Watching the sky fall

Watching the sky fall

I WOKE UP LATE this morning to find a blinking light on our phone. Frantic messages from my sister-in-law alerted us to the tragedy unfolding a mile or so away from our Brooklyn apartment. We flipped on the TV just minutes after the second plane crashed into the southern World Trade Center tower. My husband, Charles, called me to the window, where we watched the thick smoke coming from the top of the towers. Charles and I were supposed to photograph someone at the World Trade Center later today.

Our thoughts turned to our good friends Rob and Lisa Howard, who live on Broadway about 400 yards away from the blast. Several hours later, they made it to our apartment, after walking with hundreds of others over the Manhattan Bridge in a mass exodus from the city.

“Just before 9 a.m., I heard a strange thud,” says Lisa, who at first thought the sound was a truck crashing into a building. From their 11th floor window, they saw papers and white debris filling the air. “I thought it was a ticker tape parade at first,” Rob tells us. Then he saw the second plane approaching the southern tower. Once he saw the jet, he knew it was a terrorist attack.

“I watched it all happen in slow motion, and I said to Lisa, ‘Oh my god, another plane just hit the other building.'” It was so surreal, like a dream, he adds. “I had the weirdest sense of d骠 vu, as if it was a replay of the first crash in my mind.” The couple ran up to their roof to get a better look with many of their neighbors. “Debris was flying around, and fire was everywhere,” says Lisa, who watched helplessly as the flames spread around the buildings’ exteriors and parts of the structures fell to the ground. “We were just in shock; it didn’t seem real,” she says. Then the onlookers watched in horror as the first tower suddenly collapsed. “It just fell in on itself,” says Lisa, followed by a huge cloud of gray, opaque smoke. “It was like a wall coming straight for us.” “We saw the whole thing with our naked eyes and just couldn’t believe it,” says Rob.

Seconds later, a loud, booming voice yelled, “Get the hell inside.” As they ran down the 23 floors to the lobby, fear settled in. “We definitely were afraid for our lives,” Rob says. It was pandemonium, no one knew what was going on or when the attacks would stop. “The street was crowded with stunned Wall Streeters, all looking up at the pitch-black sky; no one knew what to do,” says Rob. Shocked people walked into the building for cover, coated in gray-white soot. One dazed woman told a friend she’d just gotten a call from her desperate brother, who was trapped in one of the towers just before its collapse. Another man told of flying clothing and body parts landing on his roof. “Then it really started to settle in that so many people had died in such a terrible way,” says Lisa. Finally, an ambulance driver ran into the building and told everyone to leave the area as soon as possible. People rushed out of the city on foot, with wet rags over their mouths to block out the choking smoke and an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Glued to the TV many hours later in our tiny apartment, we’re all still struggling to breathe and understand this catastrophe. Our friends made it, but so many others didn’t. Life in New York, or anywhere else, will never be the same.

Sarah Van Buskirk is editor Audrey Van Buskirk’s sister.

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