The first part of this can be found here. I have changed up people’s names I encountered on that day as I am not a journalist and I am not reporting something on their experiences. They all had their own shit they went through and maybe they have already told their stories somewhere else and with more eloquence than me. You may get a little background on them, but that is just to illustrate the kind of people I thought they were up until that day. This is simply my experience of a most terrible and fucked up day. The story usually flows pretty well at the bar–a few drinks in–and if I don’t get distracted by the bartender’s cleavage it usually only takes me a beer and a half to get it all out. I hope I can approximate that feat here.
If you have more than just a casual interest in film and television working in downtown Manhattan can be a real treat. I had seen tons of television shows and movies being filmed during the time I worked at 2 Wall Street. As a New Yorker you started to get used to seeing the bright lights, trucks full of gear, burly crew members drinking coffee and looking pissed off as tourists stopped to ask questions about the shoot. You even started to hate seeing them as they backed up traffic–both automobile and pedestrian. Christ man I got to get to work!! I have a big shit brewing up in my bowels and I have PTF’s to install on the AS/400 tonight. I must have stepped over seven thousand miles of heavy electric cables used to power up these productions as I strolled into work over the years, hungover more than a few times.
One particular time I remember walking by a set-up on the steps of Federal Hall down the block from my office. It was probably summer of 1997. Later that day I was talking to my friend Patrick, who was in charge of the Paying and Receiving Department. Their systems handled all the money that had to go through the Federal Reserve Bank that was a few blocks away. I mentioned seeing the movie shoot to him.
“I wonder what they are filming,” I mentioned,” Probably some more Law and Order.”
“They’re filming Godzilla, bitch!!” Pat bellowed in his big. booming voice. A short, stocky Italian dude from one of the outer boroughs that Manhattan was always pissing on, he called everyone bitch. A nice guy and great musician.
“Really?” I said,”Can’t wait to see that shit. Loved Godzilla as a kid.”
“Well, they’re making it,” he said as he checked printouts and rubbed his goatee.”Some stupid bitch asked one of the guys in the crew where Godzilla was. This dude turns to her like she has two friggin’ heads and says ‘he’s on a floppy disk’. She just started walking away.”
“It better not suck.” I remembered myself saying.
Little did I know that a few years later I would get to witness that type of destruction first hand. The perpetrator would not be the giant monster, but an entity much more sinister. However, that is a story for more scholarly authors, who have offices in expensive universities and don’t have to worry about the real world, which makes them experts about its goings on. I just write and drink part time. I dream and work in IT full time.
As a writer, I would like to say I noticed some eerie omen on Tuesday September 11, 2001 that would have foretold the carnage that would begin in a little under two hours. I didn’t hear Tuesday’s Gone by Skynyrd on the radio and I hadn’t seen Bay’s Armageddon since probably ’99 or 2000 on Pay Per View. Nope, this was just going to be your normal twelve hour slog for pay. Working in a microchip coal mine. Even though I had to wear a shirt and tie at the time, IT Operations were very much the blue collar people of a white collar world. They still are.
I got into the tiny elevator we had. Like many of the buildings in downtown Manhattan, 2 Wall Street was an older building and the elevators were much more cramped than the spacious, penthouse sized cars some of the buildings in midtown had running up and down their pristine floors. I got out on 2M and went into our cafeteria. We probably had about fifty or sixty people in the office, so we had a nice little kitchen with about six round tables with chairs. I needed some more coffee and it was the where the only free coffee in the office was.
“What are you doing you little shanty Irish leprechaun?” It was Chuck Dawson, retired Transit Cop and Security for the bank. Dawson looked like Bob Hope if the comedian was a crooked Teamster boss. He was in the middle of his morning ritual of sitting in his wife-beater, reading the paper, drinking a huge pot of coffee and eating half a loaf’s worth of rye toast with margarine. His dress shirt and jacket were draped over one of the empty chairs.
“I’m really hoping that one day you will eat your gun,” I wearily shot back,” and swallow a bullet for breakfast.”
“You sound like my wife,” Dawson said, slurping down coffee and breaking off a piece of toast like a shark chomping down on a surf board. ” You hungover? Get drunk watching the Giants game? Chase some whores around the block and come up short?”
“No drinking last night. Why do I need whores when I get your wife for free?” I said as I picked up my coffee and headed back to the elevator.” I will see you later.”
“Take it easy,” Dawson replied, chuckling like a hit man screwing on a silencer.”You little Irish bastid.”
I went back down to the first floor and punched a code on a key pad and walked into our tiny Data Center. We had moved from the fourth floor three years prior and had to break up our Data Center into two rooms. The Data Center, which housed the As/400’s, windows servers, patch panels, telephone pbx’s and circuits to the outside world, was the bigger of the two rooms. Across a narrow hallway by the side entrance where I had come in was the Communications room, which housed the SWIFT(Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) servers and card readers. I still wonder if anyone has written a book or film that involves some super villain trying to take down SWIFT? Seems that would be fairly catastrophic and good drama if you had some good looking leads and a Gary Oldman type as the villain. Throw in some action, a boob shot and some good dialogue and you would have a hit on your hands.
The bank even still received some Telexes which were also in this room. It was even smaller than the Data Center. If two people were in it you felt like you were working on a WWII submarine. It definitely wasn’t as spacious as what we saw in WarGames or some movie like that. I was always banging into a hanging keyboard or getting my hand caught in wires attached to the computer type mice–not the rodents that you regularly saw on the subway platforms.
In the Data Center we had a big IBM Dot Matrix printer. It was almost as big as a refrigerator, except it was wider. It was maybe five feet high, four feet wide and three feet deep. The front opened up like the rear of a minivan and instead of obnoxious children there was piles of blue bar paper that the nightly reports printed on. Even though these reports were available digitally, I still had to split them and deliver them, along with printed SWIFT messages. Most users resisted progress back then.
After getting all the reports and messages ready like a paper boy, I went on my daily rounds. I left the Data Center, hooked a left, went down a small hallway, out a door and walked up a huge, ornate staircase to the main banking floor. The ceiling was at least thirty feet high. On the floor was the usual rat-maze of cubicles that would be full in about an hour and a half. This floor also had at least ten large, rectangular windows that overlooked Wall Street and Broadway. If you Google Image “Banco Commercial Portugues 2 Wall Street” you will see a picture of it.
Even though the main banking floor seemed like wasted space to much of the staff, the executives loved it because they could show off its opulence that overlooked some of the most expensive real estate in the city. We were able to witness four ticker tape parades for the Yankees. The bank would invite all its big name clients in and hold parties as we watched the baseball team go slowly by, showered in a blizzard of shredded paper and confetti. There would be fine Portuguese cuisine and wine. Lots of wine.
The bank didn’t get much work done on those days. The only drawback was that you had to get in really early. Anything after seven am and the security was just too tight and it would take you forever to get to your office. We were across the street from the Stock Exchange and if someone farted too loud, the street would be blocked off.
As I was dropping off reports and messages on the various empty desks, I heard a shuffling of papers a few cubes away. There was the sound of a chair sliding out and the slight groan of someone standing up. Fuck, I thought to myself and turned the other way. I could hear foot steps following me and I tried to make a bee line for the staircase, so I could hopefully retreat to the safety of the data center.
“Shawn.” I heard a worried voice call my name from behind me.
I stopped in my tracks. Uggh. It was Ricky Chipelo. He was second in command of the Back Office. He was an extremely hard worker and a nice guy, but what a fucking pain in the ass he could be. He was the type of user who thought that his problems were the most important and that you needed to drop everything for him. You knew he worked, so you would try and accommodate him whenever possible, but that sometimes wasn’t enough. He was also not adverse to throwing you under the bus every once in a while, so you had to pay attention to him.
“Yeah,” I said turning around to face him. He was about ten years older than me and many of the women seemed to find him attractive.
” I have a bank that said they didn’t get any messages from us last night,” he said as if he owed the mob twenty grand,”if those 202s don’t go out we are in big trouble.”
“All the messages went out,” I mentioned to him.,” I always make sure of that. If they didn’t we always send you guys an email. Tell them to check with their IT.”
“Yeah but he says they never have problems on their side.”
“Please just tell them to check,” I explained, doing my best to not sound pissed off,” I know it is easier for you to come to us because we are in the same building, but we can’t solve a problem that isn’t ours. I will double check for the third time, though. Just please tell them to check with their IT.”
“Yes, just make sure you check. This could be a big problem.”
We were about to learn what a big problem really was.
I was sitting at my boss’ desk, working on the AS/400 and taking care of the start of day procedures. My boss was named Benny and he is a great guy. One of the best bosses I will ever have. If he had a dollar to his name he would give you ninety cents of it. As I mentioned, he was getting his car checked out and would be heading in later.
His large desk was set up so that when he was working on his computer, he had his back to a large open room. On the right side of the room was the enclosed offices of Paying and Receiving. Off to the left was actually an old trading floor set up where I sat, along with three programmers. The networking staff sat outside the communications room on four desks. They had a better set up. Those networking fucks were always treated better.
As I was starting or stopping some bullshit subsystem on the green screen of the AS/400 I heard a door swing open and Ricky Chipelo burst in calling my name. I closed my eyes in hopes of being able to refrain myself from strangling him over his stupid SWIFT messages that went out. I didn’t give a fuck what that asshole at the other bank said.
I turned around and it looked like he had felt Satan touch his cheek and whisper sweet nothings to him. Chipelo really took his job seriously.
“Shawn,” he said,”Someone just ran a plane into one of the twin towers.”
It didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks. For some reason, I took it pretty calmly. It was New York, after all. Cliches are cliches because they are true. It had happened before in the city.
“What like a Cessna or something?” I shot back.
” I don’t know,” he responded like I had accused him of fucking my dog,”A plane!!”
I got up from the desk and walked out the side entrance of the office and jogged into the street. There was no chaos. Yet. People seemed to be going about their business. There were some looking up towards the sky, but that was it. I noticed a long line for coffee at one of the street vendors. I walked up Wall Street to where it intersected with Broadway and looked up in the direction of the Twin Towers.
We were about three blocks south east of the towers, so I couldn’t see the damage to the north tower. I saw a plume of black smoke rising out of the building like blood leaking out of a wounded fish. Papers floated from the building like feathers from a busted up goose. After about a minute, I turned around and went back into the office, very callously hoping this wouldn’t fuck up my day. Even a small plane would have resulted in people losing their lives, but this was lost on me at the time.
I went over to the main entrance and saw Dawson standing outside his little office that was adjacent to it. It housed all the monitors for the security cameras and I am sure the dirty old bastard had some old school porn stashed away somewhere. He was looking at the glass doors of the entrance that he guarded. Besides the glass entrance doors, the bank had these two huge, ornate doors that closed when the office officially shutdown at 5 pm. They were probably made out of polished granite and weighed hundreds of pounds each. One person could close them because they were perfectly engineered, but there would be some sweat on your brow and aching back muscles later on.
“Messed up, huh?” I said to Dawson.
He had his arms folded and just turned his head at me. “I told them they better think about closing over the big doors,” Dawson mentioned, pointing to the entrance with one arm,” This could be terrorists.”
Them was the executives. Most of them were in Newark now, as in 2000 we had opened up our retail branches in New Jersey and Massachusetts. They were called BPABank at that time. We had one General Manager at 2 Wall Street during this time. His first name was Nuno. His last name was Portuguese, but I couldn’t remember it if I tried. He was a smart and kind man for the most part. Almost seemed too nice for the job. I think it hurt him in the company.
I kept walking and went back to my boss’s desk to finish up my work. His phone rang and I recognized the number on the digital display. It was IBM Business Recovery Services. We contracted space out in their location in the event of an emergency. They had all of our equipment there and we just had to bring our data, so we could be back up and running. Regulations mandated that we do Disaster Recovery tests once a year, which we had to pass. IBM BRS was located in a picturesque area of Sterling Forest, New York. It was about 45 minutes north of the city.
I picked up the phone. “Hello.”
IBM BRS. Do you want to declare an emergency?
Guess who was not authorized to do that? You got it. So, I winged it as best I could. “I would say not right now. Things seem pretty normal down here still. Let me get a hold of my boss and he will be in touch.”
Ok. We are expecting to me inundated with clients, so the sooner you decide the quicker we can assign resources to you.
“Ok. Thanks.” I hung up.
My friend Ali from the networking crew came through the doors. He had dust all over the shoulders of his expensive suit. He lived in Jersey and took the Path that let you out beneath the Twin Towers. He was a handsome devil. He reminded me of the gigolo whose fish is killed by Rob Schneider in Deuce Bigalow. He was a fun time. Loved drinking and the strip clubs which was against his religion, but what good is religion if you can’t tell it to fuck off?
“Fucking crazy over there!!!” Ali bellowed, wiping himself off,” Jesus fucking Christ!!!”
“What kind of plane do you think it was?” I asked.
“Must have been a big fucking plane,” he said, walking away, brushing dust out of his hair. I heard a few more “fucks” and references to Jesus Christ as he went down the hallway and into the men’s room.
Benny called me a few minutes later and asked me how everything was there?
“Ok,” I said, beginning to feel unsure of that,”The people coming in from Jersey say it is pretty bad over there. They all have dust and shit all over them. ”
“You think I should try and make it in?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t bother,” I mentioned to him,” You know how security gets around here. You will never get in. Listen, IBM called and wants to know if we should declare a disaster.”
“Ok, I will call the fat bastard,” Benny mentioned, referring to the CIO who was off that week,” See what he says.”
I felt the floor shake momentarily.
“Holy shit,” Benny said on the other end of the line,” Holy fucking shit!!! Shawn, they just rammed another plane into the other twin tower. A big fucking jet!! I am watching it on the news.”
My head felt light as a feather and my stomach weighed six tons.
” I am going to call IBM. You take care of yourselves. Start doing backups and we will figure it out later.” Then Benny hung up.
I would like to tell you that I didn’t go outside to watch those towers burning because I was busy doing my job, getting backups ready so we could move the operations to another site if need be. The truth is I didn’t want to see it.I like my destruction on the big screen, not three blocks away from me. Sure, I look up gross pictures every once in a while on the internet, but the computer offers you some sort of buffer. I would much rather be a voyeur than a participant in such mayhem.
After kicking some backups off on the AS/400, I went to my desk and looked through my emails. I saw an email from some cute girl I wanted to ask out who worked at our main retail branch on Lafayette Street in Newark. She was asking if everyone was alright in New York City, You are damn right that I was thinking of using this to my benefit. We all need to have angles. I was starting to think of what I should write back when I heard Bob, a middle aged programmer speak up. Bob was an old school black dude. A tall drink of water, he always wore three piece suits and a trenchcoat. When outside he always seemed to wear a large flat cap to cover his balding head. He was a Vietnam vet and had been programming since the early seventies when he learned the trade with the phone company. We all liked Bob as he was the oldest in the crew and could offer us some sage advice when we needed it. My antics usually entertained him. He had seen a lot of shit in the war and I wonder now how this day hit him?
“They just hit the Pentagon,” Bob said as he monitored one of the news websites,”We’re under attack.”
I ran my hands through my hair and wished I was on a beach somewhere with a bucket full of ice cold beers and a few gorgeous women by my side. They just hit three landmarks that were strategic sites. I was across the street from the hub of all the financial trading in the United States. I don’t think I was necessarily scared, but I was tense. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop–another one of my lovely faults. This was going to be a shoe that King Kong could wear. If anything happened I hoped it would be quick–I would rather be vaporized than buried alive beneath twelve tons of rubble with steel cabling piercing my organs.
The screams from outside in the street were louder than the sound of the south tower imploding and collapsing.
I didn’t see the tower fall until I got home and saw it on the news. We have all seen that too much now. I sure as fuck felt it coming down. We all did. It felt like hundreds of subway cars were speeding under our building, side by side in drag racing style, derailing and bouncing up against 2 Wall Street’s cement foundation from below. There was a muted roar beneath our feet like a tsunami of corrosive liquid was flooding the underground tunnels and eating away at the foundations and pipes below and beating them against each other to make a most vile symphony of industrial carnage.
On the other side of a frosted glass partition, we heard the the main entrance doors blow open and what sounded like pebbles and sand get flung against the walls and glass on the other side of the divider. From outside on the street we heard dozens of people push through the entrance and congregate in the lobby of our building. There was a lot of screaming, crying and people trying to catch their breath.
Some came through the door on the partition and settled by our desks. Many of them were hysterical. All of them were covered with either white ash or black soot. We offered them water from our office cooler. You wanted to help these people, but they were a danger, as well. The office could only hold so many people and you could never tell what hysterical people fearing for their lives could do.
Dawson had been right about closing the big doors before.
Many of them tried to make phone calls or look at our computers and try to get email. When they tried to search the internet all they got was a frozen screen . We had lost all communications with the outside world. The phones had been overloaded for the previous hour or so. Now they were paper weights that had a cord you could use to hang yourself if you wanted. Our building never lost power during the ordeal, which was a tiny blessing.
“Hey man,” It was Ali who had walked up beside me,” You alright?”
“I got friends that work over there,” I said softly.
He gave me a look that told me he did, as well.
Nuno, the General Manager gently pushed his way through the crowd of people that had come into our building from the street and grabbed Ali and myself by the arm.
“We need to get these people out of here,” he said quietly. There was no malice or fear in his voice. It was probably a business decision for him. Maybe he was worried about liabilities? The business mind probably works differently than a baker or candlestick maker’s.
“I’m sorry,” I said,” I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
“What if they don’t want to leave?” Ali added, “Then we have more problems.”
Nuno thought about this. “All the equipment in the data center?”
“We won’t let them in.” I promised.
“Are you backing up the data?”
“Yes, ” Ali said,” everyone available is in the data center backing everything up.”
“Very well then,” Nuno finally said,” I will have Chuck close the large doors. We won’t throw these people out, but we won’t let anyone else in. ”
He disappeared back into the crowd.
” I’m going to head upstairs,” I said.
The two of us made our way up the ornate staircase onto the main banking floor. When we looked out those large windows it was blacker than the blackest midnight. I had never seen anything so dark. All that soot and debris kicked up by the toppling skyscraper still hung in the air like the memories of soul stealing monsters. I got the feeling that it was a bleak winter’s night and that the air outside was colder than the surface of Saturn. Everything seemed so foreign. So alien. I felt like I was light years from home instead of just an hour on the LIRR. It’s funny how your mind plays tricks with you like it was a sadistic court jester, blindfolding you a spinning you around until you get wobbly on your feet and sick to your stomach.
We were about to get spun around again.
The all too familiar rumbling and screaming started again outside as the north tower collapsed.
“There goes the other one,” I mentioned as if I was dealing with corrupt software.
I thought I had sounded kind of tough, maybe almost cool when I said this. Years of action movies had prepared me for the moment of being the weary dude caught in the middle of some disastrous situation. The wise-ass side of me hoped I was passing the audition.
I think Ali saw something on my face that made me look not so much like an action movie star, but a scared twenty-nine year old who didn’t know if he would get out of downtown alive. He grabbed my shoulder with his hand and shook me a little to reassure me.
The roar and the screaming was getting louder. Debris was starting to pelt against the outside of the bank, scraping against the windows and stone like raccoon claws on a kitchen floor. We rushed over to the windows to get a peak of the shit going down on the Wall Street side. Through the black soot in the air, we could see hundreds of people fleeing from where the towers stood. They were running right under us towards Water Street and The South Street Seaport. And, further on, Brooklyn.
Then they were enveloped by another tidal wave of pulverized building concrete and street rubble.
“It’s like one of those bad Japanese monster movies,” Ali mentioned.
“A really bad movie.”
We went back to the Data Center to finish up the backups. We did notice a gorgeous French tourist who looked like a super model. Luckily, she wasn’t really covered in soot so we could see her beautiful features. Unfortunately, she was there with her boyfriend. He was a slight dude, but pretty handsome. Dressed liked polished Eurotrash. I was just jealous. I asked Ali if he thought anyone would miss him if I tied him up in the data center and became her knight in shining armor?
He always thought I was a little off.
The police kicked us out of the building around 1 PM. By noon the black soot in the air had changed to a grayish white and it looked like it was snowing. Years later the movie Silent Hill had that same kind of ash in the air.That gray that looked like the skin of a dead person. By the time we got outside most of the ash looked like it was out of the air. The sun was bursting through the remnants of the soot and detritus in the atmosphere.
All of us IT guys–there was about seven of us–counted backup tapes and went over plans of regrouping later and getting up to IBM and Newark to work out of BPABank. Bob and I joined an exodus of thousands of people who were instructed to walk over the Manhattan Bridge.
This is when I was most scared. I have a fear of heights and I get nervous driving over some bridges. Walking over one was not on my to do list. After what I had just witnessed I had this fear that the bridge was rigged to blow up and that I would be tumbling to the concrete surface of the water below. It was a legit nightmare for me. Along with thousands of other people, I looked back to see the smoldering hole where the two skyscrapers used to stand in the skyline.
It took forever to walk over that goddamn bridge.
We were like zombie refugees from a planet destroyed by a dark overlord. I could hear the sonic booms of the fighter jets patrolling the skies over the city. The sky was clear, but you couldn’t see a trace of them. There was just the thunder cracks as they smashed through the sound barrier and rattled my nerves like a chimp having a fit in a cage. Bob was explaining to me that he was stuck on a few lines of code for some program that ran during the bank’s end of day. He said he almost had it figured out. I told him I was happy for him but would rather not talk about work until we got to the other side of the fucking river.
Sometimes the worst times bring out the best in people.
As we made our way to Brooklyn we were greeted by hundreds of people handing us water. They gave us bottles and words of encouragement that lifted my spirits. I think it lifted everyone’s spirits. It brought tears to my eyes. I am a grump by nature, but people helping other people pulls at my corroded heart strings. I like to think there are more good people out there than bad. It just seems that the bad ones make the most noise, but acts of kindness can silence their devilish cacophony.
There wasn’t much more to my story on that day, nothing worth writing about anyway. I think it is a good idea to end it on a high note with the good people of Brooklyn’s kindness. There isn’t much more I can say about the innocent people murdered on this day except that I feel for all of their families and friends. Empathy can hurt sometimes, but we all need it to be human beings. Try and enjoy life as much as possible because it can be taken from all of us in an instant.