The day after the attack on September 11, 2001, I sat down and wrote to my family about what I had experienced. This is extracted from that long email. I tried to accurately record my thoughts and feelings, some of which may seem a little strange these many years later, but I believe I recorded them fairly accurately.
Having ridden the train to Grand Central from Connecticut I got on the subway for lower Manhattan. Ironically, as it turned out, I then got off of the subway at City Hall, a few stops north of my usual Wall Street station stop in order to take a longer walk to work in the beautiful September weather. As I began climbing the stairs out of the subway station shortly after 9am, people were streaming back in yelling “They’ve bombed the World Trade Center.” [If you didn’t see the planes hit the building, what else would you think?] The subway public address system then began blaring that the system was shut down and to leave the station. I had arrived just after the second plane hit the South Tower. Having been underground during the attacks, I had no knowledge of their true nature. I accepted the notion that the towers had been bombed – as they had been eight years before. When I emerged from the subway, I saw the large hole in the burning North Tower.
I thought of Steve and Jack, long-time friends with offices in the South Tower, which was also damaged with smoke billowing.
My cell phone was unable to connect to a tower (already the system was overwhelmed) so I proceeded further downtown to my office to call my wife, Debra, and to check on my daughter, Corinne, who worked in Mid-town. I wanted to let them know I was OK.
I hadn’t walked very far down Williams Street when I encountered a young woman standing in the middle of Fulton Street sobbing. I asked her what was wrong; she pointed at the North Tower and said her friend worked on one of the top floors of the tower. I reassured her that the fires would be put out and her friend would be OK. It seemed like the right thing to do. I moved her onto the sidewalk out of the street and we shared a hug before I moved on.
The company where I consulted was located on the 36th floor of 110 Maiden Lane, south of and across the street from the New York Federal Reserve building (to orient those who know lower Manhattan.) The floor was deserted when I arrived; everyone who had been there was already making their way home. I attempted to call family. I did connect with Corinne and while we talked, I was standing at my window watching the South Tower billowing smoke. Suddenly, its top floors tilted and slowly fell. I watched awe-struck as the cloud of concrete dust boiled down Cedar Street and slammed into my building, quickly reaching up to and past my 36th floor window. I was dumbstruck: I had assumed that the fires would be put out and the buildings saved.
I have told this story many times. I describe what happened next as going into “military mode” – calmly thinking through a plan of action. I immediately went downstairs. Before leaving the building, I got two large water bottles at the deserted Au Bon Pain in the lobby. I exited, pulled my tee-shirt up over my nose and then began what became a very long walk, first east away from the Towers and then north toward Mid-town. I believe I was on Water Street – I couldn’t see that well because of being in an unbelievably thick cloud of concrete dust.
With my tee-shirt over my mouth and nose, I could breathe but I could barely see. Still, I could tell that the folks around me were being wonderful to each other. We quietly shared water and encouragement as we slogged along in the dust. Some twenty minutes later we were suddenly overflown by two USAF F-15 Eagles. (I could see up; the sky was light pale blue with the dust.) I later learned that the F-15s were there on the chance that there might be more hijacked planes inbound. But as I dropped my gaze, I realized that I was alone in the street. Everyone around me was cowering in doorways or prostrate on the sidewalk…terrified by the sound of jet engines. I shouted “Come on, let’s go. Those are ours. That’s the Air Force.” I have never shaken the image of Americans terrified, cowering in the streets of New York. And I didn’t yet understand quite why people had reacted as they did.
Just before I emerged from the cloud, a squad of NYPD police was walking in. As they passed, I patted their very large, burly squad leader on the shoulder and said, “Be safe.” He gave me what can only be called a withering look – one tough New York City cop. I still wonder if they were on the scene when the North Tower fell.
By chance, I met up with two women from my office — Mary Kay and Maureen – just after emerging from the dust cloud. I agreed to escort them to their neighborhood in the east 80s. While we were discussing plans, we saw the North Tower fall. As I remember, we didn’t really react; we were numb by this time. We did wonder if people had time to get out of the building.
We talked about many things as we walked: the steady stream of police, rescue workers and firemen going south into the chaos; the quietness of the city – it was disconcertingly quiet. We discussed the goodness exhibited around us as we walked. Already there were long lines of blood donors outside the hospital we passed.
At one restaurant the owner and staff gave out water to those passing. We were among the last recipients because they had given away all their glasses and cups. And, they had set up an easel for people to write the names of friends and loved ones for whom to pray. All these spontaneous reactions were quite moving.
We picked up more and more news from radios in parked cars and store-front televisions. Once I understood that the attackers used commercial aircraft (I still thought bombs were somehow involved until I saw the television reports) I was struck by the symbolism of their choice of weapon – using a paragon of American technology to destroy iconic buildings and bring death and destruction to us on our soil. Suddenly it was clear to me why, when I was still in the cloud and the first F-15’s roared overhead, people around me ducked into doorways for cover.
Mary Kay and I discussed our being like refugees as we walked north. The long lines of slowly walking people were eerily similar to footage from World War II of dispirited persons trudging away from the battlefield. There were no vehicles. other than police and fire, moving in the streets at all.
We also talked about the incredible audacity of the attacks that had been perpetrated against us, how we were now at war and how many things — if not everything — would change.
I did not share with the ladies that as we walked, in the back of my mind, I kept pondering Luke chapter 13, verses 4 and 5:
” …those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”
Not an uplifting scripture to remember at this time, but I thought of it within the context of knowing I had watched people die when the Towers fell. They were unlucky enough to have worked in a symbol of America that became a target. They had no warning; they had no chance – the violence was upon them so swiftly. And certainly, I was no better or worse than they.
I learned that cell phone reception was re-established when, at 59th Street, my daughter Abby called me, more than a little frantic. (I had unsuccessfully tried to call out dozens of times.) I reassured her and asked her to get a message to her mom. I left my friends near their neighborhood and went to join Corinne at a friend’s apartment nearby. Not long after I joined her, Debra called – around 4:00pm. She said that local Connecticut news was reporting that trains were running from Grand Central, bringing people out of the City and home. So, I left for Grand Central. I rode the train home still covered in dust – like many of my fellow passengers.
I was one of those that closed out the Army’s Vietnam experience, having left on the last day of the 1973 withdrawal. I witnessed the end of our combat role in that war. Riding home on September 11th 2001, even though I wasn’t sure of who attacked us and why, I found myself trying to grasp the implications of being present at the start of what surely must be a new war. That war, some twenty years later, is now being closed out.
Ray Dupere says
Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your recollections. And thank for taking the step of becoming a new contributor. Now you need to fill out the story you teased us with of your departure from Vietnam.
Doug Johnson says
Thanks for the nice words. And, as a matter of fact I have my story of leaving Vietnam on one of the last planes out of Bien Hoa Air Base during the withdrawal nearly finished.
Stewart Bornhoft says
Your stories are the bookends of tragedies, separated by three decades. So glad you’re alive to share these insights. It’s heart-warming to read your descriptions of how people help others when danger and chaos strike. Thank you.
Douglas Johnson says
Thank you Stewart,
I appreciate your kind remarks. I often think of how bizarre it is that I was at both ends of major conflicts. I appreciate this web site’s providing me with an opportunity to share.
DENIS GULAKOWSKI says
Amazing story Doug! Thanks so much for sharing. Even with all the news media coverage and the various documentary programs made and interviews provided, one who was not there cannot fathom the thought processes of the people there on the ground. Your description makes that little bit easier.
Doug Johnson says
I appreciate your comments. I’m glad if I could provide insights.
Eric Robyn says
Thanks, Doug, appreciate your sharing your eyewitness account of that tragic day 20 years ago. Send in more of your experiences!
Robert Ivany says
Thank you Doug. Your description carries with it hope for a better America and world, if we work together in the face of terrorism.
I appreciated your sharing these vivid memories with us.
Doug Johnson says
I appreciate the kind words.
Rick Ricker says
Thanks, Doug…really appreciate your sharing…Rick
Doug Johnson says
You are vey welcome.
Doug Johnson says
Thanks for the nice words. And, as a matter of fact, I have my story of leaving Vietnam on one of the last planes out of Bien Hoa Air Base during the withdrawal nearly finished.