Tom Cardamone was born and raised in Sarasota, where his parents owned Children’s World, his mother served as mayor, and he spent most of his youth on a bike, coming or going to the beach. When he moved to New York City after high school and college, he lived at first just a few blocks from the Brooklyn brownstone where his father’s grandparents lived after coming to America, the place where as a toddler he stomped grapes for wine in the basement. It became his habit to go up to his apartment roof, overlooking Manhattan and the World Trade Center, for one last cigarette at night while marveling at the city lying before him. This is his firsthand account of a day that changed that city forever.
By Tom Cardamone
Sept. 11, Nearly 8 A.M.
I put on a fresh shirt, new pants and pick out a tie. It’s been months since I’ve worn a tie. The new boss from London will be in the office, the usual first meeting, the too sincere smiles, everyone nodding in agreement, prim, more like a congregation than employees. Once he’s off we can retire the posture and smiles. While sneaking peeks at the Internet we’ll probably pick him apart.
I told everyone when I moved to New York that I came here to live, not work. Temping aimlessly, eventually landing a long-term assignment at the World Trade Center, as I wound my way inside this monolith every morning, I knew I wanted to stay. This was the heart of the city. I did everything to impress my company so I could keep having lunch on the steps of the Winter Gardens, walk to the Hudson.
This morning, making good time, I let a train go by, preferring to walk to the end of the platform. It’s easier to get a seat on the first car; the middle ones are always crowded. I’m rewarded by the approach of one of the new trains, white and sleek, space-shuttle cool. I get a seat. Listening to my Discman, I can’t read my book because the music’s too good.
The No. 6 train ends at City Hall. To save time, I switch to the express at Grand Central. In my mind I’m mapping out my route. If I get out at Fulton I won’t have the nice walk I get from City Hall to the World Trade Center, but I can grab a cup of iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts.
At Fulton I go into Dunkin Donuts and assess the line: too long. Lately I’ve been getting mad at the girls who work there. They put too much milk in my coffee. "Babies don’t need that much milk," I once almost said to one of the girls, but the eternal look of boredom in her eyes, the permanently parted lips, stifled my sense of humor. I’ve been getting good iced coffee at America’s Coffee, inside the mall under the World Trade Center; plus they have this little card that, once it’s been stamped 10 times, gets you a free coffee.
I walk through the courtyard between the towers. Today is one of the days I look up. I don’t look up every day, but I think to myself that everyone who works here must have certain days where they look up and just take in the impossible height that contains our offices, encapsulates a portion of our lives and seemingly conquers the sky. I had recently bought a book about the World Trade Center and started it one night in bed but never got past 20 or so pages. The author mentioned an unusual phenomenon: If you approach either tower at any of its corners, nose to the corner, one foot away, the very height of the tower creates an optical illusion, so that if you look directly up, the tower will disappear. I check my mental clock to see if I have time to verify this little trick but think better of it. I’ll make the World Trade Center disappear another day.
Errand: I enter by Chase Bank, parallel to the northeast corner of Building One, and deposit my tax refund check. This $300 is going to be the foundation of my savings account, which has held exactly $15 for the past several months. Having solidified my future, I go down into the mall. Walking between the Gap and the massive escalator banks of the Path Train, I weave among the rushing stream of people.
At America’s Coffee I order an iced coffee. The girl gives me a hot one. I remind her that I wanted one over ice. She gives me a new cup and stamps my card five times. By the end of the week I’ll get my free coffee, one of life’s little victories. I go over to the counter to add some carefully measured milk when I hear a clap. I turn my head toward the huge glass window separating the coffee shop from the mall as smoke and flame push through the large corridor. I hear screams. I look at the young, crisp businessman next to me. He looks at the emergency exit. We stand there a moment, a second, really, trying to decide if running is foolish, waiting for the director to yell "Cut." A second only. Then we hear screams and the sounds of hundreds of people running, so we run, too.
We hit the exit and careen down a thin hall. The human animal takes over. No one knocks anyone down. We run silently past a bemused security guard, who obviously hasn’t heard or seen anything yet. His smile brings back my original worry of overreacting; so I tell him, "You better run," inviting him to the stampede. We exit near the Path Train escalators and everyone keeps running. I pause, back at the stairway leading up to Chase Bank.
My brain is calculating, adding and subtracting conjecture from raw image. Smoke equals bomb. Someone has bombed the World Trade Center again. While calculating, I head toward the stairs. I crave sky. I think there must have been a bomb inside the mall, a small bomb, a prankish bomb of noise and smoke, a Valentine from the protesters in Genoa, nothing more.
I push open the door leading to the courtyard between the twin towers beneath a massive, soothing sound. I hear the sound of a thousand seagulls taking flight when I was 12, as I madly rushed my bike through their damp perching ground on Siesta Key Beach. Thousands and thousands of sheets of paper flutter toward the ground, as calm and deliberate as ocean waves.
Tower One is seared way up, on both sides. From the wounds, orange fire and thick black smoke pulsate. I’m standing beneath the gaping Impossible. I look around for someone, anyone, to mirror my incredulity and rising fear, someone to nod in agreement, "This is happening. You are seeing this," but I am alone. Everyone has fled.
After a moment I realize two men are quaking on the ground to my left, holding café chairs above their heads. A maintenance man limps away to my right. I wonder if that’s the guy who collects our recycling every day. I can’t tell, he’s moving too fast. I never thought someone could limp so fast. I stare at the wounds in Building One. My building, Tower Two, is fine, healthy, intact. Strong. My co-workers are fine.
The courtyard is littered with metallic debris. A huge band of twisted metal lies in front of me. Someone in a suit runs by, stares at me. I realize I’ve been saying "Jesus Christ" over and over. I can’t stop looking at the billowing smoke and flame. A small chunk of metal falls from the corner of the lip of the wound on the tower’s north side. As it tumbles I realize it is not small, but large and dark and smoking. I run across the covered bridge connecting the concourse to Building Seven.
The lobby is thick with shocked people on cell phones. I go down a hallway and some stairs and get out onto the street. I head one block west, toward the highway. I want a perspective, an angle. Some distance will allow affordable consumption. But the scene is too rich; no angle works. My mind wants to vomit the image back out.
Co-workers comfort a large, crying woman. She tells them she saw a plane hit the building, people flying. I edge in close but back off, thinking that this is how it starts, the grassy knolls, the magic bullets, that this is the initial kernel of post-traumatic stress syndrome. She can’t believe what has happened and her mind has invented a narrative, an explanation, when obviously, a bomb has gone off. I move away, thinking about my co-workers. I decide to make my way back to my office.
I’ve been with my company for two years. More than 50 of us occupy half of the 17th floor. We’re a financial education company, servicing Wall Street. We’re very downtown, meaning we eschew the uptight professionalism of midtown offices; we come in late and come on crass, talking at the top of our voices. Lunch means shopping for an hour and half, then bringing something to eat back to our desks. If you found a bargain everyone hears about it. If you got burned everyone hears about it twice. We’ve taken no small amount of pride in how much this vexes our new, soft-spoken English owners. The other half of our floor was empty but is now under renovation. I used to sneak a smoke with one of my co-workers in the abandoned office, propping our feet on the window ledge overlooking the Hudson River; beneath us a spectacular view of the sunset, the Statue of Liberty a spike in a silver sea. Suddenly I need to see my friends from the office badly.
Surely my company has evacuated, possibly mingling by that nice little park with the sculpture of a man playing chess.
I’m started to calm down a bit. My mind is no longer as hectic as the street. I plan a new route: I’ll go to a bodega and buy a disposable camera, take pictures, then head over to where my co-workers are surely congregating, make a plan with them, exchange numbers, go home and get behind the television.
As Tower One burns, I think of the British Parliament building, how intricate I found the architecture, how impossible it was to contain something so magnificent in my mind. The shifting red and black intricacy of the World Trade Center afire is similar, as unbelievable in horror as I found the House of Parliament grand. I want to take photographs because I will never trust my memory. Postcards of the Impossible, postcards to myself, proof, evidence.
I go a block north to a bodega. They don’t take credit cards, and I only have $7. I walk south again, ready to circle the World Trade Center and find my co-workers. Heading east on Barclay, I hear a loud explosion. Small projectiles streaming white smoke arc high above my head. A huge chunk of metal smacks the street in front of me. I crouch behind a van until the sky is clear.
People are running in all directions. I run up the block and turn to see Tower Two with flames unfolding from two different corners, a huge ball of smoke unfurling into the eastward wind. People are dead and dying in my building. The Impossible everywhere. I’m against the human traffic as I head south while everyone else flees north. I’m trying not to cry; I feel I’ll need my strength to run. I want my eyes clear when I run because I don’t know what’s going to happen next, when the next explosion will come. A man is screaming to another man that after the second plane hit, he decided it must be a terrorist attack. In the small park where I hope to find my co-workers I run into a crying woman from the 18th floor. I tell her I work on the 17th floor, that I was in the mall. She was, too. She worries for her co-workers. A man from the 50th floor tells us both that after Tower One was hit there was an announcement that Tower Two was secure, to stay in the building. He evacuated anyway. His co-workers chose to stay behind. As he left the building a jet plane crashed through above him.
The woman and I start to cry. We try to count the floors on Tower Two, to see where the plane hit. We can’t count through our tears, but the devastation is definitely higher than our floors. People she knows come over. We tell each other our co-workers are fine, they got out. I want to hug her as she and her friends start to pray, but I know if I touch someone I will collapse.
Moving east on Fulton. My roommate works there, at the Strand Annex. He’s so young and fragile. A 110-pound bookworm, he practically disappears under his backpack. I’m the only person he knows in the city. He will be terrified. I want to find him, use the phone at the Strand. We can ride the train home together.
The Strand is shut down. I hope he made it home okay. Knowing him, he will think I am dead. I need a phone to tell him I’m fine. I need a phone to call my brother and tell him I’m fine. He needs to call my parents, on vacation in Alaska. I imagine them seeing this on a television in the cabin of a boat. I imagine my dad having a heart attack, collapsing, Mom screaming his name while unable to take her eyes away from the television screen as, a continent away, the building where her son works is struck by a jet over and over. A man lets me use his cell phone, but tells me he couldn’t get a signal earlier. I try but nothing happens. I give him his phone back and thank him. We look at each other. I thank him again and look for a pay phone. On the next block a dozen people are neatly lined up behind one. I assume the trains are no longer running so I head north, through Chinatown. Unable to take my eyes away from the World Trade Center, I keep looking over my shoulder.
Police cars wail out of the complex of buildings behind City Hall. Hundreds of people from the projects that border Chinatown have gathered in the streets. There is a shocking carnival atmosphere, as if this were the Fourth of July. Young men are particularly worked up, walking back and forth, swinging their arms through the crowd. The older men and women wear a different, shocked yet weary expression. Children cry the naked, open-faced cries of children.
I go into a bodega off Madison Street and ask to use the phone. Some of the young men follow me in and yell at the turbaned man behind the counter, asking why his people flew planes into the World Trade Center. He calmly tells them where to go. They laugh and buy orange sodas. I ask the veiled woman sitting behind the counter if I could use their phone. She says "one dollar." I give her a dollar and call my apartment. The phone rings, but my roommate doesn’t answer, the answering machine doesn’t pick up. I call an acquaintance who lives on the same block as the bodega I’m in. He doesn’t answer.
I give the woman back the phone and walk over to Mott. I frequent a restaurant there and know they will let me use the phone. But Lin’s Dumpling Palace is shuttered. I head up, above Canal, to a friend’s hair salon. They will let me use the phone. They will welcome me as a refugee and give me a glass of water. That business is dark and shuttered as well.
I’m on Grand Street now (I think), heading west to Seventh Avenue, where I can go a few blocks north to my friend’s apartment. If he’s not home, I decide, I will wait on his steps. He must eventually come home, so I will sit there and wait. I will have a place that is mine: his steps. This is off the main street, so I can sit there and cry. I plan on it.
On Grand Street I see a bit of twisted metal on the roof of a building. Was it flung from one of the planes or left over from some maintenance on the building? On Seventh Avenue, heading up, I turn to listen to a car radio. Someone has parked his car with the doors open. People have gathered around to absorb the news. The radio says something about Tower Two. Tower Two is consumed by fire? More smoke?
Stopping to look south, I watch Tower One fall. Slowly it lays down outstretched petals of gray and black smoke. Everyone screams. Everyone screams and cries and I cry. My face contorts and my shoulders drop. As the world shrinks I necessarily draw myself in, make myself smaller in imitation of what I see around me: ripples of unreal pain shooting through the city so fast as to fire gravity, shake free any foundation, any sense of safety. The towers are down, smoke rising. A black woman passes me screaming, "He’s gone. He’s gone." Her hair is funeral mad, her fists balled tight as she marches south.
Eight months later and there is little summation, just a new kind of silence.
Everyone in my company survived, but not everyone we knew in the buildings. People we saw every day are still down there. The security guard I never said "Good morning" to is dead. My roommate moved back home five days later. He couldn’t talk about what he saw. Something happened to him on the train that left him unable to get back on the subway.
Our company reconvened two weeks later in an office in Midtown, 53rd and Sixth Avenue. Only half of us made it to work on time Sept. 11. Our British CEO says he won’t complain any more if we’re late.
When I first came to New York, I was truly in awe of the city. I still am. Seeing my friends from work again, I started to feel better.
I once lived in Midtown and find small comforts in being here again: that bar on Ninth Avenue with the free hot dogs that look really gross but taste like heaven, one of the best bookstores in town a few blocks away. Central Park is great for lunch, but I miss being by the sea.
Our new office is around the corner from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I lost count of the number of funerals I passed every morning on the way to work. Bagpipes cooled the air. Firemen and policemen from every state and Canada stood resolute on every corner, too many for the cathedral to hold.
Nothing can fill that vacuum downtown, a constant shock of monstrous blue where the towers used to stand, as if God turned a light on inside a black hole. I go every weekend and watch tourists photograph an empty sky. Imagine photographing the Atlantic Ocean because that’s where the Titanic sank. How meaningless. Yet I understand why they do it. What was there is gone; photographs give artificial boundaries to a vast nothingness, snapshots of silence tucked away in photo albums. Over the years these photographs will slip their Scotch tape moorings to become pictures of tranquility.
The bagpipes were eventually replaced by the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Not nearly enough light to replace those two grand towers. But for me it was a good start.