September 11, a small part of a large story. Ten years later
By Anthony Buccino
In 1999, despite all expectations I was hired to work in a full-time job on the eighth floor of Harborside Financial Center, an office building converted from a shipping terminal that fronted the west bank of the Hudson River offering a perfect view of lower Manhattan and the twin towers of the World Trade Center about one mile east across the shimmering water.
My desk on the Dow Jones Enterprise Desk (aka The Ticker) was at the opposite side of the floor from that amazing view. We had a late afternoon blinding sun glare, and a view of good old Jersey City in the mid-distance, a sweep of new buildings and vacant lots in the foreground and if you looked as far as you could see, on a clear day, to the southwest you could catch a glimpse of planes heading into and out of Newark Airport.
Being so ingrained to driving to work, I drove my minivan, with more than 120,000 miles on it, from Nutley, through Lyndhurst, Kearny, Belleville and along the Belleville Turnpike to the Wittpenn Bridge into Jersey City. The 12-mile one way mile trip rounded out to about 20 minutes to get the eight miles to Jersey City and another 20 minutes to cross the four miles of city to my parking lot near the river’s edge.
Within a year, I discovered public transportation. I could drive to the nearby bus stop, take the NJ Transit 74 bus to the Newark City Subway station at Branch Brook Park, then ride that to Penn Station in Newark. I’d zip up a few flights of stairs and catch the World Trade Center PATH car to Exchange Place, walk across the street and I was at work. The bonus was that public transportation cost less than parking and gas, not to mention the mostly beneficial drop in road rage driving across the city during rush hours.
My desk at my new job in 1999 was the last one next to a wall. On my right, on the other side of a four-foot around concrete pillar, sat Margo. She never left her desk – not for coffee, or tea, or a simple stretch walk - without taking her important things with her.
Margo explained that before she worked on this side of the Hudson River, she worked at the Journal of Commerce in an office in the World Trade Center. She often took the ferry to the Jersey City side just to see how things were developing from Brownfields to office complexes. In 1993, Margo and a friend were out of the office when a truck bomb exploded in the parking garage. She found herself stranded without much more than a wallet.
By summer of 2000, I was assigned to the Dow Jones/Associated Press Newspaper Desk, and now sat one row from where I had sat, and a tad closer to the west-facing windows. Instead of arriving at my desk and then disappearing to get coffee-and, I started to stop on my way to the desk and sometimes arrived a tad before or after my 9 A.M. start. My group leader, whose shift started before mine, pointed out the day begins at nine on this desk.
So, I thought I’d show him, I started shooting for the earlier bus (if it showed up at all) and sometimes be at my desk drinking my coffee a good half hour early. That gave me time to read the paper and check my email before getting into the nonstop flow of news, breaking news and more news.
Our office was configured in a U with my desk at one tip, the techs at the other tip and the elevators at the curve of the letter. About 200 editors and reports worked on each half of the U. The desks and offices at the bottom of the U had this incredible view of lower Manhattan. If you leaned into the three-foot window sill, you could see to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the south and the George Washington Bridge to the north. You might have to crane a bit, but that’s what you’d see if the windows opened and you could stick your head out.
In a corner at the edge of several rows news desks we had a TV camera for CNBC remotes. Everyone knew that if the lights were on, we weren’t to walk between the camera and the colleague with the microphone. Next to the huge TV camera was a monitor and it was tuned in to a camera on the roof of our building. Sometimes I’d stop and check on the harbor traffic, watch the white wakes of the ferries on the river or the mouth of the river when the camera pointed towards Brooklyn. Just as often it faced across the river.
Straight across the Hudson River the World Trade Center towers loomed over a cluster of other half-as-tall buildings. Our step-sister office of the Wall Street Journal is in one of those nearby buildings. It’s one of the three buildings with a green crown but I could never get straight which one. I cross-trained there mid-August,, just a month earlier, turning out my first Wall Street Journal byline in a story about Jacqueline Leo being named editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest, it was the second time I’d been through the WTC PATH station.
Looking through our tinted windows, to the left you could see the Empire State Building rise up to the left of Greenwich Village. In the foreground you could see the twin towers, the north one with the TV transmission tower and the south tower without. It made it easy to spot the photo angle when we came across the towers in a book or movie. If the TV tower was on the right, the shot was from Brooklyn.
The morning commute
September 11, 2001, on the NJ Transit bus, the Newark City
Subway and PATH car promised a bright, beautiful summer day under a
gorgeous blue sky lighting up an ordinary day.
The morning commute September 11, 2001, on the NJ Transit bus, the Newark City Subway and PATH car promised a bright, beautiful summer day under a gorgeous blue sky lighting up an ordinary day.
My morning commute was typical. We chatted with a few people we knew, took an inventory of the usual riders who sat in their usual seats facing their usual newspapers, magazines, or books as some women finished putting on makeup, some folks slept, others stared out the window at the passing park.
In nearly a year of commuting the same route at the same time, perhaps I didn’t get to know that many other passengers who were standing and riding there as often as myself.
I knew Phyllis M. from Nutley. It turned out she went through school with my cousin Bob F. a year ahead of me. And John V. I met on the bus. He used to talk to Phyllis, so we got to know each other. He lived in New York before moving to Belleville.
For the most part, the other commuters were filled out from Central Casting for the crowd scenes.
I remember one guy who got on at the next Nutley stop after mine, before Phyllis boarded. He was very quiet, he carried a thick briefcase, usually on his lap as soon as he sat down, like he was trying to take up as little space for himself as possible. He never said anything, as far as I knew, and always seemed so intense, concentrating on the day ahead of him. He was just another commuter on his way to work somewhere at the end of this ride.
A typical day in Jersey City might include a walk at lunch time. You could make it from Exchange Place to Grove Street in about ten minutes, and that’s where a lot of varied food places awaited. Plus there were the usual three fast-food places, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. I didn’t know too many people who could eat that fast food and still put in an afternoon of work. I know I never did.
Harborside and Exchange Place had the big new office buildings, and it was a kind of no-man’s land when you walked from there to Grove Street which was always bustling with people and a somewhat more mixed clientele than on the riverside.
If you wanted to spend your time a little closer to Harborside, there’s the Flamingo Restaurant and Bar, open 24/7. I usually brown-bagged it, ate at my desk and spent my lunch hour along the riverside, or standing around on Van Grundy Pier watching the Circle Line ships crisscross on the water during my lunch hour. Sometimes I brought in my 35mm Olympus OM-1 and took photos of the buildings across the river, or wandered a few blocks into Jersey City and took random shots at whatever caught my eye.
The eastside of Harborside ended at water’s edge. The first floor lobby offered an over height view of the skyline. The doors in the lobby, if they opened, would allow you to step into the drink. From the first floor lobby, to the left was a nearly abandoned concrete pier. An auxiliary exit led to a smokers’ area. At the right, a similar pier that had been used for parking on my arrival in 1999, was now taking the shape of a Hyatt Hotel.
That day, I was settled in at my desk. Before my workday started there was a lot of sudden action at the opposite end of our floor where the desks and the windows had a clear view of lower Manhattan. Everyone was rushing to the windows, and the rest of us were asking, “What’s going on?”
By the time I got to the window, we could see smoke from the North Tower. We all thought it was a terrible accident. I debated whether or not to go back to my desk, or slip downstairs to the CVS and pick up a throwaway camera.
While waiting to pay for my camera, someone came in and said another plane hit the South Tower. I slipped out of line and grabbed two more disposable cameras. Instead of going upstairs, I walked out to Van Grundy Park, basically a pier that juts into the Hudson River with an uninterrupted view of lower Manhattan.
The cops were already turning people away. I lifted one of the cameras over my head and took a few pictures over the crowd. People were just standing there staring across the water. No one knew what was going on.
Inside the lobby, I shot a few more pictures from ground level. Heading up the elevator I was thinking our news people would know what’s going on. From the elevator I worked my way over to the window and took a few more photos. I was sure my colleagues were waiting for me to get back to work.
Still, no one knew what was going on. We seemed to be going through the motions of starting our ordinary day of ordinary news, with that breaking story right outside our window.
I finally started to do some kind of work when colleague Paul Vigna, a few desks away, started yelling, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
The first building, the South Tower folded up. We were staring at the TV monitors for news. About a minute later, someone started shouting, “Get out!” with hands held high waving us out the doors.
My colleague Sharon C., who sat two rows further from the door at my back, pushed open the fire door setting off the alarm. She was the first one down the stairs and I was right behind, carrying my backpack, cameras, but leaving my coffees sitting there next to my bagel, and my computer running at full speed.
Sharon and I rushed down eight flights of stairs and when we got to the bottom, Sharon mistakenly headed for an interior door when I got her attention and pushed open the door to daylight. We crossed Hudson Street away from the building to a parking lot as the rest of the building streamed out behind us.
Our fire drills up to that point had been: stand around fire door, half-listen to lecture from insurance/fire officer, then go back to your seats. Drill attendance was mandatory but some people never left their desks to abandon news and headlines.
Outside in the parking lot we milled around. Anyone who drove into work hopped in their cars and peeled out.
My co-worker, Candace C., asked me, “What do we do now?”
I had no idea. And, neither did the other hundreds of people standing around. It was soon clear that security wasn’t about to let anyone back into the building. Harborside was shielding us from the view of the towers’ smoke plumes.
On such a beautiful sunny morning you’d expect to have a picnic, but there was no food, and, now, thousands of people needed to figure out how to get home and stood wondering if they’d ever get home. At mid-morning we still had little idea of what was happening.
Once the cars had cleared out from the parking lot, we only saw emergency vehicles rushing back and forth on the main avenues. The rest was silence except for the murmur of the crowd.
I walked to Avalon Cove pier on the other side of Second Street and milled with disbelieving strangers. I tried to get a clear view for a photo.
I mingled among colleagues and strangers on my way back to Hudson Street alongside Harborside. I was talking with colleague Ed Klein and we were watching the North Tower burning when it dropped before our eyes. I took a couple of pictures of the plume.
Ed lived in Avalon Cove and invited me to join him there. Other colleagues who lived in Jersey City opened their homes, too. I told Ed I’d rather try to get home and was heading to Pavonia to see if the PATH trains might be running there.
The scene was the same at Pavonia/Newport as all those buildings had emptied and no one had anyway to get anywhere. The hot dog vendor had a boom box and a lot of people were trying to get the news. The PATH trains were not running. Everything was closed. You couldn’t get a cup of coffee at Starbucks, or a sandwich at the deli or a slice of pizza for love or money.
It was just as well that you couldn’t eat, after all, with the buildings locked there were no restroom facilities. People sat along the dock at Pavonia and stared across the river. If we weren’t witnessing such horror, you could almost take the scene for lunch hour.
Heading back to Harborside, I don’t know why, it just seemed the thing to do, a woman asked me the way to the Avalon shelter. I guessed that the housing complex had opened its gym and meeting facilities, so, I pointed in that direction, along the waterway. I followed along, my pace slowing from earlier. I realized I had been wandering for hours.
Four airplanes – two American Airlines and two United Airlines - had been hijacked by terrorists and crashed, two in New York City, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Pennsylvania.
Avalon Cove had opened their facilities to the shell-shocked, displaced office workers and soot-faced stragglers arriving from across the Hudson River on the ferries. The wonderful people of Avalon Cove had Hawaiian Punch to drink, iced tea, coffee and cookies. And a place to sit and watch the large screen TV. And bathrooms. In the mirror I saw I was sunburned.
The residents were taking names and phone numbers to call for people coming in so they could tell their relatives they were okay and where they were. Cell phones were still useless at this time but you’d still see people open them up to see if there was a signal of any sort.
Rested, I sought some way to get home. At Harborside near where the ferries dock, there were rows of blue foam boards in expectation of the need for triage for the massive numbers of casualties that might be headed across the river.
I met a photographer who said he lived at Newark Avenue and Coles Street, didn’t get his name, who was trying to get to Liberty State Park. We walked along Hudson Street to Essex Street and I brought him through at Sugar House. We walked to the end of the park and watched the smoke plumes, they were the only things moving in the sky.
We split up. I wanted to get home. I saw a Nutley Volunteer Emergency and Rescue Squad truck but I knew there was no way of knowing how long it would be before they head back to town. The sky above New Jersey was terribly still and we saw the fighter jets fly over. There was a sense of not being alone in this.
I ran into a police officer who pointed to an intersection up the road saying NJ Transit buses were running to Penn Station in Newark or Hoboken. I got there as fast as I could, got a seat heading to Newark and yanked out my cellphone. A signal!
First I called my mother in law, Nancy, knowing she’d be home. She was. I told her I was okay and finally on my way home, to Newark, anyway. She told me that my sister called her from Ashtabula, Ohio, to find out where it is that I actually worked. I called my sister next and eased her mind. I worked in Jersey City, not New York City. She was glad to hear that from me.
The soot covered man next to me on the bus was talking to someone on his phone. I heard him say he got on a tugboat and came across to New Jersey. He said he’d figure out how to get back to New York later but for now he was heading to Newark Penn Station.
It took that bus an hour to get from Jersey City to Newark Penn Station. As we walked in anyone who had sooty clothes were led away to be decontaminated. When I finished my commute on the subway to the 74 bus to my car in Norman Rockwell’s Nutley, I realized I hadn’t had but a cookie and some Hawaiian Punch all day.
I drove up to Centre Deli and ordered an American bologna sandwich. Ronnie, the owner says, “Somebody’s got to pay, Ant. Somebody’s got to pay for this.”
He wasn’t talking about the sandwich.
The next day, September 12, my commute seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone. The bus was mostly empty, the Newark City Subway cars virtually deserted.
The PATH cars, usually elbow to elbow with everyone crammed in had barely a half-dozen riders per car. We didn’t know where they would take us. We’d heard the Exchange Place station was flooded. Perhaps we could get to Grove Street, or Pavonia. Maybe the reports were wrong and we’d be delivered to Exchange Place after all.
Out our riverside windows we saw the smoldering buildings. Now, we knew it was no accident as we thought 24 hours earlier. Adding to the ethereality, so many of our desks were empty, and we had no idea how any of our workers got home to New York, Queens and Brooklyn or if they’d make it back in time for their shifts.
But our work was to be done. The first story I read to edit, I had to call the reporter to confirm. He had been at an early meeting at the Marriott and reported thundering noises. When I asked what he was talking about, he said that was the sound of bodies landing on the pavement near where he stood.
Outside, on the poles started to spring up sheets of paper with pictures and names, with tear-off phone numbers. Have you seen my brother? My sister? My mother? My father?
The list of casualties included three people from Nutley and one from Belleville. I mentioned to Phyllis that we didn’t know any of them, and she corrected me. “Anthony, you know one. He was on the bus with you every morning when I boarded. He always sat over there,” she pointed, “and sat with his briefcase on his lap. You knew Franco Lalama.”
Yes, I remembered the quiet man. The newspaper said he was an engineer with The Port Authority.
We didn’t know the other two Nutley victims, Lt. Robert Cirri, a Port Authority police officer, or Dorota Kopiczko, a USA consultant at Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. And, as far as we could tell, we didn’t know the Belleville victim, Antoinette Duger.
The PATH station in the World Trade Center was gone, the Exchange Place station was flooded, and we got complimentary shuttle buses to Pavonia Newport at rush hour. A lot of times over the next few years it was easier to walk to Grove Street than to rumble with rude passengers who would not move back a little more to let on a few more riders. Oh, Lord, give us the patience to endure one another’s foils.
After 9/11 our company set up a meeting place for employee to rendezvous in the event our building is evacuated and a control system to account for everyone when we meet. Many of our future fire drills actually involved us walking down the eight flights and meeting at our rendezvous.
Two young men, new hires, joked in our evacuation drill about how they’d tear down the stairs. They thought the drill was funny as we queued and stepped down eight flights and met – all 400 of us at our spot behind the fence in the parking lot, while behind us others checked the closets and the restroom stalls for stragglers.
These two new hires said to each other, if it had been a real emergency, they’d be like that character in the Seinfield show and knock the old and infirm out of the way until they were safely outside. But these two guys don’t know when the towers were twice as high as the skyline, and then they weren’t. On this side of the river, we all got out okay.
Until two years ago when my company moved to the Times Square section of New York City, I would go out on the riverside, sometimes near the Jersey City memorial, but not always. And I’d see people at the railing, staring across the water at the view of lower Manhattan. I couldn’t blame them for looking, it’s always been a breath-taking view, but I know that many of the strangers who visit here, like me, are staring at the shadow of things that used to be.
We all see what used to be, there, across the river. Every sunny September we remember that day with blue lights, ceremonies and prayers. Some may say it’s sacrilegious to carry on this way, and others say it’s sacrilegious not to.
Anthony Buccino worked at Dow Jones & Company in Jersey City from 1999 to 2009, when the office was relocated to NYC.
Copyright © 2011 by Anthony Buccino – used by permission
NJ Voices: A small part of a large story
An Un-Ordinary Day: Sept. 11, 2001 by Anthony Buccino
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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards. The Pushcart Prize-nominated writer has been called ' “New Jersey’s ‘Garrison Keillor” or something to that effect.’
Copyright © 1995-2016 By Anthony Buccino.
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