It was a clear morning of possibilities, a primary election day. The day itself was one of those brilliant pre-autumnal gifts that late summer offers in the weeks following Labor Day, meant to make people feel good as they went about their ordinary work routines.
I left my Staten Island home to drive to the Brooklyn Borough Hall area where I would meet Randi Weingarten, Maureen Salter and others in a campaign activity with our UFT-endorsed candidate for mayor, Alan Hevesi. Driving northward along the Gowanus Expressway that looks out over the eas ern shore of New York’s Upper Bay past the Statue of Liberty and Industry City, I looked up at a very strange cloud against the blue sky, to my front and left through the windshield. It seemed low and out of place with a rounded, scalloped shape, having an orange hue that I presumed was an unusual reflection of the morning sun. The highway took me through turns that preoccupied my attention and after parking, I joined those I was to meet just near the subway entrance at Borough Hall. Later, I would remember that unnatural cloud in all its strangeness.
The group was abuzz in close talk as I walked up and soon learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. There was animated discussion on what it was all about. I heard Mrs. Hevesi say that it must have been a terrorist attack, which in my own mind I dismissed as paranoid speculation. Others wondered if a small plane had inadvertently or purposely hit into one of the buildings. Since my late oldest brother had been piper cub-type plane pilot, I knew that here was a small aircraft corridor along the Hudson River of 1,000 feet altitude and that scenario made some sense to me. As the conversations continued, I looked straight down the street toward the harbor. The buildings on either side blocked any view except the sky and the water in a long hallway of the avenue and the airspace right directly in front of me. All of a sudden through the narrow corridor between the rows of buildings an immense plane came into view going from left to right, banking in a curved motion that showed its underside as it went. I thought that it might have been a military air plane come to monitor the crash and provide defense if needed, but it seemed much, much larger than a fighter jet. Soon the word came that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. The plane I saw was that second aircraft just as it was about to strike the building beyond my sight.
By this time, cell phones stopped working and news was hard to come by. Alan Hevesi said that he was going to suspend his campaign and get to his office to see what was to be done.
As we were standing there, people escaping Manhattan started coming up out of the subway in ghastly appearance. One woman, covered in white dust stopped to tell us in high emotion what she had experienced. I don’t recall her words. But I can still see an impressionistic image of her frightened African-American face covered in flour-like dust recounting what had just happened to her and others. Ghastly became ghostly and was seared into my mind and memory.
Randi, Maureen, photographer Jack Miller and I decided to walk down to the promenade overlooking the East River to see what we could see.
We walked mostly in silence in that weather-friendly late morning not knowing what to expect. When we arrived at the promenade there were others some distance from us, all subdued, looking over in quiet amazement. The two towers stood as burning, smoldering candles sending up strange smoke that was wafting above and over in the direction just north of us. Jack took a picture from behind us of Randi, Maureen and me leaning on the railing and somberly staring at the towers and plumes of smoke. That photograph hangs in my office now and another one is in my home as a reminder of that moment. One thing that was not fully captured in any of the photographs I have seen of that day were the pieces of office paper in that conjoined cloud. It seemed as if oversized ticker tape or huge snow flakes were falling, descending on the mirrored upper harbor and river, green parkland, grey roadways and earth-toned buildings in their path. To this day, it does not and never has seemed real to me; more like a movie or computer-generated image format playing over and over in my mind.
As we broke out of our sad reverie, I thought of two things: there were people in those buildings struggling and probably dying at that very moment and what would ever be done to those damaged towers — would they be repaired, dismantled, or would they stand for years with those extinguished scars as horrid reminders of that horrid day?
Randi said that we should walk over to the chancellor’s office at the Board of Education on Livingston Street to help out in any way we could. When we arrived, Randi joined Chancellor Harold Levy and Deputy Burt Sachs in deciding on school dismissals, student safety, orderly pick ups and drop offs and general school bus and shelter operations. As we were there, we heard that one of the towers and later the second one had collapsed. News of what was happening at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania came through. The activities of the mayor and president unfolded as we all remember.
For months and years, from any part of the city, such as my walking trail at Great Kills Park on Staten Island, I would look toward Manhattan and try to remember exactly where those two towers stood in the skyline. They always used to appear out of context with the rest of the lower Manhattan structures and architecture ,but like Edwin Markham’s “lonesome place against the sky,” their absence leaves a hole in the city’s being.
Many memorials were held over the next few months for those who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and concerning the plane in the skies over Pennsylvania. The nation in unity came together for a time in common purpose. Foreign and domestic policies reflected that national sense of action and remembrance. But to me, one of the finest tributes was done by and for New York City public employees paying respect to their lost colleagues, the members of our municipal labor unions. It was my honor to be a lead organizer and one of those who presided at the ceremonials.
We all spent years doing our utmost to repair the damage done and to pick up the pieces of our lives and move forward.
But to me, the incongruity of such an ugly assault taking place on a beautiful, pre-autumnal, late summer’s day stands as an almost inexplicable insult to nature and humanity. The photograph that Jack Miller took of Randi, Maureen and me brings back all those memories. We frequently remind one another on anniversaries of that day of the unbreakable bond created amongst us that that picture represents.
Seamus Heaney a few years later touched on the sudden, startling events of that otherwise clear beautiful late summer’s morning in a tribute fashioned on the works of the Roman poet Horace called “Anything Can Happen,” subtitled “After Horace, Odes, I, 34.” It encapsulates my thoughts and my memories of that day and those events:
Anything Can Happen
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
and the clogged underneath, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleading on the next.
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.