A long drive today had me listening to many sad 9/11 remembrances on the radio. I was in NYC that day, where I worked as editor of the National Law Journal. With our offices at Madison and 29th, we were far enough away to be safe, but close enough to see the burning towers — there one moment, gone the next. That image of the first tower burning, the billowing smoke sharply outlined against the day’s brilliant blue sky, is forever etched in my memory as clearly as a photograph.
But when I think back to that day, my mind jumps to its end. Throughout the day, I was caught up in the event and the adrenalin. This was a newsroom and we were racing to find out everything we could about the lawyers and law firms who might be among the victims. It was probably 9 p.m. before I left.
In those days, I was a transient, working the week in NYC and returning home to Mass. on weekends. While in NY, I usually stayed in whatever hotel offered the best deal that week. But this night, the beneficiary of some ALM ad deal, I happened to be in a hotel more upscale than my norm, Morgans, on Madison at 37th St.
As I exited ALM’s offices and turned up Madison toward the hotel, I found a city dark and empty of people. The world’s most vibrant city, the city that never sleeps, now seemed to have had all life sucked out of it. Streets that earlier in the day were swarming with commuters and visitors trying to escape Manhattan on foot now were eerily devoid of people. Not a cab. Not a pedestrian. Stores that would otherwise be open at this hour had their steel shutters down and padlocked. Not even the ubiquitous grocery stores were open. Even Manhattan at 4 a.m. was never this quiet. After walking a block through the silence, I was startled to encounter a group of armed military men on patrol. Shortly after, several military vehicles drove by. Suddenly I wanted a Scotch more than I’d ever wanted one before, but not a single bar or a grocery was open.
It was not a long walk to the hotel, about seven blocks, but as I walked, the eeriness of the city and the horror of the day and the uncertainty of what was yet to come overwhelmed me. I was glad to reach my hotel, but unhappy to find that even its bar was closed, so I resigned myself to my room. Morgans is just a couple blocks from the Empire State Building and my room looked out over Madison Avenue right up at it. On the TV, commentators debated whether this skyscraper outside my window would be the terrorists’ next target. I just sat in my dark room and stared up at it. Even this landmark of Manhattan had gone entirely dark and was but a silhouette against the night sky.
At least I was finally able to get a decent phone connection to my wife and children and assure them that all was OK. But no sooner did I begin to settle in than I heard voices over loudspeakers. I looked down to see a military vehicle with loudspeakers on its roof announcing, “Please stay inside and off the streets. Please keep your windows closed.” By the time I tried to get some sleep, the day that will forever be known as 9/11 had passed. No one yet knew what to expect, but everyone expected the worst. It made for a long night. As vividly as I remember the image of the burning tower these five years later, I remember the starkness of the city’s streets that night. It was as though I had stepped into another world, and I feared then that I — indeed, all of us — might never leave.