Land was not far off and I sensed that the pilot was struggling to keep us airborne long enough to make an emergency landing somewhere off in the woods that lined the coast. But the engines died again and the nose dipped, sending the plane into a precipitous tailspin that was accompanied by the-sound of a Second World War kamikaze pilot homing in on his target. The plane barely reached shore and the sand rose fast to meet me as I watched from the window paralyzed by terror and then everything went black.
I wrenched my head from the pillow and into consciousness with a painful rending that sounded loudly in my ear like sheet metal being shorn with a jigsaw. It was as if I was pulling myself from tar pits of the underworld, emerging heavily, draped with oozing death.
It was four in the morning and I was afraid to go back to sleep. I stared at the ceiling for an hour. Birds began to chirp. Light crept around the sides of my building, casting weak shadows outside my window. I slowly rose to dress, deciding to leave for work early enough to walk to Wall Street from the East Village. It looked like it would be a beautiful day. I knew the quiet of Chinatown at dawn with its concrete parks peopled with elderly Asian men and women doing silent tai chi in the dissipating morning mist would calm my nerves.
There was the distant sound of an approaching airplane that was soon not so distant. A curious moment hung as I debated with myself over whether or not I had ever heard a plane passing over Manhattan while I stopped to wait at a red light. Can planes pass over Manhattan? Isn't there some kind of law against that? It must be flying very low; the engine was so...
I saw the world wheeling in slow motion as I turned, panning the sky, searching the bright blue overhead in a surge of panic for corresponding motion to the deafening sound whose pitch rose to that of a desperate siren the moment before...
I was flung by the meaty, percussive shockwave arcing out from somewhere southwest of where I stood.- It blew me off my feet, the sound; a fearsome thunderclap whose passing found me with my knees to the sidewalk's concrete, my hands instinctively locked over my head. I remained fetal, tightly clenched for a moment before timidly rising with my hands still hanging in the air, shielding my face in an impotent, protective gesture.
The sky rained thin strips of paper like an impromptu-ticker tape parade, long streamers falling to earth like a meteor shower in miniature. The paper-was everywhere, some falling in little squares like bales of confetti thrown from high above, some whole pages see-sawing across the sky while smoldering, still flaming, fluttering across downtown like a flock of burning white birds. Powdery gray dust floated in the air, drifting gently downward like snowflakes, lending the scene a deathly and misleading sense of calm.
As I looked eastward and caught sight of the towers for the first time a woman who stood before me and had already seen them began to wail and moan. She was a heavy black woman whose girth was cinched above her ample hips by the fabric of her dress that tied belt-like in a big bow at the front. The dress's bold, floral design against the broad swath of black cloth that stretched across her back amplified her size, as did her wide brimmed hat, like a Sunday morning church crown, as she tilted her head back and cried, "Oh my God, my God!" her hands held aloft, fingers splayed and trembling, calling out in dismay to the heavens.
When I saw the tower's gaping wound, pouring fire and smoke into the sky like a roaring orange and black river, the first thought that came into my mind was, "That building's coming down." It was clear that there was no other possibility; it had sustained a certainly fatal blow. And then I was running, as others gathered in the intersection, flocking to behold the moment, looking up and shielding their eyes. I cut through the crowds who were oblivious to what I imagined was their imminent peril, yelling over and over, "That building's coming down! That building's coming down!" with my hands still absurdly flung over my head, as if I could keep a collapsing building from crushing me under its weight, as if I could prevent the very sky from falling.
* * *
I swung left and turned down John Street, an old cross-town thoroughfare narrow enough to spit across. I wanted to get far away from Towers as fast as possible and craned my neck ninety degrees while I ran so I could keep an eye on the receding roaring fire. Once I reached the end of the block my view of the Towers was obscured but I could still see the fat smoke plume that was accumulating in the airspace over them like an evil genie loosed from his bottle. My run slowed to a trot; hardly the athletic type, I was breathless already after only a couple blocks. As I turned right on Nassau, heading south towards the Stock Exchange, I grabbed my chest and stopped for a moment, bending over, hands on my knees, to suck wind. I looked at the men and women who passed me by, searching their faces for fear, for acknowledgment of the peril we were all thrust into moments ago, scanning one face after the next hoping to find someone who could explain to me what just happened.