It’s been 10 years since the planes came in and changed the landscape of lower Manhattan forever; 10 years since two commercial passenger airliners were turned into weapons of mass destruction by a small army of terrorists and flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. That attack on September 11, 2001 achieved what a truck bomb had failed to accomplish eight years earlier: the destruction of what some felt represented an architectural symbol of free market capitalism.
Anyone working in financial markets probably remembers where they were that day. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was walking briskly across the Trade Center Plaza on my way to work when, at 8:45am, I heard an explosion above my head. My first thought was that there was another bomb.
I looked up and saw a ball of fire and black smoke pouring out of a huge hole some 80 stories up the north side of the North Tower. Like most mornings, I was walking toward the bridge over West Street that connects the twin towers to the World Financial Center where I worked as a vice president of global broadcast services and president of Merrill Lynch Television.
I never made it to work that morning. And 10 years later, the images and feelings of that day remain branded in my mind and have haunted me since. Allow me to share some of them.
Before the fall
As I gazed up at the fireball and black smoke billowing from the side of the tower, it struck me that I should probably move. Pieces of burning debris were raining down around me. I made my way toward a crowd standing under the overhang of one of the smaller trade center buildings.
It was there that I found myself standing next to a middle-aged woman sobbing silently to herself and looking up. Before I could ask her what was wrong, I followed her line of sight to the ragged hole that had been torn from the building on the 86th floor.
Standing in the flaming opening was a man in a suit. He was adjusting his tie. And then he just leaned forward and fell from the gaping inferno. He landed not far from where we were standing.
The image of the man fixing his tie, weighing his options and then deciding to face fatal impact over death by fire is as clear today as it was a decade ago.
What kind of hell was behind him in that ragged hole that convinced him that falling 86 floors and certain death was the better alternative? What could he have been thinking? “This is my final journey so I should look good”?
I needed to make sense of what I had seen, to rationalise what could have motivated him to straighten his tie to be presentable when he entered the afterlife. Basically, I was frozen in place, unable to move, until another piece of smoking debris hit a few feet away and jarred me back to reality.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost 9am. I was going to be late for work so I started walking again towards West Street and the World Financial Center. Along the way, I stopped a policeman and asked if he knew what had caused the explosion. He said he’d heard that a small plane had accidentally hit the North Tower and ordered me to keep walking because the area was no longer safe to stand.
A low-flying jet
Because of falling debris, the North Tower was closed, so I went down to street level to cross at Vesey Street. I was making my way toward West Street, keeping my eyes on the flaming tower, mostly worried about a shift in wind and how I would deal with that. Everywhere, people were stunned, dazed, crying and in shock. I felt like I was moving through a crowd of zombies who had just had the life sucked out of them
I just kept walking, hoping to make it to the office and sanity when I saw a jet plane flying down the Hudson River. It looked like it was flying pretty low and that seemed strange. The plane flew out over New York Harbour, towards the Statue of Liberty, then banked to the left and came around…
That’s when the unbelievable happened. The plane leveled off and then flew right into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, ripping through the side of the building like a chainsaw, tearing out huge chunks of glass and masonry, and sending them sailing through the air. This was no accident. Two planes meant we were under attack. I started looking for shelter, as well as for more planes.
I didn’t realise it at first, but a cloud of debris knocked loose from the South Tower was coming right toward me. I screamed: “Incoming! Incoming!” The stunned people nearby looked at me like I was crazy as I urged them to move and find shelter. This was no longer a safe place to stand. I ran until I was out of breath and then looked back. Now, both towers had raging gashes in their sides and balls of fire and black smoke billowing out of them.
A world on fire
I felt like I was back in Vietnam, in a firefight, wondering from which direction the enemy would strike next. I’d had nightmares like this. But this was no dream. This was real. In all my days in Vietnam, nothing was as bad as this. This was worse than war. This was hell and the world was on fire.
I tried calling the office, but no one was picking up the phone. I figured they must have evacuated the building. There was no way to get to the World Financial Center anymore anyway. Police were moving the crowds of people out of the area. I tried to call home but there was no longer any cell phone service. I couldn’t tell anyone I knew that I was still alive.
Eventually, I made my way uptown to Broadway and 66th Street, where Merrill Lynch Television had a satellite office. A television was on and everyone was watching live coverage of the attack on the twin towers. I joined them, and we watched as the South Tower collapsed, followed a few minutes later by the North Tower.
A few hours later, I reached my frantic wife by phone and told her I was okay. In the days that followed, however, I realised I really wasn’t okay. Emotionally and psychologically, I was wracked with guilt and horrific images that wouldn’t go away. I felt guilty that I survived while so many around me died.
My company lost three people that day. I knew one of them and went to his memorial service. He was a young man in his mid-20’s who worked in our department. He was engaged to be married, with his whole life ahead of him. He was the new guy in the office.
In Vietnam, it was always “the new guy” who got it – the new guy who didn’t know how dangerous the terrain was. That day the new guy didn’t know he could get killed just by having breakfast in the wrong restaurant 100 floors above Manhattan.
For months following the attack, every time I closed my eyes, I could see the ball of fire over my head and the businessman straightening his tie and then his body falling to earth.
Two months after 9/11, Merrill Lynch let us return to our offices in the World Financial Center. It was way too soon. The fires from the towers were still burning. The air had the odor of death and decay. Our desks were still covered with dust, and there were particles in the air. As I sat in my chair, I had the feeling I was surrounded by ghosts.
It’s been 10 years since I last walked across the Trade Center Plaza, past the giant metal globe glistening in the middle of a water fountain, where children would play and tourists would stop and take pictures. The plaza isn’t there anymore. For many years, there was just a giant hole reminding us of the innocent and brave lives that were erased that day. It was like an open wound that wouldn’t heal; a hole in the heart of a city in mourning.
Today, a new modern skyscraper is being erected in its place to both memorialise the spirits of nearly 2,700 souls who reside there and to show the world that life and commerce goes on, in a free-market world, even an economically challenged one.
Fred Yager was an embedded war correspondent in Vietnam working as a US Navy journalist. He’s also a former writer for the Associated Press, CBS News and Fox Television. On September 11, 2001, Fred was director of Global Broadcast Services and president of Merrill Lynch Television. He is now editor of eFinancialCareers North America and the author of several fiction and nonfiction books.