September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document
Email Text:A Keyhole View of the WTC September 17, 2001
Subject: FW: [talkling] A keyhole view
Immediately upon seeing an orange ball of flame emerging from the WTC, I
called my wife, who commutes from NYC to work in Princeton, and left messages on her
two phones saying that I was ok and the kids had left for school, hence were in the Bronx
and Harlem, quite far from here.
A correction to my first letter. My daughter was not eating supper with me when
the third building collapsed. Phone service became erratic (overload, etc.) within minutes
of the crash. As things progressed subways and busses stopped. Driving was out of the
question. The fact that my 16 year old daughter was at the Bronx High School of Science
was a comfort. My 11 year old daughter was safely tucked into a classroom at the Center
School on 72nd street, a Harlem district school where half of the children qualify for the
free milk program, and in my opinion one of the best schools in the country. My wife in
Princeton, was far from trouble. The only one to worry about was me, and never having
had any serious injury or aliment, I still possess that teenage feeling of invincibility. I
examined the hole in the WTC through binoculars, and then set up the telescope to view
the wound more closely. The hole on the north side of the WTC (the plane hit the south
sides) looked like it was pulled in, not pushed out. Two college professors and I
examined the hole with binoculars and we all thought that the plane had hit from the
north side since the siding was pushed in. As Bertrand Russell said, when the experts are
agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain. The aluminum siding seemed to
be melting and falling apart.
My 11 year old called me frantically crying. She had left the school for lunch and
had wandered by herself from 70th Street to 59th Street, and was horrified by the
missing-tooth-look presented by the one remaining World Trade Center tower, the
smoke, and the dazed people. She said some woman was with her. I talked to the woman
(She might have been a high school student.) and asked her to return my daughter to the
school. My daughter did not want to go back, she wanted to walk home (Impossible) or
me to go get her. Lying through my teeth, I told her that I would immediately drive up
and pick her up from school. She brightened and the woman said Tracy wanted to hurry
back to the school. I told the woman to tell the teachers - but not Tracy that my wife's
cousin (our emergency contact person, lives about 74th Street) would pick her up. I did
not hear from her again until quite a bit later. If I left to get her, I would not know where
to go. Not inconceivably - she is extraordinarily determined and persuasive - she might
convince someone to bring her home.
My phones received calls, but could not make outgoing calls. There was no
dialtone. Some of the incoming calls were from machines offering me home delivery of
the NY Times to keep me abreast of the news. I was hoping for news of my 11 year old.
As the first WTC tower was collapsing, I was in the store buying apples, eggs,
etc. to make Tracy's favorite food: a sort of an upside down fried apple omelette, heavily
laced with ginger, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon, that is baked in the oven. My daughters
and I recently bought six different cinnamons, and we have been experimenting with the
spices. At the normal supper time, I set a place for Tracy and cooked the dinner. I ate a
little bit of it by myself, but was ready to surprise her with it as soon as she walked in.
My daughters and I are bakers. We make bread, pizza, cakes, pies, turnovers. We
have studied The Cake Bible till the pages are worn, and we have produced elaborate
icings using sundries from the fantastic store on about 21st and 6th that sells only cake
decoration supplies. Our latest project, stymied by the WTC disaster, was to make
marzipan bottle caps, cleverly painted with food coloring to look like Snapple and
Heinekens tops. At my birthday party, we were going to pass out 'real' bottles to guests
and keep the marzipan phonies for ourselves. While the boys twisted the Snapple tops,
the girls would simply pop them off with their teeth and chew them up. I would do the
same with a Heinekens in the presences of Princeton alumni. Many of my thoughts of my
children focus on making shortcakes, teddy bear shaped breads, and the apple omelet.
My comfort food is not apples and spice, but a blue cheese (very ripe) omelet, like
the one at the Café Luxembourg. A friend of mine who just had his second triple bypass
operation told me twenty-five years ago that cholesterol does not stay in your body if you
drink two or more bottles of burgundy during the consumption. Bordeaux is almost as
good, but white wine has no effect, except for Fois Gras, which is only flushed from your
system by a good Sauterne. My doctor disagreed with this, but he drinks concord grape
wine from New York in bottles with screw off caps, so he clearly has no idea what he is
talking about. I have often read that red wine is good for your heart.
Having covered the horror and tragedy in the first letter, let us turn to the surreal.
The WTC listing at 3 degrees, I decided to go to the Pizza Box on Bleecker Street and get
a chocolate Italian ice, something I often do with kids in the building, but have never
done on my own. I do not like ice cream only baked goods.
A line was building up in the supermarket, so I postponed the Pizza Box, and
headed in. I got apples, milk, eggs, and black beans (I make soups also). The store had a
grotesquely shaped ball of Societe blue cheese, and I plopped it into my basket. At the
checkout counter, debit cards did not work, but credit cards did slowly. Cash talked.
Armed with my emergency twenty that we keep in case we have to go by taxi to the
hospital, I was ready. Six people ahead of me. Four lines about the same. People pouring
into the store. Maybe twenty people in the isle I could look down. Most people had
bottled water. I settled into the wait, preparing to jump to another line, and forgot the 3,
by now maybe 4, degree tilt.
Screams in Spanish from the loading platform outside, then in English from
everywhere, then in some African language as the delivery men passed the information.
The store emptied in seconds. Everyone left: cashiers, customers, management, the meat
and produce folks, and the delivery crew. I was left totally alone, as near as I could see.
Lots of human anguish and grief being expressed outside. What to do? I decided that to
walk out with the food was stealing. The only thing I really needed was the blue cheese
since I could get everything else at a Deli. I left everything. I walked to the door, easily
overtaking an elderly woman galloping along with her walker. I had not noticed her. I
think she had hunkered down by the coffee machine to avoid the human stampede. She
asked, 'What happened?' and I told my second lie for the day, 'I don't know'.
A big dust cloud had replaced the WTC. From my ground perspective, I did not
know how the cloud had spread out. I only saw that later, when I watched the second
Most people were not hysterical or even loud. Most looked stunned and aghast.
One extremely overweight woman was shaking and crying hysterically. Apparently her
sister was inside one of the towers.
I decided not to get the chocolate ice and picked up the apples, etc. at the Korean
Deli. I bought a carrot juice and drank it immediately. I
returned home, checked the answering machine, but there were no messages, made a pot
of chamomile tea and pulled up the chair to watch the second tower collapse. It was here
that I made my most systematic observations of the trapped people.
My observations were surreal because I have an astronomical telescope and
everything is upside down. The people and buildings were upside down. The flames and
smoke went down. When widows and aluminum siding melted and fell, the blobs and
chunks fell up. When people jumped, they left my field of view by moving upwards in
their upside down positions. At all times my feeling was that I was watching a movie
running backwards, a cassette rewinding. I wanted to reach for the fast-forward to put
the people back on the floor.
If I kept both eyes open, one with the inverted 40 power view and the other
normal, it sometimes looked like the debris and people were moving upside down up
into the sky. Oddly, the fire in this situation always looked like it was going up. I felt that
I was not actually here.
After I ate my daughter's supper alone by myself, phone calls started to come in
and my internet connection restarted. Tracy was secure at a cousin's house and was being
hammered by endless loops of violent images on TV.
I wrote the first letter in the half hour before I went to bed and sent it off. I did not
edit the letter since I have two troubles reading it. One is that the letter is like a
concentrated bullion cube of the horror of the human dimension and it turns back into the
bubbling reality of the moment if I look at the sentences even to try to correct the
spelling. Second, I had a severe fall about two years ago and damaged both of my retinae.
After a year of rehabilitation, etc., a blood vessel broke in one eye. As the peepers have
healed, I see excellently at long distances, but do not see well up close without very
bright lights. Yesterday morning I stepped on Tracy's Magician's Set alongside of her bed
because I did not see it.
The next day my wife came back from Princeton. Trains were running normally
outside of the scene of the tragedy. Tess, the 16 year old, called and I told her to pick up
Tracy from the cousin's house on her way home. When Claudia, my wife, arrived, she
soon left to go to the cousin's house to get the two girls. I cannot place calls out, but can
get them. The daughters called and I told them to wait for their mother.
The wind shifted. All smoke blew East or West. Now it started North, and that is
where I am. I recognized the smell immediately and packed the car with Gatorade,
crackers, and so on. When the family arrived, we packed for five minutes and headed up
6th Avenue in the Volvo Wagon. I expected a 10 hour traffic jam to get over the GW
The smell abated by 23rd street and we opened the car windows. The radio had
talked of enormous traffic jams, but we saw no traffic going north. We were over the GW
bridge in record time and when we got to Passaic we called people in NY to tell them
traffic was a breeze. Going out that is. The West Side Highway was bumper to bumper
moving 5 miles per hour North to South. There were convoys of enormous heavy earth
moving equipment, much bigger than one normally sees. Gigantic Tri Axel dumps, much
bigger than I have seen on normal roads. This was the stuff they probably use when they
are building the roads that normal trucks move on. Traffic was packed Southbound from
59th to the bridge.
On the other side of the GW Bridge, there was no traffic going out. There was a
10-mile traffic jam going into the city.
When we reached our farm (Near the Delaware Water Gap), the New Jersey
surreal ecstasy was there in full bloom. The kids wanted pizza, but Claudia and I bought a
salmon and barbecued it. Salmon, spuds, and salad. Friends told us via email that
breathing was hard in some areas of NYC and that they stayed indoors.
The sixteen year old wanted to take a bus back to the city and then travel to West
Point to meet a boyfriend that is a student there. She has absolutely no concept of the
enormity of the thing and sees it as a lower Manhattan technical problem. She is totally
unconcerned with the word's financial markets. She probably does understand the level of
human tragedy, but has not yet reacted.
Tracy, without being asked or invited, moved her mattress into our bedroom. She
does not fully grasp the situation, but she wanted to be with us. When I got up to make a
tea in the morning, she took my place in bed.
The next day(s) it had some heavy rain. Maybe I will write about the children in
NJ later. To me the human dimension, especially the effect on children, is the crucial one.
We came back to NYC on Saturday at about 4:30. We were over the GW Bridge and
made it to 59th street very quickly.
At 59th street, the highway descends from its elevated ramp onto ground level.
From 23 or so to 59th is the area of docks and piers for Bahama cruise ships and ocean
liners to wherever. The traffic was dense here because the boat piers are being used as a
temporary morgue. They bring bodies and body pieces here to sort them out and identify
them. The radio requests people with missing relatives to bring any DNA samples
available (toothbrush, hairbrush, fingernail clippings, and especially, dirty underwear) of
your loved one(s) to the laboratory to be decoded. Then, they will try to match your
samples with the remains being delivered to the morgue. Apparently, however, the heat
was so intense that in many cases the DNA, such as tooth pulp, disintegrated and does not
exist. So you are also asked to try to bring dental records and so on along with the
hairbrushes, dirty clothing, and toothbrushes. They also try to unite dissociated body
parts back into a single human being's remains.
North/South traffic is held up while convoys of perhaps 5-10 medical looking
trucks deliver items to the temporary morgues. We passed this section and made it to
23rd street in about 45 minutes. A religious group often mentioned in the newspapers was
having a sit in vigil for people persecuted in their homeland. We turned East onto 23rd
Both sides of the Street from the West Side highway towards the center of
Manhattan (This is a complicated patch of streets.) were lined with tents, beds, cots,
chairs, and piles and piles of bottled water and supplies in green duffle bags. People were
smiling and laughing here and there, but no one was happy. Signs said: No more
donations please. We got home and cleaned up.
Claudia and I were invited to a birthday party in Brooklyn in an incredible
apartment that is right on the water under the Williamsburg Bridge. I did not want to get
caught in traffic and wondered whether to go. Through the binoculars, I saw there were
lots of incoming traffic but no outgoing traffic on the Williamsburg. The Brooklyn
Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge were packed both directions. I do my own helicopter
bridge traffic reports out the window.
In less than a party mood, we went. Everything was excellent, but the WTC
towers, normally directly out their window, were gone. The host had actually that very
afternoon gone into Manhattan and walked up to within one block of the fallen towers.
He regretted not having brought goggles and a mask. His eyes burned and felt his eyelids
sandpapered his eyeballs when he blinked I thought something still stuck up in the air a
few floors. He said no. It is totally flat except the facade still stands. He did not seem
happy that he went and said it was devastating to look at.
In Berlin in 1964 I took the bus tour of the city two times. Once took it with the
tourists, and they described the city in English and French. They stopped at the bombed
out church that is a memorial. The guide, bored, recited to us the memorized text trying
to interest us. People were babbling and chattering in many languages. Planning lunch,
the next trip, and so on.
I took the bus tour with all Germans and with a German guide. When we got to
the blown up church, people were totally awake. The German guide parroted his
descriptions. One person asked, what did this look like after the bombings at the
surrender. Were all the other buildings bulldozed down and they left the church? No one
was talking. The guide said 'Alles war mit dem Boden gleichgemacht,' everything was
flat with the earth. That bus had the stillest silence I had every heard. To look about and
see the existing buildings and imagine this was all flat vacant lots filled with scattered
debris was difficult. We left that scene and got on to more normal things and life returned
to the bus.
The WTC space, according to my friend, looks like vacant lots full of debris. The
WTC towers seem to have collapsed and fallen into their basements and subbasements.
You would not know there had ever been any big structures there.
I did not mention to my wife and family the things I described in the first letter.
Claudia was so upset about everything and wanted the family to have dinners together
and all be home. My family was unaware of my observations. Someone on the radio was
talking about the possibility of a gigantic stock market fall. I told my wife that we were
positioned in the market to make a fortune. She almost barfed and told me not to joke. On
Sunday afternoon Claudia received my letter. Two friends came to visit us in NJ that
have read the letter. We did not even mention the letter or its contents.
At the party Saturday night, my wife told me that she would have held someone's
hand. It would have made it easier.
I did not mention it in the first letter, but it seems to me relevant to something.
When a person jumped alone, s/he went to the edge, stopped, looked over, and jumped
like you would go into a pool. Those that went in pairs simply came out of a smoky
nowhere inside of the building and walked over the edge with no pause, hesitation, or last
Email Date:Monday, September 17, 2001 12:56 PM
Email To:Dartmouth alumni
Email From:Ray C. Dougherty
Email Subject:[talkling] A keyhole view