It was dusk when my train rolled round the curve in the South Bronx and headed over the blue railroad bridge that traverses the Harlem River into Manhattan. It’s from this vantage point that an engineer gets his first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. Directly ahead he can see The MetLife Building. To the east stands the art-deco crown of the Chrysler Building. The needle of The Empire State Building rises further to the south, and just beyond that stood the twin towers of World Trade Center. But not this day…this day was different. It was September 13th, 2001, and the world had changed forever.
This was my first trip into the city after the terrorist attacks and because of a morbid curiosity; I craned my head out of train’s cab window to see what had become of the city I’ve come to love. The first thing I noticed was an acrid smell that had permeated the September air. A haze had settled over the twilight sky and gave a strange beauty to the sun as it set over the Hudson River. I scanned the horizon, searching for the spot where the towers once stood only to find angry plumes of white and black smoke billowing in the distance.
It had been an easy run from New Haven that day. The train was half full, and the commuters, (normally a loud and boisterous lot) were unusually quiet and subdued. They seemed shocked from the events of the previous days and not their usual selves. When we reached Grand Central everyone was strangely polite and they didn’t push their way off the train as they normally do. It seemed that everyone had slowed down and maybe appreciated just how precious life is.
When I entered the main concourse in Grand Central, I noticed that the building services department had hung a huge American flag from the center of the terminal’s famous teal and gold-leaf ceiling. A random passenger (who obviously had operatic training) put down his briefcase and looked up. He then spontaneously broke out into the most beautiful version of The Star Spangled Banner that I had ever heard. It was like something out of a corny 1930's movie, but I'll never forget it.
O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet waveO'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I gave him a round of applause and wiped a tear from my eye. I continued on to find that a kiosk/bulletin board had been erected in one of the terminal’s corridors. It was covered with flyers and pictures of missing people from the Trade Center Buildings. Most gave a description of the missing person and what floor they work(ed) on in the Trade Center. I noticed that most worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, the firm that suffered a direct hit from one of the hijacked planes. Bouquets of flowers and prayer cards littered the floor beneath the kiosk. Several people stopped to read the heart-breaking messages that were posted there. Nobody walked away dry-eyed. The missing were old and young, rich and poor, black and white and yellow. It seemed the terrorists did not discriminate.
Loud crowds, taxis, car horns and construction, these are the sounds of the city, but that night all was quiet…too quiet. Todd, my engineer, recommended we go the nearest White Castle burger joint for a bite to eat. I had never been to a White Castle before (or since) but their tiny burgers are part of New York legend and I was eager to try them.
The restaurant was on 5th Avenue, across the street from the Empire State Building, and when I looked up I saw that it was illuminated red, white and blue. Along 5th Avenue, the merchants had left burning candles in front of their businesses to pay tribute to those who had lost their lives in the attack. In the distance I could see the same ominous clouds of smoke that I had spotted earlier in Harlem. Now the clouds loomed closer and looked even more threatening. The odor wafting through Midtown now smelled toxic, as if plastic was burning. It was starting to get to me.
After picking up donuts at Krispy Kreme in Penn Station, (we were on a health kick that night) Todd and I headed up to Times Square. If the sound of silence was eerie earlier, here it was down right frightening. The usually festive lights of Times Square now seemed garish and inappropriate in this time of mourning. The crossroads of the World was virtually empty, and the few people who were there were looking up at the Fox News banner that wraps around the building on 42nd Street. Others watched Peter Jennings deliver a special report on the giant TV screen that's displayed on the 1 Times Square building. Nearby, a street peddler sold T-shirts that read: I survived 9-11. Although tacky, in some way it was comforting to see that capitalism was still alive and well. Todd bought a T-shirt for “ posterity sake.”
On the way back to Grand Central we passed several newly installed concrete Jersey barriers that now surrounded the terminal. Vanderbilt Avenue, which served as Grand Central’s taxi stand, was cordoned off and filled with a large variety of police vehicles.
On the way to my train, I passed several camouflaged covered, machine gun toting, National Guard members and police in riot gear. I remember thinking that things would never be the same.
When I set up my train for the way home, I set aside two cars exclusively for the exhausted emergency workers at Ground Zero. These cars were filled with firemen, EMTs, police officers, ironworkers, clergy members, doctors, nurses and Red Cross volunteers. Some of them had been at the site for more than 24 hours, either digging through rubble or offering care and comfort to the rescue workers. Their clothes and shoes were covered with the white powder, which they tracked on the floor of the train. These cars soon filled with the smell of wet plaster and smoke that was imbedded in the clothes of these workers. Most told me that the images on television did not do justice to the immense destruction they encountered. They used the media’s new favorite word: “Surreal.” One ironworker had a new digital camera and he showed me some of the pictures he had taken. It was the first time I had seen a digital camera and I was very impressed
When my assistant John and I began loading the train, a group of five college-aged, bearded Pakistani/Indian looking men walked past us and boarded the rear car. They did not look unlike the photos of the terrorists that graced the cover of the New York Post that day and I must admit that John and I were a little panicked. So were our passengers. As soon as the five men boarded, several people gathered their belongings and got off the train. On the way out they asked us the departure time for the next New Haven train.
One of our company trainmasters (supervisors) stopped by our train to ask how things were going. We told him about the five guys that just boarded and how we had several worried passengers. The trainmaster asked if they had box cutters or in any way acted suspicious. We said that; "no, we hadn't seen box cutters," and "no, they hadn't acted suspicious," but that we still felt uncomfortable. He told us that there was nothing we could do, we were racial profiling.
Almost immediately after pulling away from the block in Grand Central, one of the five guys pulled out a camcorder and started videoing out the window. He was taping the Park Avenue Tunnel that leads out of Grand Central. John asked the guy to please stop taping, especially in view of the events of the past few days. The guy said that it was very important for him to tape and he refused to stop. John came and told me what had happened. I deemed this as “suspicious activity” and called for the police.
The police pulled these guys off the train in Stamford for questioning. I later found out that they were architecture students from India and that they were only interested in the design of Grand Central.
They picked the wrong week to do it.
On the way home I looked out over the sea of cars in each of the station parking lots. I wondered how long these cars had been sitting there, and if their owners would ever return. Unfortunately, many of them never did.