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Juneau woman witness to attacks

Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2001

NEW YORK - I watched the North tower of the World Trade Center crumble. It looked like tinsel falling to the ground, silvery specks filtering down through a cloud of brown smoke. On the radio in a nearby car, the reporter covering the scene was screaming incoherently, almost crying.

"Oh my God," she said over and over again. "I just watched it collapse. I just watched it collapse. Oh my God, there's nothing there."

Beside the north tower, the South Tower continued to burn. A huge cloud of black smoke billowed out, filling the sky, mixing with the brown smoke of the collapsed building.

I was standing on a small street in Lower Manhattan, part way to the New York University campus. I caught one of the last subway trains out of the South Seaport, where my dorm is located.

When I turned on the news at 8:45 this morning, I thought a plane had crashed into the Trade Center in a tragic accident. On the TV, a helicopter swooped around the tower and I saw the billow of black smoke. All I could think was that the night before, my father and I had walked to Manhattan's Little Italy for dinner. I'd passed the towers and pointed up at them, commenting "Look how beautiful they are."

Outside, I heard sirens, and in the lobby, the security guard at the desk was screaming and swearing at someone on the other end of the phone. In the streets, a web of cars and taxis were stranded, honking.

*****

Each morning, I walk up Fulton Street to catch the subway, and there's a clear view of the World Trade Center. People were swarming down the streets, shouting, talking - random words stuck in my mind.

"I told him to just get out of the building ... Just get out of the building."

"I don't know which floor he's on."

And two women, one leading the other by the hand. They had their hands over their mouths, sobbing.

Everyone was on cell phones or shouting about what had happened. I heard so many different versions of events - a terrorist bomb? An explosion, and then a plane crash? A fireball? I was torn between staying and trying to watch the story develop and going to class. I checked my watch: 9:05.

I wanted to believe it was just an accident. I stood on the corner and watched the Trade Center burn, black smoke billowing, flames licking red and orange through the black. I heard people crying, shouting. A fire truck blazed down the street, and I tried to tell myself that it was just an accident, and I had to get to class.

The subways were packed. The 4/5 trains stopped running just as I got there, and the A/C I caught was strangely empty. People were debating the event or listening intently. I told them what I knew, and a tall blonde woman with a black shirt that said "Naughty" drew in her breath sharply.

"Do you know which tower?"

I shook my head.

"My friend works there." She leaned forward and put her head on the subway pole.

Beside me, a woman sighed and said loudly:

"I don't know what they think they'll accomplish by this."

When I got off the train, the streets were packed. People were staring, transfixed, at the growing cloud of smoke. You could see it from every point in the city; I later found out you could see it from 20 miles away. It was like a beacon in the sky - and when I stopped rushing and really looked at it, I saw that something had hit the second tower as well. The damage looked worse - whereas the blazing hole on the South Tower was confined to the upper floors, the hole in the North Tower had spread down the side of the building in a jagged, smoking gash.

Cars were parked along the side of the street, radios cranked up as loud as possible. People gathered around them, shaking their heads. There were tears everywhere you looked.

The buildings seemed to be shedding silver - it looked like fairy dust, sparking through the clouds of smoke. I realize now that those were probably chunks of steel, heavy metal debris, but they looked so delicate, sifting away from the building and floating toward the ground.

I stood on the corner for a long time. I wanted to call my mother and tell her that I was OK. I wanted to see my father - he'd headed out for La Guardia airport at 6:45 a.m. I kept switching directions, heading north - then going back to the south. All the while, I kept thinking that this was exactly what everyone had been worried about when I left for New York City. Before, when something bad happened in NYC, I watched it unfold on the news and thanked God I wasn't there. Now I was.

I walked. The towers blazed. And then, when I stopped at a corner to listen to a radio, the North Tower collapsed.

*****

I turned to the man next to me. He looked like a student, too - younger, with a large wooden hoop through one ear. Like me, he seemed to be on the verge of tears.

"I can't believe it just fell." He pointed to the empty space, to the enormous cloud of dust. "It's just gone."

"Do you know what happened?" I shouted.

Everybody was shouting, all around us. The radio was trying to say comforting things - "We can only hope they managed to get everybody out of the building."

I caught my reflection in a nearby building, and was amazed by how young and scared I looked.

The man told me that hijacked planes had hit the buildings. I thought about my father, giving me a hug that morning before he left to catch his plane.

"Planes from where?"

"Boston," he said. "I think one's from Boston."

"What about the other one?" He shook his head.

"My dad left from La Guardia this morning!" I was screaming.

"They shut down the airports," he said quickly. "He's probably OK."

I ran past him, down the street. The radio had said something about the Pentagon being hit, the White House being evacuated. All I could think about was getting to a phone.

I passed a crowd of men, pointing through a gap in a pair of buildings to the now-reduced skyline. They said something about the planes, and I stopped, breathlessly questioning them about where the flights were from.

"Was there anybody on them?"

They didn't think so.

"My father left from La Guardia this morning," I tried to explain. "He was flying out -"

A tall man in a business suit put his arm around me and gave me a hug.

"It's OK, kid," he said. "Calm down. Your dad's OK."

"Thank you," I said.

I wanted to believe him very badly because that meant that if I could just get to a phone and call my mother, everything would be momentarily all right again.

"This is a big thing though," the man said, turning back to the towers. "You know this is war."

The rest of the way to campus was a madhouse. Though the streets were clear to allow emergency vehicles and taxis free passage, every corner was packed. I saw several people videotaping the event and thought back to my initial response when I heard the news. I'd looked at my camera on my desk and thought to myself, "Oh, I should go take a picture."

Looking at the clouds of smoke, that idea made me sick to my stomach. I could not wrap my mind around the idea that a tower was gone. The place I visited first in the city, the place where I bought my first Broadway ticket - it was a cloud of smoke, a heap of shimmering steel. I kept remembering the sunlit observation deck, the fluttering flags, the glimmering glass.

Once I reached campus, I went to the NYU Writing Center where I have worked for the past two years. There, a co-worker was trying to call her husband in Long Island. She was near tears; a close friend had seen the plane hit the tower - just as his wife entered the building to catch a subway.

We tried to get a signal. The phones weren't working. Neither were the Internet news sites. We sent e-mails, trying to type, trying to tell each other what we'd seen and heard. I had just e-mailed a typo-filled message of reassurance to my mother when shouts and screams rattled the windows.

"The other tower just fell," I said, and before the words could really sink in, we both turned and ran outside as fast as we could. I pounded down the stairs, slammed open the door. By the time we made it to the corner, all that was visible was an even bigger cloud of brown smoke, filling the sky. There were no more towers.

We looked at each other.

"I can't believe it," she said. "This is just surreal."

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. Instead, we just hugged, holding onto each other as tightly as we could on the street corner, staying there until a man gently but firmly cleared the streets for emergency vehicles.

*****

It's 1 p.m. now, and things have calmed down somewhat. My dorm has been evacuated, and I don't know if I'll be able to go home tonight. NYU has canceled all classes, and its downtown hospital - so close to my dorm - is one of the crisis centers.

I've managed to send e-mails back and forth with all my relatives, and though I still haven't heard from my father, I have faith that he's OK. The planes were from Boston and Washington D.C., and both were flying to Los Angeles. It's not much of a relief to know that he could be anywhere in this madhouse of a city, but right now, it's enough.

I'm surrounded by co-workers and friends. We've shared our war stories - one woman was riding the subway under the World Trade Center when the second plane hit. She said she could smell the smoke, that evacuees got on the subway shaking and crying. My boss, who saw the South Tower collapse, came into the office crying as well. We looked at the painting on our wall - of the skyline, the Trade Center towers done in shimmering gold - and none of us knew what to say.

We all want to go home, but until things settle down, none of us can.

"You're so lucky to be from Juneau," I've been told several times. "You know they're OK there."

But I still don't know if my roommate, my friend next door, or my best friend are OK. The phones are barely working, and I can't get through to any of them.

Outside, smoke is still filling the air over Lower Manhattan. It's not brown anymore - it's more of a silvery gray color. During a second trip outside, a woman and I stood outside on the corner for a long moment, just watching it rise and filter through the sky.

"It's like the skyline's just gone," she said. "It's like it's not New York anymore."

No, it's not. For today at least, it is something else.

It is a city of sirens and smoke, where every rumble in the sky might be another attack and every shout on the street might be a final warning. I can't even imagine what it will be tomorrow.

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes grew up in Juneau and has interned as a reporter at the Empire for the past three summers. She is studying journalism at New York University within sight of the what, until this morning, was the World Trade Center.



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