Amid the Ashes, Baby Carriages, Shoes, Family Photos --- Displaced Apartment Dwellers Feel Fortunate to Be Alive But Home Is Now War Zone
By Wendy Bounds and Kathryn Kranhold
Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal
14 September 2001
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
NEW YORK -- We are standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to the 10th-floor apartment we share. Kathryn lights a candle, but the darkness is so deep we can't see the walls -- only reach for them, hands outstretched, groping for a landmark.
Thirty-two hours have elapsed since we fled down these same stairs, carrying only our wallets and the clothes on our backs. In the bright comfort of the blue sky on that Tuesday morning, we never imagined we wouldn't be home for dinner, resuming life as normal with Stoli, our 14-year-old cat. But our next-door neighbor is -- was -- the World Trade Center. And home is now a ghost town. Our tree-lined street in Battery Park City is strewn with monstrous twists of metal from the Twin Towers, pieces of wreckage being moved to look for survivors. Across from our 30-plus-story apartment building, the World Financial Center is dwarfed by machinery, wreckage and smoke. The promenade along the harbor, usually occupied by joggers and office workers on their lunch hour, is inhabited by exhausted firemen who have displaced the homeless on benches.
The park at the end of the island where we drank wine with friends and watched Emmylou Harris sing on Independence Day now is filled with military trucks and camouflage-clad soldiers. Abandoned baby carriages and high-heel shoes line the sidewalks, everything covered by gray "snow" -- a combination of white ash, ripped financial documents, family photographs from people's desks.
Coming into our apartment building, Kathryn picks up a spreadsheet and a broker's letter. Wendy sees a piece of someone's finger in the rubble and stops looking down.
Civilians are not supposed to be this close to the crime scene. But we have walked miles around the island, using back streets to avoid police officers to get here. At the end of Manhattan, two officers with the National Guard graciously agree to accompany us to see if our cat is alive. But the men will go only as far as the building's front doors, where a sign declares, "Building Closed." From there, we are on our own.
When the first plane struck on the morning of the disaster, Kathryn was making coffee, and Wendy was rinsing the conditioner out of her hair. The noise didn't seem extraordinary; we assumed our upstairs neighbor had dropped something.
Then the phone rang. "You're not going to your doctor appointment are you?" our friend and nearby neighbor, Erle, asked Wendy.
"Yes," Wendy said, "Why wouldn't I?"
"Didn't you hear it? A plane just struck the World Trade Center."
We looked out the window at the flames shooting from the World Trade Center across the street, and Kathryn turned on the television. Wendy called her parents in North Carolina; Kathryn woke hers in northern California to warn them that we would soon be out of contact. Another roar went over our heads and as we watched the TV screen, the second plane sliced through the tower. Then we knew: "Terrorism," we said to each other, almost simultaneously. And we fled.
Heading toward the nearby Hudson River, we moved south toward the tip of Manhattan, walking with our heads down and using the railing along the river as our guide. Hundreds ran past us amid the dark smoke, the soot and the building pieces raining from the collapsing towers.
Trapped at the end of the island, we stood breathing through our shirts and a handkerchief, trying to decide where to go. The ferry? Back up the West Side? As a food vendor pulled away in his silver truck, we flagged him down and he let us inside. Crouching amid stoves, bagels, eggs and bacon grease, we inched up the East Side highway handing out Gatorade, water, Pepsi to the passersby and policemen. The driver, George Apergis, had a string of garlic hanging from his ceiling for good luck; he wouldn't take a cent from anyone.
Finally, we ended up at a colleague's home uptown. We were safe. But what about our cat? If Stoli was alive, she was surely terrified; what more, we couldn't remember if we had left water. It was time to start planning a rescue mission.
At first, we got no closer to home than about a mile and a half. Occasionally, an officer accompanied someone home to retrieve an animal. But soon it became clear that they wouldn't be going anywhere near our apartment.
We had no specific plan as we accompanied the press corps inside police lines. It was only after several reporters tried to interview us, thinking we were medics in our filthy clothes with surgery masks around our necks, that we decided disguise might be our way in.
Sure enough, we passed through the barricades unquestioned and were suddenly in the middle of a village of survivors. Residents of downtown apartments not directly next to the World Trade Center had been allowed to stay. We pushed east, going downtown, nodding to other masked civilians toting suitcases and pets as they made their way along the street uptown. When officers asked, we showed them Kathryn's driver's license, which showed we live in the area. After an hour or so of walking, we encountered the National Guard. We were almost home.
As we climb the stairs, we can look straight into neighbors' ash-cloaked apartments. Our bare hands are covered in the soot, and our skin begins to burn. We call out, "Hello!" on several floors, but the only answer we hear is the rumble of excavation outside the building. Within 20 minutes, another piece of the World Trade Center will collapse nearby. Again, we will be lucky and escape. For now, we keep climbing in the dark.
Finally reaching our front door, we pause. But there is no time to wait; no one is sure about the foundation of any of these buildings right now. Wendy lifts the key but there is no need -- the lock has been busted open, either by the force of the blast, or by someone looking for survivors to evacuate.
We step inside. And there, sitting in the middle of the living room floor sits Stoli, a black and white cat now covered in soot. She looks up at us as if to say, "Where have you been?" And she meows.
After scooping Stoli into a carrier, we throw a few photographs of our families into a bag, grab our laptop computers and run out the door. We had already collected our friend Erle's two cats from another nearby building and had left them in their carriers downstairs with the National Guard.
Out on the street, we find an abandoned grocery cart that becomes a makeshift limousine for Stoli and friends. As we push the cats up the streets through Chinatown, people pass us water and Cokes and help us over the curbs. On an ordinary day, we would have been a ludicrous sight -- two bedraggled blondes, reeking of smoke, trash and sweat, pushing three cats in a grocery cart through the streets Manhattan. But on this day, we are unremarkable. Finally, we reach a veterinarian hospital where we leave the cats to be temporarily cared for.
Like most residents of Battery Park City, we don't know how long it will be before we see our home again, receive mail, collect our clothes. The inside of our apartment itself, which faces north toward the ruins of the World Trade Center is covered in ash and soot. Our lobby is virtually destroyed; we hear windows may have blown in on the east side of the building.
It could be days until more residents are allowed into that area. Or it could be weeks, depending on the stability of the structures nearby. The buildings not as close to the rubble as ours are in bettter shape. Like most of the area's newly homeless, we suspect we will float among our close friends' apartments, taking refuge in their empty bedrooms and on their pull-out couches, buy a few new clothes and wait until the government gives us instructions.
Every day, we will remind ourselves that we are the lucky ones. We have our lives. They may have been buffeted, but as Mayor Rudy Giuliani told New Yorkers Tuesday night, we will rebuild them.