With a thundering crash that my wife thought at first was a fallen crane, my lower Manhattan home became a war zone.
I was at work in New Haven, Conn., when the attack came that infamous morning, and was on the phone with my wife as the second plane crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, five blocks from our apartment building. The sound was so loud over the wire that the phone shook in my hand.
Maria stood on our balcony, looking at two huge gouges in the upper portions of the sleek skyscrapers and flames spewing clouds of smoke from the steel and glass. She stepped inside as bodies began falling from the sky, to check on our year-old son. I recalled that Maria had worked on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center, the first building to be hit, till she became pregnant, and I had a new reason to thank God for our son. His life had saved my wife's.
“These can't be accidents,” my wife semi-sobbed over the phone. “Brian, we're under attack.”
We all have seen the television images of the horror and carnage, the collapsing buildings—impossible still to imagine—and the rushing crowds fleeing the tons of flying debris that spread like a tidal wave through the narrow streets. We have heard the marathon commentary and analysis, and rallied behind our president as he called the terrorist attacks acts of war and promised a strong response. But nothing touched me as deeply as the simple words of my wife. We're under attack.
These faceless suicide terrorists had launched an offensive against our country, and in the process landed in my backyard. I took it personally, not only as an American, but as a father and a New Yorker.
I had seen the twin towers rise in the late 1960s, seeming symbols of hope reaching above the unrest of the day. My spirit soared as a teen running the few blocks cross-town to see Philippe Petit, on a high wire, step cautiously between the towers, and mountain-climber George Willig scale the shimmering side. The towers had been so much a part of my life, solid double digits visible from any corner of the city, that, with typical New Yorker's pride, I never set foot on the touristy observation deck till I brought a friend from college there.
I also had stood sadly behind police barriers in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a prelude as it turns out, and walked the single block to St. Peter's on Barclay Street, to say a prayer in the church where St. Elizabeth Seton and Venerable Pierre Toussaint worshiped.
From the moment I heard the blast over the phone, a steady determination developed within me, to make it home and bring my wife and child to safety before another plane fell or a bomb went off. I am of the non-draft generation, missing conscription by a year, yet I felt like a new recruit, responding to a war brought to our shores.
My family was worth dying for, and I would get home on foot if I had to.
I caught an emergency train leaving New Haven at noon, and sat to pray the Church's Liturgy of the Hours. The psalms held extra meaning, with their descriptions of torment and pleas for help: “How long, O God, is the enemy to scoff? Is the foe to insult your name forever? ... Arise, O God, and defend your cause!” A sermon of St. Bernard in the Office of Readings especially struck me. “I beg you, my brothers, stand upon the watchtower, for now is the time for battle,” the 12th-century saint said.
In one of those incidents that can only be arranged from above, I heard the woman sitting in front of me say that she lived in lower Manhattan and was worried about her husband. I found that she lives two blocks from my apartment, and that her husband was scheduled that morning to attend a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center.
She called his cell phone again and again till she finally, miraculously, got an answer. Her husband was safe. He had taken the advice she had given early that morning and skipped the meeting to work at home.
The train, usually bound for Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan, went as far as Mount Vernon in Westchester County. A bus ride brought me a little further south to Yonkers, where I met two women also heading home to Manhattan. We hopped in a taxi cab and told the driver to get us as close to the city as possible.
A police line stopped us at 240th Street in the northern section of the Bronx. We got out, prepared to walk the seven or more miles home, when we heard a subway running on the tracks overhead. Trains had just started moving again. Before the train went underground, we watched with disbelief the billows of smoke arching over Manhattan from the place where the towers once stood.
I got out of the tunnel at Canal Street, as far south as the train would run. At the first intersection, I turned to see a scene from downtown Beirut. Smoke, soot, debris, smoldering sulfur. Rescue workers covered with dust wheezed as they walked from the scene, their eyes vacant with hurt at the loss of so many buddies.
At the Bowery the police line ended, and I joined a stream of other civilians walking through white soot into a quiet battlefield. My wife and child were at my parents' apartment, a block from our own. Before leaving to stay with relatives in New Jersey, we prayed for the dead, the injured, the rescuers and our city—which has survived. R
Brian Caulfield is managing editor of Columbia magazine.