It was a noise unlike one I've ever heard. It was a roar wrapped in thunder followed quickly by the feel of sound on your face. The woman next to me said something about fighter jets being scrambled and so I looked into the sky, but there was nothing there. Suddenly, a blizzard hit, and the quaint streets of lower Manhattan were turned white with powdered building material. Here and there paper floated to the ground. The World Trade Center had collapsed.
I could not see and I could hardly breathe. Emergency workers and others ran toward me, shouting "Get back, get back!" but we -- another reporter and I -- moved forward, covering our mouths with a handkerchief and then wet paper towels supplied by a grocery store and then -- thank you, thank you -- face masks supplied by a medical worker in an ambulance.
Until that moment, it seemed that the horror could be contained. Two planes had hit the buildings, that much I knew, and maybe other acts of terrorism were about to occur, and up ahead, maybe six to eight blocks, the World Trade Center was engulfed in smoke. On the street, though, there was no sense of panic -- the occasional crying woman, the occasional agonized look -- but there, in a doorway with his hand outstretched, a reassuringly normal beggar.
I pick up a piece of paper. Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Friedman have a bill. It's for a camp fee, a membership tea, yet another membership tea, spring festival, and tuition. The bill is from a Jewish parochial school. It was blown out of the World Trade Center, I guess. I guess, too, that's where the billing was done, although maybe it was in someone's pocket.
The streets are shoe-high in white stuff. Currier & Ives -- out of season, out of sync, out of someone's mind. This is the little stuff by which you make big stuff by which you make very big buildings. Up ahead is a dense cloud of dust and building particles and sweaty emergency workers who emerge from this false night with fear written on their faces. Up ahead is death in numbers I cannot fathom.
A woman glides by on a bike. She is crying. Two men come toward me, ghostly white from the dust. Up ahead is that awful cloud, the smoke, the flames, the huge empty space where once beat the heart of a very great city. A fireman kneels, exhausted. Another is carried by his colleagues. A cop sits on the curb, staring into space. Someone goes by on a stretcher.
Smaller explosions go off periodically. Is it one of the World Trade Center buildings? We know nothing. Someone yells "Gas!" and everyone starts running. But which way? Where is the gas leak? Where is it safe? Nowhere. Nowhere, anymore. Where were you on Tuesday, September 11, 2001?
I was in downtown Manhattan, walking south toward the World Trade Center towers after the planes had hit them. The subway had stalled and so I walked down from 23rd, past 14th, where, suddenly, the low 19th-century buildings yielded a brilliant blue sky marred by a black eye of dark smoke. I could not see the World Trade Center, just the smoke.
"The commission, as a matter of policy, did not bring enforcement proceedings against anyone." So begins page four of a legal brief I have picked off the ground. Certain words are underlined, the work of someone who was doing this for tomorrow. We all work for tomorrow. Now, for so many, there are no tomorrows. We are at war, all right, but with whom?
Up ahead is the smoke. To the west, a car or two is ablaze. All around me, firemen and cops and U.S. marshals wait for something to do. Little by little, our perimeter is pushed back for fear of yet more explosions and more building collapses. Our army of rescue workers suddenly have no one to rescue. The victims are in the advancing cloud.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His columns frequently appear in the Flyer.