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Sept. 11, 2001: 15 years after terror attacks, a look back at Esmonde, Sully columns

On the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a look back at columns by Donn Esmonde, who included his Sept. 11th column as among the strongest columns of his long career at the News, and by Jerry Sullivan, whose dad was a firefighter.

Donn Esmonde's Sept. 11 column: Amid Ruins, Lives Lost and Changed

Written after walking the streets of Lower Manhattan 24 hours after planes hit the towers. Having lived on Long Island/downstate until my late-20s, I’d been in Manhattan countless times. Seeing these streets empty of traffic and covered with ashes, and a vast gray cloud hovering where the Towers once stood, was nearly unfathomable.

Amid Ruins, Lives Lost and Changed

It was a standard-size piece of paper, with Concord International Trade Corp., 1 World Trade Center, on the letterhead. On it was a price quote for an airline runway sweeper, basic unit, with a Turbo 115 hp engine, to be sent to Yunnan Airlines. Early Tuesday morning it was in an out box in an office in the monumentally tall tower. Wednesday morning, it was on a sidewalk, covered in gray soot, four blocks from the tall buildings. The tall buildings that are no longer there.

sept11frontpagecroppedNothing is as it is supposed to be. Not the gray-white smoke cloud that fills the air where the twin towers, overgrown symbols of muscular capitalism, once stood. Not the dusty piece of paper that ended on a Chambers Street sidewalk instead of on an executive's desk.

You come here and you see what it was like in London, the day after Hitler'sLuftwaffe dropped their bombs. This time the "bombs" were two hijacked, fuel-laden passenger jets that hit the two towers 18 minutes apart on Monday morning. Within 90 minutes, both 110-story buildings were gone.

Gone with them were not only thousands of lives and massive structures of concrete and steel, but America's innocence.

We are isolated, geographically apart from the world we affect so much. We are protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors north and south. What happens in the Middle East, in Bosnia, in Afghanistan seems far away -- even when America, with its might and its convictions, changes millions of foreign lives. We value ourselves as the stern but benevolent cop on the world beat. Yet anyone who travels abroad knows it's not what everyone thinks. We are hated as well as loved. Either way, though, it's a distant sentiment. The war doesn't come to our shore.

Until Tuesday.

The wreckage of our lost innocence covers the lower tip of Manhattan. Streets normally streaming with people and cars were as silent as Sunday morning. America has changed, and its new face was nowhere more apparent than near the site of the alteration. You could walk for 20 blocks Wednesday down the middle of West Broadway, toward the ruined buildings, watching only for an occasional ambulance or convoy of dump trucks. And every time you looked up, there was blue sky and smoke where identical twin skyscrapers were supposed to be.

"They were like the parents of all of us," said Mario Arjoon, who works 10 blocks from the twin towers. "You'd see them every day, standing over us. It's sad, like when you bury someone."

The closer one got to ground zero -- what cops and rescue workers called the blast site -- the more surreal it got. Disaster erases civilization, turns primitive our technological world. No subway train stopped within 20 blocks of the carnage. Police barricaded all intersections at main east-west streets north of the disaster: 14th, West Houston, Canal. If you weren't a cop, firefighter or rescue worker, you walked. If you weren't a resident or with the media, you didn't get in. And nobody without a rescue mission got south of Chambers Street, four short city blocks -- less than 200 yards -- from the wreckage.

Traffic lights were blank. Phones were powerless. At Morgan's Market, five blocks from the blast site, customers walked into a corner store dark but for rows of lighted candles -- a place of commerce resembling a house of worship. Indeed, there was ample reason for prayers. Felipe Baez, a laborer from the Bronx, came before dawn's light Tuesday to help clear the wreckage. Seven hours later, he was a different man.

"I saw them take out six police officers," said Baez, lean and 37, with soft eyes. "They were charcoaled. You couldn't recognize them."

The sun blazed everywhere but ground zero. Rescue workers said smoke from the still-burning fire at 7 World Trade Center blotted out the sky, an unnatural eclipse of the sun. Soot turned everything -- concrete, steel, bodies -- the same apocalyptic shade of gray.

"I reached for what I thought was part of the rubble," said Baez. "It was a woman. She was stiff, her hair was all burned off."

He was going home. Exhausted. Changed.

"My mind is all ----ed up," he said. "I don't have words for it. I just want to sleep."

The unnatural is everywhere. On Chambers Street, four blocks from ground zero, sits an abandoned pastry cart, its doughnuts and bagels glazed in soot, an open carton of milk and a half-eaten pastry on the counter. Nearly every face on the street is covered with a white paper dust mask. A light scent of burning rubber fills the air. National Guard troops in camouflage gear check ID at intersections. Canal Street, normally a Turkish marketplace for cheap jeans, luggage and sunglasses, is deserted, metal gratings pulled tight over every storefront.

There is an odd mixture here of sorrow, confusion and spirit-saving humor. Somebody cracks a joke and you laugh. Then you turn the corner and see, for the first time, flames and smoke darting from the five-story rubble that was the World Trade Center, and your eyes well up. A neighborhood woman, Susan George, jokes about having her "life" in the backpack she holds -- the passport and papers she grabbed after hearing the explosion. Then you ask if she knew anyone in the buildings, and her lip trembles and she says, "I just hope that God's hand is over them." Suddenly, hers isn't the only lip trembling. Minutes later, a neighborhood building superintendent says he stood on his roof and watched as workers trapped in the top floors, above the flames, waved shirts and flags in a desperate plea for help that never came.

You are here to see and hear and to tell the story. It is a job, and you try to be a professional. But there are some stories you cannot keep a distance from. You cannot watch a group of men covered in gray soot with FDNY on their coats come back, grim-faced, from searching the rubble where more than 200 of their colleagues died, and not admire them. You cannot listen to a young man, dazed, talk about pulling burned cops from the carnage and not feel for him. You cannot hear a man talk about seeing trapped workers scream for help, and then watching the building collapse beneath them, without wondering how he will sleep.

Early Wednesday afternoon, four New York City cops climbed into a police van, one holding a big American flag. The cop holding the flag said he was going to plant it in the wreckage.

"We got men that are buried there," he said.

They drove off before he could give his name. I'll never forget his face.

This is what is happening. The world, this small piece of it, has fallen apart. Now we try to put it back together. That's what human beings do. Either that, or give up. And there was no giving up here.

The heroic mixed with the mundane. The streets are filthy with soot and litter. Yet, at Church and Worth streets, a maintenance man swept scraps of paper into a tiny dust pan. Four blocks from the blast site, where all was covered with volcanic-like soot, Clive Morris hosed off the sidewalk in front of his building.

"You have to start somewhere," he said.

Around him, sirens wailed, soot and papers blew through the air, more cops and firefighters headed into the carnage. They are fighting to make it normal again, fighting to bring back, inch by inch, the civilization taken away on a horrible Tuesday morning.

Midway through the afternoon, you climb the pedestrian bridge blocks from the blast site for a different view. Acres of smoking rubble sit not 200 yards away. Apocalypse Now. You look down. On the ledge, someone has written two words in the soot: Love Life.


Jerry Sullivan's Sept. 11 column: Reality check puts sports in perspective






Back in April, I received a letter from a man named Henry Reiser, who objected to my use of the word "horrific" to describe the play of the Canisius basketball team in the final 10 minutes of its loss to Iona.

He said it was a word that should be reserved for the ravages of war, or a natural disaster. I laughed it off at the time. It was only a word, after all. Where would a sports writer be if he couldn't exaggerate?

Now I know what Henry was talking about. We all know the true meaning of "horrific," having heard it used over and over again the past two days, all too precisely.

Horrific is not a bunch of college kids missing jump shots in a big game. It's watching airplanes slam into the tallest buildings in New York City; it's clutching your wife's hand as one tower, and then the other, go crumbling to the ground; it's seeing people run for their lives, a huge cloud of dust and debris trailing behind them.

It's knowing there are thousands of people left behind, dead beneath the rubble. Innocent victims of madness and hate.

It'll be a long time before I overdramatize some sporting event again. We write about battles being fought in the trenches, about tragic defeats and crushing setbacks, about heroism and adversity and courage. And all the while, these are only games. None of it, in the end, really amounts to a damn thing.

I can't even imagine sitting through a game right now. It all seems so meaningless, so trivial. All I want to do is go home and hug my three children, to reassure them that everything will be all right and somehow erase this nightmare from their world.

Ruben Brown said that's all he could think about, too. He has pictures of his 2-year-old son plastered all over his locker. Funny, but until Wednesday I hadn't bothered to notice how many of the Bills had pictures of their children so proudly displayed.

"He's a beautiful boy, isn't he?" Brown said. "I can imagine all the families who must have lost someone - a grandmother losing a grandchild, a mother losing a son who has his own wife and kid. Just knowing that makes me think about my kid. I'm just so thankful he's healthy and safe. It just makes you think. What do you say to your kids? There's no book on it."

You're right, Ruben. There isn't a handbook. I was thankful my own son, who is almost 4, had no clue about what happened. He had his first full day of pre-kindergarten Monday. Watching the tragedy in New York on Tuesday, I kept thinking to myself, "That's the world I just sent Jack out into."

Both of my girls broke down crying at the dinner table that night. Emily, the 13-year-old, was sad and confused. You're at that age when you think you've got it all figured out, and then something like this happens. How do adults go about explaining it when they haven't even figured it out themselves?

"You know, Mark Spitler almost died," said Abby, who is 9. Not exactly, but it's still scary. Spitler is a lawyer and a dear friend of ours. He has been traveling to Manhattan on a regular basis for a trial. It's part of his ritual to get a newspaper and a bagel inside the World Trade Center before going to the courthouse. On Tuesday, he arrived in midtown Manhattan just after the second tower was hit. He's OK.

It's hard for a 9-year-old to have perspective. Your mind hasn't developed a sense of proportion. If evil is out there, it has to be close. If death is in the air, it must be coming for you. So it was no surprise when Abby burst into tears a few minutes later, when I told her it would be perfectly safe if I had to fly to Miami this weekend for the Bills game.

"But, Daddy, I don't want you to fly on an airplane," she sobbed.

I can't blame her. I don't want to go on that airplane, either. I'll go if they decide to play the game. It's my job. But I'd rather not leave my family. I'm not afraid of terrorists. I'm afraid of putting distance between me and my children. You always have this helpless, isolated feeling when you're away. It would be even more acute at a time like this. I'd rather not add to my kids' heightened sense of vulnerability.

The terrorists didn't simply attack our people, our government, our way of life. They attacked our children. They violated a child's basic need for safety and security; left them thinking the world was a more dangerous and violent place.

As a little boy, I had recurring dreams about bombs being dropped on my house. Later, I realized it was a reaction to the world crisis of the time, the pervasive fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, reinforced by air raid drills, news reports and the fretful conversations of adults.

Later in life, I felt grateful that my kids didn't grow up in a similar time, that they had a more secure feeling about their world. That's all changed now. Our children have this horror to accompany them. They'll wonder if there's some evil person out there, waiting to take them, or one of their parents.

I am the son of a fireman. I remember lying awake at night when he was called in to a big fire, waiting to hear his footsteps on the stairs. They took him out on a stretcher once, covered in ashes and soot, looking like those people who ran away from the towers. The side of a house had fallen on him. He survived.

When I heard that 200 firemen or more had probably died in New York, I broke down. I'm crying as I write this, thinking of all those hundreds of firemen's kids, lying in bed, terrified, hoping and praying that their worst fear hasn't come to pass.

The one thing we know for certain about Tuesday's tragedies is that every victim was someone's daughter or son. There's a place inside all of us where the child resides, and it hurts deeply at a time like this, when the world blows a hole in our innocence.

Charles "Bud" Anzalone, who is the editor of First Sunday and one of my best friends, lost his mother this past Monday. Frances Anzalone died a quiet, painless death. She was buried Wednesday in North Collins, in the town she loved and served so well.

In a way, I felt as if we were also mourning the victims of the terrorism, and grieving for the nation. It was good to pray, a comfort to be able to personalize your grief.

I'm sure Mrs. Anzalone wouldn't have minded. She was a wonderful woman. She spent much of her life teaching music to children in North Collins. Her son remembers her driving from one rural school to another to teach disabled kids, carrying her songbooks and a portable electronic piano.

She lived a happy, relatively anonymous life, like so many Americans do. She helped make this world a better, more humane place. She was a reminder that individuals make a difference in life, through single acts of kindness and humanity. It's a goodness that defies evil, that no terrorist could defeat.

That's what we hold on to in the end, the capacity we have as individuals to bring love and beauty, music and light, into the world. Hate and revenge will not make the world safer for our children. Our humanity is still our best weapon, the one thing that will save us in the end.


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