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[This Just In]

WHEN DISASTER STRIKES
First day of school

BY JIM MACNIE

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 8 a.m. — Tuesday morning in Brooklyn was gorgeous. As I walked my son to his third day of first grade, our usually distant neighbor gave up a smile and some back-to-school chitchat. Although I normally take the F train to work after leaving PS 58, on Tuesday I headed back home to see my two-year-old off on his first day at nursery school. No way was I missing that. But back in the apartment my wife had the TV on, and I found her dumbstruck by the live shots of a disaster that was literally seconds old — there’d been an explosion in one of the World Trade Center skyscrapers.

We live in Carroll Gardens, directly across the New York harbor from the Statue of Liberty, and we have a decent visual shot of the twin towers. We turned away from the tube and went to the window to see the jet-black smoke that was already staining the cloudless sky. On television, orange flames were lining the office spire; outside, we caught the glint of sun-drenched debris riding the air currents. We looked at the sky and then speechlessly looked at each other.

The local news anchor said it wasn’t an explosion but a plane crash that was causing the mayhem. Wow, a commuter plane crashed into the towers, I thought. That’s messed up. But as we watched the live image of the building ablaze, we saw a second plane swoop into the other tower. Simultaneously, the sound of the crash from lower Manhattan faintly wafted across the water.

In a chilling flash the meaning behind the actions became obvious: this was an attack, not an accident. It was 9:05 a.m. What should we do?

With two fires raging, smoke snaked into our neighborhood, covering the sky. Updates described the planes as full-size commercial passenger jets, not buzz-around prop jobs. What the fuck? People on the street were yelling up to the windows: " It’s the Trade Center. Terrorists are blowing up the World Trade Center right now! " Flecks of paper swirled around the Statue of Liberty and started raining on the streets like snow. A guy grabbed a handful. " It’s the stuff from the offices, " he bellowed. Bodega owners and laundromat managers came out of their shops. Sirens wailed, policemen gunned the engines of their cars. And the TV news amped up the paranoia with yet another item: a plane had deliberately crashed into the Pentagon. Our country’s military brain trust was in a burning building.

New Yorkers have a way of cauterizing themselves against such mania, and my wife and I are no exception. Amid the chaos, with a dazed but deliberate attitude, we began the two-block stroll to nursery school. Along the way we saw grandmothers sobbing and yuppies flaunting stoicism; for the first time ever, the wise-ass neighborhood kid was without his smirk.

Inside the pre-school, no one spoke of the disaster. A girl punched my toddler three times in 11 minutes, and after a half-hour I left my wife to the care-giving and headed home. It was now dark outside: soot and smoke and debris were everywhere. And the air smelled of jet fuel. There were massive traffic jams in both directions on the expressway that cuts through our neighborhood. Sirens and more sirens. I wondered if this might be the start of the end days.

Back in the apartment, I turned on the television and glanced out the window. Many people had masks over their mouths. Out of the sky floated a page from an office book. It literally drifted into my hands. The scorched sheet was addressed to a Robert Crabb; it was a legal form about a traffic-court hearing in Dade County, Florida. I tried to get a grip on the fact that 45 minutes earlier it had probably been in Robert Crabb’s Wall Street desk. Then I tried to comprehend that Robert Crabb might have just met his maker. That thought was interrupted by a shriek from the street below. A rumble filled the air. I stuck my head out the window and saw my neighbor pointing toward town. " It’s gone, it’s down, " she cried.

TV news reran the tape. Peter Jennings sounded as if he were speaking to himself. There was disbelief in his voice as he asked a staffer something like, " Did you say it’s just not there anymore? " My wife ran into the house in tears: " It fell, it collapsed. " Mission accomplished: terror, the perpetrators’ ultimate goal, could be felt in our living room. Instant Messages from friends flooded our computer: Los Alamos, Boulder, Nashville. " Are you all right? Tell us what we can do. We love you. " The phone had no dial tone. A plane crash outside Pittsburgh was reported. People are leaping from the Trade Center’s ruined structures, exclaimed a Fox correspondent. " Go get Misha from school, " said my wife.

A wrapped kerchief over my face, I ran up the street to find crying parents huddled outside the building. My son met me with a wet paper towel over his mouth and nose. We headed home in time to see the second tower crumble on TV. There were so many sirens outside that we didn’t hear the actual rumble from Manhattan this time. The cars and streets were coated with soot. Men in business suits were covered with debris. African-Americans were " whited " by ash. Lower Manhattan was swamped by twisted steel girders, concrete, and body parts. The TV showed an image of an oversize rubber tire sitting solitary on a side street. It was from one of the planes.

A certain angle in a news shot of one tower’s remaining façade reminded me that our entire family had danced to NRBQ in that exact quadrangle back in July. The two-year-old had chased a ball. The six-year-old had played air guitar. My wife had chuckled. The band had karaoked through " Eleanor Rigby. " " Ahh, look at all the lonely people ... "

Now that quad’s a graveyard, with those who aren’t dead merely trapped, gasping for air, dialing loved ones from their cell phones, murmuring their location. Their current location is limbo. There’ll be no more NRBQ concerts there. As I finish typing that last sentence, the spire at 7 World Trade Center collapses from its wounds — another 40 stories’ worth of humanity on the ground. The mayhem multiplies.

Anything can happen. Anything can happen. Anything can happen. Practice feeling vulnerable. After today, it’s all up for grabs.

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Issue Date: September 12, 2001