the middle-aged woman from Kazakhstan who had reported early for her first day of work in America, and the young bond trader who was killed on her one-month wedding anniversary.
Firefighter John Chipura had survived the 1983 terrorist attacks on the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 of his colleagues and then served seven years as a member of the NYPD before joining the Fire Department.
John O'Neil spent a career serving as a counterterrorism expert for the FBI and leading the search for Osama bin Laden after the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole, before taking a job as director of security for the World Trade Center in August 2001.
Henry Thompson was a court officer who commandeered a van and raced to the towers with two of his co-workers.
Chief of the Department Pete Ganci had ordered his men to move the FDNY command post away from the trade center and then walked toward the burning buildings minutes before their collapse.
Glenn Winuk was a respected lawyer who also served as the commissioner of the volunteer fire department in his hometown of Jericho, New York; after the attack he helped evacuate co-workers from his law firm and then headed toward the towers to help the rescue effort.
Capt. Timothy Stackpole was a father of five who had recently returned to the job after recuperating from burns over 90% of his body that he suffered in a fire that killed two of his friends.
Police Officer Moira Smith had been among the first to report that a plane had smashed into the towers, and hours later this mother of a 2-year-old and wife of a police officer became the first female NYPD officer killed in the line of duty.
The legendary 71-year-old First Deputy Fire Commissioner Bill Feehan, who had held every position in the department, became the oldest New York City firefighter in history to die in the line of duty.
The dead are remembered
Firefighting and police work tend to be family traditions in the city of New York, and the attack affected some families and communities disproportionately: the brothers Joseph and John Vigiano; brothers Thomas and Peter Langone; brothers Timothy and Thomas Haskell; cousins Manuel and Dennis Mojica; and the father and son Joseph Angelini, Sr. and Joseph Angelini, Jr. — all died together on September 11. This was more than just the fraternal bond between firefighters and police officers; this was family.
Their services were held in small chapels, ornate synagogues, simple firehouses, and grand cathedrals. More than a dozen were held at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. It is there that you get the fullest sense of majesty and tragedy of this city transformed.
Thousands of firefighters in their dress blue uniforms line the street. Hundreds of friends, admirers, and fellow citizens crowd the steps of the cathedral. Two fire trucks parked side by side, with their ladders raised and extended as a large American flag hung between them waves in the breeze.
Everyone falls silent as the black limousines carrying the family arrive. Then the faint sound of bagpipes and drum rolls grows louder as the Emerald Society pipe band marches closer, announcing the approach of an engine truck rolling mournfully slow with a flag-covered coffin and flowers placed on top.
When the truck reaches the door of the cathedral it slows to a halt, and simultaneously a thousand firefighters snap into a salute that is held until the coffin and family are led inside. During the service, prayers are read; family and friends offer eulogies, followed by the mayor and surrogates such as Fire Commissioner Tommy Von Essen and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
After the final blessing is given, the coffin is carried out by brothers from his fire company and lifted onto the waiting truck, on the back of which is written "We will never forget." The salute is held again as the engine disappears down Fifth Avenue, preceded by the bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace," "America the Beautiful," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "Going Home."
One unseasonably warm night in early December, I went walking down from my office toward ground zero. I walked without a coat, wanting to take a break and refocus my mind. We had written nearly 400 eulogies for the mayor and his surrogates to deliver over the past three months, as many as 45 in a single weekend, with the mayor attending up to nine wakes and memorials in the course of each of his marathon 18-hour days.
The relentless pace required us to impose a certain degree of emotional distance to get the job done. But now the feelings of heartache increased as the workload diminished.
Rescue workers had been laboring at ground zero every hour since the disaster. At night the site was lit by spotlights, like a movie set. Fires had burned there for 80 days, rekindling when a lower level of the underground fire was exposed to the oxygen in the air.
Now tourists and well-wishers on pilgrimage sought out the site, standing at great distances, taking pictures of the hulking wreckage and skeletal spires looming over the fences. There were flowers left against every gate and poetry scribbled on paper taped to the lampposts. The missing-person posters that had appeared around the city in the days after the attacks had given way to heart-wrenching goodbyes, handwritten cards with photographs promising them that we would never forget.
Family members still gathered at the platform set up on the edge of the site and gazed at their loved ones' last resting place with haunted eyes. The largest mass grave in America existed uneasily as both hallowed ground and deconstruction site. The scope of the destruction, the size of the wound cut into the heart of our city, remained humbling and retrained its ability to inspire calm outrage, cold purposefulness.
On my way back from ground zero, I stopped by St. Paul's Chapel. It now served as a shrine of sorts, its metal gates covered with posters and canvas tarps upon which people wrote notes urging faith, expressing sadness, and calling for courage. Inside, the chapel had been transformed into a sanctuary for rescue workers with beds, food, clothing, and massage tables, and occasionally a string quartet to help soothe their souls.
The pew where George Washington had prayed now served as a nurse's station, full of bandages and medications. The sheer functionality of this sacred space was heartening — democracy and theology effortlessly intertwined.
Most startling and beautiful was this: Along all the walls of the church, posted on pillars and taped in pews, were letters and cards written by children from across the United States, covered with brightly colored drawings of eagles, firemen, the towers, gratitude: "Thank you... you were my heroes... I am sorry the people died.... Thank you for saving the people... I love the city... God Bless America."
These notes sustained the spirits of the men who each day would sift through the debris, finding body parts that, as often as not, would disintegrate at the touch. Their actions and those cards were powerful examples of why our city and nation would triumph over terror: In ways both large and small, we had met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity.
After leaving St. Paul's Chapel that silent New York night I walked down Broadway, past Wall Street and Trinity Church, past Bowling Green and into Battery Park. I stared out into the dark waters of New York Harbor for a time and then looked up and was almost surprised by the sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island still standing serenely in our harbor.
And then, for a moment, I saw the city through history's eyes. I remembered that this was the same body of water into which Henry Hudson had sailed the Half Moon in 1609. He could not have imagined the wilderness he saw becoming home to 8 million people from all over the world. He could not have imagined that buildings taller than mountains would one day crowd the island.
In less than 400 years our city has grown more than other cities have in a millennium, fueled by the energy, resilience, and innovations of each successive generation.
Our great symbol of world trade is now gone — what was intended by its architect to be a symbol of world peace was destroyed in a vicious, unprovoked act of war. But what was really attacked on September 11 was the idea of New York City and America itself — a beacon of freedom, diversity, and equal opportunity. That spirit is intact and undaunted. In fact, our devotion to those ideals has only been strengthened by the selfless heroism we have seen.
We now recognize that we are all part of a larger narrative, and while our city may never be the same, we will be better and stronger as a result of all we have experienced. Much has been taken from us, but much remains; and even in the dark, a great deal of light still shines upon the city of New York.
Read more about this story at CNN.com.