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NEW YORK (
) -- The plane appeared to be traveling in slow motion. I couldn't imagine what it was doing around here, but it looked entirely in control. It continued to approach but now appeared sure to miss where I was standing by a wide margin. I kept watching as it dipped its left wing, and I read the markings clearly on the side of the fuselage as it looked ready to pass us: United Airlines.
But it didn't pass us. It buried itself in the second tower in an explosion that looked straight out of a Hollywood action movie. A fireball appeared where the plane had disappeared, and glass and metal exploded in every direction. The entire crowd standing with me recoiled and shrieked.
"Oh God, these pilots are having a very bad day," I thought to myself. I can't believe it now, but for a moment I thought that some air traffic controller systems had gone horribly haywire, incorrectly leading pilots into flight patterns that sent them right into these huge towers.
Seconds later, however, I figured it out: Two planes in a row couldn't be a coincidence. I phoned my wife.
"We're under attack," I told her.
"Get out of there," she told me.
There was nowhere to go. We were as far west as you could get without jumping into the river, and I wondered what a "safe" place would be. Some of the traders were bracing themselves against the stone foundations of the exchange building. "I want cover when the next one comes," one of them told me.
I had swum in a charity event down the Hudson River for years, and I considered jumping into the water and swimming toward New Jersey on the other side, easily two miles away. Many of us searched the sky for more airplanes before we again began to focus on the carnage just a few thousand yards to the east. The smoke from the first tower was joined by what seemed an even fiercer fire coming from Tower 2. Paper continued to fall from both buildings, and more sirens could be heard in the distance.
I thought again about my brother, a lawyer who worked for a firm on the 86th floor of one of the towers. I wracked my brain to remember which tower he worked in -- and whether his had gotten hit first, leaving no warning or chance of escape, or second, where I assumed his chances would have been better. Tower 1? Tower 2? And which was which again? I dialed my wife and asked her to find out where he was. We were having increasing difficulty making and receiving calls as the downtown network was overloaded.
As flames started to lap out of Tower 2, I began to calculate how I could help financially support my brother's family.
Then a moment of absurdity broke my chain of thought. A woman jogger with earphones on passed me with self-absorbed athletic focus. As she dodged the people in her path, she seemed oblivious to the crowds looking toward the east with necks craned and jaws agape. I wondered what could possibly be in her mind. She didn't miss a stride as I watched her gallop further south, zigzagging through the crowd.
Only in f**king New York, I thought to myself. I snorted at the dark humor of it.
Then people started to fall -- or jump -- from the burning towers. First one would fall, and then two at a time, each body a tiny but unmistakable form plummeting against a backdrop of chrome and glass. Every time one fell, the crowd gasped.
We began to see people emerging from the smoking holes, desperately trying to scale down the outside of the buildings. Some made it only a few feet; others managed to climb down a floor or a floor and a half before they lost their grip and fell.
I had never witnessed anything so horrifying.
Ron had left. He had taken a last ferry that departed the harbor and was headed east for New Jersey. I, on the other hand, couldn't seem to move. Whether I felt I needed to witness what was happening or was too much in shock to leave, I don't know. But I stayed there for another 45 minutes until I couldn't stand it anymore and the people stopped coming out of the windows.
I started to walk uptown with a parade of businessmen and office workers, up 11th Avenue. Every few blocks, I would look back to confirm that what was happening was real. It was. At Canal Street, my wife managed to reach me on my phone to tell me that my brother was OK. He had been late coming to work because of one of his daughters and was on the train when Tower 1, where his office was located, was hit. His firm lost eight employees that day.
Perhaps five minutes after hanging up the phone, I heard a roar from behind me and turned around just in time to see Tower 2 collapse in a cloud of dust.
As I reached the the West Village, the scene repeated itself: first a roar, then the marching crowd stopped, turned and gasped as Tower 1 disappeared.
Hysterical, I phoned my father.
"It's gone, they're gone, they're all gone," I said.
"What are you talking about?"
"Both towers are just not there anymore, they're not there. Those big buildings. How can they not be there?"
"Listen, Daniel," he said. "Go and find a bar and have a drink. This is a terrible day, but you'll see. It'll be all right. In eight months, they'll come in and remake that place so that you'd never know anything happened there. They need to rebuild this and move forward as quickly as possible, and they will. They'll make it better. They'll want to prove our strength and rebuild it faster and better than it ever was before."
His prediction, although comforting at the time, proved overly optimistic. It would take nearly a decade for the new One World Trade Center (known colloquially as the Freedom Tower) to start to appear on the Manhattan skyline, and construction still isn't finished.