On a summer-warm September morning, terrorists dampered the symphonic sounds of Manhattan and rewrote the score in a cacophony of chaos and fear. I was there. I heard them, sounds that silenced the fantasia of a monumental city. Nine years have gone by, and I hear them still.
Manhattan absent the sounds particular to it was an apocalyptic place, but that pivotal day began normally enough. New York Fashion Week was in full swing, and for the umpteenth time I was covering the action for Wisconsin’s largest newspaper. My hotel was just off Times Square. I walked to a nearby Dean & DeLuca, bought coffee and a scone, and took my breakfast out to the sidewalk. The city was sending up its usual racket. Horns honked. Doormen whistled. Pedestrians chatted on cell phones in languages from Brooklynese to Portuguese.
Ah, the street music of Manhattan. A trash truck rumbled down an alley, lifting dumpsters in its wheezy hydraulics. A bus hissed to a stop at the corner and slapped open its billfold doors. A cement truck twirled its great belly on the diagonal, making a sound like pennies jiggled in a jar. A boom car woofer’d to smithereens glided by, blaring music so heavy on the bass it thumped right through me. At the high hum of skateboard wheels, I jumped aside. A skinny kid in an XXL tee shirt zoomed by, executing kick-flips and nollies. “Walk in the park,” he said, barely bothering to look back. The show-off.
At a few minutes before nine I was back in my hip little room in a hip little Ian Schrager hotel. I fired up my laptop to see how yesterday’s fashion story had played. The computer took its sweet time waking up, so I turned on the television to the “Today Show.” Matt and Katie had just cut to live coverage of a blazing high-rise. I phoned my editor in Milwaukee.
It’s Catherine. There’s a big fire in a tall building here. Is your TV on?
Go, she said. Go. GO!
I grabbed notebooks, pens, a bottle of water, a wad of cash and my cell phone, and made it onto a southbound “A” train in the nick of time. With a throaty roar, the train zoomed down the track. At the 14th Street station we stopped, and stayed stopped. A woman in a seat by the door stuck a tissue behind her eye glasses, daubing tears. There’s a second fire, she said, I heard it on the radio.
I rolled my eyes. Stupid broadcast media, over-hyping the story already.
Five minutes passed. Seven. Stalled in the city’s thready underworld, passengers fidgeted. Ten minutes, and our train stayed where it lay. I decamped with a small group and climbed a municipal ziggurat to daylight. Behind us, the station was silent. No tokens clinking. No turnstiles ratcheting.
We emerged on a not so lovely stretch of 14th Street. The sun beat like sticks on a skillet. I listened for familiar sounds. Where was the toot and din of traffic? Where were the taxis, the whooshing bicycle messengers, the self-important SUVs that make manhole covers plink like xylophones? I listened for the fizzy splat of hose water on morning sidewalks, the chatter of scalpy women rummaging sidewalk-sale bins, the buzz of a tattoo gun … but no, not that morning.
Which is not to say New York was quiet as a churchyard. On the contrary. The air was charged with the pulsing sounds of danger. Fire trucks broadcast deafening honks as they negotiated intersections. Police sirens sped up and down the octaves. Ambulance sirens wailed two-note warnings reminiscent of London during the blitz. Sirens ululated across the harbor to Lady Liberty. Sirens raced the halls of Ellis Island. For hours, peril rang in the ears of a city painfully aware it was under attack. When sirens by the hundreds finally fell silent, the silence fell fierce on the ear.
I headed south on foot toward Tribeca, past rivulets of stone-faced men and women heading north, hoofing it home. Individuals at every point on the continuum from mail room clerk to hedge fund honcho were striking up brief, murmured conversations. They all seemed to need the same thing: to connect with another human being.
Oh, and the dogs. Good God. Estimates of the number of dogs in New York City vary wildly. Some say 50,000. Some say a million. That morning, dogs had the smell of a jet fuel fire in their snouts, the painful sound of sirens in their sensitive ears. Dogs whimpered at windows and growled in yards. Designer pooches yipped, straining at rhinestone leashes. A German Shepherd nipped my ankle, broke the skin. I shrugged it off.
And then everything changed.
The sound of a 110-story skyscraper collapsing from the top down is not what you’d think. When the upper floors of the South Tower suddenly mushroomed out, I was some 20 blocks from Ground Zero, with an almost unobstructed view. The sight was surreal, but from that distance the sound was vaguely familiar, like play-yard sand sifted through a colander. As the tower fountained down, my own wistful out-breath joined the sighs of people near me, a collective human soughing at the sheer sorrow of the thing.
Overhead, the thwop-thwop of news helicopters had vanished; F-15 fighter jets whistled across the sky, setting teeth on edge. Speaking to me by phone from the safety of a newsroom 750 miles away, a news-side editor barked: Do you see any F-15s?
Uh-uh, I said, not wanting to look up.
He sounded irked. Did the man realize how difficult it was to put through the call? By then many mobile phones were dead, mine included. I happened to hear a guy talking on a cell phone, so I waved a fifty-dollar bill in the air and then did the praying-hands thing. The man ended his call, handed me his phone, and stood by while I dictated my latest dispatch to a newsroom reporter. The guy didn’t take the money. It was that kind of morning.
I hung up and started tacking down unfamiliar streets again. At one point I stopped to give the thumbs-up sign to firefighters careening toward their own annihilation. Surely the worst was over.
A block or two from Ground Zero. That’s where I was when I heard the sound of a body striking earth at 150 miles an hour from a height of 1,000 feet. It’s not what you’d think, that sound. You’d think it would be like a sack of wet sand slung onto a flood wall, but it isn’t. It is a brutal, crashing boom. I didn’t get the drift until a young man sidled up to me, eager to explain. His breath smelled of coffee; odd, the things you remember.
Jumper, he said, his voice high and thin, on the tattered edge of hysteria. I glared at him and he moved off.
And then, another boom!
I went all swoony, as if I’d watched the hand of God unzip the sky, or gazed overlong into Nietzsche’s abyss.
Soon after, the North Tower descended upon itself with a terrible crackling bang, and vanished behind a cloud of debris. The concussive blast billowed high in the air. At ground level, compressed between low buildings, it boiled up streets and avenues. I stood in a lane emptied of traffic, transfixed by the cloud’s cinematic size. I heard people screaming, their eyes bulged to whites. I heard their running footsteps, saw them jam every recessed doorway. I ducked behind a mail bin bolted to the sidewalk and crouched there, knees to chest, listening to the clatter of my heart. The thunderhead swept over and around me, smoke and ash and chunks of things hurtling so ferociously I assumed the tower had fallen over like an axed tree, assumed I would be crushed beneath it, assumed I had reached the moment of my death, and mourned my children’s grieving.
It passed. I got up. Like an automaton, I began interviewing dust-covered spooks.
At sunset I wandered to Bryant Park, the hub of Fashion Week, a pocket-sized greensward dotted with sycamores and Parisian folding chairs. In a perfect world, chic ticket-holders would have been milling on the park steps, sizing up one another with covert glances, and inside the tents sylphlike models would be swanning down runways. Not that night. The park was quiet enough to hear a leaf twirl to the seat of a French folding chair.
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, radios crackled on the shoulders of armed guards stationed at each door. I took out a notebook and wrote:
Boot soles shuffled on hallowed ground.
Across the street, the flags of Rockefeller Center flapped against their poles. I wrote:
Flags wished themselves to half-staff.
It occurred to me that I was being morbid. Well, who wouldn’t be?
At dusk, after skyscrapers had thundered down, after exhausted emergency crews had turned off their sirens and bewildered parents had crawled into bed with bewildered children, sparrows drifted to a place they normally shun, a place of epic festivity: Times Square.
The Crossroads of the World, although ablaze with lights, was deserted. Party called off on account of deaths in 3,000 families. I scanned the length of Times Square and saw no one. It was the second most desolate place in Manhattan.
The sparrows. I figured they’d settled on a jumbotron or a flashing marquis (who could see such small, inconsequential creatures when immense and craven things demanded attention). Come twilight, they sang in celebration of sunbeams glinting off cat-tooth waves, angling into glass canyons, drenching the upper city in gorgeousness as if to spite the cataclysm farther down the island.
For a while (who knows how long, the day seemed eternal, ten seconds a lifetime), elegies of birdsong rang out over a world in lament. Then nightfall chased the sun westerly and spattered the heavens with stars.
Years later, I resurrected the notebooks from a shoe box that I had tied with string and stashed deep in a closet. I sat back on my heels and flipped through the pages. The handwriting looked nothing like mine.
Catherine is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, a former metro daily feature writer, and the author of two previously published novels: A Matter of Happenstance (Plain View Press, 2010) and Going on Nine (Familius, 2014).
Her book-length account of the award-winning dispatches she filed from Lower Manhattan on 9/11 has been accessioned into the State Historical Society of Missouri archives. Descriptions of her reportage are included with accounts of other media people in Running Toward Danger (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). “Sounds and Fury,” an essay describing her experiences during the week of the attacks, appeared in the September, 2010, edition of Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2010, Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick