Being in Lower Manhattan on 9/11

If you’re just joining us, do not adjust your dial! You *are* in the right place. We’re counting down (and re-posting, etc.) our Top 10 Most Read Pieces of the year. #9 is a little Inception-like, since this countdown of the blog’s Greatest Hits is a walk down memory lane (and this post was a walk down memory lane). Crazy, I know. Since there was already a preface to the piece, enough with this preface to the preface to the piece! Thanks for reading all year!

~brandon


This is a slight departure from what we usually post on this site — it doesn’t contain any advice on how to better conduct crisis communications. But, one aim of this site is to make the world a better place one post at a time, so in that spirit I’m adding my voice to the many who, today, are recounting to others what it was like to “be there when it happened,” to make sure people remember — or just learn about what it was really like. Consider this: most men and women who entered their first year of college in the last few weeks were in kindergarten on that day. I wrote this piece a few years ago; it was first published in the online version of Coast Guard Magazine on Sep. 11, 2011.

The skyline of Manhattan is pictured early September 15, 2001 with smoke billowing from the wreckage of the World Trade Center's twin towers. Photo by the author.

The skyline of Manhattan is pictured early September 15, 2001 with smoke billowing from the wreckage of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Photo by the author.

It was such a perfect day… clear blue sky – not a cloud in it. Just a nice, late summer day, with a nice cool breeze coming off the harbor…. Ask someone who was in New York City that day – especially Lower Manhattan – to tell you about 9/11, and odds are they’ll start their story like this. It’s because they don’t really want to talk about everything else. Chit-chat about the weather is a perfect filler for many social situations.

But it was, in fact, a perfect day. A sky so blue that the World Trade Center Tribute Center, across the street from where the new WTC is springing up now, has an entire wall in its exhibition space painted sky blue – representing how people remember how that day started, how it could have progressed.

8:00 a.m.: American Airlines Flight 11 takes off from Boston’s Logan International Airport.

The Coast Guard’s Battery Park Building, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, is springing to life with the 50-odd people working that day. All these people worked in disparate offices, detached from Headquarters, the First District or former Activities New York. There is no single unit, just offices with everything from recruiters to public affairs specialists to people managing thousands of Auxiliarists.

8:14 a.m.: United Airlines Flight 175 takes off from Boston’s Logan International Airport.

I’ve done a cursory look at my emails, noted internally that one of my petty officers is in Sandy Hook, N.J., preparing to get underway with a patrol boat crew. I’ve made a pot of coffee in our galley next to my office, and another petty officer and I are sticking to our routine and walking to the other side of the Staten Island Ferry terminal to buy bagels from the same food truck we visit every morning.

A few miles across the harbor, in Staten Island, Lt. Michael Day is in his office at Activities New York, preparing for a 10 a.m. meeting at the World Trade Center, deciding on the best way to get into the city.

8:40 a.m.: FAA notifies NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector about suspected hijacking of American Flight 11.

Cmdr. Ed Seebald, the Director of Auxiliary, is in his office at the Battery, working on the computer and making his morning phone calls.

8:43 a.m.: FAA notifies NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector about suspected hijacking of United Flight 175.

8:46 a.m.: American Flight 11 crashes into north tower of World Trade Center.

From my notes of that day: “… by about that time, I re-filled my coffee cup and grabbed a document that Seebald had given me. It was an award citation for one of his volunteers that he wanted me to edit for him. I had the paper in one hand, coffee cup in the other and headed down the hallway to go outside.

The light coming into the building was beautiful – orange and low, casting those long shadows between long streaks of light on the floors. I had a fresh uniform on – the crispness of my shirt, from the heavy starch, felt good. It was about

8:50 in the morning, and the terrorist attacks, unbeknownst to me, had just begun.

Just as I got to the stairwell there on the second deck, just a few steps down the hall from my office, a co- worker from down the hall came out of the stairwell at a run, face red, and yelled at me, half over his shoulder as he bolted for his office, “the World Trade Center’s been hit by a plane! It’s on fire!” I stopped for a second, watching him run toward his office. My first thought – can’t be. He must have heard some crazy false report. Basically, I thought it was probably something minor, and didn’t really give it much thought.

Five minutes later, two petty officers and I are on the third-story roof of the Battery with a clear view of the Twin Towers just a few blocks away, the tree tops of Battery Park level with our feet. We’re watching the thin wisps of white smoke drift up from the north tower, and the slow-motion shower of what looks like a million pieces of paperwork floating down upon the Financial District, like someone had blown on a gigantic dandelion and set the seed pods afloat.

Day, in Staten Island, has received a phone call stating, “Hey, did you hear the news? A plane hit one of the Towers.” He immediately heads to Vessel Traffic Service New York, in the same building, as initial reports are coming in.

Aerial view of Lower Manhattan, with the still smoldering World Trade Center complex, Sep. 15, 2011. Photo by the author.

Aerial view of Lower Manhattan, with the still smoldering World Trade Center complex, Sep. 15, 2011. Photo by the author.

Back on the roof of the Battery in Manhattan, like most people, we have no idea what has happened, and we speculate freely while mesmerized by the odd site. That lasts just a few minutes.

We hear the second jet before we see it. It came from behind us, over the water of New York Harbor from the direction of the Statue of Liberty. We saw the plane, coming in fast and low, just as it cleared the water and came over Battery Park. It was moving fast, and we could hear that scream-whine of the wind whistling over it.

No one says anything. It doesn’t register that I’m looking at a passenger jet, flying only a few hundred feet over the park, headed for the canyons of buildings that is Lower Manhattan. My first thought is it is a crew coming to evaluate the situation. When the jet starts its severe banking, our perspective puts skyscrapers directly in front of the plane. I think “Wow – that guy (the pilot) is really cutting it close!” I still think it is some kind of official damage overflight.

9:03 a.m.: United Flight 175 crashes into south tower of World Trade Center.

A professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would later calculate that this plane was flying more than 500 mph. It seemed to move in slow motion as it passed the Battery, over the park and into the south tower. The split second of the jet hitting the south tower, the building enveloping the plane and the resulting fireball and debris blast seems to play out for minutes.

I am a 30-year-old chief petty officer. This isn’t my first crisis, and it’s not the first time I’ve been in a leadership position, but all those oil spills, hurricanes, floods and migrant patrols are fading quickly in a battle for a distant second-place to the events unfolding around us.

Cmdr. Seebald, recounted from an email he sent at 0-dark-thirty Sept. 12: “… about 9 a.m., I heard a bang and someone screaming. I was so accustomed to the Staten Island Ferry banging into the slip next door, that I stuck my head out of the window and saw the ferry and figured that something had fallen between the ship and the pier. I sat back in my chair and started to type again when I heard another scream. I looked out and saw the towers of the World Trade Center on fire and smoking … got a hold of all of the chiefs in the building and locked it down. I gathered everyone into the conference room.”

That initial meeting of the Battery employees in the conference room consisted of a quick briefing on international affairs (e.g., this is terrorism, it happens all over the world, now it’s happening here), and assignments to everyone in the building; all these people who have never worked together beyond being under the same roof. All of them struggle to adapt to the situation.

9:21 a.m.: All bridges and tunnels into Manhattan closed.

9:59 a.m.: South tower of trade center collapses.

From Seebald: “With the help of great chiefs and Auxiliarists, we sealed the … building. I moved the building personnel to the third floor and locked down floors one and two. Only Coast Guardsmen were allowed on the first two floors. I got all my clean tee shirts … from the office; we cut them up and passed them through the gate for people to put over their faces. We put a hose out the gate for water.”

One person from the Battery was missing. A chief petty officer, who was a volunteer firefighter on his liberty time, had dashed the few blocks north to the WTC after hearing about the second plane hitting the south tower. He wanted to help, and his intent was to connect with the first fire department crew he found. He did, and he ended up sheltering with them when the towers came down. He helped out as he could those first few hours, then eventually made it safely away from Ground Zero and off Manhattan.

This chief was not the last person to adapt to the crisis and perform.

New Yorkers, looking for a way off the island, make their way to the Battery Park area after the first plane hits the north tower. More people arrive after the second plane hits the south tower, and then a sheer flood of people heading south when the towers come down, a cloud of dust, smoke and debris following them.

CITIZENS TRYING TO EVACUATE GATHER AT THE BATTERY PARK SEAWALL IN LOWER MANHATTAN SEP. 11, 2001. ESTIMATES RANGE FROM 300,000 TO 500,000 PEOPLE WOULD EVENTUALLY BE EVACUATED BY BOAT. Photo by the author.

CITIZENS TRYING TO EVACUATE GATHER AT THE BATTERY PARK SEAWALL IN LOWER MANHATTAN SEP. 11, 2001. ESTIMATES RANGE FROM 300,000 TO 500,000 PEOPLE WOULD EVENTUALLY BE EVACUATED BY BOAT. Photo by the author.

10:28 a.m.: North tower of World Trade Center collapses.

Seebald writes: “A crowd of more than 2,000 people now was packed near the Battery and Staten Island ferry terminal next door. After the second tower collapsed, the ash cloud was so large and thick that people were unable to breathe.”

Day is now aboard a pilot boat in the waters between the Battery and Governors Island and the maritime evacuation of Manhattan is underway. Day is working with others to start controlling the assets on-scene: ferries, recreational boats, party boats, Coast Guard assets, tugs – everything the port had to offer.

After the radio call goes out for “all available boats” to report to Governors Island, approximately 100 boats comprised the armada that would, over the course of the next few hours, evacuate approximately 500,000 people from Manhattan. The largest maritime evacuation in world history is happening all around the Battery. Workers from the Battery assist in the evacuation by directing people to awaiting vessels on the seawall and making sure that people proceed and board vessels safely.

The debris cloud from both towers collapsing pushes south and covers the Battery. Visibility at one point can be measured in inches, and the air is grit and acrid smoke. As it slowly clears, the thousands of people who had gathered on the southern tip of Manhattan are still there and the numbers are growing. Across the street from the Battery, a linen truck driver has thrown open the back of his box truck and is ripping sheets and giving out the pieces to a crowd in need of makeshift respirators, or just something to clean the debris off.

Tug boats being used to evacuate people from Downtown Manhattan, at Battery Park. Photo by the author.

Tug boats being used to evacuate people from Downtown Manhattan, at Battery Park. Photo by the author.

11:00 a.m.: New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani orders evacuation of lower Manhattan.

Small contingents of Coast Guardsmen make their way from Staten Island and are at Ground Zero, helping with the rescue mission at hand.

Lower Manhattan looks like snow flurries have hit, everything covered in varying sized piles of beige and gray dust and debris. The air smells of burning plastic, and will for months to come. As the city empties of civilians, it fills with emergency workers and their vehicles. Getting around Lower Manhattan isn’t easy, and no one knows if it’s safe.

We know what we can see, hear, feel and smell. People in Lower Manhattan probably know less about their circumstances than those people who are watching the scenes on television. Rumors are rampant.

While the smoke and debris is still thick after the second tower collapses, the first fighter jets pass over the city and many people think the roar is that of the next wave of attacks, unseen through the acrid cloud.

By late afternoon Lower Manhattan, at least several blocks out from Ground Zero, is eerily empty, a ghost town. Staged emergency vehicles are the only life. Most of the workers of the Battery are gone, and the building is quickly becoming a hopping-off point for federal agents, police and fire officials and military members.

Boats start showing up at the Battery pier with supplies for first responders. Two bottled water delivery trucks also show up, with no way for the drivers to get their cargo to those in need. Coast Guardsmen still at the Battery start making trips to and around Ground Zero, to put food, water, ice and personal protective equipment into the hands of those who need it.

5:21 p.m.: Entire 47-story Seven World Trade Center collapses.

Twilight at and around Ground Zero is filled with hellish scenes. Piles of debris and inches of dust are under your every step, smoke and dust still filling the air, and block after formerly bustling block of city streets are unrecognizable because of damage, debris, power blackouts and the work of an army of first responders that the brain can’t quickly process.

A handful of Coast Guardsmen spend the night in the Battery Building that night, with sleep for most coming past 2 a.m. The next day will be full of more work, more lessons.

When we awoke at the Battery after a few hours of sleep on couches or chairs pushed together as makeshift beds, that we were thankful to have, Coast Guardsmen from around the country were already arriving in the city by small boat, cutter, plane and government vehicle to plan, coordinate and execute the gamut of post- 9/11 missions throughout the port in the months ahead.

Talk to me, Goose.

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