September 11th Attacks - A View From Washington Square
My View from Washington Square

As a student at NYU, I happened to be in New York City for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  I jotted down some notes right after it happened, but until now, never managed to get around to writing about the experience.  It’s funny, because nine years later, the things that I remember the most didn’t make that initial list.

On the morning of the 11th, I woke up around 6 am to do laundry.  This was fairly routine for me; my dorm only had five washing machines for the whole building, so the early morning was pretty much the only time you would be guaranteed of having three machines available simultaneously.  I was done shortly after 8, and after bringing my clothes back upstairs, showered and got dressed.  As I walked out of the bathroom, my suitemate came rushing out of his room. His mother had called to say that the World Trade Center was on fire.

When you looked (south) down almost any street around NYU, the twin towers stood out above everything. At night, it seemed like they were right on top of you. Intent on getting a first-hand look at the fire, I grabbed my wallet, phone, and radio, then headed for the street.  I lived in Goddard Hall on Washington Square East, and just as I exited the building, the first collapsed occurred.  People were running in all directions, but most were congregating in the park and at intersections where they could look south with unobstructed views.  I moved across the park to an area near the intersection of LaGuardia Place and Washington Square South.

After deciding that this location was as good a place as any to observe the scene, my attention turned to figuring out what the hell was happening.  On the radio, I stuck mostly with Howard Stern and occasionally flipped over to 1010 WINS for additional news.  Stern was monitoring all the TV news outlets and passing on information over the radio.  He also had callers on the phone with reports from around the city. You can listen to a recording of the Stern broadcast here.

My Location in Lower Manhattan on September 11th

Image of Lower Manhattan with my location
on 9-11-2001 relative to Ground Zero

WTC Tower on Fire from Washington Square Park 1

The people around me in the park were aware that planes had crashed into the buildings, but there was still a question as to the full extent of the attacks.  For quite some time, there was concern that more hijacked planes were on their way.  There was also concern among us—fueled by radio reports and the observation that the southern tower collapsed without another plane impact—that there were bombs on the ground.  Whatever the case, we figured that we were in a relatively safe location because the buildings near us were short and unimportant.  I tried calling home a couple of times but couldn’t get a signal.  I eventually put the phone away, deciding that any cellular bandwidth available was best allocated to someone else.

There was little in the way of news to be had, and all we could do at this point was to look south at the one remaining tower belching thick, black smoke. People were saying that there were workers jumping from the tower, but I didn’t see anyone leap.  If you looked straight into the massive hole in the front of the building, it seemed as if a bunch of white confetti was flying everywhere.  It wasn’t just falling down, it was blowing in all directions. It might have just been office paper reflecting the sun. 

Around 10:30 am, I was staring right at the gaping hole in the northern tower when it went down.  At the time, I could have sworn I saw a red flash—maybe just of flames being forced out of the hole as the floors collapsed—right as the building fell.  I also thought that the top came down at an angle (i.e, it didn’t just fall straight down), but I saw neither of those things on television replays later in the day.  There was a pop and a muffled rumble, but I don’t recall anything particularly loud or any shaking of the ground associated with the collapse.

What was loud was the crying.  A number of women who were in our group of onlookers just burst into tears.  A couple of people hugged them and gave them a shoulder to cry on. Within minutes, most of the dust had settled and we were left staring at a thin smoky haze.  It was an empty feeling, and most of the people around me were expressionless and stunned.  At this point, there was nothing to see, but there was also nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Photo of the North Tower from Washington Square Park
I was standing at the south side of the park, about
fifty yards in front of this location.

From our position in the park, you could hear emergency vehicles wailing up and down Broadway and Sixth Avenue, but there wasn’t much else going on.  I remember a pair of fighter jets roaring low in the sky down the Hudson and circling the city, but that was the last thing of note from our vantage point—everything else was happening downtown.  While part of me was curious, there was no way I was going to go down there.  The last thing they probably needed was a rush of people.

At this point, it was sometime close to 11 am.  I had already missed the start of my differential equations class and had no intention of going.  I walked over to the Main Building (now called the Silver Center) and went into lab to see what everyone else was doing.  The director of labs for the department sent an e-mail that said not to do any lab work, because if we had an accident, there’d be no one to respond to it.  The phone in lab seemed functional at first, but calls would drop after a few seconds.  Fortunately, I was able to use AOL Instant Messenger to talk to friends and family. 

NYU had canceled classes for the rest of the day, so I found an empty classroom on the fifth floor where I could watch CNN on the TV for a while. 

Collapse of the WTC North Tower
Collapse of the North Tower
Washington Square Arch 9-11 Memorial

Sometime in the afternoon, I got a monster headache and decided to go back to my dorm room for a nap.  That was short lived.  Someone decided to pull the fire alarm and we all had to leave the building. Since the FDNY had their hands full downtown, it took over an hour for a fire engine to arrive and clear the alarm.  It was a shame they had to come at all.

Soon after that fiasco, I walked up to 8th Street to get something to eat.  A number of businesses had decided to shut down for the day, but a few places like pizza shops were open. The whole dynamic of how people interacted in everyday scenarios was completely different.  I remember getting a slice of pizza, and everybody in the store was silent with heads hung low.

That trip for dinner is where my memory of Tuesday ends.  I must have just gone back to the dorm and slept.

The makeshift 9-11 memorial created at the base of the arch in Washington Square

There are two things that I remember the most about the attacks, and neither of them happened on September 11th.  My most vivid memory is of going outside the day after, Wednesday, September 12th.  The wind had shifted overnight and was now blowing up the island from the south.  The smell was sickening.  It was an acrid, biting odor that resembled burning plastic, and it was an inescapable reminder of death and destruction. The other memorable thing about going outside on the Wednesday was how much the landscape of the village had changed.  Our immediate vicinity was a ghost town—NYU had cancelled classes indefinitely and the city had shut down all traffic below 14th Street. People walked down the center of the streets because—except for Broadway and 6th Avenue—there were no cars. The contrast from the frenetic activity typical of daily life in Manhattan was striking.

Within a week or two of 9/11, I attended the wake of my advisor’s mother-in-law.  His apartment was around Kips Bay, and after it was over, I walked over to NYU Tisch Hospital so that I could catch the free campus trolley back to Washington Square.  The scene at Tisch was probably the most gut-wrenching thing I have ever witnessed in person.  The NYU medical complex extends four blocks along First Avenue, and the whole span was blanketed with homemade missing-person flyers.  There were thousands of them, taped to every surface within arms’ reach.  The pictures of the missing were haunting, and while I had already heard the news reports that thousands were presumed dead, there is a big difference between seeing a number flash across a TV screen and viewing this wall of flyers that stretched as far as the eye could see.  I’ll never forget it.

(A gallery of similar walls of flyers posted after 9-11 can be found here).

Image Credits

The images on this page that were taken in Washington Square Park on 9-11 are not mine. I stumbled across them on the Internet sometime in 2003 or 2004, and saved them since they were taken just a couple of feet from where I was standing. I'd link to the originals, but I can't find them anywhere. The photographer's screen name might have been "Blue Tuna" or something similar. If these pictures are yours and you want proper credit (or for them to be removed), let me know.

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