"The cloud rolled toward us, and we had to run."
A Washington Post reporter recounts the tumultuous first hour after the World Trade Center bombing.
By Barton Gellman
Barton Gellman, a former Jerusalem and Pentagon correspondent, is a special projects reporter for the Washington Post in New York.
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE incongruous phone calls of the satellite age: Distant editor rings local scribe to say, in effect, look out your window. My window is miles uptown and points the wrong way, but I tuned the television in time to see a jetliner pierce the skin of the World Trade Center's south tower. In that first telescopic picture, before the dramatic closeups to come, the aircraft looked small, almost insubstantial, against the facade. ###
The next few steps came by rote. I had been a correspondent in the Middle East through seven suicide bombings and many smaller attacks. Boots, jeans, cash. No notebook, damn. All right‹index cards. Just before walking out: binoculars and flashlight. On the street, no taxi wanted to go downtown. The subway seemed too big a risk. What if it got stuck? Never trust your mobility to a contraption that can imprison you for hours. I used the old New York standby of waving a bunch of $20 bills at an unlicensed limousine and took the FDR Drive south as far as the driver would go. When he refused to weave into the side streets around City Hall, I started walking. A Harley-Davidson came motoring along, its huge bearded rider wearing a disposable yellow camera like a bauble. He let me link hands around his substantial midsection, and we snaked through streets that were starting to fill with smoke.
When Harley Man began coughing, he stopped the bike and wished me luck. I walked on, doubling back when the streets were too thick with smoke and soot and circling to blocks that looked clearer. One short block, where the fire must have blazed but could not be seen, was so black at 10 a.m. that I actually used the Maglite to find my retreat.
It was an otherworldly landscape, heaped with drifts of ash and dust and papers by the tens of millions, smoldering and burning in piles. I pulled the T-shirt over my nose and mouth and cursed my failure to bring so much as a bandana. A guy in Haz-Mat gear looked at me sharply and told me I should know better than to walk toward the site; a police officer, disgusted at the proffer of a press card, offered to put me in the hospital if I did not turn around. In his heart-pounding zeal, I think he meant well.
I walked north for half a block and then cut west and doubled back. I could not quite get oriented: There was the north tower burning--the one with the television mast--but where was its twin? Was it the angle, or some obstruction? Unhappily I had no radio, something I never forgot when traveling overseas. Mobile circuits were jammed, of course, and my phone had accumulated so much dust that I thought I had better keep it covered anyway.
A few blocks north and east of the tower, I stopped next to a woman weeping as she goggled at the blazing gash in the tower's skin. And then everything got all mixed up in an almighty blow to the senses: a huge, low, rumbling, almost subsonic wave that resonated inside our bodies and filled our ears and seemed to go on a long time. I have felt only one thing at all like it before, while standing on a carrier flight deck for the launch of an F-14.
At the same time the smoky blaze of the tower became a boiling black cloud. And when the cloud began to clear a few seconds later, the tower was simply not there. GONE!! I wrote stupidly on an index card, underlining it three times. I could think of nothing else to write. In my shock I became aware that the woman next to me was screaming: "Oh, God, Oh, God, my niece works in that building! Oh, God." And as I recovered enough to help her sit down and to ask her name and the name of her niece, the next wave of the catastrophe arrived.
Two billion pounds of rubble were crashing down in the open esplanade around the World Trade Center, and the seething mass of ash and pulverized concrete struck the bottlenecks of lower Manhattan's adjacent canyons. Pressing outward and upward, the cloud rolled toward us, and we had to run. Stopping at Foley Square, outside the courthouse you see on "Law & Order," I watched survivors stumble in. They had been much closer than I, and ashes filled their throats and ears and noses. They were ash people, undistinguishable by hair color or clothing. They plunged their heads and shoulders into the black marble fountain, retching. It felt like the end of the world we knew, and maybe the feeling was right.