It was one of those glorious mornings that the weathermen on TV refer to as “one of the top 10 days of the year.” There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and there was a hint of autumn in the air. The light was crystalline, with every detail in sharp relief.
Beth and I awoke with a lot on our minds.
It was the first day of school for our daughter Emily, who was entering the 10th grade. Our son Jeff was already packed in preparation for his first year of college at Northwestern; he was to fly to Chicago with Beth on Friday. I was about to meet up with my producing partner Stephen Dyer to fly to Toronto for the world premiere of our film “Ball in the House.” It was also Election Day.
My bag was packed and sat in the foyer by the front door of our apartment on the Upper West Side, as I headed out to the polling place down the block. As I was leaving the building, the doorman said, “Did you hear? A plane flew into the World Trade Center.” I turned to him and nodded. I didn’t think much of it, since I knew that over the years, a number of planes had flown into the Empire State Building. I pictured a small Cesna crumpled against the building.
After voting, I headed back upstairs to get my stuff. The car service was supposed to pick up Stephen at DuArt, along with the first 35mm print of the film. Then Stephen was going to pick me up and we would head off to the airport.
Upon entering the apartment, Beth called me in to where she was watching TV. She was staring at the television, where there was the image of a gaping hole in one of the towers of the World Trade Center, with black smoke billowing out. I blurted out something like “holy shit,” and just then, on live TV, a second plane flew into the other tower.
Like everyone else who was watching that morning, this was the moment when my heart sank. It became clear that this was no accident. Minutes later, they were reporting the plane crash in Pennsylvania, and that’s when Beth said to me, “You’re not going anywhere.”
My cell phone rang, and it was Stephen. “Did you hear what happened?” “Yes,” I said. Of course the car service had never arrived. Without any transportation available, Stephen couldn’t carry the 35mm print cans uptown without help, and he and I were still thinking that somehow we would get the print to Toronto. I told him I would take a luggage cart that I had at home, walk the mile and a half down to DuArt and we would walk back uptown together with the print. Then we would figure out what to do.
Beth overheard me and chimed in, “You’re not going anywhere.” And she was right, because CNN was now reporting that all flights over U.S. air space were being grounded.
We watched in complete shock as first one, and then the other tower collapsed to the ground in what seemed to be slow motion. It was hard to wrap your mind around the fact that what we were watching was real, and not some bad Hollywood disaster movie.
Beth woke up Jeff, and told him to get dressed. She threw on her clothes and before I knew it, she was out the door to the local supermarket. She was in some kind of adrenaline-fueled hyper-drive, stocking up on food, water, cash, batteries. In an email she sent later that to day to friends, she described the scene:
Had a moment’s flicker that perhaps I was reacting w/ hysteria or paranoia, but evidently I wasn’t the only one; the grocery store started filling up as I went about my business. People were quiet, fairly calm, but very purposeful. The credit card machine at the grocery store wasn’t working, so they offered to deliver COD…Stopped at the bank and the line was snaking around, longer than I’d ever seen it. How much money to take out? A few hundred? I ended up taking the max. Who knows. Everyone surprisingly polite, but scared.
Meanwhile I headed out with the luggage cart. Walking down Broadway was nothing short of eerie. The sky was still cloudless and the light still sharp. There was no visible evidence of what was going on only a few miles further downtown. But there were hoards of people, all walking uptown as I was walking downtown. It resembled something like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” With no subway service, everyone on the island of Manhattan was walking north, many of them with no particular destination since by now all the bridges and tunnels were closed. All they knew was that they wanted to get as far away from the World Trade Center as possible.
By the time Stephen and I got back with the print, Beth was home from her shopping expedition. She informed me that schools were being dismissed at lunch time, and that many of the kids had no place to go because of the lack of transportation.
She also informed me that her friend Laura had called. Laura had just dropped off her 5 year old son at PS234, right next door to the World Trade Center, when she and her younger son witnessed the first plane crash into the towers. She had run back to get her son from the school, and after finally locating him in the ensuing panic, was now heading uptown with the two of them in tow. She was coming to our place because she couldn’t get to her home in Tribeca, her husband was stranded on Long Island and she had nowhere else to go. It would be a six mile trek with two kids, but she was on her way.
More calls came in. Paul Auster called to ask if his daughter Sophie could stay with us. It was her first day of high school at the same school as Emily, which happens to be right across the street from our apartment. With the subways closed down, she couldn’t get home to Brooklyn. My son had two friends that were stranded and needed a place to stay.
As more and more people arrived at the apartment, we all sat transfixed watching the same images of the imploding towers over and over again.
Laura arrived with her kids, and they were tired, drained and in a state of shock.
I made several calls to people who were in Toronto to find out what was going on there. No one knew if the festival would go on. I was told that if we wanted, we could just cancel the premiere. No sweat under the circumstances. Stephen and I debated it, and decided it was more important to somehow go through with it. We had fought hard to get the film done on time, and this festival screening was very important to us. We started to discuss the possibility of driving.
As we continued to discuss it, I could see that Beth was getting upset. She confronted me and told me that she wouldn’t let me go. She wanted the family to stay together. After all, there was no telling what else was coming.
As the day wore on, I was informed that there would be a press conference the next morning to announce whether the festival would go on. At this point there was nothing more we could do, other than to settle in front of the television to re-live the day’s trauma. At one point, we heard that the PATH trains to Hoboken were running again. So Stephen decided to try to get home.
The rest of us were glued to the TV, until one by one, we went off to various corners of the apartment to go to sleep.
There wasn’t much sleep to be had. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw those planes flying into the twin towers.