The Words of the Matthews Family
December 20, 2002
9/11/2001 - It was Tuesday, and like every Tuesday (and Thursday), I waited for the E train. This was the train that would take me to the Farmer's Market that was held twice a week on the grounds of the World Trade Center. It was quite a nice affair, with various kiosks loaded with fresh vegetables, assorted baked goods, jams and honey, and some of the best damn apple turnovers this side of Wall St. Not those monstrous, genetically enhanced ones they sell at the coffee kiosks measuring a foot across (and filled with some sort of reconstituted apple starch). No, these were real live apples wrapped in a fine crust and weighed at least half a pound. That 's was what I was after, and for that, I waited for the E train, and waited and waited. Something was wrong. It was taking a really long time, but a man's creature comforts are a hard thing to forego, so I waited some more.
Eventually it came, and I arrived at my destination without any further ado. For those that are unfamiliar, the E train winds up in the grand concourse of the WTC, which over the last decade had been built up into a first rate mall. Here there were many shops; clothing, food, electronics, etc. As I walked out into the lobby it seemed strangely quiet and I could see only a few people walking. A young woman came out from a Mrs. Feilds cookie store with a look of fear in her eyes. "I just heard an explosion" she said. I wondered what could she be talking about. I didn't see or hear or smell anything. Surely an explosion would have some visible traces. I concluded that she was just being a silly teenager and - explosion or not, I was leaving the building regardless (in search of apple turnovers). As I headed up the stairs to the ground level, I heard a man yelling - a security man I assumed. The plot thickened, but it bore little interest to me. I was already set in motion, following my footsteps and my well worn path.
I rode the escalator to the ground floor and looked out over the promenade. That was the first moment that I knew something terribly wrong had happened. The grounds were strewn with debris, and were completely barren of people. I stood there in complete isolation and utter silence, and wondered what to do. Something had obviously exploded and brought all this shit down onto the ground in front of me. Was it safe to go out?
The moment I opened the door, the silence was shattered by the building security people that were actually standing right by the door, but I had failed to see. "MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!" they yelled. I ran across the grounds and for the first time saw that the street was lined with thousands of spectators and the sky was filled with confetti. It was like a parade. I ran and took my place among the throng, and turned my head to see what this was all about. It was a shocking site. The upper floors of the north tower were on fire and had thick gray smoke billowing out of them.
This was obviously a bad thing, but as bad as it was, the atmosphere was "festive". The fact is that no-one there knew why the building was on fire, or really what had happened. Another reason is that - from where we stood, it really didn't look so bad. Was it an explosion?, a bomb? No one knew, but hey, it was excitement. Even in the mist of this bizarre turn of events, I still was looking at my watch and calculating just how long it would take me to fetch some breakfast and get to work - now that the apple turnovers were history. Rats.
All of a sudden, a women made a horrible blood curdling scream. I looked up ready to run, fearing that some part of the building was coming down around us, but I could see nothing. She and others began to scream again. I looked hard, and then I could see what they were looking at. People were jumping and plummeting to their deaths. I watched as the small limp figures twisted and turned. The sound the bodies hitting the ground was like a gunshot or a clap of thunder. A faint red aerosol of blood, arose from the bodies - like red spray paint. For a moment I couldn't accept what I was seeing. What would cause a person to do such a thing? I couldn't faintly imagine. The relative festivity of the moment was suddenly transformed into horror. The next moments would prove to be even more bizarre.
As I stood there, transfixed and unable to divert my eyes, suddenly a huge jet came into the corner of my peripheral vision. What in the world was this crazy pilot doing? How could they be so stupid to fly so low? Were they trying to get a good look? It was just too weird to imagine. The next moment, the plane melted into the building and emerged out the other side - an enormous fire ball.
For a moment time stood still. The air became completely free of all and any vibration. In unison, a thousand people held their breath and their hearts skipped a beat. In a single motion we all turned on one foot and ran for our lives. As I ran without breathing, I looked over and saw a bicycle rolling along side me, with no one on it. I was waiting for sound - of the building or debris coming down on top of us. As I ran, I looked for places to dive, just in case.
After running a couple blocks, I began to breath again, and instantly started to hyperventilate. I got dizzy and had a hard time getting oriented, even though I had walked this same block a hundred times before. At that point I think I was in some kind of shock. I fully expected to still go to work that day, although I no longer was thinking of breakfast.
Suddenly, the horror of what had taken place had become crystal clear, whereas up to that moment, no one really knew what had taken place. We had been attacked with our own passenger plains. We had witnessed the death of hundreds - right before our eyes.
I got to my office, which was aprox. 3 blocks from WTC and took the elevator up. I met my co-worker at the door of my office. "Everyone's leaving" he said. Of course they are! We're on the 27 flr. for crying out loud. What am I even doing here? At that point, no one knew if planes would continue to rain down upon us. Visions of bomber jets and Pearl Harbor flashed through my mind. It was time to stop looking and start walking.
I began the long trek north, which was incredibly slow, due to the number of people, and stopping to watch, try the payphones, and listen to car radios, etc. As I walked there were people crying, but some girls were giggling and carrying on. Three Arab men in turbans heard this and said "You should be crying, not laughing". I wanted to kill them, right then and there. I felt suddenly so inadequate, unarmed, and incredibly ashamed, because what they said was right Notwithstanding, I would have dropped them on the spot, if I had the means, shame or no shame.
An hour or so later, I had made my way, only ten blocks or so. I had lost sight of the towers, but was continuing to stop and try to use phones, etc.. All at once I could see a huge surge of people coming up from where the towers were. "What had happened?" I asked someone. "The south tower has fallen".
This was somehow even harder to believe than anything thus far. How could it be? As bad as the events had been, it didn't really *look* so bad. Perhaps 10 or 20 floors had been destroyed, I naively thought. How could the whole damn building fall? I am convinced that this is why so many people died (especially the police and firefighters) because no one - *but no one* - thought the building would fall. Not long after, I watched the second tower fall with my own eyes - like a great tidal wave crashing to the shore. And with it, my last shred of hope and consolation was washed away. They were gone. The great awe inspiring towers - that stood as symbols to the great city I had grown up in. As long as I could remember, they had always been there...and in one day were gone.
I wondered around the entire day, and it wasn't until the evening I could meet some one that I knew. My physical brother lives in the city, and so I finally met up with him and a small group of his neighbors that had gathered together, all watching TV together - and getting really drunk. At that moment, I didn't have the wherewithal to "Just Say No", so I said "Just give me another" instead and proceeded to get really hammered (something I had to confess about later). But no, it didn't help. Somehow meeting with people and talking just made matters worse.
The next day, I was able to get home, thanks to the bus company that was providing trips - free of charge - to points out of the city. This small act of charity and kindness moved me deeply. Without them, I would be trapped in the city...trapped and really hungover.
Over a year has past since that day. Everyday I walk by the gaping hole where the buildings stood. Surprisingly, not much has changed. The subways are intact (but the Path train is gone). For months after the attack, no one was permitted near the site, but gradually they have opened it up so that now you can walk right by it. About six months ago, I was walking on a recently opened passage way, and I suddenly stopped and looked around. This was it. This was the spot I stood on that day. I stared into the blank sky and tried to remember what the buildings looked like, straining to see the outline; the screaming, the falling, the running. It was really hard, as if trying to see a ghost.
If anything has changed, it's my perception of the world around me - the idea that things I have always known - that seem timeless - are in fact not. They can disappear all at once. When I walk out on the street these days, I look up and often imagine things falling - and where would I go? When I see a low flying plane, I can't help but brace my self. Also my perception of people has changed. The courage, patience and resolve that Americans have displayed has made me proud to be called one. The TV images of those people dancing in the streets at the news of the towers falling has been something that cause a lot of hatred within me. When I saw that only one thought went through my mind: If I knew where the button was - I would push it...and after 30 years (when the radiation had subsided) I would do a little dance on their bones. Luckily cooler heads prevailed. The reality of hatred that people feel toward us is a reality we have to deal with from now on.
Thank you to those who asked me to write this. It has been a deep and somewhat sobering recollection of that day - and all the time that has passed until now.
I think I'll go have an apple turnover.
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