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Karen Beatty, Faculty, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Anything Can Happen Day—September 11, 2001

I left for work a few minutes after 9 am, fully appreciative of the blue skies and unusually warm sunshine for a mid September day in New York City. Before 11 am on any given day in the West Village, the streets are nearly traffic-free and the sidewalks merely sprinkled with people. On this particular morning, however, a few steps beyond the entrance to my building, just where MacDougal intersects West Eighth Street, I noticed two or three people staring intently, silently, downtown. “Something’s up,” I thought, and stepped forward to join the aggregate. I was stunned to see that several top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center appeared to be belching white smoke. “What’s going on?” I gasped. A young man informed me that as he was exiting the subway at the west end of the block, he saw a plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. OMIGOD. Several times when I had been on the observation deck of World Trade Center, I had taken note of small planes and helicopters in flight beneath the top of the tower and considered that one might someday, accidentally, hit the building. “It wasn’t a small plane,” the young man protested. By then, a Con Ed repairman standing beside his truck was on his cell phone, announcing that, in fact, a large passenger plane had been hijacked from Newark Airport and had crashed into the World Trade Center. A neighbor above us on his balcony yelled down, “I saw it! The plane was coming in very low and kind of wobbly. I tried to take a picture, but my camera jammed. Damn!” Sadly, the clarity of that beautiful sunny day, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, had given the lie to the murky chaos that was to ensue.

The Con Ed worker then announced that he was hearing that two or three planes had been hijacked. The young man reported from his cell phone that Michael Jackson had been on the plane and was dead. At this point, I was getting skeptical, and rolled my eyes toward a couple of others who seemed to agree this was one of those notorious urban legends in the making. Yet the smoke pouring from the North Tower was real, and it was horrifying to extrapolate that people had to be dying in that tower, while others must be in great jeopardy.

Suddenly, almost like a sequence from a dream, we saw a plane approach from west of the South Tower and disappear, while almost instantaneously, about two-thirds up the tower, a bright ring of fire appeared. In the shallow recesses of my mind, I concluded that the flames had simply leapt from the North to the South tower, yet the image of the vanishing plane was just too ominously perplexing. Besides, my rational mind knew that the buildings were too far apart for the leaping flame fantasy. Both towers were now belching smoke and flames, and what appeared to be paper or debris was raining on the streets below like a ticker-tape parade gone bad. These were no accidents. Still, there was no way yet to grasp the true gravity of what we were witnessing.

Along our block in Greenwich Village, we have several unobstructed views of the Twin Towers, so I could tell, even by then, that the situation was dire. I stepped back toward my own building and hit our buzzer, insisting that my husband, Howard, come down to the street, not soon, but IMMEDIATELY. We were beginning to hear sirens, yet the scope of the tragedy and its implications were not immediately comprehensible. Some people were disjunctively speculating about how “they” could ever get that plane out of the building. It was simply not immediately possible to comprehend the tragic implications of the images before us.

From my perspective, however, it was time to take some practical action. First, I needed to snap myself out of what I recognized was shock (everything seemed to be silent, dream-like, moving in slow motion), and to determine that my 13 year-old daughter, Jaime, was safe. Howard and I agreed that, for now, she was likely most secure staying at her middle school (located just above the East Village), and that he would go home to await further information. We found out Jaime was in "lock-down" at school, meaning that the Board of Education deemed that school children not in immediate danger were best served by staying at school under teacher supervision until the streets were judged safe enough for parents to pick them up. Howard assured me he would retrieve Jaime at the appropriate time. We were operating under the assumption that two planes had somehow been hijacked, and that the major danger would be from panic on the street and from emergency vehicles rushing toward the damaged towers.

I am a psychotherapist in private practice and a counselor and professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York. I knew many of my students, and our staff, had family in the World Trade Center and vicinity, and a high percentage are firefighters and police officers. Despite my personal apprehension, I felt compelled to honor my responsibility as a counselor for the College. Furthermore, in exacerbation of the present situation, just last week an irate, mentally disturbed student had stabbed one of our deans in the office housing the Dean of Students and Vice President of the College. As a senior clinical counselor, I had been summoned from the classroom where I was teaching to help administer to staff and students who had witnessed the critical and extremely bloody stabbing incident. Since then, our counseling team had been conscientiously reviewing the literature and clinical interventions of trauma counseling, and reflecting upon our s hands-on experience managing the troubled responses to an act of senseless violence in our university community.

Ironically, my college schedule had started several days before the public schools this fall, so that my daughter, Jaime, had the opportunity to visit my classes for the first time. It was the very day of the stabbing of the Dean, so that she had, unfortunately, seen and heard far more than I had anticipated regarding a traumatic event. Anyway, I knew I could be of service at the college, so I headed northward, glancing back at the burning towers and thinking, “The top of that one tower looks precarious; I sure hope it doesn’t come crashing down.” To think, I was concerned that a quarter of one of the towers might topple….

My husband, meanwhile, went upstairs to get more information from the news and listen for any decisions regarding dismissal and pick up of school children. After about 40 minutes, he came back outside and walked the half block from our apartment to Washington Square Park, where the famous Washington Square Arch perfectly framed the Twin Towers. By then, numerous people had accumulated in the park and in the streets, most still aghast and disbelieving what they were observing. People stood in grim silence staring at the smoke darkening the bright blue sky above the twin towers. A stream of evacuees from the vicinity of the Trade Center was arriving in the Village, most of them in shock, telling horrific stories, but not seriously injured. Unfortunately, the amount of debris spewing from the towers seemed to be increasing, and people with radios reported that the faster moving, larger objects propelling from the towers were, in fact, people jumping. That was horrendous enough to process, emotionally and intellectually, when abruptly, incredibly, the South Tower of the World Trade Center, momentarily followed by the North Tower, collapsed in a giant cloud of black dust and debris. It was as if a shotgun blast had finished off a couple of massive wounded animals. Howard reported that there was an audible mass gasp across the park, and then people started screaming, wailing, and falling into each other’s arms, strangers or not. The sharp blue sky downtown was now obliterated by ash and debris. And though it was at first beyond comprehension, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had simply vanished.

It was mid-morning when I arrived at John Jay College, and there were rumors of further impending attacks, and reports of numerous hijacked planes still circling nationwide, ostensibly homing in on predetermined targets. Some students and staff were wandering about looking stunned, others were racing out of the building; most were glued to any available TVs or radios. When the news about the attack on the Pentagon was communicated, however, the atmosphere took on a more Armageddon-like feeling. A steady stream of people headed for the exits, and we could hear a few screams and wails midst the attentive silence. At the time, it seemed possible that anything, including a nuclear attack, was imminent. I could no longer contain my tears or extending fears, but was able to pull myself together by conferring with my colleague, Cary Sanchez. We noted the many people around us in serious distress, literally crying out for support, and chose to focus ourselves by helping others. By the time the towers had fallen, students who had remained at the college were either hysterical or walking about in shock. Our counseling director, Bob Delucia, took a most practical and important step: he opened up all the offices for counseling and made whatever phones were functioning available to distraught staff and students. In the face of an overwhelming crisis, he intuited that access to information and communication are the next best options when answers and solutions are not available. If people could not reach loved ones downtown, at least they could assure friends and relatives elsewhere that they themselves were OK. We all, in fact, needed some reassurance that our personal worlds would go on. We counselors pulled aside the most distressed people for individual or small group counseling sessions, and checked with each other regularly for support. After about 45 minutes, a quiet apprehension began to set in around the halls of the college. In between comforting students, counselors dashed over to the Vice President Witherspoon’s Office to watch TV and get a security update. Various staff and faculty had gathered in his office to garner information and connect with each other. Trying to contain rumors and heading off mass hysteria was a priority. It seemed as if there would surely be more attacks across the City and country, that this was possibly the beginning of World War III. All the phone circuits in Lower Manhattan were either down or on overload, so I could not get through to Howard to get the latest word on my daughter. At this point, even lockdown in the schools did not seem like such a good alternative. Some faculty and administrators had children in schools nearby, or even in, the World Trade Center, and, of course, almost all of us had connections with people working in the Towers or involved in the rescue efforts. Since we were not sure that the attacks were over, this was a particularly agonizing time. I finally heard that PS 234, the elementary school nearest the World Trade Center had been evacuated to PS 41, the Greenwich Village School, located near my home so I knew that my immediate neighborhood had not been hit.

Since I was stationed at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the administration was privy to all manner of police reports, updates, and speculation from New York City and Washington, DC. Unfortunately, for a couple of hours, there was no definitive information, official or otherwise, about whether we were at the beginning, or end, of an attack on our country. Numerous specific and non-specific threats were being called in around New York City, and no one could ascertain whether these were hoaxes or even who was actually responsible for the damage already done. We were warned that terrorists were driving around the streets of Manhattan tossing about grenades and bombs. There was a rumor that New York University, located a half block from my apartment, had been a target. Suddenly, Vice President Witherspoon got off the phone and informed us that a bullhorn-toting doctor from St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital (located directly across the street from John Jay College) was marching up and down the block announcing that a truck filled with explosives was parked just outside New York Hospital, and that there were bomb threats at all the local hospitals. From the VP’s Office, we glanced nervously out the window at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. There were to be no safe havens today. The rumors were, of course, unfounded, and even unrelated to the perpetrators of the attack, though we readily considered most any possibility in lieu of what we were hearing and witnessing. The post World War II declaration made by E.B. White in 1945 took on a more contemporary nuance: The City for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy. I looked over at my dedicated colleagues and considered that they might be the last people I would ever see. September 11, 2001 was truly anything can happen day in New York City.

I began a rotation between the Dean’s Office and the counseling offices in an attempt to support others and get reassuring personal information. The telephones were functioning sporadically; after endlessly hitting repeat dial, I finally got a call through to my home. Howard reported that Jaime had used a bathroom pass as a ruse to search out a friendly teacher. The tearful teacher told her what had actually happened at the Trade Center. Apparently, school officials had not yet decided how much to tell the children; they simply chose to say that there were “terrorist threats” on the Twin Towers. But some of the youngsters had radios, so they were getting bits and pieces of the news, most of which did not seem real or conceivable to them. Some of Jaime’s classmates even made fun of her when she conveyed the message that the towers had fallen. (Of course, like many adults that day, the youngsters envisioned the buildings coming down in two giant slabs like falling timbers.) Several children at the school had parents who worked at the World Trade Center, so communication had to be monitored in as sensitive a way as possible by teachers, while they awaited parental pick up. Not to mention, of course, that the teachers themselves were quite shaken, some in tears, because their own friends and family worked at or near the attack site. A few teachers had already left the school to donate blood or retrieve their own children. Jaime’s school is not far from the downtown United Nation’s International School, and there is always concern for the children there, and in the surrounding neighborhood schools, when there is an international incident, even on a smaller scale than this one. At times like this, Manhattan can truly take on a small town veneer. Before going back to class with her insider’s report, Jaime used the school pay phone to call home and miraculously got through to Howard. She seemed to be managing her anxiety by becoming the class reporter, providing updates to her classmates from information gleaned from the radio and any teachers who were willing to be more forthcoming. Howard arranged, in conjunction with another neighborhood father, to pick Jaime up—somewhat later than I was comfortable with, but I yielded. He continued to insist that she was safer in school than on the streets.

At John Jay College, remaining staff who were not providing counseling or information dashed out to give blood, some returning to report that the donation line was snaking several blocks around St. Luke’s Roosevelt. This was the first of many indications of the outpouring of altruism that was about to flood our beloved city. As the afternoon progressed, a few of us counselors continued to console students stranded at the college; those students from outside New York City, and the international students, were particularly traumatized. Since it was the beginning of the school year, some students had only been in the City a couple of weeks; they were in the midst of a major crisis and unable to reach their families in other states or countries. At the time, no one knew where this chaos was ultimately going. One young woman from Guyana wept in my arms when she could not connect to her older sister’s cell phone. The sister was working on the 90th floor of Tower One. I tried hard to bolster optimism, security and faith until we could ascertain something specific. Hopefully, her sister, and my own friends and neighbors, were among those pictured on TV streaming away from the towers in the minutes before they collapsed. All of us in the Vice President’s Office tried gamely to hold that thought, as we confronted the horror of the televised news and, in my case, an all too personal observation.

John Jay College is an institution that actively serves the community and pays particular attention to the needs of students, many of whom are already police officers and firefighters. Other students are in training for uniformed, or rescue, or investigative professions, and/or come from families with a long tradition of working in such occupations. Gerald Lynch, President of John Jay College, reveres (and mandates) the model of first service to students and the community, so the people I was surrounded by on September 11th knew how to be “there” for the students and each other. It was announced that the college was prepared to set up cots in our buildings and provide food and shelter for anyone stranded that day. A number of us Manhattan dwellers willingly offered our homes, assuming we would be able leave the building and reach our homes. Within a few hours, however, the college administration determined that the streets were safe for travel, and President Lynch wanted to help students get home before dark. Several of us counselors ventured out of the building, escorting students to whatever forms of transport were available. Although access into the City was denied, fortunately, it was possible to travel out of the City, away from Manhattan. That was an excellent municipal decision, as it reduced the number of people in Manhattan, in case an evacuation was necessary. It also decreased the general feeling that everyone was trapped in a targeted area, cut off from home and family. Of course, the entry restrictions had the opposite effect on those unfortunate ones trying to return to their homes and families in Manhattan.

By late afternoon Howard, Jaime and I managed to rendezvous at home; seeing my family united again was an immense relief. Though the telephone lines were not open, we were able to send emails (a terrific boon to communication that day) to our families and friends, who, we knew, were worried about us. We also tried to think of those we needed to check on from the vicinity of the World Trade Center. Stuart, Vickie, Roman, Tom, Lynnie and Alan, all working or living in that area, came immediately to mind, but we realized any number of people we know could have been there. We kept discussing how often we ourselves visit, recreate, and eat at the World Trade Center. In two more hours, Howard would have been on his daily walk along the Hudson River, where he stops for lunch in the World Trade Center complex. I join him on Fridays. Jaime is in the World Trade Center a couple of times a month for activities and events. City dwellers are all too well aware of the Towers as a center for the arts and entertainment, for fine and informal dining, for low and high end shopping, and for recreation, in addition to the primary offices and establishments located there for business, finance, media and government. I thought about the concept of six degrees of separation, the notion that a complex web connects all of humanity within relatively limited extensions. I realized that the world was about to be deluged with a tsunami of agonizing news.

From our neighborhood in Greenwich Village, we could see and smell the acrid smoke accumulating above the site where the towers once stood. Doctors and medical personnel rushed to set up triage at St. Vincent’s Hospital; just a couple of blocks from us. People covered in dust were wandering northward, many in shock and with more serious injuries than the first wave of evacuees. After a brief family consultation at home, we decided to join our neighbors in the ad hoc rescue efforts in our area. Howard was somewhat reluctant about Jaime going out at first, but I knew that sitting before the TV and speculating about what could happen was not healthy for any of us. This was a time of living history, and I intuited that it was best for our 13-year-old daughter to be an active helper rather than a paralyzed victim. The sights, noise and smells in Greenwich Village meant that denial of the devastating circumstances was not an option. Late that afternoon and into the evening, there was an eerie, surreal feeling in the downtown streets, which were devoid of all but emergency vehicles. The most stunning site was a stream of rescue vehicles and personnel, completely covered in gray powder and debris, racing to hospitals uptown from downtown. Many people who had been in the vicinity of the Trade Center now wandered about the Village and St. Vincent’s in shock, silenced by events too horrible to comprehend. Those of us who could function in any specific capacity were trying to help—providing comfort or support in the street, handing out food and water, guiding people to rest areas, reassuring (against our instincts) those whose friends and families were unaccounted for. There was a strange stillness, an awful sound of silence in the streets, particularly around St. Vincent’s, the trauma hospital on 11th Street, which had set up triage units in front of its entrances, and even in its lounges. On the outer perimeter of St. Vincent’s, press vehicles and camera crews positioned themselves to record the arrival of the anticipated multitudes of seriously wounded, which was to include a portion of the burn victims. The health facility and its media-laden intersecting streets looked like a Hollywood set for a field army hospital poised just before the call of "take" for action. Only the call never comes. That was to be the essence of this tragedy. We navigated the streets along the "frozen zone" (below 14th Street) to tend to the many people, dazed and in shock, wandering northward out of the immediate disaster area. The hospitals were treating these "walking wounded" rather perfunctorily, because an onslaught of more critical victims was expected. Of course, that never occurred. One young woman suffered a broken tailbone during the frightening stampede away from the collapsing towers. The hospital had informed her that there is no treatment for such an injury, but she could not even sit down, so she was handed pain medication and left to wander about seeking the solace of neighbors and empathetic strangers. We helped her get some food, listened to her story and offered to walk her home. With the phones out, she had not even been able to contact and reassure her family, who lived out of State.

Over the years, it has been my experience that whenever there is a crisis or disaster in my Greenwich Village neighborhood, people step up to help and support each other. September 11th was no exception. Neighborhood restaurants were doling out food and water, which was especially touching because the preponderance of our local restaurants are owned and operated by immigrants, some of Middle Eastern descent. During a brief dinner respite in one of the café’s near St. Vincent’s, Howard, Jaime, and I took a minute to discuss how we would evacuate, if it came to that, and where we would rendezvous in the event that we got separated. Though it still seemed possible that we were at the beginning of an ongoing siege, we agreed to continue helping rather than retreat to the dubious shelter of our apartment. We all agreed that there were no material goods that we had the need to protect or recover at home. After this affirmation, our family again set about the task of comforting others, especially those who had loved ones among the missing. We were all, even Jaime, rescue workers for a time. It felt a bit like what Holden Caufield imagined for himself in the novel Catcher in the Rye: positioning yourself as the person who stands by to embrace and protect the hurt and injured, the innocent, as they run out of the “rye” and fall toward the precipice. Many people fell, literally and figuratively, on September 11, 2001. My family made a special point of thanking police officers assigned to our area, most of them standing about, looking rather stunned. (Unlike us, they had seen the actual devastation and had already heard about the loss of uniformed personnel.) I tried to stay focused on here and now needs: what had happened rather than what could happen. That meant tuning out whispered rumors about anthrax in the subways, about nuclear warheads positioned in our direction, and poisoned water supplies. It was easy, admittedly, to allow your imagination and paranoia free reign.

As we did our best to administer to our neighbors and our selves, far too intermittently, a ghostlike, banged up, and dust enveloped vehicle raced up the vacated Avenues toward St. Vincent’s, or toward one of the other receiving hospitals. “It looks like they just escaped from Hell”, I remarked, “and that they have to get as far away as they can as quickly as they can.” Little did I know, at the time, how apt that analogy would prove. My daughter Jaime declared that the startling image of those vehicles would stay with her forever.

We found it touching to see so many neighborhood volunteers erect “Thank You” banners and form an informal cheering squad along the emergency routes in support of the rescue workers. Everyone genuinely wanted to help, and, that first night, all manner of help was gratefully accepted. Those without specific skills became the wind beneath the wings of those who could serve directly. For the most part, only emergency service people, the injured, and friends and families of the missing were on the streets with us local residents. There was nothing to dialogue about: we simply shook our heads and looked sadly at each other, and deeply into ourselves. To stand around gazing downtown at the billowing, dusty- gray smoke and altered skyline was simply too painful.

By 10:30 PM that first night, my family returned home to get a media update. We were yearning for some elusive congruence between the media reports and the real time of the streets, where we could see, feel and smell the disaster. That was when we learned about the huge number of anticipated dead and missing from the attack, and the tremendous losses among the police, fire, and other emergency service providers. Immediately we feared for our personal friends among the uniformed workers: Tom, a fire chief, and Lynnie, an EMS worker, plus all the police officers and fire fighters affiliated with John Jay College. There was no way to get through to, or get word on, any of them.

None of us slept well the night of Tuesday, September 11th. Already there was talk of war. My husband Howard was obsessed with the idea that there would be attacks at
Grand Central or Penn Station; he kept insisting that we try to avoid those areas in the forthcoming days. Jaime and I had awful nightmares. (Planes out of control, lost people and explosions all around. I saw a large white nose cone of a plane heading toward me.
Jaime dreamed of the Concorde, beast-like, crashing into familiar buildings. ) My teenager insisted that I sleep next to her in her room, and we flinched each time we heard a cruising helicopter or fighter plane. We expected to hear sirens from rescue ambulances all night. That was not the case. I lay awake thinking of a quote from the Sufi spiritual philosopher Rumi:
This night will pass. Then we have work to do.

—Prof. Karen Beatty, John Jay College, CUNY