When I heard the Towers had been hit by planes, I put on my suit jacket and ran to take a train to my job at The Wall Street Journal [W1]. I was a copy editor for the “Leisure & Arts” page, but I figured this was a story that would require all hands on deck, even mine. Through the doorway of an Irish bar below my el stop in Astoria, I saw the Towers on TV, puffing black smoke.
Just past 23rd Street in Manhattan, the train came to a halt and didn’t move for an hour and a half. Since we were underground, we had no way of knowing the severity of the situation—the intercom kept repeating the innocuous message that “due to an incident at the World Trade Center, this train is being held …”—and when at last we were discharged at Union Square, I continued the journey to the office on foot, swimming against the tide of humanity moving north. I slipped through some police barricades and angled southwest, trying to stay inconspicuous. The Towers were swathed in a cloud of black smoke. My mind, still stuck in a news vacuum, couldn’t comprehend that they no longer stood.
At the Franklin Street station, the entrance was blocked with yellow police tape. Having come so far, I felt it would have been cowardly to turn back, but I feared I might be detained if I continued down the street. My best option was right in front of me. I lifted the tape, descended the stairs, and waited for a train or an MTA worker to appear, but there was only an otherworldly quiet. With no one around to stop me, I lowered myself onto the tracks and began walking. Several blocks later—blocks that seemed more like miles as I carefully considered each step through the dark—I emerged in the Chambers Street station. The platform was coated in dust. A couple of cops were hanging around the token booth on the level above me. I waited until they wandered off, and then I climbed the stairs to the street.
The ground was littered with paper shin-deep, as if I’d just missed the craziest ticker-tape parade. I picked up a discarded dust mask, put it on my face, and began to make my way around the smoking rubble. After crossing the West Side Highway, I entered the World Financial Center complex. The Winter Garden’s glass roof was shattered in places, and the palm trees in the courtyard were pallid with ash. All the shops were empty. I climbed the emergency fire stairs in One World Financial Center. I didn’t see a soul. It was one of the most unnerving moments of my life, standing in that empty newsroom, wondering where everyone was, hoping none of my colleagues had been hurt or killed, all those computers humming with no one in front of them while the biggest story in the world played out just across the street.
Philip Connors, the author of Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout, worked at The Wall Street Journal until 2002.
From the archives
• A Death in the Family (New York Magazine, March 4, 2002)