Remembering September 11, 2001
Americans don't all share the same dreams and aspirations, the same politics or ideologies, or the same beliefs or value systems, but we do share the same nightmares. Lower Manhattan, that Tuesday morning six years ago is an American nightmare.
Along with fishing, clamming, and chores, I was tucked away at our place on Cape Poge preparing a complex business proposition. The work took three months, on Island time; any place else, maybe two weeks. I drove to Newton late on September 10, for a short night's sleep before grabbing the first USAir shuttle for my big day in The City.
On Tuesday morning, Scott Whitlock of Nantucket was to meet me at Oppenheimer's 200 Liberty Street office, across the street from the World Trade Towers. By 8:30, I had taken up a perch on the mezzanine to have an unobstructed view of the entrance. At 8:43, Scott arrived and shelled out 40 bucks for the taxi fare and tip. As his cab left the curb, the World Trade Tower exploded. Inside, at the top of the escalator, I was rocked by the blast.
Within an instant, people inside World Financial ran in all directions seeming to disappear into the crevices of the granite slabs in the lobby. Unfamiliar with the building, I scooted down the stairs and fled onto the street. I immediately spotted Scott in front of smoldering rubble that had rocketed out of the World Trade Center.
A fellow ran by yelling, "A plane crashed!" I had a mental flash of a small plane like a Piper and stepped out from under the sheltering doorway to look up at the horrible sight. Enormous, billowing black clouds of smoke poured from a dozen floors about two-thirds of the way up the Tower.
Scott turned to me, "Bomb", he said chillingly. "Terrorists," he added, as a matter of fact. Dumbfounded, my feet were stuck to the pavement. The ground near us had been peppered with flying glass and building materials. Missilized debris was embedded into the skin of 200 Liberty and the adjoining air walk.
I became weak-kneed, wobbly, and yet all the while mesmerized as my eyes were glued, unblinking, on the unfolding horror. While looking up, a man jumped from the building, white shirt, black pants, end-over-end tumbling to the ground. At that instant, the towering glass and metal mass of billowing smoke became human.
After the first man jumped, we refocused our attention on hundreds of the Tower's prisoners, mostly white shirted, who were pressed against the windows and standing in the voids where the windows had been. They were trapped.
One by one, men and women jumped from the Tower's blown-out shell. I felt an overwhelming obligation to witness them jump; watching was the only thing we could do, it was the least we could, and, in the same breath, it was all that we could do.
Two dozen people leaped, as each plunge brought a groan from our small gathering. After 15 minutes, we headed toward the Hudson River. My knees became weak with our first steps, so I sat on my briefcase to collect myself. As I stood to leave a minute later, the second plane roared overhead and exploded into the North Tower. Our bones vibrated, our clothing bounced off our skin. The plane's slanted silhouette was, for the next hour, etched into the Tower's façade and indelibly inscribed in my mind.
For the next four hours, Scott and I worked our way out of Ground Zero via street, subway tunnel, alley, and through buildings before reaching an evacuation area at the Staten Island Ferry. At least twice, we were sure death had caught us. Eventually we made our way to Boston after midnight, 14 hours after the first plane hit.
On September 13, my wife made arrangements for me to see a professional grief and trauma specialist. We talked a long while. After going to work on successive days and accomplishing nothing, I headed back to Cape Poge, alone. Our thinking was that I could get away from the in-your-face, 24 by 7 media coverage, and once there, might memorialize the 9-11 events in a journal.
Getting the last boat from Woods Hole and arriving on Chappy was uneventful. I got to the Dike Bridge and spied Laurie Vanderlaske emerging from the shadows with, presumably, a fly fishing client. It was after 11 pm, and she was hunting bass in the pool behind the guard shack - unmistakable by her silhouette, signature gloves, and the long grace of her fly rod. I stopped the Jeep to ask, what else, "How's the fishing?" After first name introductions, she replied that they hooked a few schoolies and were heading toward the Gut for the tide change. Then she nudged me away into the darkness toward my car, out of ear-shot, and told me that the other fisherman, her friend for 30 years, was from Manhattan and came to fish Cape Poge for a few days to be away from it all and to begin healing.
"So what are you doing here," she asked.
Victor Colantonio lives in Newton and at Cape Poge, Chappaquiddick, where, in August of this year, he prepared this edited version of his diary entry for September 11, 2001.