September 13–20, 2001
Nothing Will Ever Be the Same
Observations and ruminations on the day the world changed, from Philly, New York and Washington.
by Howard Altman, Jim Barry, Daniel Brook, Jenn Carbin, Daryl Gale, Mary F. Patel, Gwen Shaffer, Rick Valenzuela and David Warner
edited by Frank Lewis
part 1 | part 2
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
9:45 a.m., U.S. Customs House, Second and Chestnut
Elva Cherry is standing on the stone steps of the Customs building, trembling.
"I am really concerned," says Cherry, a technician with the Food and Drug Administration.
She has good reason.
She works in a federal building, which in this chaotic hour may or may not be a target. No one really knows.
"There’s been no word," she says, about any plans to evacuate the building. "I was crying when I heard the news."
9:52 a.m., Independence Hall
National Park Service rangers move nervously around the national monument, ushering visitors in and out of the historic building. None want to talk, referring comment to National Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan.
10 a.m., Northwest Philadelphia
A friend in the police department calls. "Are you watching this on TV? It’s unbelievable. We should bomb Mecca!" When asked about his schedule, the cop replies: "We’re going to a 12-hour shift. We’ve gotten an alert to stop anyone who looks suspicious. Search any packages. It’s going to get crazy around here."
"The bomb squad is on alert, everything here is like Defcon 8," says police bomb squad officer Jack Keen via cell phone. "I really can’t tell you whether there are any plans to shut down Independence Hall. That’s up to the Park Service. But we are on the roll."
photo: Jessica Weber
10:16 a.m., Liberty Bell pavilion
Helen Hamilton of Ocean City, N.J., has just left the Liberty Bell, which she is visiting with her friend Charlotte Jones and Jones’ 8-year-old son Brandon.
"I was very scared that the buildings were attacked by planes," says Brandon Jones, shaken and somewhat unnerved by the radio microphone stuck in his face.
Hamilton and the Joneses were on "an educational trip," says Charlotte Jones, and decided to visit the Liberty Bell even though they heard, on the radio, that the World Trade Center had been attacked.
"This is a symbol of our independence," Brandon Jones says, with some prompting from a radio reporter.
Minutes later, Scott Mindlin and his father Herb are walking across Liberty Mall from Pennsylvania Hospital, where Herb Mindlin had just undergone cataract surgery.
"Oh my God," says Scott Mindlin, who is only now learning what happened in New York and D.C. "This is the scariest thing I have heard in my life."
Lee Shau Ming is the last visitor to leave the Liberty Bell before it’s closed by the National Park Service at about 10:30.
"I don’t really know what is going on," says Ming, who is visiting from Beijing. "But they told us there was some disaster in New York, and they want us out of here."
As Park Service rangers scurry to lock up the Liberty Bell, Ming is calm.
"I am not concerned," says Ming.
Charlotte Jones’ cell phone rings.
"Helen, we have to get out of here," she shouts out to her friend after a brief telephone conversation. "We are going to war."
11 a.m., City Hall
Mayor John Street conducts a press conference in Room 202. Street condemns the terrorist strikes as "cowardly, shameful acts" and announces the city’s own emergency plan: All government buildings, airports, schools, libraries and museums will shut down at noon. All police, fire and rescue personnel will be called from home and vacation and put into the work rotation. Local national parks and monuments will be shut down until further notice.
11 a.m., Hoboken, N.J.
Kathleen Kenny is standing on Willow Avenue, where she lives. She should be at work. She was originally set to go into Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment-banking firm on two high floors of the World Trade Center’s south tower, early today. But she says she "started a little late," and that shortly after 9 a.m., while still at home, she received "an unusual call from a friend asking me what tower I worked in."
Kenny says she called work and spoke to an executive assistant who had watched a plane tear through the Trade Center’s north tower minutes before and was just then watching bodies fall out of floors facing her window on the south tower’s 89th floor. The assistant continued to answer phones. "She had 18 minutes to get out of there" before the south tower was attacked, Kenny notes. Kenny doesn’t know if the woman is alive.
Kenny attempted to connect with a colleague, but was told that she left shortly after the first hit. "Lightning doesn’t strike twice," Kenny says, referring to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. "She didn’t think it was an accident."
Kenny says that her own first reaction was that it was indeed an accident. A few hours later, she now knows that both towers have been reduced to rubble and that three major acts of terrorism have been committed on American soil.
She is simultaneously lost and busy: She doesn’t know what happened to her 210 fellow employees — she spoke with her boss, who was off-site — yet she is fielding calls that are "pouring in from [friends] around the world." And she is trying to reach her husband, who is stranded on the island of Manhattan. "My world as I know it is over," she says.
"I can hear the Air Force flying above me; there is a steady stream of traffic — going where, I don’t know; roofs are filled with people. I heard that they’re clearing off the water so they can bring [some of the injured to New Jersey]." Kenny has just been on a rooftop herself, watching one of the towers collapse on itself. Now, "it is eerily quiet, very calm," she says, sounding increasingly remote herself.
Like her, the people Kenny spoke to early this morning thought a plane crashing into the north tower was a terrible accident; they didn’t make the leap to it being an intentional event until they were forced to, with the second hit. This despite working inside the architectural symbol for American economic strength and global power. If you consider that many of these people, including Kenny, worked at the twin towers in 1993, when a bomb killed six people and wounded many more, you marvel at the faith we humans place in each other. Or is it our capacity for denial? It might just be both the usual commotion and surreal nature of working in the Trade Center. Kenny says "helicopters are constantly buzzing around" the towers and that it wasn’t ridiculous to think something had gone awry with an aircraft.
Kenny is thinking now of all the people affected by this, on a lovely day in late summer, no less. "Fifty-five thousand people work [in the towers], 200,000 make their way through here during their commutes; there are bike messengers, food-delivery people. There would be tourists lined up downstairs — it’s a beautiful day…" Kenny cups her hand over the phone and calls to neighbors "in business suits with briefcases" who have just disembarked from a ferry from New York City. She seems relieved to see this familiar activity, and their familiar faces, even if at an odd time of day. Everything else is upside down. Still, the forced solidarity is weird. Surveying her world at the moment, she muses, "This is surreal. The landscape of America has changed — the World Trade Center is gone." She asks the reporter to contact her husband and let him know that she’s okay. Like everyone else in the North Atlantic, she’s having trouble getting a call out. But her phone trouble might be less connected to busy lines. "Our long-distance service comes off the tower of the World Trade Center," she says without irony.
11:30 a.m., Center City
Bewildered tourists, unable to visit the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, wander aimlessly, jostling with the office workers who are scrambling to get home early. Some see the early workday as a reprieve, but most are frightened and confused. Most cell phones have spotty reception, and people are frantically trying to call loved ones.
"If it can happen in New York, it can happen here," says one woman, nervously smoking a cigarette as she waits for a bus on Market Street. She refuses to give her name for publication, as does her companion, a healthy dose of paranoia added to the mix of emotions.
"There’s only one major city between New York and Washington, and it ain’t Baltimore," the second woman pipes up. "And we have lots of national symbols here."
Both women say their most pressing concern at the moment is getting home to their children.
12:30 p.m., Fifth and Market
A crowd gathers on the patio outside KYW’s studio. Tourists, passersby and curious onlookers huddle around a 13-inch television to watch Dan Rather recount the horrors in New York and Washington. Some weep openly, others shake their heads and vow revenge against the bastards responsible for the carnage.
Ten minutes later, Police Commissioner John Timoney conducts an impromptu press conference in front of the Liberty Bell for a half-dozen reporters.
"One thing I guarantee is that policing in this country is changed forever," says Timoney, "in more ways than I can count here. We have to change the way we look at internal and external security from now on."
Timoney notes that already there has been a huge increase in the number of 911 calls, some by genuinely concerned citizens, some by sick pranksters.
"It’s sad, but a thing like this always brings the cranks and hoaxers out of the woodwork," he laments. According to Timoney, extra 911 operators have also been pressed into service, and every available police unit is out on the street.
1 p.m., Starbucks on Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill
A lone customer, an old man, sips coffee at a table. Three employees are huddled behind the counter listening to the radio — disaster in mono.
The manager announces that she’s closing the shop early and posts a sign on the door that reads, "Closed due to the emergency." She’s been crying. When asked why she is closing early, she says, "Some of my [employees] have friends who work in the World Trade [Center]. They don’t know if their friends are dead or alive. Nobody wants to work tonight, so I’m closing up."
1:30 p.m., Acme on Ridge Avenue, Roxborough
A shopper and cashier are talking. "It looks like a snow day in here," the shopper observes. "Everybody’s clogging the aisles to buy canned goods. They’re stocking up on supplies of food."
The cashier says, "I’ve been asking every customer the same thing today. I say, What are you thinking about?’ And do you know what they say? They all say the same thing. They say, I wonder if I should go to the bank and get my money out. Do you think I should?’ That’s what they ask me, do I think they should. I think they should be going to church or going home to hug their loved ones, honey. I think they should thank God they’re alive."
The shopper asks the cashier what she is thinking about.
"I’m thinking about my brother," she says, after a pause. "He works in the World Trade [Center]. My mom has been calling his house all morning. We haven’t heard from him yet. I’m just praying he’s safe, that’s all."
2 p.m., Center City
It looks more like Sunday evening than a weekday afternoon. Cars are scarce, businesses are shuttered and the restaurants that remain open are nearly empty. Three policemen stand at the entrance to the federal courthouse on Market Street, drinking coffee and talking about terrorism here and abroad.
"This is just unreal," says one officer. "They basically shut down the city for the day. That’s fine, but what are we going to do tomorrow?"
A report coming over the police scanner indicates that officers are investigating a suspicious car parked at a reservoir.
About half-hour later: "All police are on the highest state of alert," says an unidentified officer over the police radio. "Police are paying particularly close attention to all federal and state facilities. Bomb threats or suspicious activities will be reported to police radio."
Minutes later: "Water treatment plant, all clear, Medic 254."
3 p.m., Old City
The streets are nearly deserted. Rows of empty SEPTA buses that were packed with commuters earlier in the day now sit idle along Fifth and Market streets. Drivers congregate on the corner, discussing the day’s tragic events. All around them, Independence Mall is cordoned off with yellow police tape. White sandwich boards unnecessarily announce that the park is "closed to the public."
Outside of KYW news studios at the corner of Fifth and Market, two televisions broadcast the latest events. About a dozen students, mostly in their late teens, are camped out in front of the televisions. A few of them divide their attention between the newscast and hot-off-the-press special ed-itions of the Inquirer.
"I bet Al Gore is sitting back in his easy chair right now, thinking, Thank God I didn’t get elected,’" one kid wearing a yarmulke comments to his friends as they emerge from the stairwell leading to the street from the El.
A van pulls up alongside the KYW building and several men wearing white aprons over T-shirts hop out. One guy hoists a gigantic plastic bowl of potato salad out of the van and carries it inside. Meanwhile, his colleague unloads one case of Pepsi after another. They make numerous trips inside the building, carrying in duffel bags full of sandwiches, containers of pasta salad and trays of cookies.
While most city offices have closed for the day, it is going to be a long night for journalists.
4 p.m., Old City
Two police cars have blocked off Sixth Street from Arch to Market, where the federal courthouse and its offices are located. The construction site across the street, future home of the Constitution Center, is deserted. The whole area is nearly silent. Six additional patrol cars are parked between Spring Garden and Arch Street, by Franklin Square park, where Chinese people practice tai chi every morning.
A lone bicyclist with a backpack stands in the park shooting the breeze with the cops. Suddenly there is a loud noise — crack! — and everyone freezes. It takes a second for everyone to realize it’s just a car backfiring as it heads over the bridge to Jersey.
photo: Daryl Gale
4 p.m., Casper’s Place, 3510 Cottman Ave., Northeast Philadelphia
Happy hour has begun early today. "[T]hey started coming in about noon," says Joanne, the bartender.
All eyes are on the five televisions replaying the horrific incidents. Joanne says she is worried about reprisals in the city against any Arab-Americans and Americans who are Muslim.
George Wesner, nursing his mug at the bar, agrees with Joanne about repercussions. "This is like Pearl Harbor," he says. "I hope they don’t blame the Muslims here like they did the Japanese-Americans. They took all the Japanese here to [internment] camps. I saw the foundations where they kept them."
Wesner and his friend John Carney (this reporter’s father) are concerned about their friend Eihab El-Azazy, an Egyptian Muslim. He came here six years ago and was a boarder in Carney’s house until he became a citizen. He now teaches English in public school and lives with his Muslim wife in Mayfair.
"I know practicing Islamic people who are extremely honest and are now embarrassed," Carney says.
Late afternoon, New York
Peter Clowney, former WHYY-FM arts reporter, works at National Public Radio-outlet WNYC now, where he’s editor of Studio 360, the Kurt Andersen-hosted arts and culture show. He commutes from East Mount Airy to offices in the Municipal Building, just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.
His ride on the PATH train from Newark, N.J., to the TradeCenter usually takes about 25 minutes. This morning, a conductor stopped the train at the Grove Street stop (still in Jersey) and announced through a walkie-talkie, "This train doesn’t go any farther!" He said it was being redirected to 33rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, without saying why.
Waiting on the platform, Clowney and his fellow commuters got their first hint of what had happened: A well-dressed, distraught woman was standing there, trembling, screaming, "I saw it! I saw it!" People asked her what she’d seen. "I saw the plane, the plane!" She described having seen a plane hit one of the towers — "It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen!" — but said the tower was still standing.
The commuters boarded a new train headed to 33rd. During that ride an announcement came over the PA system saying (surprisingly, considering the circumstances) that people headed downtown could transfer to a different subway line.
So that’s what Clowney did. That train, too, was discontinued, though, and he transferred to another, where riders heard even more harrowing news, again from a woman who had witnessed the disaster: "I saw the second plane!" she told them.
"That’s the moment we all knew it was terrorists."
Clowney continued on the train to the City Hall stop, directly under the Municipal Building. Coming up into the building’s great vaulted courtyard, he could see "black smoke and clouds everywhere outside." Stepping to the right just a bit, he could see the towers on fire.
He was about to try to get into his office building when a cop started shouting to the crowds, "You’ve gotta walk uptown!"
He began to walk north; cops were directing people with admirable calm. Then he heard a boom behind him: the explosion of the first tower collapsing. It was then, when people started to run, that he felt the first real twinge of fear. He told himself not to run, though, and wound up walking — up Fifth, then up Broadway through Times Square. "Everyone was talking about it" — though, amazingly enough, there were still news outlets in the Square with their big screens still tuned to sports clips and commercials. There were also many people walking, not north, but south, in the direction of the disaster. He asked one woman why. She said, simply, "None of the buses are running."
He wound up walking more than 100 blocks (approximately six miles) to Columbia University, where two years ago he was a National Arts Journalism Fellow. Along the way he stopped some 30 times to call his wife in Philadelphia. When he finally got through to her, at noon, she was hugely relieved. She knew that his train to the World Trade Center had been due to arrive at 9 a.m.
Clowney, who is no stranger to scenes of disaster (he reported from Macedonia for WHYY), is still stunned by the experience of this morning.
"You’re so used to them being there," he said of the towers. "It never occurred to me they were going to fall."
part 1 | part 2