On 9/11, Disaster Turns to Panic, Then Acts of Kindness

As the towers fell, people reacted in weirdly different ways.

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From the passenger seat of a taxi I heard the cabbie curse. Alarmed, I looked out the window—just in time to see the plane hit the north tower. We were heading south on the West Side Highway, back to my hotel at the World Trade Center plaza. Minutes later, ambulances and squad cars were screaming down the highway past us. My reporter's instincts took over, and I told the driver to follow them.

Below the towers, thousands watched as debris tumbled from the building. Paper cascaded from windows; some onlookers speculated that it was office workers trying to alert rescuers. Trapped workers were falling from the building, a ghastly sight as the bodies cartwheeled to earth like rag dolls. Some of the spectators said they saw pieces of flesh flying through the air. One man leapt from a horrible height to certain death. The man beside me said, "That's the ninth I've seen." Watching the flames licking the tower's facade, I couldn't imagine the choice: Jump or burn to death.

Anywhere else. The crowd's thoughts turned to terrorism. President Bush will react soon, someone said in the crowd. Another: "He'd better." Floor traders from the New York Mercantile Exchange tried to fetch their belongings. Office workers tried to get a water shuttle home to New Jersey.

And then, the second explosion. It transformed what had been a scene of disaster into mass panic. Parents with strollers, hotel maids in uniforms, Wall Street workers in dress shoes and heels—all began to flee, going somewhere, anywhere.

The cops were shouting: Leave now! Hugging the shore of the Hudson River, I lingered. Then a second boom, and a third. I gave up on the idea of getting close to the action and joined the throngs streaming north. I had gone only about 200 yards when someone said the unthinkable: "One of the towers is gone." A man told me to stay near walls. Looking up at the north tower, the one still standing, I imagined a nightmarish scenario: A collapsing building could kill me and the others in an instant.

A bit farther north, near the Chelsea Piers entertainment complex, volunteers were handing out cups of water. Cellphones were of no use; pay phones were jammed. New Yorkers turned friendly, offering advice and directions. Then, suddenly, the second tower started to fall. I watched, horrified. The tower collapsed in on itself, leaving just the exterior shell. Seconds later, that, too, fell in.

People reacted in weirdly different ways. At 33rd Street and 10th Avenue, a man held up an American flag, inviting hornblowing. Four blocks away, a young man sat on a fire hydrant and stopped to read Scripture.Then I realized my family and friends were also viewing the carnage—on TV. They knew I was staying at a hotel next to the towers. I had left one panicked voice-mail message for my wife just after the crash. Otherwise they had no idea where I was, or whether I was alive. When I made contact, the tears flowed. My wife, beside herself, demanded I return home. My mother's voice quaked. My boss told me she thought I was dead. Their reactions gave me just a small dose of the sorrow felt by the families of those who perished. Grateful to be alive, I spent the rest of the day in a haze, breathing deeply.