Cloud of Ash


The phone rang at my apartment just before nine this morning. It was my father in Louisiana. “Go outside and look, the World Trade Center is on fire.”

I took the phone out my front door, on the Brooklyn waterfront, and saw the north tower in flames. Office papers were fluttering down across New York harbor. I’m a reporter. I ran downstairs to grab my notebook and pen. Then, BOOM, and screams. I scrambled upstairs and out the front door. The second tower was aflame. Workmen from the hospital up the street stood in sheer terror.

“A plane, a passenger plane, just flew into the second tower,” one said.

I said goodbye to my wife, then took off for the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew the subways would be shut, and no traffic would be getting into the city. The pedestrian walkway over the bridge was the only way into downtown.

As far as the eye could see, there was a thick rope of humanity crossing the bridge out of Manhattan, crossing to safety. Or so they hoped: Everybody seemed to know that the fires had been caused by airplanes, and those I talked to feared that the bridge would be attacked.

I interviewed people who saw office workers leap to their deaths from the towers. One woman, so overcome by emotion she could hardly speak, had to step over the bloody, mangled body of a woman who either jumped or was blown out of the tower.

I was struck by how calm everyone was. Tense, God knows, but calm and orderly. They had every reason to panic, but they did not. Some New Yorkers helped carry others who were too shaken to support themselves.

At the last pillars of the bridge before descending into Manhattan, I stopped when I saw a New York Post colleague. I suggested we make plans to go down together and cover the disaster. She suggested that we should wait, that the towers could collapse. I thought she was worrying too much.

“Oh my God!” someone screamed. I looked up, and the south tower of the massive building came tumbling down in flames and smoke. People on the bridge began to wail, and those who could walk picked up their pace to stay ahead of the enormous cloud of ash billowing toward us. A fighter jet passed overhead.

My wife knew I was headed downtown, and she knew I should have been close to the collapsing tower. Nobody’s cell phone worked. She didn’t know if I was alive or dead. By the time I reached the Brooklyn side of the bridge, the ash cloud had reached us, and it set upon the crowd like a snowstorm. The sky was grey-black, obscuring the collapse of the second tower.

Grey ash, pieces of the World Trade Center blew in the air, covering trees, cars, streets, everything. The streets in downtown Brooklyn were eerily still. Stores were closed. Pedestrians were so quiet that the car radios of passing automobiles seemed amplified. This must be what it was like when the news of Pearl Harbor was first broadcast.

My neighborhood is home to many Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. It was also home to the World Trade Center bombers eight years ago. Most Arab bodegas on the avenue were closed. Smart, on a day like today. The American Muslim community must be forthright in condemning this terrorism, and must help the FBI find and destroy all the Muslim terror cells in this country. We always hear how wrong it is to blame all Muslims for terrorism. If that is so, let us hear now American Muslim leaders condemn these horrible acts. And let us not hear them equivocate, and blame Israel as well.

I stopped by the local hospital to donate blood, and was told there was a two-hour wait. There were so many ordinary people who turned up to volunteer that the hospital had to send some away. My cell phone finally rang, as I was half a block away from home. My terrified wife held the door open for me, and held me tight and sobbed and shook. I was covered with ash, but I was home. I was safe.

I looked over my shoulder at downtown Manhattan. The smoke had largely cleared. The Twin Towers, which I have looked at every day of my life for years, were gone. And we are in a new world now.

Though it might seem histrionic, nothing on this day of infamy seems more appropriate than these lines from the Catholic Requiem mass, from its “Dies Irae”:

Day of wrath and terror looming
Heaven and earth to ash consuming
Seer’s and Psalmist’s true foredooming.


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