Remembering 9/11: Neighbors look back on that day, 20 years ago

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I asked several neighbors to recall that day and their experience.

The photos included here are from the show currently at Soho Photo Gallery titled “911: First Responder Heroes,” which includes 49 images made by FDNY and NYPD officers and staff between Sept. 12, 2001, and Sept. 20, 2001. The show was curated by Linda Sandow and will be up until Oct. 10 at at the gallery at 15 White and online here.

Larry Hama has lived on Warren Street for 30 years and is an actor, artist, musician and writer, best known to comic book readers as the creator of “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” a writer of “Wolverine” and the co-creator of the character Bucky O’Hare.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and made my way across Greenwich to PS 234 to put in a shift as poll watcher in the school gym. It was Election Day, and my old pal Rocky Chin was running for City Council. My shift was almost over and I was getting ready to leave when we all heard the first plane pass directly overhead. I had not heard a plane passing at speed so low since my experiences in the service with fast movers flying support missions. The explosion was amazingly loud and sounded so close, we all ran out into the school yard, and then out onto Greenwich. When we looked south, we saw the huge plume of black smoke billowing from the tower. Somebody said a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. I could tell by the damage that it must have been a fair-sized airliner, and not a small private plane. I looked north and saw that the visibility was crystal clear. Somebody said it must have been a tragic accident, but I knew right away it wasn’t. There is no way a commercial pilot could have hit something that big on such a clear day. I said we were under attack, and many said I was being alarmist, that there had to be another explanation.

I was standing on Greenwich looking at the burning tower when I saw the second plane turn and correct course. It disappeared behind the second tower for a second, and then a plume of flame erupted northward, being of such intensity that it felt on my face like opening a hot oven. That convinced everybody else that this was a deliberate act of war. There were parents milling around who had just dropped their kids off at the school. One who I knew came over and asked what he should do, and I told him to get his kids out of class and get away from the area. I went home to try to contact my wife Carol and find out about our daughter Ava who was up at Wagner Junior High on the Upper East Side. None of us had cell phones at the time. The land line phone was ringing when I came in the door. It was a friend in London who shrieked, “What are you still doing there? Get out! If the tower falls it will come down on top of you!” I got three other calls from other friends urging the same action, but I had to sit tight because home is where my wife and daughter would be trying to reach me.

Carol arrived home, and we tried calling Ava’s school, but the lines were all busy. By this time both towers were issuing giant clouds of black smoke, and flames were licking out the upper windows. I heard a gasp from Carol, and she said “Omigod, they’re jumping.” We watched from our living room window as people opted to take the final plunge rather than be burnt up. It was stomach-wrenching and horrifying, but it was impossible to tear our eyes away.

I was standing at the corner window that looked down on Warren and the corner of Greenwich, and a huge crowd had gathered at the intersection to watch the towers. Suddenly, the entire crowd turned on their collective heels and began running full tilt north. I looked up, and saw the tower start to sink. It looked like it was going straight down into a shaft. A giant tidal wave of smoke, ash and debris taller than our building began marching towards us. We ran and took cover in the bathroom, which had no windows. There was still a patch of light coming in under the bathroom door, but it vanished. I don’t remember any noise. When I opened the bathroom door, it was pitch black in the apartment.

We turned on the air-conditioner, and went across the hall to our neighbor’s apartment. The tenants then were a couple with a young child, and they had employed our former nanny, Mavis. With the windows sealed and the AC running, we watched the news coverage on TV and waited for the dust and ash to subside. After a while, I went back to our apartment, and duct-taped all the windows. I went down to the basement and found our super, John Stinton, and we both went to shut off the gas line where it entered the building. I was thinking of shockwaves damaging gas lines and what would happen if left unattended.

Carol and I decided we had to walk uptown to pick up Ava at Wagner which was on 76th Street. We put bandanas over our mouths and noses to keep out the ash and smoke and set out with our pug Mel. On the sidewalk, the ash and burnt contracts were ankle-deep. When we got to West Broadway, I looked south, and the street was littered with high-heeled shoes. Pradas, Jimmy Choos, Ferrogamos etc. Women had just kicked them off and ran. At Reade Street, the ash on the ground stopped abruptly. A clear line of demarcation. There was a steady stream of people heading uptown with backpacks and luggage. I remember seeing our neighbor Carlo with a suitcase. In Soho, there were people at cafes having coffee as if nothing had happened. By this time the stream of people was pretty dense. At Spring Street somebody yelled “car bomb” and precipitated a panic. We huddled in a doorway to avoid being trampled. It was a false alarm, and we continued north. At Houston Street, Mel the pug collapsed, and I had to carry her the rest of the way.

At 42nd Street, I was exhausted from carrying the dog, and Carol told me to wait at her office while she continued up to Wagner to retrieve Ava. We found out that the school staff had rounded up all the kids who lived downtown and segregated them in the auditorium without telling them what was going on. Of course, they were all on the verge of panic. We regrouped at Carol’s midtown office and made calls. Friends who lived in Queens offered to put us up for the night, and we took the subway out there. The next day, I got a call from a friend who had recently moved out to LA, but still had an apartment at Fifth Ave and 12th Street that was sitting furnished but unoccupied. He had called the doorman and instructed him to give us the spare keys and let us in, and that’s where we sat out the six weeks before we were allowed to return to Tribeca.

The duct tape had prevented a massive dust build-up inside, but we still had to have a FEMA HEPA clean-up, and then we lived with HEPA air purifiers running 24/7 in every room. The answering machine was full of hate messages. I can only assume that people scanned the phone books for Arabic sounding names, and Hamas, of course is the name of a terrorist organization. We decided to drive out to our home in Sag Harbor. Our Explorer was at the dealership getting some repairs, so I picked it up and we started out but before I could get on the bridge, a taxi-driver (of Mid-East origin) pointed out that something was funny with our right front tire. When I got out to look, it was only held on by two lug nuts, and they were loose. None of the repair work at the dealership involved removing the tires. Did some misguided patriot at the dealership see my name on the paperwork, and decide to get some payback? I’ll never know. But if not for that cab driver I would have gotten on the LIE and got up to speed, and who knows what would have happened with that wheel.


N, who wrote this in late 2001, has lived on lower Hudson Street since 1993.

The weather on September 11, 2001, in New York was unbelievably beautiful. The sky was clear, the sun warm but not hot, the humidity low. It was the type of perfect early fall day that helps to erase the memory of August.

It was my son’s fourth day of second grade. We were just getting back into the routine of getting out of the house on time and I think he was still a little nervous about being in a new classroom. Line-up in the yard was still fairly chaotic and I still didn’t know many of the other parents from the class.

I had my backpack of swim gear, but instead of heading right over to BMCC as usual I hung around the yard a little looking for a friend. I went out of the schoolyard and entered the school though the front door. It was crowded in that area because it was primary day for the mayor’s race and many parents were coming into the gym to vote. I was standing near the security guard’s desk, some 15 feet from the outer doors when I heard a loud boom, which I could only guess was a large truck slamming into Gee Whiz across the street. I remember thinking that I hadn’t heard the sound of glass breaking, which seemed strange because on both sides of the street there are large retail glass front stores. I could see out to the sidewalk since both sets of doors were propped open and saw from the faces of the people outside that something very terrible had happened. Just then someone ran in, yelling, “A plane hit the World Trade Center!”

At that point I thought, and I believe almost everyone else thought, that it was an accident. I remember that most of the people I spoke to immediately believed that it had been a small plane even though AA Flight 11 must have flown right over the parents who were outside. I went into the cafeteria to look out the window. There was a large hole with obviously large fires and a huge column of smoke pouring out, about 20% of the way down from the top. Many small planes fly up and down the west side of Manhattan, using the Hudson River as a guide. I thought that one of those pilots had decided that it would be fun to buzz the Trade Center towers and had gotten caught in a draft and caused a terrible accident. It was clear that hundreds of people must have been badly injured if not killed by the impact and that this would cause a disruption in business and the neighborhood at least as big as the earlier bombing of the WTC.

I was unsure what to do vis-à-vis taking my son home, but I decided I shouldn’t leave the school yet. I drifted down the hall to the back lobby area and then back out onto the schoolyard to take another look. There were surprisingly few parents out there, given the number I know to be in the school and vicinity. I stood for a short time near some parents that I didn’t know, looking up at the tower four short blocks away. One woman was sure that the top of the tower was going to fall off. I didn’t think so, given what I knew about the WWII bomber hitting the Empire State Building, but her comments spooked me and after a minute or two, I could see shiny material that I took to be glass or metal falling off the tower in waves and I decided it would be safer to be inside.

When I came back inside there were many parents and babysitters milling around in the back lobby area. Anna Switzer (the principal) ran through, yelling that parents could take their children if they wished, but she thought that everyone would be safer inside until we knew more about what had happened. Our babysitter came running in, out of breath, and clearly scared and panicked. She had been at the corner of Duane and Greenwich streets, outside Roc Restaurant, on her way to Food Emporium, when the plane passed overhead. She told me that it was a big two-engine passenger airliner and headed straight for the towers, speeding up and pulling higher in the last seconds. As she watched it plow into the North Tower, she had the presence of mind to use the cell phone to call my husband, who was running a bit late and still at home. He didn’t really understand what she was screaming about, but heard stay home, plane, World Trade Center, school. That must have been one of the last cell phone calls to get through that morning.

My husband looked out our southern windows and saw the tower on fire. He called his office and while he was on the phone with a co-worker, he saw the explosion from the second plane hitting the South Tower.

I tried to make sense of what our babysitter was telling me, but I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been an accident caused by a small propeller plane. She insisted that it was a much bigger plane and didn’t seem to be an accident since it was so well lined up. She wanted us to get my son and go home, but I still believed it was safer to stay in the school than go out on the street. Very soon afterwards we heard another large boom, which I thought was an explosion in the North Tower. Immediately, parents ran in from the yard and front door yelling that another plane had hit the WTC and that we need to get the kids. I was right next to the stairwell and ran up to the second floor. Luckily, I had had a conversation with my son about where his classroom was, not having been there yet that year. I guessed the right direction and soon I was at the classroom door, with several other parents right behind me.

I knocked and opened the door. The kids were sitting on the rug at the front of the classroom around the teacher’s chair. None of them seemed upset or disturbed. At the time I wasn’t sure if the teacher knew what was going on. She seemed very calm, but not surprised when I asked if my son could come with me. (I found out later that a friend of mine had taken her daughter right after the first plane hit because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to cross Broadway because of the emergency vehicles, and told the teacher what was going on at that time). The teacher reminded my son to take his backpack and he left the classroom. He insisted on taking his lunchbox from the crate and asked what was happening. I told him that a terrible accident had happened and a plane had hit the WTC. I said that there was a big fire with lots of flames and smoke coming out and we were going to walk home as quickly as we could. I also told him that I wanted him to try his hardest not to look at the WTC so we wouldn’t be scared. We walked down the back stairway and went straight out the Chambers Street door.

I remember being surprised at two things – how little vehicular traffic there was on Greenwich Street, which is usually quite busy that time of the morning, and how many people were standing on the sidewalks and middle of the road looking up at the Towers. No one else seemed to be moving but us. I watched my son and he made it without looking south at the fire.

When we approached our building, I saw our super standing outside the entrance. He insisted that we couldn’t stay in the building, that it wasn’t safe. This frightened my son and he started crying for the first time. I went inside to get my husband while my son and his babysitter went around the corner so he wouldn’t be able to look at the fire.

My husband had already decided that we needed to leave. We grabbed backpacks to fill with essential items. At that time, I still thought that we’d be home that night, albeit late (somehow midnight was in my mind) and I didn’t pack any underwear for us. I thought to take our portable radio and some extra batteries. My husband’s backpack was filled mostly with seltzer bottles (I can only guess he thought all the stores would be closed and we’d get thirsty during our long walk on a warm day).

I was still incredulous that this was a planned attack. My husband pointed out that the damage in the North Tower, which we could see clearly from our bedroom window, was more than 10 stories tall and, at the widest point, more than one-third the width of the tower, a footprint much larger than a private pleasure aircraft. He was sure it was terrorism.

While we packed, our babysitter’s daughter called from the Caribbean. I told her that we were all ok but planning to leave on foot as soon as possible. Actually, that’s all I said, over and over, and I started crying for the first time that morning.

Just as we were about to leave, the front door buzzer rang. It was a group of friends and former colleagues who still worked in the World Financial Center. They had left just after the second plane hit and headed to our house, thinking it’d be a safe place to stay until more was known about the situation. Later one of them told me that she didn’t start to get worried about what was going on until I told her over the intercom that we were almost done packing up.

When we got downstairs my son was still fairly upset. We tried to reassure him, put on our best adult faces and started walking north along Hudson Street, which was filled with people looking up and south at the burning towers.

The mood on Hudson was fairly calm compared to the noise I could hear coming from West Broadway. On the cross streets I could see that there were many more people walking up West Broadway than Hudson Street, and there were occasional swoops of high-pitched screaming that made me believe that the greatest danger was getting stampeded by a crowd. At one point, the noise changed, getting even louder and more panicked and I could tell that people were running on West Broadway. Luckily we were at a corner and we turned into the cross street and pressed ourselves up against the building (I still can’t figure out exactly which street it was, but we were just below Canal Street). I knew something very bad was happening and the biblical story of Lot’s wife popped into my head. I remember thinking, “Don’t look back, you don’t want to have a memory of whatever is happening.” The South Tower of the WTC was collapsing.

When the noise died down a bit again, we continued walking north. We crossed Canal Street at Hudson and decided to head east and walk up Varick Street to 7th Avenue South. Mid-block between those two avenues we stopped on the north side of Canal to turn on the radio. The information was still sketchy, but between what they were saying and our view south, it was clear that one of the towers had completely collapsed. We didn’t say anything to our son and I don’t think he realized it at the time.

The sidewalk was more crowded than on Hudson Street, but the crowd was basically calm. Every public phone had a line of 10 to 20 people waiting since no cell phones were working at that time. Many stores and restaurants had knots of people outside of them listening to a radio or TV and we caught snatches of the information. The sirens of emergency vehicles screeched past us regularly and while the adults were bothered only by the noise, each one caused my son to get a little more upset, even though he covered his ears to block out the noise.

I remember thinking that we should walk quickly past the radios, TVs, or groups of people discussing what was going on because, while I was desperate to know what had happened, I didn’t want my son to hear anything. He kept asking why people had crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and all we could say was that they were very bad people and reminding him that our Air Force and Army were the best in the world and would catch anyone else trying to do something bad like that.

We snaked east on Charles Street and over to West 12th Street east of St. Vincent’s. While we were on the small brownstone streets, my son told me, “Mommy, I can’t see the World Trade Center anymore, so we’re safe.”

I hadn’t realized that he thought that as long as we were in the sightline that we were in danger.