The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...
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Before we hang-up, though, I throw out the idea of biological/chemical weapons being on the planes in checked baggage. Bob agrees it is a possibility – if these terrorists are crazy enough to fly airliners into the World Trade Center, it shouldn’t be unthinkable that NBC warfare may be involved. Their goal is to kill a very large number of people.
I decide to place a call directly into the New York City emergency dispatch center and suggest they relay a message to the command post of the additional threat. They agree it has merit and promise to do so. Then, I have the office check on Tom’s status and if he’s still alive, to contact me when I get to the city. He would be more valuable to the command post than I would be, given his experience in commanding high-rise fires.
Hours pass agonizingly slow as we make our way toward New York City. Approaching from New Jersey, I see a faint, dark haze floating across the horizon toward the south. We are still an hour and maybe 50 miles away. I tell the cabbie that the barely noticeable haze is smoke from a very big fire. He glances at me in the mirror with a worried look on his face. He is of Middle Eastern descent, and says with a great sense of pride that he will do whatever it takes to help me and serve his country in this time of need.
As we get near the city, the slight haze becomes a monstrous plume of brown and black smoke, more smoke than I’ve ever seen. It appears to me as a huge, F5 tornado turned sideways. It stands in vivid contrast against a cloudless, powder-blue sky. I wonder how such a terrible catastrophe can occur on such a perfect day.
I see signs saying “New Jersey Turnpike closed – All roads to New York closed.” I ask the driver to stop at a police car guarding the highway barrier where traffic is being funneled off onto secondary roads. I tell the officer that I must get to the site; the firefighters need all the help they can get. “Go,” he says, and moves his car to let us through. We fly along, the only vehicle on the road. It seems strange, having the New Jersey Turnpike all to ourselves on a weekday.
We pass through several more checkpoints. I must repeatedly explain my intentions, but certainly I understand why. We are under attack. These guys are protecting New York from afar, making sure no one gets through without a very good reason. Somehow, I get all the way to the Port Authority Police Department command post near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. I let my cab driver go, and he ends up with the biggest fare of his life – $600.
I meet the chief engineer from the World Trade Center, run by the Port Authority and leased for $3.5 billion to a private real estate firm only three weeks before the disaster. It is obvious by his disheveled look that he has been at the site. I immediately ask if Alan Reiss, the director of the World Trade Center and a friend whom I have come to know and admire over the past few years, is safe. His office is on the 88th floor of Tower 1. I am told he was in the building, but got out alive. The engineer jots down two phone numbers, including Alan’s home number for me to get in touch with him.
He’s rattled, his hands shake uncontrollably. As he finishes writing the numbers, I look over toward New York City and at the horrendous column of smoke emanating from what quickly becomes known as “Ground Zero.” It obscures all of lower Manhattan. Although I know I’m going to do whatever it takes to get over there, I wonder if that really is a good thing. I know what awaits me and feel a brief moment of uncertainty as to whether I really need to see and experience it all, just to try and pitch in. I’m only one person and I know that doesn’t count for much. I accept the fact that I’ll probably never be the same if I go, but I go anyway.
I ask for help in getting across the river and the Port Authority officials graciously agree to run me through the tunnel, even though it is officially closed. The driver lets me off at a security checkpoint on the other side and I hail a cab to reach my hotel. Although my bags are back at Dulles, I have to get rid of my briefcase and camera. I don’t usually travel with a camera, but brought one on this trip to add a few interior shots of high-rise building features to my PowerPoint presentation on the topic. It ends up being very valuable today.