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Terror in the City

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 a bomb.

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 Center.

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.

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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 heading home.

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.

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