Friday, September 11, 2009


A 9/11 retrospective, written on 9/17/01

8 Blocks from Ground Zero
Barbara Fultz Martinez

People start things on Monday, set them going, especially in New York City in September when everyone is revving back into high gear. But Monday, September 10, 2001, is a lost day on the New York calendar.

Again and again, this week you heard, "on Monday, ... the first plane... the second plane... on Monday, the first tower... the second tower... on Monday...the Pentagon...on Monday... 4 planes hijacked...on Monday...8 planes...on Monday..." Only it was Tuesday, the first day of this week, and the first day of tomorrow. People kept saying "on Monday..."

We live 8 blocks from where the World Trade Center was. I always said "6 blocks"... when you live near something that big it seems very close. I had to count the blocks on the map on Sunday to be certain how many it really was. It was our back yard, over by the river, next to the parks and the Financial Center marina and Battery Park City, actually 3-4 blocks from our 4 schools and our Little League / Soccer League ball park.

Tuesday, I was in my office in Long Island (the other side of Queens); Lionel was at the loft. We phoned back and forth many times. My nephews phoned and sent emails. I sent emails; he sent emails. We never lost touch. TV never stopped transmitting; radios never went silent. Subways never stopped entirely; they just lost their southern stops in Manhattan. Metro North and LIRR worked outbound till evening, then inbound came back. The LIRR started up inbound service to Penn Station at 5:00 pm.

Power went out at 39 Worth in the afternoon when 7 WTC fell. Our ATT local and long distance service at home never failed.

But without power, no answering machine.

Tuesday I got to our nephew, Stephen's uptown apartment on West 56 Street by 6:30. No delays; no crowds at Penn Station. Subway north, no crowd, no delay. Rush hour. Empty somber streets. People had already moved themselves

Lionel fielded phone calls all afternoon at the loft, then hiked to 14th Street, with clothes and toothbrushes and a stock of face masks, and took the A train; he arrived about 9:30, shoulders sagging, somber. Stephen brought us a pizza. We didn't talk much. When I couldn't understand words spoken on TV anymore I fell into a daze. Steve didn't want to watch TV. Lionel stared at it.

We slept at Steve's Wednesday and Thursday and went to work every day, like most New Yorkers who didn't have offices downtown but, like everybody, we didn't concentrate very well and kept wandering off to watch or listen to the news.

The hand shape formed by the spines from the top of one of the towers resting on Church Street is burned into my memory like a memorial sculpture.

All week, people kept saying we must not do to "them" what we did to the Japanese Americans in WWII. Then, "They"... at war against "them" whoever, wherever "they" are. On Sunday they said "the people on the front lines are diplomats & spies."

We felt better when Rudy Giuliani came on TV; he made us feel like "us" in NY City; he did it magnificently simply and well. He was real in helping us express and surround our losses, our uniformed police and firemen and all those missing thousands who used to work every day in the Twin Towers, and, potentially, all those who poured in to help.

The NYC Office of Emergency Management was awesome in deploying the
rescue effort. It was not chaotic even if it was hectic and heroic in
proportions. I had never imagined what my city had prepared for.

Wednesday and Thursday the list grew of other buildings our neighborhood may lose, "stable" for the moment because they won't fall on the rescue workers but likely slated to be pulled out of the skyline too... the other WTC buildings, one a temporary morgue when it fell, the Millennium Hotel, the Marriott Hotel, and at least one of the big pinkish buildings with the sky-reflecting windows at the World Financial Center, several little buildings, Dave's Cookies.... You still cannot separate fact and rumor.

It felt very personal: Our neighborhood's powerful, wonderful, flashy back yard over by the marina was irrevocably destroyed, a gaping smile in the waterfront skyline. In the words of a neighbor: "every time you turned the corner it was always there. You always looked up. You wanted to see what the weather would be." The towers were our weathervane. You could tell by how high or close the fog or mist or clouds clung whether things would dissipate or last for hours.

We do live here, even if we couldn't say anything because what are buildings compared to thousands of lives? We were embarrassed to mourn architecture in the face of so much human tragedy, to mourn our neighborhood.

With the collapse of 7 WTC on Tuesday and damage to Verizon, email transmissions from my office failed but I didn't know till the next day. Local ISPs like AIM's i-2000 lost routes through main regional servers, and access priority went to the feds, FEMA, CIA, FBI, National Guard anyway. The Cable & Wireless phone service from AIM got me regional NYC and Brooklyn numbers; but no incoming and no outgoing long distance. All was out all week. We didn't have to go back to the loft every night.

My friend around the corner had electricity and phones and my keys; she fed Mozart and Homer every morning. But we did go back through the perimeter every night, hoping the power might come back.

On Wednesday, Worth Street was off limits because the Millennium was falling, had fallen, might fall. The guard at Houston said, "See how far you can get." We got home. No power on Wednesday. The Con Ed worker around the corner said candlelight and wine might not be all bad.

Walking back up 6th Avenue to 14th Street for the subway, all the way from Canal to West Houston on the edge of the Village we passed two and sometimes three lanes of equipment, lined up bumper to tail pipe, huge earth movers, bulldozers, debris trucks, twice our height. Over a half mile, the news said. They couldn't go in till it was more stable. We got back uptown about 9:45 pm. I think they really started going in on Saturday.

Thursday before the President's Friday visit, all access points on Canal were assigned East/West, North/South grids. Our checkpoint at 6th Avenue was manned by at least 15 police guards. They let you in block by block; wrote your name down, examined your bags; wrote down who your escort was, and sent you to your house with an armed guard. Ours was a slightly sheepish young Police Academy recruit. The police commander at the site told one upset man he had no choice: "My jurisdiction ends here. You're going into a federal war zone."

There were dusty white dead car hulks here and there along the 4 block route to Worth Street, lying where they had been temporarily deposited, left aside waiting for the "gross" cartage, presumably of no interest to the medical examiner or the FBI and other forensic experts examining debris at Fresh Kills landfill over in Staten Island.

We came home Friday to stay, power or no power. Many of our best restaurants fed anyone and everyone. Neighbors told us that Capsuto Freres, was feeding residents as well as police and firemen. We ate there on Friday and Saturday. It was an enormous relief to sit down with other Tribecans, our neighbors. We went to the Community Meetings at 10 on Saturday morning and 4 Sunday afternoon "outside the zone" in the basketball court at 6th and Canal.

On Saturday a marching band (come from Louisiana to cheer New York up I read later) moving along Canal Street drowned out the Community Board members and elected officials that were trying to help figure out the who/where/whens of schools, of restored power, or phones, or email, or even just access for those below Chambers who were evacuated and had not been let back in at all. I typed up phone numbers after the meeting and posted them at 3 restaurants since so many people couldn't dial out or log on to anything.

Power came back on Friday at 11:30 pm as we sat slumped in front of a kerosene lamp and 10 candles watching Homer (the younger cat) trying to burn his whiskers. Mozart sat upright all week with a question on his face. Saturday we cleaned out the refrigerator and Sunday we vacuumed up the dust and washed the floors.

A big question for residents is how toxic has the waste been? We saw at least 3 "washing stations" where they hosed down cars and workers; one with a truck labeled "Lead & Asbestos Service". The community board promises an "independent" measurement by next week.

I was excited to have electricity so I could send some email. But every time I logged on to AOL: "If you want Mets Tickets or more information on Ticketron events in the metropolitan area, call 212-955-5000." All over we all got the same message for every downtown phone that didn't work.

Our neighbors in the building began to turn up. Lionel had set up phone contacts with a couple of them on Tuesday. We all seemed sort of surprised at how glad we were to see each other, and how good it felt that we were all okay. From the school yard some of our kids saw it fall down, and they saw people jumping.

It is strange to have your neighborhood occupied, to see Humvees ("Hummers" to me but Lionel says that's not accurate) all over the place, to see national guard and police everywhere. To see crews come on duty, all strong, and then go off weary to the bone and the soul. To have rescue tents and stations all over.

We met state troopers from Syracuse and firemen from Flint, Michigan; we saw one overwhelmed policeman dissolve in sobs. We heard someone in the street telling someone else, in a broad midwest drawl which I can imitate, where Renssalear, Indiana, is, "near Chicago."

But mostly we just kept out of the way. They didn't need more
volunteers; and we residents were not part of their emergency (fortunately).

We stared in shock late on Saturday night when we realized that what we saw at the end of Greenwich Street in front of the 7 WTC rubble was the 15-story WTC antenna, square in the middle of the street, standing straight up. It was gone on Sunday.

As we walked around over the weekend we saw mounds and mounds of bottled water
and packs of water bottles, especially by the rescue tents but all
over. Workers were giving us water. There were other places where food
was just dropped and abandoned because generosity had outpaced need.

By the Borough of Manhattan Community College side steps we found a mound of huge bags of dog food for the canine workers. On Sunday Franklin street was lined with boxes of new T-shirts for anyone who needed them, rescue or local. The Tribeca Tribune editor was wearing one since he hadn't any more clean clothes..

Saturday was prep day for getting the Stock Market open and Wall Street running. Little trucks were at every corner for Con-Ed, Nextel, Verizon, Sprint etc etc; big trucks rolled by with huge wheels of cable. They were re-knitting communications and laying extra lines on the ground.

Lots of buildings already had emergency and back up generators. I counted 22 "rented" portable hitch trailer generators lining Leonard Street on Sunday night between Broadway and Church, waiting for some business' power to fail on Monday, waiting for a call for help.

All week newspapers were in short demand "below the perimeter" ... Mary's Stationery is a little narrow store front on Hudson with a beat up couch, a fine espresso counter, and lots of magazines; it's an adult "hangout." Mary has a British accent and is about 4' x 5'. Sunday, Jason said the papers would be in in 10 minutes. 20 minutes later when I came back he was frantically on the cell phone: "Tell her to come back; I sent 4 customers after her, on bikes!"

Two minutes later a Con Ed truck pulled up, opened the back doors and there were at least fifty bundles of the Sunday Times. The customers unloaded and Mary showed up, beaming, 5 minutes later. I heard later that all week she had been paying someone "up north" maybe $1 a copy to deliver any copies of the daily papers they could get.

It was beautiful on Sunday. September in New York City is the best, when "you can see forever" under a brilliant clear blue sky. The winds usually blow from north to south and the air is crystal. If you look north, you can almost believe nothing has changed. But then you see the Empire State Building.

The black smoke over 7 WTC was turning white Sunday night and thinning out. You could see a ghostly outline of the altered skyline. We'll get used to it; but there will come days now and then when we will forget and be jolted into sorrow when we round the corner.

The national guard was directing traffic at Worth and Church Streets on
Sunday night. Traffic was all "official."

Tomorrow is Monday. The Stock Exchange will be open.

All rights reserved
Barbara Fultz Martinez

Photographs copyright Lionel Martinez


Ron Diorio said...

Can't forget the sounds of the fighter jets overhead and deciding to go to work the next day, this was probably going to be the biggest story of my life time.

I also remember being the only person my parents could easily get a hold of while they stood their ground at Indpenedence Plaze those first few days. And of course the sounds of the steel girders being dropped into the the barges tied up on N Moore and West ST

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that.

I got home to Westchester that first day and only got back into the city because I had my Hospital ID badge - everyone else was turned away at the well before the Hudson Bridge. Our hospital was ready for the injured - no one came.