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Evacuating Manhattan

Notes from Rita F. Catinella Products Editor




Photos: Rita Catinella

Like most New Yorkers, I heard the first news of a plane crash at the World Trade Center shortly after 9:00 a.m. on the morning of September 11th. I was listening to my Walkman, walking towards the Kew Gardens Long Island Rail Road station in Queens on my way to Penn Station. My first thought was that it was a small private plane or helicopter that lost control, but the mayor's description of "a huge loss of life" suggested something much larger. Somewhere around Richmond Hill, Queens, we saw a black cloud of smoke already apparent stretching across an otherwise perfect blue sky. The entire train was quiet and slack jawed as we saw the amount of smoke pouring out of the Towers that were growing in the distance. By that time, the news of the second plane was just making the air waves. There was a strange feeling of tension and fear in the train car as it descended into the tunnel under the river. None of us knew what was waiting for us on the other end.

I was at Architectural Record's office at Two Penn Plaza, in Midtown Manhattan, when I watched the first tower collapse live on television. I knew there was no way that everyone was able to get out in time. Rumors were floating in the air that there were at least eight other hijacked planes around the country. Since the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes had happened by that time, anything was possible. I felt in danger and knew I needed to get somewhere safe—but where could that be? I wanted to leave with Linda, our editorial assistant, but she was checking up on as many of our editors as she could. My art director and friend Clara wouldn't leave either; a friend of hers who worked at the Towers was missing and she had to stay in one place until she found out if he was okay. My sister Lisa, who works just across the street from the Empire State Building, said that the police would not let her out of her building for her own safety. A few moments later, she was evacuated. My instinct was to leave Two Penn, a high rise office building directly above Penn Station, and to meet up with her. We walked from 37th up to 61st Street with some friends, avoiding both the subway and Times Square.

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On the way uptown, the pay phones had up to five people waiting, since cell phones were not working. I remember seeing something on TV about a car bomb at the State Department. People were shouting down at us from offices, asking if the streets were open. Up on 61st, a friend's restaurant served as a meeting point for some other friends and relatives. The group wasn't comforted by the unfamiliar roar of a fighter jet overhead or an obnoxious group of people at the next table who were laughing and joking, as if this all was entertaining. None of us wanted to go underground and take the subway home. We stayed there for a few hours before walking en masse over the 59th Street bridge to Queens. Over the bridge I saw the spot where earlier that morning, the towers had stood. The smoke had turned from black to white after the Towers' collapse, marring a still otherwise cloudless sky.

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