it just happened

UES Crash: On the Scene

Photo: Everett Bogue

This wasn’t terrorism, but it felt like a terror-attack drill. Everybody passed.

A small aircraft took what MSNBC called “a radical turn” and crashed into the 20th floor of a 50-floor apartment building — the Belaire — on York Avenue and 72 Street.

Hi sweetie,” said a woman into her cell phone at First Avenue and 68th Street. “Just wanted to say I’m okay.” Her voice was tender but businesslike. What do you do, after all, when a plane hits a building and you survive? You call home and tell people you’re safe. Basic stuff. Up and down First and York Avenues, the same call was being made. The cell networks promptly overloaded, like they did on September 11 — the inevitable comparison point when you see a building hit by plane — but this time only for a few minutes.

It sounded like a sick engine,” mused Doug Ballon, who works across the street from the hit building, describing the sound that preceded the bang. “But not like a helicopter. There was nothing choppy about it. It was more of a whine, metal on metal.” Tentative rain started. A young reporter closed her Time-branded notepad.

By a strange coincidence, disaster hit in an area thickly populated by medical personnel. Almost all of the eyewitnesses and evacuees milling by the police barrier were by professional training calm and soft-spoken: researchers, doctors, and nurses. Most wore name tags, making the eager reporters’ jobs easy. Karen Vaccaro, who works at the Hospital for Special Surgery, pointed to a colleague who had taken some digital pictures of flaming debris. “Just make sure to mention he’s a brilliant scientist,” she said with a laugh.

If the epicenter was calm, tension reigned several blocks away, where people depended on the confused media — was it a plane? a helicopter? — and random hearsay. On Lexington, a nail salon’s staff gathered in front of a flat-screen tuned to CNN. In the lobby of an office building nearby, two janitors craned their necks toward a portable radio. The host they were listening to, ensconced in the studio, was feeding narratives to the eyewitnesses: “So you’re a nurse, didn’t you think, I can’t be out here, I need to be in there, there may be people hurt?” The caller didn’t answer; the host grew testy.

Another block east, on Park, everything was calm again.

Michael Idov

UES Crash: On the Scene