NEW YORK CITY, NY—People are asking me frequently what 9/11 was like for me personally in NYC. Here is a feeble attempt to explain what I still cannot, 10 years later: “What the heck is this?” The words of a large African American man bellowed in my ears as I sat perch at the Michael Jackson 30th anniversary tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. He was commenting on the performance of Liza Minnelli, one of a seemingly endless string of performers paying heed to the King of Pop before he himself took the stage.
Photograph is Courtesy: HBO
That was the night of September 10, 2001. The next morning I found myself bellowing the same thing. I had sat through MJ reuniting onstage with the Jackson 5 (pretty great) and perform solo (pretty bewildering) and then had a tipple or 10 after-party. As I slept the sleep of a peaceable man, my wife stuck on NY1 as she readied for work.
“Roger, a plane hit the World Trade Center.”
“That’s sad, now leave me alone.”
An hour later my phone rang non-stop. At least 10 media outlets called, imploring me to take the pay and head down to the bottom tip of Manhattan, Tout de suite. I declined all invitations, trying to make sense in my own head of what should be done: it eventually included calling Dave and John and setting up a late morning pub crawl. Thinking back, it’s wondrous how the mundane mixed with the madness: walking outside, the sky was as blue as I’d ever seen – but never had I seen fighter jets flying just feet above the rooftops. I called my friend James to wish him a happy birthday, and he groused about not being able to go to a key job interview that day since nobody was moving anywhere.
At the packed to the gills pubs, jaws flapped incessantly. First into their cell phones, though service quickly died out. Then they were forced to talk to each other. Finance swells talked about how they stayed out so late watching the New York Giants play Monday night football they didn’t make it to their jobs at WTC this morning, all to the better. My bar owner friend Brian bragged, “This is the best day of bar receipts all year!”
Late in the day, I accepted a week’s gig at a magazine and headed to the office next morning. Quickly got a tip about a blind guy whose leader dog led him down 100-something floors, and when the South Tower collapsed, the dog led him down a subway stairs and out of harm’s way. Talking to him on the phone, the blind guy was practically whistling a happy tune, like he just missed getting hit by a car or something. I hadn’t really wrapped my head around the enormity of the reporting I was doing – that blind guy story took wings after published: he was on Larry King the next night.
I think the shell-shock over what the workaday New Yorkers were feeling hadn’t quite worn off yet – no one quite knew what to make of it. It didn’t hit home for me until I hopped into a photographer’s car and curved around the WTC area toward a Brooklyn hospital. The acrid black smoke filled downtown New York City and those two towers that resembled nothing so much as the Jimmy Carter buck teeth of lower Manhattan weren’t there: just two weeks before, my wife and I had celebrated our wedding anniversary at the very top of the North Tower.
I dug through rubble. I went to a hospital bed to interview an elevator operator from the North Tower whose husband, an elevator operator in the South Tower, had died. The woman from the North Tower spoke patiently, but it wasn’t an easy interview: she literally had not one stitch of skin left on her face from the heat blast. She talked of her departed husband. Made some calls and found her departed husband hadn’t departed at all – he lay in a hospital bed two miles away. A lot of confusion like that reigned for days around New York City.
I went from hospital to hospital, interviewing survivors. At first I felt I was imposing, until nurses started grabbing me and saying, “The patient in 1412 would like to talk to you.” I discovered I was doing much more than reporting – so many people who survived wanted somebody to talk to for the record. Many of them spoke in the most pained voices I have ever heard and that still ring in my head daily about watching co-workers and loved ones die right in the front of them. I tried to ask questions on the fly about what they experienced just 48 hours before; they needed little prompting. It flooded out of them.
I walked through Union Square, looking at the agonizing array of “Have you seen my mom?” and “Have you seen my husband?” posters. When you looked at a poster saying, “Last seen on 102nd floor of South Tower,” your heart ached at the futility of even printing up the fliers. People gave blood at banks all over the city, but it was also futile – you either lived through the horror, or you died. There was no middle ground.
I eventually made it to the bedside at Bellevue Hospital of the last man out – the brave Sgt. McLaughlin, later played by Nicholas Cage in the middling movie of the World Trade Center. I flew like a bat out of hell all over the city doing survivor stories and trying to do my part away from journalism to reunite some families. As the week went on, however, the journalistic excitement faded: I found myself mostly contacting the families of those who perished to get stories on their loved ones’ lives.
The fallout was huge: after a week’s reporting, I sat in a dark room and cried for two days. The rush of a journalist on the scene for one of the biggest stories in human history gave way to soul-sucking dimness of what had happened to my beloved city. It was days before I found out I had lost three friends in the WTC. One friend of mine attended 50 funerals in two weeks. My wife and I lived at 93rd Street in Manhattan, a good five miles from the World Trade Center. Our apartment smelled of burnt electrical wire for nearly a month.
As I walked around large office buildings on Madison and Park Avenues in the days following the attack, I was startled when people went running en masse out of the buildings here and there, with looks of unfettered terror on their faces. Seems hearts of darkness were calling in fake bomb threats all over the city. As if the attacks weren’t enough, the workers of Manhattan had to relive them in very real time – time and time again. To me, it seemed like the cruelest blow of all.
I was a witness and participant to history. Ten days after the attacks, the FBI called and visited my home for a debriefing. They were particularly interested in anthrax, since it killed one of my co-workers when delivered to one of my employer’s offices. They asked what I had witnessed and seen in the days after the attacks: it amazed me how crystal clear each day had become, separated by stories that were unique in their own way, but still amounted to the same damned thing: a dead pit of suffering, of evil unleashed.
I don’t talk much about those days. But trust me; I’m thinking of them. Ten years is nothing.
Roger Hitts, two-time United Press International columnist of the year, is a veteran celebrity journalist whose by-lines appear in numerous magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and around the world.