My personal experience on September 11, 2001

I had just moved to New York and I was still unpacking boxes from an extended overseas trip. Despite the jet-lag, I remember that I couldn’t miss the interruption on my television screen. “A Cessna or something hit the building.” I watched the seemingly impossible image of the burning tower. I was immediately struck with the implausibility of this being an accident. Lower New York is flat, very flat. It would be next to impossible – even for the worst pilot – not to avoid those towers.

I was right.

Looking back, I can only assume it was my training as a journalist that possessed me to grab my camera bag – I loaded it with black and white film and ran! As I descended my steps, the building shook violently – as if from an earthquake. I had no idea then, but I learned later that it was the second airplane hitting the south tower. I ran until I had made my way up Broadway and towards the burning towers. It looked like the images I’d seen of a ticker-tape parade in NY, with confetti raining slowly down from above. It was only as I got closer that I realized this “confetti” was paper and ashes from the people that were trapped above me in the towers. As I entered what would become known as “ground zero” it became clear I was now dangerously close. The debris fell and mixed with heavy ash and bodies (bodies!), broken concrete, and steel.  Bodies and mammoth pieces of steel slammed into the ground around me with intermittent, violent crashes. I looked up to see bodies draped, contorted, over building walls and precipices.

It was as if someone had gone into a butcher shop, grabbed handfuls of flesh – bones and all – and thrown them all over the streets. Below me lay limbs, a shoe, dismembered fingers. I was overwhelmed and had no idea how to process what I was seeing.

At the same time, I’d entered survival mode. I remember I was constantly dodging obstacles. The speed that the debris was falling was so fast and furious there would be no time to move out of the way. Suddenly, I was afraid to get too close. I made my way up and down side streets – Washington St., Albany St., Greenwich St., and onto Liberty St., just south of the South Tower. As I walked, I became hyper aware of the unrecognizable body parts littering the ground. I started looking down and not up. I narrowly sidestepped. “What’s that? A piece of … of spine?” Horrified yet mesmerized, a sudden “Wham!” shocked me into understanding that I’d have to look up, too. As I became more conscious of the world above me and at my feet, I realized I was walking over detritus that was people’s lives: a shoe, someone’s day-timer, a child’s drawing, a fore-finger and thumb ripped from a hand; all mixed with concrete, stone, steel, vegetables, and paper, fanning out as far as I could see, in all directions.

On Liberty St. I was directly south of the South Tower, standing in front of the Deutsche Bank building (later to be condemned because of the heavy burning and damage it suffered). I looked up at the gaping hole in the building and thought, “That’s not good. That could fall. And if it does, it’s going to fall towards me and I’ll have nowhere to run.” So, I walked west a few doors to 90 West Street, directly in front of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.

There was scaffolding above the sidewalk from work being done and I stayed under it to avoid being hit by small falling debris. All around, it sounded like oversized rain drops hitting at odd intervals: Tick…tic, tic…. Dink. Tic…. Dink, dink, tic. I noticed two policemen near me and two or three bystanders. All of sudden I heard a low, loud rumble. I knew immediately what it was, and without looking up, I turned, pushed the two people standing behind me, and shouted, “run!”

In that brief moment we ran a mere ~25-feet to the western entrance of 90 West Street. (There was also an entrance on the north side that faced the WTC tower, it in fact entered into the same lobby.) Confusion gripped us. Years, decades, started to rush through my mind: “Enter this door? Don’t enter this door? Keep running? Don’t keep running? Psychology 101, Fight or Flight.” I grew up where there were tornadoes. At that moment I remembered my mom’s advice: “Go for a corner where a wall meets a floor or another wall.” I did.  I entered and dove like superman (in my mind I looked like superman) towards a corner. As I was thinking corners, tornadoes, and superman, a shockwave of air blew up the lobby and forced my choice into the wall! “That’s it. We’re dead, I think.”

A different type of panic grips me. Slammed against the wall, enveloped in black, thunderous sounds – deafening sounds – pounding down around us, I envision monstrous pieces of steel and concrete – a building falling on me. My mind folds inside myself as I curl up like a baby. I decided my life would be over soon. I whimpered, only thinking of those that I knew. I hoped that it would end quickly, not in a situation where I I’d be trapped for days with broken limbs under rubble. I said, “I love you,” to my parents and family and waited in fear to be suddenly crushed by something. By my estimation it was only 10 seconds from the first rumble of the building to the diving, ducking, and crying- even the flash through my mind of my whole life – including details. All of it in just 10 seconds.

The roar stopped. In this moment, I realized nothing had hit me but I could not breathe. Suffocating, I thought, “so this is what it’s like to die of smoke inhalation.” I questioned whether I was even alive! Someone nearby yelled, “I can’t breathe!” Another voice behind me said, “keep your face on the floor.”

“Good idea,” I thought. I was somehow sitting up on my knees. I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face but I bent over and blew to clear a spot in the powdery ash for my mouth. I covered my face with my hands and tried to breathe. I wanted to breathe.     Then, another voice said, “over here! We can get out over here.” It was one of the cops. I knew it because it was the only female voice, and I remember seeing her on the corner.  “Maybe I really am alive,” I think.

I knew where the door was, but I was afraid to move towards it. “What would I fall into, or over? Would I fall through a hole, or onto someone? Were we all alive? Could I make the short 10-15 feet to the door? Was it that far off?”

“Keep talking,” I yelled to the female voice. “We cannot see you,” I said. I reached out my arms to feel, and, feeling another body, we walked towards the voice.

I took more pictures by unscrewing my lens filter and then screwing it back on, trying to hide my lens from the thick fog of dust. It was impossible to see through the camera. It was hard to tell if I was inside or outside. My field of view so obliterated, there were no delineations or distinctions to be made. Seemingly appearing and then disappearing, people moved in and out of my view like ghosts (apparitions?).

Without words, we separated and walked south down West Street towards Battery Park. Outside the door, everything was crushed. A fire department ambulance, somewhat intact, sat on the street outside the doorway. Just moments before the tower fell, I watched as the medics from that same ambulance picked up a fireman’s remains that had fallen from the fiery tower above. I could only wonder if they were now dead themselves. I had just been standing right there. It dawned on me that the instinct to dive into that doorway saved my life.

There was now silence. Complete and utter silence. An unusual calm settled onto everything. We walked on a thick, powdery dust. There were no cries, no sirens. Nothing. Silence. There must be fire; there must be screams. I heard nothing. I remember no sounds at all at this point. “How am I alive? Didn’t one of the world’s tallest towers just fall just a short distance from me? Am I really alive?” I wonder again. Perhaps I’m not.

A cart of water stood abandoned. Everyone helped themselves. One of them, a policeman, looked at me. I was scared to see shock in his eyes. He grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me to the water fountain where he made me put water on my face. I think I must have looked dead to him. A group of people surrounded a transistor radio which was sitting on the roof of a car. The fear of “what’s next?” gripped me. Would planes start dropping bombs? Would something blow up? How would we escape? Where would we run? We’re on an island! Suddenly, that same loud rumble came again, but this time it was further in the distance. A huge cloud of smoke and debris came rushing through the buildings and covered us, obscuring everything again. The north tower had just fallen.

For the second time, I couldn’t breathe. All people and everything else in my field of vision disappeared. Once again I bathed in darkness; my lungs and eyes burning. All sounds, sights, and smells are gone. My only thought was, “I cannot open my eyes. I still can’t breathe.” I close my eyes tightly and put my hands over them. With my face down I walked towards my apartment, just a block away. I look up once in a while between blinks. When I walked through my door I was covered in ash and coughing, but I had made it home. Inside, my apartment, too, was covered with the fine dust from the explosions. I knew that I was lucky, I was still alive. The TV was still on, but now the tone of the message had been inextricably altered.

-Eric O’Connell