September 12 , 2001
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief
Above: Debris flies toward the
37th-floor conference room of 55 Water Street.
Below: The view after RECORD staff
watched the second plane hit the towers.
© Ingrid Whitehead
8:48 AM We gathered at 55 Water Street in the Standard &
Poor's conference center. The view of Manhattan from the 37th
floor was sparkling with sunlight and promise. To the left,
the out-of-towners gaped at Lady Liberty; to our right, the
flat-topped twin towers of the World Trade Center. As we greeted
our guests, a group of New York architects and fellow workers,
suddenly someone pointed out that papers were flying outside
the window: Had someone scattered confetti in the air? Bit
by bit, our conversation over coffee drifted off as we turned
toward the window. The expressions of twenty people changed
from amusement to bewilderment.
Instead of a colorful shower, the "confetti" consisted of
thousands of sheets of paper, working copies, apparently sucked
from the World Trade Center and cascading from an open gash
in the side of the building. Smoke began to pour from the
wound as we slowly sorted through events. Twenty eyes were
transfixed on the behemoth towers, as smoke began to pour
out. The south tower of the WTC had been hit, possibly by
We were puzzling through the unfolding scene, when the conference
room phone rang out. Carol Kurth, an architect due to join
the meeting, was calling from a car in the street below the
building. She had seen it. A plane had hit the World Trade
Immediately we headed for the television. Had it been a
suicide? An intentional strike? A pilot who had blacked out?
Smoke built in intensity and flames were evident. Damage to
the sides of the tower included free-hanging pieces of metal
from the columns. Our meeting, which overlooked the catastrophe,
had come to an end.
9:06 Suddenly, someone in the group screamed out. A huge
boom shook the room as we turned to witness a full-sized jet
aircraft crash into the north tower of the WTC. I looked up
to see shards of the building fly out into space, felt the
blow to the building in my chest as the force reverberated
with sonic power, recoiled from the smoke and the attendant
flash of fire. We were under attack: at that instant, America,
was at war.
Quickly we evacuated the building. Rather than take the fire
stairs, which were not immediately apparent, we grabbed the
first elevator that stopped on 37. The facilities manager
for McGraw-Hill, who had been a participant, remained on the
telephone on the higher floor. Despite our fears of disrupted
power, the lift worked. At ground level, the scene was pandemonium,
as workers from hundreds of offices sought their friends and
decided where to go, what to do. As of yet, no debris or dust
clouded the eastern quadrant of lower Manhattan as we struck
out, headed north, away from the towers.
Although we had no direction from authorities, common sense
dictated that we follow the river north. Our group stuck together,
past the ferries, past the saline smells at the Fulton Fish
Market, at a quick pace, stopping briefly to wait for stragglers.
Ironically, the sun shone bright as the day warmed up. Throughout
the trek north, we wondered if other targets or other buildings
would be hit? Were civilians on foot a potential target? Ahead,
the Brooklyn Bridge offered a choice. My house lay across
the East River in Brooklyn Heights, less than a mile away.
It was clear to me that the trophy targets lay in Manhattan;
quiet Brooklyn offered few attractions for terrorists. I was
Two others in our group decided to join me in Brooklyn, two
people aimed for the Williamsburg Bridge, while the remainder
of the group determined to get as far north in Manhattan as
they could. We hugged and said goodbye, then turned back toward
the mid-island, looking for the on-ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge,
accompanied by sirens and shrieks of cars headed out of town.
Imagine the scene: 3 men, one of whom was 83 years old, threading
our way up the massive on-ramp of the bridge, walking between
honking cars and throngs of pedestrians in single file, never
looking back. Ahead lay the pedestrian walkway over the massive
1875 bridge that I know like a good friend and home. The odds
seemed good. Although the central span of the bridge would
be vulnerable to a strike, it would only take ten minutes
to cross from the granite piers to the land. On the other
shore lay Long Island and a more sheltered world that seemed
worth the effort.
The scene at the walkway was like the Exodus. The three of
us, in sport coats, encumbered with briefcases, clambered
over a low wall surmounted with cast iron grille, and joined
a sea of humanity leaving the city. Tens of thousands of people
marched in an orderly mass, quietly. The group reflected the
diversity of New York, from Hasidic Jews to Africans in full
regalia to Russians, Poles, and Puerto Ricans. Some were elderly,
propped up by compatriots, and flushed from heat and exertion.
A few kids jogged irregularly through the crowds. Everyone
remained calm; no one yelled.
Although it seemed impossible to stop for breath, at mid-point
in the bridge, we felt a rumble like faraway thunder and turned.
The impossible was happening. The south tower of the World
Trade Center shook, and in what resembled an elemental act,
fell to earth in a mighty shout. The entire dissolution, the
changeover from solid elements to ash, took only seconds,
and it was gone. A bronzed man lifted his hands with clinched
fists to the skies shrieked and yelled, "You bastards!" and
ran into the throng. Then in a few short steps we had reached
the shade of Cadman Plaza and safety while ash and smoke billowed
out like a land-borne cloud..
As an architect, I was amazed that these powerful structures,
surrounded by columns, had proved as vulnerable to exterior
movement as they had. Although the aircraft had exerted tremendous
forces, would the towers have fallen without some additional
explosives, or had something within the structures caused
the buildings to collapse? We subsequently learned, via CNN,
that they had been loaded with fuel. The planes had, in effect,
been bombs. Answers would demand another day and rest and
peace. For now, we had all become victims of an hour's terror,
aware that the nexus of urban civilization had been shaken,
and that we would all be changed.