Sunday, September 4, 2011

4- First impressions from the Jersey side

A scant two miles from the Twin Towers, sticking up out of a former dump in the Meadowlands, Harmon Cove’s two brick towers stood out against the shrinking darkness that morning, their red face glowing redder as the sun rose over Manhattan and the Jersey City Palisades to shin on their 25 story majesty.
People living in these towers and the cluster of townhouses at their feet woke in grumpy moods on the morning of Sept. 11 after headlines in the local newspaper announced the closing of their train station.
This station – the last stop on the Bergen County line before Hoboken – had become a vital link in most of their lives. Many had purchases condominiums in the complex for the convenience of stumbling out of bed then across the rail bridge for easy transport to the PATH station in Hoboken from where they could access a variety of points in Manhattan.
Most of those who took these trains worked in lower Manhattan and most of these commuters took the PATH to the World Trade Center, either to take up employment in one of the two towers or to pass through its mall on their way to one of the many other business buildings that occupied that part of Manhattan island. The news that the Harmon Cove train station would close had angered many of these commuters closing of the Harmon Cove train station. Many intended to protest the move later or at least write letters expressing their displeasure about the change.
None imagined that morning when they left their condominiums for work the closing of the train station would become meaningless within a few hours, that they would find themselves in the midst of hell and fury as towers crumbled down upon their heads and they would be grateful for any means of transportation that would return them to New Jersey's shores, that two of their number would not return at all, listed among the many who had died in the attack.
Those loved one who remained at home in Harmon Cove could easily see the flames and smoke as the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:48 a.m. and later saw the Manhattan towers vanish in what seemed like a puff of smoke.
Mike Altileo, a 53-year old Navy Veteran stood on the roof of another tower in Secaucus that morning. As an employee of the Secaucus Housing Authority he worked in the tallest public building situated at the highest point in Secaucus. Altileo rushed to the top when he heard reports that a plane had struck the North tower of the World Trade Center. Like many, he initially believed the strike an accident, recalling reports of a similar accident when a military bomber once struck the Empire State Building a half-century earlier. Some of the senior citizens living in the Secaucus tower actually had a living memory of the Empire State Building disaster. Several of the seniors even joined him on the roof, one bringing along a pair of binoculars that had last seen service during World War Two.
In the bright sunlight, the group had no trouble distinguishing the tops of the Twin Towers. The World Trade Center was visible to many parts of Secaucus -- poking up over the mound of the Palisades like two box tops. From the top of the senior citizens building, however, the group could see most of the Twin Towers and could easily make out the hole in the side of the North Tower out of which a column of smoke spewed.
Each face revealed a puzzled expression, as the mind behind it sought to make sense of what the eyes saw. They could not hear the distant sirens. They did not hear the distant screams. They could not see people struggling to escape the lower floors, although each member of the group knew such things went on two miles away in Manhattan.
One of the group, looking away to the southwest for a moment, called out and pointed to a jet airliner just then banking over the southern tip of the Meadowlands, a dark shape casting its shadow on the water as it turned. The old man with the binoculars reluctantly turned their gaze away from the burning tower to study the airliner and to follow it as it steered in the direction of the disaster.
"What is that idiot doing?" Altileo asked, unable to keep his squinting gaze from following the flight of that aircraft, as if he sensed something about it he could not articulate -- as if some of the panic among the kidnapped passengers had reached him through some spiritual medium beyond light or air. The dark shape continued its plunge towards the Twin Towers and their column of rising smoke.
Altileo later said he thought the pilot had steered towards the World Trade Center for a closer look at the disaster. In fact, he did not connect the plane's sudden vanishing behind the bodies of the Twin Towers with the sudden bulge of fire that erupted from the uptown side of the South Tower. From that distance, none of the group could tell that the flames had come from the South Tower, each presuming that something in the first building had caught fire and exploded as a result of the initial strike.
"I thought it was a fuel tank or something," Altileo later said.
Not until he stumbled back down to the offices on the first floor and encountered the television images of the disaster in the community room did he realize that both towers were in flames, and only then did this Navy veteran understand that America had come under attack.

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