NEW YORK, NY ( WKBW ) Buffalo native, author Glenn Plaskin lives just two blocks from "Ground Zero."
In an Eyewitness News exclusive, Glenn talked with reporter John Borsa and videojournalist Chris Podosek about what it was like on September 11th, 2001...when he, his dog Katie, and thousands of his neighbors had to be evacuated.
Plaskin recalls being taken to New Jersey in an emergency fireboat, only to return a month later.
Ten years later...thousands of people who lived through the 9/11 attacks continue to call the Battery Park neighborhood home. Plaskin showed how the area is now thriving, and the resiliency of the people who continue to live in the shadow of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Plaskin is an author. His latest book "Katie" chronicles how his dog helped bring a diverse community of neighbors together. In it, he wrote several chapters about the horror of September 11, 2001.
Below is an excerpt from that book.
KATIE: UP & DOWN THE HALL
THE DAY OUR WORLD STOPPED
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a picture-perfect day in New York City, sunny and warm. After an early-morning jog, I was at my computer typing letters, while Katie was lying under my desk, her head resting on my right foot, lazily content.
The view outside my window to the coast of New Jersey was dazzling that morning. The mirrored wall in my home office reflected the clear blue skies and the Hudson, smooth as glass with its commuter boats, small yachts, and sailboats. All of it was framed by a lush row of trees so close to my windows that my office looked a little like an enchanted forest.
But the calm was shattered at 8:46 by a strange-sounding explosive boom that echoed through my apartment. The entire building seemed to vibrate. At first, though, I ignored it.
Since there were always construction projects going on in the neighborhood, I assumed the noise was just routine, though it was louder than anything I’d ever heard before.
Puzzled, I looked out at the river but saw nothing and returned to work.
Then the phone rang.
"Turn on the TV!" ordered Pearl, her voice uncharacteristically agitated. "An airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center. Watch it.” And she hung up the phone.
I switched on the small TV in my office and was startled to see the North Tower of the Trade Center on fire.
I rushed into the living room, where I had a full view of the Twin Towers.
The crash and the small blaze seemed so peculiar. How could what emerging TV reports were describing as a “small commuter plane” accidentally fly into such a mammoth building?
As smoke and flames poured out of the building, I had the surreal experience of watching this event unfold on TV while simultaneously seeing it, directly from my windows.
Had it been Monday instead of Tuesday, I would have been in the Trade Center myself, on the way from the subway station there to my volunteer job as a hotline counselor. In fact, I was in and out of the Towers daily; in addition to the subway, I was always in the shopping arcade, frequenting the drugstore, newsstand, bakery, clothing stores, hotel, and bank.
A number of my neighbors worked in the Towers, and many of them were there on this day.
And now, as we would later learn, a team of al-Qaeda suicide hijackers had crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower, instantly killing as many as 600 people.
At first, it seemed as if the disaster was under control.
But seventeen minutes later, of course, a second team of hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.
Immediately after seeing that on TV and knowing that ours was the closest residential building to the Towers, perhaps next in line, I had to do something.
My heart was racing as I heard the high-pitched sound of police and fire truck sirens, getting louder and louder as they all converged in the streets. I tucked Katie into my bedroom, snatched up my keys and wallet, and ran down the stairs to the lobby.
It was pandemonium.
Panicked tenants rushed out the front circular door, half-dressed, some fearfully asking questions, others in tears.
Through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the lobby, I could see people shouting and running wild--jumping over the hedges and racing toward the Hudson.
Terrified mothers pushing baby carriages were everywhere, uncertain about what to do next.
Firefighters swarmed around the complex, overwhelmed and confused themselves.
Residents were practically assaulting our petrified doorman, Felipe, asking about evacuation plans for the building.
“You’ve got to get out!” was his brisk command. “Evacuate. Walk south.”
A woman I’d never seen before (or since) was lying on the lobby floor next to the couch, her face covered in blood. I dashed back upstairs to grab some paper toweling, Band-Aids, and bottled water, but when I got back downstairs, the woman was gone.
I ran back up the stairs again and knocked on Pearl’s door. She opened it looking shaken, very pale, and somewhat in shock.
“We’ve got to go now,” she said, locking up her door and leaving her apartment without her purse, just her house keys clutched in her hand. She wasn’t dressed warmly enough, in a sleeveless, salmon-colored blouse and gray tweed skirt, but she probably figured she’d be returning home soon.
“Granny,” I said, “you go downstairs and wait for me by the front desk. I’ll be right down. I just have to get Katie and my cell phone. Wait for me!”
“All right,” she answered absently, “but hurry.”
As she walked down the hall to the elevator, she looked so frail, and yet so brave. My heart broke at just the sight of her. Here she was, nearly ninety, not in the greatest of spirits or health and having to face something like this.
When I got back inside my apartment, I turned off the lights and TV and put a few blank checks in my wallet. I scooped Katie up, frantically hitching her to her red leash, and then rushed to the elevator. Having already been out for a walk just a few hours earlier, she dragged behind me, resistant to my disrupting her nap schedule.
When I got down to the front desk, Granny was gone.
“Felipe,” I asked nervously, “where’s Pearl?” And he pointed out towards the back door, just behind his desk. “She just walked away,” he said, accosted on all sides by other tenants.
Why in the world would Granny leave without me? I rushed out back behind our building, and carefully surveyed the walkway in both directions, searching furiously, but Pearl was gone.
As we headed south on the Esplanade, Katie was a stalwart little soldier. She walked obediently beside me, though she was clearly petrified by the loud noises and wild stampede of people swarming around us. She had always hated loud sounds—and this was the worst. But with an anxious look in her eye, her head swinging from side to side, she plowed on, limping slightly due to arthritis.
“Dad, I’m afraid!” she seemed to tell me with those worried brown eyes. “Please, I can’t walk. Let’s go home.”
“Katie, no, no, we can’t go back. Come on, you can do it. Let’s go!”
After a few more minutes, I stopped and just picked Katie up in my arms, staring up at the burning Towers, watching those poor souls trapped inside, many of them huddled at the windows, gasping for air.
I noticed a young child nearby, naively looking up at this burning inferno and remarking to his Mom: “Look, Mommy, birds!” His Mom shielded his eyes, for those “birds” were actually people jumping out of the smoke-filled windows.
I turned away in tears.
* * * * *
And then, just a few moments later, at 9:59 a.m., as we continued trudging south, I felt a ferocious vibration, a horrible kind of ominous rumble. The South Tower had collapsed, toppling to the ground like an accordion, though I had no idea what was happening at the time.
We were suddenly in a total blackout—with thick black dust and debris raining down upon us. I would later read that 2,000 tons of asbestos and 424,000 tons of concrete were used to build the Twin Towers, and half of it now came crashing down, the air laden with toxins.
The formerly sunny sky was instantly blackened by this thunderstorm of suffocating soot and ash. You could feel the heat of the explosion on your face. I was coughing and couldn’t see anything in front of me.
Standing there in silence, surrounded by hundreds of others, I had no idea what to do next. I bent down to check on Katie and panicked when I saw that she had fallen over and was choking, unable to breathe.
I frantically brushed away the black soot from her face and picked her up in my arms, shouting to a firefighter coming toward us. I pulled him by his arm as he tried to rush by me. “Please, please, stop! I need your help. My dog isn’t breathing.”
His face was dripping with sweat as he bent down and took a quick look at Katie. “Her nose is packed with soot,” he said--and then blasted water into her nose using a pressurized water bottle he had in his hand, telling me it would force her to expel the dust. And it worked! She immediately sprang to life again, stood up, and climbed into my arms.
“Thank you!” I told him, incredibly grateful and relieved, but he was already gone.
At this moment, in the midst of the utter chaos and confusion, I oddly enough felt taken care of, even comforted, for nothing but kindness prevailed.
People held hands and offered bottles of water, tissues, and wet towels. I saw younger people holding onto the arms of seniors, guiding them patiently away from the explosion. Without any pushing, neighbors young and old, with babies and dogs, trooped south, where police boats were waiting to evacuate everyone to New Jersey.
Firefighters passed around dust masks for the elderly and children, but there weren't enough for everyone. An older woman next to me was coughing badly, so I took off my shirt, poured water over it, and gave it to her. “Cover your face and breathe through it,” I told her, relieved to be cool in just a T-shirt.
And then, at 10:28 a.m., another implosion began, the same horrible noise as before, as astonishingly, the North Tower collapsed.
“Down, down, down!!” shouted a nearby policeman, screeching at the top of his lungs. “Get on the ground, now, everybody, stomach down!” And we threw ourselves onto the pavement, covering our heads, buried in dust. Katie was under my chest, protected, breathing heavily as she cowered beneath me, now shivering. “Shhhh, Shhhh,” I told her, holding her in place. “It’s OK.”
But it wasn’t OK at all. The world was collapsing around us, crushing our beautiful neighborhood, killing our residents, and forever changing our lives—and the world.
KATIE: UP & DOWN THE HALL
A few minutes later, I got up off the ground and brushed myself off. Most of the people around me had blackened faces and everybody looked stunned, or worse. Now my only thought was of Granny.
Where was she? It would be futile trying to find her in this cloud of black dust, but I dreaded the thought of her being trapped in the dark, alone and afraid.
As I would later find out, after Pearl wandered off down the walkway, she was approached by an incredibly kind, very pretty woman named Lee—a financial planner in her 50’s who lived in our building. Blond-haired with brilliantly blue eyes and a warm sisterly air, Lee had a large retinue of elderly women friends that she watched over. She recognized Pearl, but they had never met.
“Pearl,” Lee remembers, “was standing in the middle of an open area walking around in a circle, dazed, looking up at the Towers.”
“Would you like to come sit with us?” Lee asked, hospitably pointing to a bench of her women friends.
“Sure, thanks,” answered Pearl, shivering in the breeze despite the warmth of the day. She was grateful that one of the women offered her a black cardigan.
Soon, with hundreds of people running south on the Esplanade, the police instructed the women around Pearl and Lee to likewise begin moving the quarter-mile distance toward the southern tip of the Battery where police boats were waiting. But, exhausted and frightened, Pearl had no desire to go anywhere, as she was searching furiously for me and Katie.
“Please,” she told Lee. “Just leave me here and go ahead. I can’t go. I’m waiting for someone.”
But Lee gently persuaded Pearl to get up and start walking, “slowly, very slowly,” said Lee, “because I could see that Pearl wasn’t very strong.”
When the first Tower fell, Pearl cried out, gripping Lee’s arm in panic, choking on the dust. “Just close your eyes and breathe through this,” said Lee calmly, putting a stray jacket she’d found over Pearl’s head. She then led Pearl half-blindly to the railing by the water to steady her.
“Down, down, down!” shouted the police, ordering everyone to lie next to a stone wall flat on their stomachs with their hands over their heads. There could be another attack, another nearby building might fall, or there could be a gas explosion.
Getting down on the ground was impossible for Pearl and she refused to do it. But she hadn’t counted on the persistent Lee, who enlisted the help of a young man. He gladly lifted Pearl in his arms and gently placed her down next to Lee.
So there they were, these brand-new friends, huddled on the cement together. “Her frail little hands were ice-cold the entire time,” recalled Lee, “and she never loosened her grip on her house keys, clenching them in her right hand while she held my hand with her left. I kept talking to keep her busy.”
And then the second Tower collapsed. “It felt like an earthquake and I just hugged Pearl close, keeping my arms around her. To keep her distracted, I asked: ‘Pearl, what’s your middle name?’”
And that’s when Granny’s inimitable wit returned. “I don’t have one. I guess we were too poor to get one!” And Pearl broke into a laugh. For months after that, Lee and Pearl would always joke about this moment.
A few minutes later, Lee and Pearl were up again, walking slowly through the mayhem toward the South Cove marina, where police boats were waiting. Although it was ordinarily a short five-minute walk away, the distance seemed much greater to Granny, who had no inclination to continue.
“Pearl kept telling me to leave her,” said Lee, “that she was an old woman and was going to die anyway, but I just ignored that and got some water, splashing it in her face.”
Lee noticed an injured fireman being loaded onto a police boat headed toward Jersey City, and overheard someone saying that there was room for just a few more civilians. The motorboat was already packed to its capacity with twenty-five passengers. “Listen,” she told the captain, “there’s an 89-year-old woman with me, and if you don’t get her on this boat, she’s not going to make it.”
“OK, get her, and we’ll take her.”
Lee had two young men nearby hoist Pearl up onto the boat, literally lifting her off the ground in an instant.
“Leave me alone!” Pearl hollered, nearly hysterical. “I’m not going.” But Lee persisted, and watched Pearl being lifted up over the rail.
“Pearl,” Lee shouted, “I’ll get the next boat and find you over there,” but Pearl continued screaming, refusing to be separated from her new friend.
“Take me off!!” she commanded, her former strength suddenly in evidence. “If she’s not coming, neither am I! I can’t make it without her. Take me off!”
Even the police were impressed with this gutsy woman who wasn’t going anywhere, terrorists or no terrorists.
The boat waited, everybody made a little extra room, and Lee was ushered aboard. And this group of strangers, huddled together, sped off toward the safety of the Jersey shore, the bumpy water jostling Pearl around as Lee held onto her with both hands.
“Lee,” Pearl whispered, completely out of breath. “I need to find my friend Glenn.”
* * * * *
Meanwhile, I resisted the prospect of evacuating Battery Park City until the last possible moment, holding out hope that we might somehow be able to return home.
Katie and I sat on the grass in front of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a starkly modern glass-and-granite structure located about a half-mile from our building. From this perch, I watched the stream of people boarding the boats and moving away toward the opposite shore, scouting for Pearl but never seeing her.
As I sat there, I stroked Katie’s stomach absently.
“You’ve got to get on one of those boats,” a policeman ordered, not for the first time.
I finally surrendered and moved forward toward the river’s edge, approaching the police speedboat that was bobbing unsteadily in the water. I handed Katie over to a passenger already on board, and then jumped on myself. Katie’s ears were flying in the wind and her face was smudged and blackened. I held her in my arms as we pulled away, leaving the ravaged Manhattan skyline behind.
When we got to the Jersey side of the Hudson, I searched, yet again, for Pearl, asking everyone I recognized from our building if they had seen her. But nobody had. Katie was desperately thirsty and a Red Cross volunteer gave me a styrofoam cup filled with water. She greedily gulped it down.
Determined to find a hotel, I began walking west toward the Doubletree Suites, which was about a mile away. Katie was limping badly, but we had to forge ahead. Although I was hoping to get a room for the night, that was impossible. Hundreds of displaced residents were already camped out in the hotel lobby when we got there.
With nowhere to sleep that night and no clothes (much less any dog food or supplies), I called my close friend and longtime editor, Ed, naively hoping he might be able to drive into Jersey and pick us up. Of course, with all the Manhattan tunnels and bridges closed down, this rescue plan was impossible.
“But I have some very close friends who live close by,” Ed told me. “Let me call them and see if they’ll put you and Katie up for the night.”
And within minutes, Ed called me back with the good news. So Katie and I were on the move again, walking a half a mile to a safe retreat.
If there's any redeeming value in disaster, it's seeing what happens when people bond together--offering help, sharing resources, and making new friends. I was touched when Ed’s friends, Barbara and Charlie (he had narrowly escaped himself a few hours earlier that day from the North Tower), greeted us at their door with open arms. Their two Labs, Spice and Dune, lumbering on their heels, were curious about me and the new blond-haired intruder.
Katie was exhausted and disoriented. She took a quick sniff at the huge dogs and then walked right past them, her nose drawing her toward the kitchen, where she stole food from their bowls.
“Katie!” I scolded, “that’s bad manners.” But all was well. Spice and Dune were more interested in snooping at Katie’s posterior than protecting their food. And although these two large dogs dwarfed her, she was, as usual, unfazed. Soon, she was lying in a heap on the wooden floor, sound asleep. I slipped out to a nearby store to buy a toothbrush and some other necessities.
That night, as I huddled with my new friends around the TV watching endless replays of the horrendous news of the day, I felt grateful to be alive, thankful to have a place to sleep.
Twelve hours earlier, all had been well in Battery Park City. It had started out as such as a beautiful summer day. And now, the sun was setting on a neighborhood that would never be the same, the comfort of home gone.
Just before going to sleep, I called John on my cell phone.
“I lost Granny,” I told him worriedly, explaining how she had disappeared, “and I don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll figure it out,” he told me with certainty, steady as always.
“Just take the ferry back to Manhattan tommorow, and Ryan and I will pick you up. You and Katie can stay with us. It will be just like old days—we’ll be together again!”
For the first time that entire, dreadful day, I was crying. I guess it was John’s familiar voice and that down-to-earth logic that got to me.
That night, as I fell into a sound sleep with Katie pressed up against me, I felt so much better, knowing that I was going home again.
* * * * *
The next day, John and eleven-year-old Ryan were waiting at the dock on the Manhattan side of the Hudson as Katie and I got off the ferry boat at Pier 79 near West 39th Street.
“Katie girl!” Ryan shouted, bending down, “COME!!” Katie gleefully bounded into his arms, covering his face with wet kisses.
“Whoa, whoa, girl,” he giggled. He took her red leash out of my hand and led her into a taxi, with John and me following.
We headed up to John’s new seven-room apartment on West 57th Street, a sprawling well-decorated home far more glamorous than his previous place in our building.
The question on all of our minds was: Where was Granny? It was all I could think about. Although Pearl had often talked about her New Jersey relatives, I was drawing a complete blank on their names and had never had their phone number. For the next three days, John and I were stumped. But at last, it was John who pulled from his memory the name. “I did a computer search for Pearl's nephew. It’s a very common last name, but I started calling around, and I’ve found him!”
I practically grabbed that number out of his hand and immediately called:
“Granny! Is that you?!”
“It’s Granny all right—thank God it’s you!” sighed Pearl, who sounded exhausted. She explained that Lee had stayed with her for hours that day until they finally parted that evening. Lee went home with her daughter and left Pearl in the very capable hands of a married couple who lived in our building. They had kindly taken Pearl that first night to stay with their relatives in New Jersey. The following night Pearl was driven by them to her own relative’s house in nearby Montclair, though she wasn’t very happy about it.
“I tried to find you, Glenn…but everything went wrong,” she said sadly, her voice trailing off. “Are you OK? What happened to you? How’s my girl?” I filled Pearl in on everything and told her how sorry I was that I had lost her.
“And Katie misses you! We’re temporarily living with John and Peter, but I’ll call you every day and we’ll figure out what to do next.”
It became quickly clear that it was going to be impossible to return home anytime soon. There was no electricity, gas, water, or telephone service. Moreover, Battery Park City was now an armed camp, surrounded by the National Guard, the FBI, FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Urban Search and Rescue, and the New York City police—the entire neighborhood declared a crime scene.
And just across the street from our complex, the smoldering ruins of the Trade Center site were guarded by the military and overrun by rescue workers who had the grim task of sifting through the debris, removing remains of the victims.
In conversations with Pearl over the next day or so, she sounded very weak. She said she was fighting a stomach bug, so she insisted that we wait to visit her until she’d had a chance to recuperate.
“Do you have everything you need, Oldest?” I asked her.
“Everything but Katie. Give her a kiss.”
Over the next week, as we watched the round-the-clock TV coverage of 9/11, Katie and I settled in with John, Ryan, Peter, and their two dogs--Virgil and Chance.
Middle-aged Virgil was the grouchy Alpha dog of the house, snarly and prone to biting anyone in his territory. He instantly disliked Katie (and the feeling was mutual), so Katie was kept gated in the bathroom for her own protection. She moped there on the cold tile floor, barely eating her food, only content when I took her out for walks or when she slept with me at night in the apartment’s small office.
John’s other dog, Chance, the Papillon, was a yappy white ball of fur who irritated Katie, so she simply ignored him, or slapped him away with her paw.
Aside from the stress of having too many dogs in one apartment, I was very grateful for the hospitality that John and Peter offered Katie and me. In the dismal aftermath of 9/11, it was so comforting being together again.
We ate bagels and cereal in the morning as I talked to Ryan about his schoolwork. I strategized with John about my work and about functioning without my computer. And through it all, I gained enormous strength in their companionship, recapturing the closeness we’d always shared.
This was definitely not a time to be alone—and Granny was anything but happy marooned in New Jersey. She wasn’t very close to her niece and nephew, Edith and Leonard, and felt somewhat uneasy in their home, as she later told me. But even if she had been comfortable, having been uprooted from her own apartment and traumatized by the physical rigors of 9/11, she was understandably depressed and anxious to be around her regular group.
“I miss the little child!” she told me yet again on the phone. “How’s she doing?”
“Misbehaving, as usual,” I laughed. “She’s not very popular here with John’s dogs—they hate her--and she’s risking her life to steal their food.”
“That’s my girl!” laughed Pearl, who also missed her new friend, Lee, who had provided such kind and attentive care.
“Lee saved my life,” Pearl told me gratefully, anxious to see her again.
Lee and I called Pearl every day, and, at first, she seemed OK. But she really wasn’t. She seemed to resent the good intentions of her niece, mostly because she didn’t want her independence taken away. So even though her niece got Pearl’s hair and nails done, and bought her new clothes, which was certainly a kind thing to do, Pearl wanted none of it.
In fact, Pearl was becoming somewhat irrational and paranoid in her suburban surroundings. One day she called up telling me that she was locked up in the house, a “hostage,” and couldn’t get out, which was not the case. All this, I believed, was a function of being in shock--disoriented, crushingly lonely, and worried.
The solution was obvious: bring Pearl back to Manhattan, and fast. So John rented a car and, with Katie and Ryan in tow, off we went to the rescue in Montclair.
When we pulled up into the driveway, Pearl rushed into our arms and gave us all a big hug, elated to be leaving for Manhattan. She looked good in a new shorter, curled hair-do and had obviously gotten excellent care. Katie was beside herself with excitement. She licked Granny’s face and sat on her lap the entire way back into the city, a quick twelve-mile ride. She soon fell sound asleep in Pearl’s arms, her paws hanging possessively over her wrists.
John and Peter didn’t have room to host all of us, and I couldn’t impose on them any longer than the two weeks I’d already stayed. Also, since Katie was so dissatisfied with being penned up all the time in the bathroom, it was definitely time for us to move out on our own.
And so, as FEMA was offering free hotel stays for all those displaced by 9/11, we searched for one that would take both people and dogs. The only dog-friendly hotel I could find was the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West, right across from Central Park.
Unfortunately, they only had one room left, as the hotel was filled with many other displaced residents of Battery Park City. So as much as I didn’t want to be separated from Granny, I got her into the nearby Helmsley Hotel, around the corner from Carnegie Hall, just a few blocks from me and very near to John and Ryan.
True, she was all alone in her room, but much happier.
“I’m free!” laughed Pearl, delighted to be back in walkable Manhattan, close to Katie and the gang. Most days, I picked her up for lunch and for dinner and we enjoyed long strolls in Central Park. Katie chased birds and squirrels as always and asserted herself, lunging at little dogs that irritated her.
Indoors, Katie reveled in her freedom and quickly made friends with the hotel maids. She followed them around, just as she had Ramon, hoping they might drop something to eat, which they never did. She marched through the lobby of the hotel and stopped to flirt with all the bellmen and anyone else willing to pet her. And even though she sometimes bumped into walls due to her cataracts, she was in good spirits, stimulated by the change of scenery while anchored to her “pack” of regulars—me, Pearl, John, and Ryan.
On October 7, we celebrated Pearl’s 89th birthday at an Italian restaurant a few blocks from John’s apartment. Rose was there along with Lee and other friends from Battery Park, none of whom could yet return to our neighborhood, which remained off-limits and uninhabitable. Through the evening, Ryan snuggled close to “Oldest, ” his head often touching hers as they posed happily for photos. Pearl looked radiant that night, smartly dressed in a black suit, a leopard-patterned blouse, and pearls. Ryan was so grown-up in a button-down blue dress shirt and khakis, his long bangs falling into his face.
We sang happy birthday off-key and had a chocolate fudge cake from the Cupcake Café, decorated with a wild garden of blue, red, and yellow sugar flowers. Granny took charge of cutting the slices thinner than any of us would have liked. At the table, Ryan shoveled in cake as he showed Pearl her his new Nintendo gadget.
As a birthday present, he gave Pearl a small plant for her hotel room. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said, holding it as if it were made out of pure gold. “I love it.”
That night as we headed back to our hotels, I realized something that I would never have fully understood had we not been displaced from our neighborhood: Home is not a place; it’s the people placed in your heart.
So that night, even though Granny and I were still exiled from our homes, we were alive, and together again.
KATIE: UP & DOWN THE HALL
In late October, having been uprooted and living in hotels since the terrorist attacks, Katie, Granny, and I finally returned home, though our world, as we had known it, was inexorably changed.
Although I, along with many other Battery Park City residents, had been briefly allowed into our building late in September to collect essentials (under National Guard escort), that whirlwind visit had been a total blur.
We had been allotted exactly fifteen minutes to get in and get out. “This is a crime scene,” we were told, “and if you take any photos, you’ll be arrested.”
I just rushed into my apartment and grabbed some clothes, my checkbook, and files I needed for magazine stories, then locked the door and got out, relieved to return to the hotel.
But before I left the neighborhood, I noticed two unmarked, refrigerated trailers parked near our building. When I asked one of the guardsmen about them, he told me that they held human remains recovered at the disaster site.
And now, weeks later, on this crisp fall day, the trucks were still on site, morbid reminders that the cleanup was far from finished.
This was the day I actually saw the neighborhood again—and a sad sight it was.
It was hard to believe that just seven weeks earlier, the 110-story Twin Towers had been gleaming in the morning sunshine—hubs of commerce that dominated the landscape.
The skies were now vacant. What remained was a barren, flattened field filled with tons of twisted metal, powdery dust, armies of round-the-clock clean-up crews and, hidden from the eye, body parts still beneath the earth.
As we pulled up to our complex, Katie poked her nose out of the taxi window, curiously sniffing in the strange new smells. The streets were eerily empty. There was still a pungent smell of burning ash.
And as later reports revealed, even on the day of our arrival back home, the air was still toxic, polluted with asbestos and cement dust. By the furious swatting of her tail, however, Katie definitely knew she was home, though nothing was the same.
An aura of continuing shock and fear was palpable. Barricades blocked all non-essential traffic; trunks of cars were searched for bombs, while German shepherds sniffed every parcel and backpack. The community I’d known was like a war zone, and its residents, like war refugees, looked shell-shocked, with blank or dazed expressions, not a smile in sight.
As I looked beyond our circular driveway, mounted police navigated their horses around piles of debris, keeping a watchful eye on the temporary phone and electrical cables that were exposed above ground. Portable toilets and hastily erected emergency telephone booths littered the once-manicured park adjacent to the Hudson.
Most foreboding, police boats armed with machine guns patrolled the water, while Air Force helicopters hovered in the skies. Hearing the ominous sound of those helicopter blades, I wondered if we were returning home too soon—or if we should have returned at all.
On the way into our building, I stopped at our local drugstore to get a few supplies. Katie, as always, swiped a candy bar from the lower counter, which I plucked from her mouth, giving her my standard “no!” stare. Dejected, she slyly turned her head away from me, but stood ready, as always, to make another try.
As I walked back home on the near-empty streets, with no dogs or traffic, and almost nobody to keep us company, it struck me that our once-vibrant neighborhood--bustling with legions of babies, teenagers, young professionals, and seniors--was now a virtual ghost town.
In fact, of the over 1,700 apartments in our complex, a whopping seventy per cent of them were vacant. Many residents who had temporarily moved in with friends or family, or into hotels, were so shaken that they were never coming back. Some believed their children weren’t safe, that with Wall Street so nearby, another attack was inevitable. Others suffered from post-traumatic stress and disappeared without even returning for their furniture.
But for Granny and me, Battery Park City was home, the place where our hearts would always be. And we would not be driven from it.
We had spent such happy days here together, outside in the park, walking with Katie along the water--surveying the sailboats, the marina and sweeping views of the Hudson-- eating ice cream on summer nights, enjoying outdoor concerts, and savoring the magnificent sight of the Statue of Liberty.
And inside our homes, we had baked cakes and cookies together—eggs and sugar flying from one apartment to another. We had feasted on Granny’s plum tarts and paprika chicken and breaded zucchini. We had shared holidays and Katie’s annual birthday parties with her favorite carrot cake.
Through the rituals of celebration, we had established a true family unit that extended beyond just us to a wide network of our neighborhood friends—all of which made it impossible to even consider breaking it apart.
A friend living in another city asked why it had taken us so many weeks to get home. I explained that when one of the doomed planes flew into the Trade Center, one section of its wing had broken apart and been hurled, like a meteor, across the street, cutting a deep hole into the side of our 35-story apartment tower, and shattering all the windows.
And so, on our first day back, as residents trickled back into the neighborhood, our homecoming was anything but happy. Yes, our homes were habitable, but everything was changed—and much was lost.
Tears flowed for all of us returning home that day, feeling, as we did, the ghostly presence of those now tragically gone.
* * * * *
As Katie and I entered the lobby of our building, I looked through the glass wall facing what had been a verdant backyard garden. It was now ripped up and brown. Seven weeks earlier, the grass had been covered with a blanket of singed papers hurled into mid-air during the implosion of the South Tower. The documents had been carried across the street from the burning towers, landing in our backyard. Also on the ground had been one stray shoe that had been blown from the foot of some poor soul. I had bent down to touch that shoe and had also found, nearby in the grass, a tube of lipstick and a banker’s business card.
Although things had been cleaned up a little on that October day, our home, as we had known it, was definitely not the same. Our formerly pristine lobby, with its floor-to-ceiling mirrors, potted palms, polished steel columns, and Oriental carpets, was now dusty and disheveled, a shadow of its former self.
The sitting area was filled with the piles of luggage of returning residents. There were notices tacked to the walls about emergency services and apartment cleaning. Card tables set up in the area leading to the elevators were manned by FEMA workers and insurance representatives, who answered questions about resettlement efforts in Battery Park City.
Katie trotted over to one of the tables, spotted an open bag of Fritos lying under it, and efficiently swiped it, running to the elevator in an attempt to escape detection. She failed, as I grabbed it away and returned it.
A moment later, as Katie and I came off the elevator, she bounded happily down our long hallway, overjoyed to finally be back home in her territory.
“There’s my girl!” Granny smiled with pleasure, as Katie ran into her arms, covering her face with kisses. “How’s my little baby?!” she asked over and over again. Katie’s tail told it all--just fine, happy to be reunited with Pearl.
* * * * *
My feelings were somewhat ambivalent. Most of the apartments on our floor were deserted. The hallway was empty and dark, with only the dim emergency lights turned on.
Two weeks earlier, after the National Guard had loosened up its rules and allowed longer home visits, I had been able to return to my apartment to survey the damage. I was accompanied by my Travelers home insurance rep--a wonderfully warm woman named Jean Harper. An avid dog lover, Jean was seduced by Katie and was especially efficient in processing my claim.
“Wow, this really is depressing,” I had told Jean as we surveyed the mess inside. There had been considerable water and dust damage: the marble kitchen counter was cracked in two, the oak cabinets were warped, the light-beige marble floors had turned brown, the wallpaper was discolored, and the living room carpets permanently stained. Everything was soaked in an inch of yellowish water.
I was relieved to know that all of it would be repaired or replaced, though some things could never be. For example, my computer was a dusty wreck, destroyed by the refuse that had billowed inside on 9/11, blanketing everything with heavy black soot. Although I had backed up some of my files, much of what I had stored was permanently lost.
After that discouraging visit with Jean, I’d been consumed with having everything dried out and cleaned up before our arrival home. So a decontamination crew in spaceship-like uniforms had been brought in to scour every surface from floor to ceiling, removing the asbestos dust.
“This place really is a ghost town,” whispered Pearl, startled by the shadowy hallway and the absence of her women friends, who were still scattered with friends and family.
As she was unpacking her things, she surveyed the thick dust covering every surface in her apartment, sad that most of her beloved plants were dead, except for one—the rhododendron given to her by Ryan.
She seemed overwhelmed by the clean-up task at hand, and I arranged for a cleaning company to decontaminate her apartment as well.
“I guess I’ll go shopping for some food,” she murmured that first day, setting off for the grocery store, walking down the stairs.
“Why don’t you wait a minute—and I’ll go down with you,” I told her.
But independent as always, Pearl shook her head no, and walked right past me.
“I’m fine, don’t worry.”
But I was worried.
“Oldest” was definitely shaky (and who at her age wouldn’t be?), off in her mood and energy, definitely not strong enough to resume her life as she had known it. But I gave her a lot of credit for trying.
Beyond the physical, I could see that the readjustment period was going to be difficult because she had recently grown reaccustomed to seeing Ryan and John nearly every day. But here she was downtown again, more alone than she wanted to be.
Meanwhile, Katie was oblivious to it all and trotted into my bedroom to find her favorite toy, the pink rubber mouse that squeaked when you squeezed it. She began shaking her head back and forth, tearing that thing apart with gusto. And then, as she always did, she picked up a sock and we played tug-of-war. Katie snarled enthusiastically as she attempted to rip it away from me.
Finally, she opened her mouth, her pink tongue hanging out, and gave me her version of a doggie smile, content, at last, to be home. I popped in a dog biscuit and she curled up on the couch and took a nap.
* * * * *
The next day, I called in Katie’s beloved groomer, Betty, who had been cutting Katie’s hair for thirteen years. Although De De’s Dogarama had gone out of business a few years earlier, I was completely devoted to Betty, and she now made house calls.
“Hey girlfriend, I see you made it through 9/11, but your hair didn’t!”
Katie ran into Betty’s arms—enthralled to see her again. It had been a long seven weeks in more ways than one, and anything we could do to re-establish a sense of normalcy was my goal.
Betty had always been such a down-to-earth gal and a true friend to Katie and to me. I relied on her for good advice about sundry things, whether it was discussing what “senior” dog food to purchase or the best clean-up sprays to counteract accidents.
I can still see Katie that day, patiently keeping her eyes shut tight as Betty briskly shampooed her dirty coat in the bathtub, the blackened water whirling down the drain. Then Betty rinsed her with the hose attachment as Katie turned in circles, as if in a car wash, submitting to the pressure of the water. Later, during the haircutting phase of the operation, Katie, as always, had the good sense to hold up one paw at a time while Betty trimmed her nails and delicately cut the fur around her legs.
When Betty was finally done, there Katie stood, her old self once again--exquisitely clean, her blond hair so lustrous that it almost didn’t look real. Betty swatted her on the butt, the sign that she was done, and Katie, relieved, scampered out of her reach into the kitchen for a reward.