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Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Smithsonian “September 11:
Bearing Witness to History”

     Story of September 11
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Contributed by: David Frydrychowski
Contributor's location on 9/11: New York City
Contributed on: 19 August 2002

How did you witness history on September 11th?

I had been at work for about an hour this morning (had just finished the venti coffe and pair of bialys) when I noticed a blip on one of the industry “bbs” that I monitor. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. After the details started to come in (I was relying on firsthand accounts from bulletin boards, as the major news sites had crashed) disbelief started to turn to fear. There was a very real sense that this might get worse before it got better. So I headed over to St. Pats for a few moments of recollection and the Mass. Figured if the apocolypse was on, I might as well drop by for a final briefing. Gives you some idea of the state of mind of the city at the moment. On the way there, I passed through Times Square, it had started to fill with people, watching the “ticker” and the big ABC and NASDAQ screens. I hung a right at 50th and walked past Radio City – bumped into the head of operations there, as calm a man as you’ll ever expect to meet, jogging from the side door to the box office.. Even in our quick salutations (“hang in there!”) I sensed an element that brought home to me that someone was now playing for keeps. The church was surprisingly empty. But quiet. And the Mass for Peace was prayed. Leaving the cathedral, I turned left. Why? Don’t know. But I kept moving. Stopped for a felafel with tahini. The proprietor, who appeared to be an immigrant from the middle east, didn’t seem to be doing much business today, and was strangely grateful when I stopped and ordered something. As I continued to head south I noticed that all of the corners usually filled with hotdog vendors and gyro stands were empty. There were almost no cars on the road. Times Square had emptied out, because the viewscreens had been turned off – actually, all of the marquees in the city were dark. Fighter jets were overhead. I was one of the 5 percent of people heading south. (I figured if someone was trying to do real damage, we 5% wouldn’t count for much.) I stopped at a drugstore, though, to get a headset radio. The pharmacist who pointed the aisle out to me appeared to have been crying. There was a clump of 6 people huddled around the radio at the checkout counter. I pressed south. Through midtown, through Chelsea, through the outskirts of the Village, the same shell-shocked people heading north, the same streets without cars, but with the constant sound of sirens – most stores were shutting down. Then I got to Houston, where you could see the smoke billowing up from behind 7WTC, and nothing where the towers used to be. There was a crowd of about 40 people at the barricade, most of them with cameras. A large truck filled with emt’s moved through the barricade, but stopped about a half block in when cops further in started to relay the news back that WTC 7 was in danger of collapsing. This was 3PM. There was a rumor floating around that they needed volunteers at south street seaport, so I headed east. I walked past the Federal building – right on the other side was the US Courthouse. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with Manhattan, this is about 7 blocks from the WTC.) In front of the courthouse was a mob of about 200 folks waiting in queues to donate blood (there were separate lines for each blood type, and people were holding signs up at the entrance of each line, indicating what blood type that line was.) It seemed they had a ready supply of donors, and I wanted to do something a little more active than getting stuck with a needle, so I joined a group of carpenters waiting for tools to build stretchers out of 2x4s and plywood. In between the blood donation and the laborers, there was a triage center – a fewdozen stretchers on the ground, waiting for wounded. After waiting around a considerable amount of time, a small group decided to offer their services a littlecloser in. (The group had been standing around, waiting for a long time, and they wanted to help the thousands that they figured were trapped underneath.) I followed at a respectful distance. At this point we were a good 5 blocks closer to the WTC than the police barricade – about 7 blocks from ground zero. The well-meaning carpenters abandoned their trek after a few blocks. I kept going. Passed the NYU Medical Center. Same story. Dozens of beds out front, but nobody in them. After a couple more blocks, I saw why. At this point the streets are covered with 2-3 inches of ash and office papers, most partly burnt. I turned a corner and saw the source of the ash - About 20 stories were still standing, and they wereall burning. It looked like a solid cube of flame. No one could survive even being close to that. Even 5 or so blocks away, I felt the heat on my face. Turned around and headed east to the South Street Seaport in search of the “volunteer queue”. (Although I was beginning to understand that this was not a place that a civilian could be of use.) The Seaport was empty. As I asked cops at each corner where Icould go to help, they kept pointing me south (being 6’3” and having a military surplus backpack lent some credibility, I think.) I was actually south of the WTC. The smoke was thick enough to block out the sun. There was 2-5 inches of ash on the ground, mixed with burned and ripped shreds of paper - and it was blowing like snowdrifts. When I got to Battery Park, I started to walk north. A homeless man yelled something about Osama Bin Ladenand went into one of the many coffee carts that had been abandoned, doors open and fully stocked. He came out with a jelly donut, and said it reminded him of his time in Vietnam. Four or five office workers moved in a clump to the east. I stopped in front of Trinity Church (about 5 blocks south of WTC, and a little east.) Talked to the cop there. He said that the Fire Department had lost large, large numbers of folks that day – including a lot of the upper echelons. During the initial fire, they had all rushed into the building and were killed when it collapsed. The CNN crew took some pictures of the church, and moved cautiously northward. A manager of a company a few blocks east debated over whether to evacuate his folks. The cop seemed surprised to learn that there was anyone still there. I headed north. There were some civilians running through, handing out water and masks, but they seemed to have more than enough folks for the job, so I decided to head out of dangers way. About 5 blocks up, I saw a clump of officials with “Mayor’s Office” and “US Attorney’s Office”. As I reached the corner where they were at, I looked over (this was about 4:30) and saw, about a block away, twisted metal spires where the building had been. It looked like a photograph from London in WWII. About a dozen shards rose up about 30 feet in the air, twisted counterclockwise. I moved on. As I passed City Hall, and battalion after battalion of firefighters, I realized how close I was. I took off the mask a couple blocks short of Houston street. Passed a priest heading south, in short sleeves. My shoes were covered with ash, I smelled of smoke, and there was a fine layer of baked ash covering my skin. As I went north, through NYU, through Washington Square Park, everyone looked so fresh and young – even those people who had clearly seen more years than I had. I heard on the radio that WTC7 collapsed. I walked, without reason, back to the Cathedral, where I got there just in time for the solemn blessing by the Cardinal at the end of 5:30 mass. The city had calmed down. It’s locked down tonight – you can’t get near any of the major buildings. I’m sure downtown is still burning. The sound of sirens is almost unnoticeable now, but still present, alternating crescendos and diminuendos. There are almost no cars on the street. Jet fighters are overhead constantly, patrolling the city. It is palpably a different world. As I write this, I am looking at the lights of the reading room of the NY Public Library. And I know that everything I saw today is written there, somewhere. The Battle of Britain. The massacre in the synagogue in Bialystock. This is new ground for us, but it is old ground for history, and the world moves to its next step with the certainty of a pendulum. It is too much to expect to live life uninterrupted. Pray for peace

Cite as: David Frydrychowski, Smithsonian Story #166, The September 11 Digital Archive, 19 August 2002, <>.
Archival Information: 1620 words, 8437 characters

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