Sunday, September 4, 2011

6- Wrong place at the wrong time


Donald Kelly, a former reporter in Belleville, took up work on a financial publication about a year earlier. While conversations with bankers did not have at all the same satisfaction beat reporting did, his new job paid the bills. Often on his way to work from Montclair, he paused in Hoboken to eat breakfast at a local food truck and stand out on Pier A to gaze across the river while he ate. Boredom with the closed in feeling he got with the PATH caused him to bear the extra expense of the ferry -- both of which he could catch at the Hoboken station from his train. For this reason, he was in position to witness the first strike on the World Trade Center's North Tower.
"As the commuter ferry I rode from Hoboken approached the dock by the New York Mercantile Exchange, I heard what sounded like fireworks exploding," he said later. "Looking out the window, I saw smoke enveloping the upper section of the first of the Twin Towers to be hit."
This was just after 8:46 a.m. when the first plane out of Boston struck, and before the media reports had confirmed it as the beginning of an attack.
Kelly, a somewhat laid back character with a tendency towards cynicism, seemed to catch out quickly to how monumental a moment he was witnessing, and shed his usual disbelief for awe.
"People pressed themselves to the windows as the ferry slowed down," he said. "Pieces of debris began falling to the ground. I was dumbfounded. I didn't know how to react."
With his experience as a recorder of events -- if never so massive as this -- Kelly glanced around to see what other people made of the scene. The woman in the seat beside him began to cry. He tried to get a tissue for her from the other stunned people in the ferry. He said he was as confused as they were, but managed somehow to keep calm, something the woman mistook for strength.
"She asked me if I knew anyone in the World Trade Center," Kelly recalled. "I said I didn't. She said people were so cold and wanted to know if I felt like praying during events like these."
Kelly did not think this was an appropriate moment to inform him of his atheistic leanings, and continued to watch the smoldering skyline as the ferry continued to its destination, its captain and crew not year thinking in terms of evacuation. When the ferry reached the Manhattan shore, Kelly got off the boat with the rest of the passengers and headed for his place of employment.
"After we docked, I walked around the exchange to Vessey and West streets," he said, pondering later at why he had not thought then of escape. "Black smoke was spouting from the first tower."
He had not seen the airplane itself hit since it struck on the opposite side of the tower as his ferry approached, but once on the ground he saw the result.
"I got my first full view of the disaster there," he said. "Flames were spreading and now black smoke covered the entire top of the first tower. People massed on the corners watching the fires."
As with those who had commuted via PATH and come up through the basement of the towers, Kelly sensed the incongruousness of the disaster he witnessed before the actual facts had their chance to seep into his consciousness -- a condition common to people cast into the midst of a calamity, unable to access the full impact of what they see, hear, smell or fear.
Some aspect of common sense tugged at the back of Kelly's brain and told him to keep moving. He did not yet think in terms of falling debris although that thought eventually came to him, followed by an even more dreadful possibility of having those two towers fall -- yet not in the way they eventually did. In his vivid imagination, Kelly envisioned the Two Towers as the first in a series of dominos. So that when the first fell, each building in that world of multiple skyscrapers would begin to tumble in sequence, a dramatic and terrible parade of marching mental and mortar under which his frail flesh might get trapped.
Although Kelly would later jot down his experiences, these writings neglected to express the same self-deprecation he verbalized after his escape from Manhattan as to why he continued towards his office or maintained the fallacy that his day (or for that matter his life) could go on as normal with the usual boring repetition he found so distasteful, and yet so remarkably safe.
"I don't know what I was thinking," he said a few days after the event. "I don't know why I kept going to work."
He recalled hurrying out of the shadow of the Twin Towers and towards Water Street on the east side of Manhattan, a relatively short distance away at a point where the island tapered to a point at Battery Park.
In a moment that television newscasters would show again and again, the second jet struck at the South Tower with the bubble of flame erupting from its northern side. People on the ground began to scream, many shouting that the tower would fall.
"In what I can only describe as terror, I ran," Kelly said. "I covered a few city blocks with the other groups of spectators, my mind reeling with a vision of the tower falling over."
At one point, a building overshadowed him, giving him a start until he realized this was not the tower falling at all. When the South Tower remained standing -- after the initial impact -- Kelly ceased running.
That part of Manhattan was a deceptive mix of new and old with some streets so wide a battleship might have sailed down their middle with little impact, while others, so narrow, they barely fit modern-sized cars and trucks necessary to maintain commerce and supplies to stores.
This world also mixed big business with small, huge towers and heavy stone structures defining the heart of Capitalism's gods, while at their feet tiny shops operated, selling everything from discount cosmetics to tacos. This world was not ignorant of assault. From the foundation of the stock market, Wall Street had served as a target of radicals. One such attack near the J.B. Morgan building had left scars in the stone edifice of the exchange itself, and so powerful had that 19th century blast been that rescuers had recovered nothing of the vehicle or its propulsion save the horse hooves. Even Abbie Hoffman had come here to make his radical points during the 1960s.
Kelly probably knew nothing of this history as he moved, 0zigzagged through these streets, passed food stores, clothing stores, film stores and such, some streets baring the original cobblestones which the city's founding fathers had laid down. Yet he could not help be aware of the history being made in the smoldering towers behind him.. Even on the best of days when no distraction caused people to turn and stare, these streets struggled to contain the thousands seeking their offices, a surging, struggling mass of lost souls pushed along by their own promotion, dropping into doors as they arrived while the mass of flesh moved on seeking more distant doors along the continuum. Eventually, he arrived in the area of Pace University, and the New York Police Academy -- by which time the tops of both World Trade Center towers were lost to smoke.
"Larger and larger amounts of debris were falling from the impacted areas," he recalled.
Some of this debris, people around him claimed, were falling human bodies, leaping from floors near the top where searing ignited jet fuel created unbearable heat or sealed off any other means of escape in the floors immediately beneath. But Kelly, located too many blocks away now for a clear few, could not verify the accuracy of this information.
With the narrow streets and chaos of confusion, it was a wonder Kelly even recognized two people from his office when he stumbled upon them. They informed him that his office had closed for the day and that he should go home.
Again, later, when reflecting upon his actions that day, puzzled over what he did next. Why did he linger in the area when he could have fled? Instead of rushing away from danger by fleeing uptown to access a bus or ferry back to the Jersey side of the Hudson River, he decided to get something to eat.
"I don't know why I suddenly got the urge to eat breakfast," he said later. "But I did."
Many small stores were still open for business.
"I went into a small deli for a bagel," he said. "A couple behind me told everyone the Pentagon had been attacked, which was immediately confirmed by the store's stereo."
Kelly sat down next to an enraged man who denounced "the Arabs" for the attack. It was an accusation Kelly would hear repeated for the rest of the day.
"A woman's voice on the stereo announced the first tower had collapsed," Kelly recalled. "I froze for a moment and then joined the others scrambling out to the street. People were stampeding down Water Street towards South Street Sea Port. A massive cloud of white smoke and soot began to engulf the streets, blotting out the buildings in its path. A wave of people -- barely outrunning the cloud -- appeared from Wall Street and began heading towards the Sea Port."
Another wave of terror hit Kelly.
"What if the falling tower knocked over the buildings around it creating a massive domino effect?" he wondered. "I ran until I was just passed the Sea Port, where I saw structures around me were still standing."
But he did not escape unscathed. The massive cloud brushes passed the area he was in, covering everyone with fine particles of soot.
"Most of the cloud drifted across the East River towards Brooklyn, where it showed signs of dissipating," he said.
By then, however, he had become part of the great migration uptown, he and the dust-covered strangers around him walking in what seemed like a dream. When talking about this a few days later, he claimed he felt as if he was walking in a fog. He barely remembered how he managed to get to Chinatown.
"I heard a gasp from the people around me in the street," he said. "I turned and saw the second tower burst apart; it was an incredible explosion, even from a distance. The entire building pulverized and then fell straight down, leaving behind a hole in the sky. I stared for five minutes, thinking about the destruction and the loss of life. That became too much for me and I moved on."
When Kelly reached Times Square about two hours later, many of the streets were blocked -- some clogged with people staring up at the rotating news ticker on the Chemical Bank Building. Here, he heard rumors of a car bomb exploding outside the State Department building in Washington, DC and of a fourth plane crashing into the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania.
The Port Authority had closed its bus terminal on 8th Avenue and 40th Street as well as the Lincoln Tunnel at the foot of its winding ramps through which many of the buses accessed the Jersey side. In fact, as he looked around, Kelly noticed that most of the businesses in that normally thriving section of midtown had also closed.
"The only place open in Times Square was a three-storied video arcade where I got a beer," he said, "and watched television for an hour."
News footage of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and President George W. Bush's response dominated the transmission. After this, Kelly made his way to 40th Street and 12th Avenue where he found a line of refugees like himself stretching for blocks. After a two-hour wait, he boarded a ferry for Hoboken, which had to wait for another 30 minutes mid-river for the other ferries to unload.
People who had fled the area within ten blocks of the falling towers were herded through the old, green-sided Hoboken train terminal to a decontamination center, operated by the Hoboken and Belleville fire departments.
"We were first thoroughly drenched with a host, then made to stand in a shower for a whole minute, then resprayed again," he said. "I plodded around the terminal until I dried off somewhat and boarded a train for Montclair."
Later, Kelly realized that officials had sprayed him fearing he might be carrying Anthrax as a result of the attack. He was more worried about asbestos, he said.
Many of his concerns evaporated once he reached his suburban hamlet, where he watched the reports and realized just how lucky he had been to survive at all.
"I might not have made it out," he said.
Although the total number of dead shifted as lists of names were sorted out and a few reported missing turned up unexpectedly, nearly 2,800 people died that day, people who had simply carried on their daily routine just as Kelly had.


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