Nine-Eleven at 17 State

By Bartholomew J. McHale

[Actual Times recorded by Columbia Univesity Earth Observatory, Palisades, NJ]

What a horrific day.

Thank God I'm safe, and I pray for all who died. There are no words to fully describe the horror, but in my simple way I'll try to tell what happened to me on Sept. 11 2001.

My regular Metro North train took me from Greenwich, CT (departed Cos Cob 7:32 a.m.) and arrived at Grand Central Terminal about 8:30. I chose the Lexington Ave. No. 6 subway local, to get to my Bowling Green station on the southern tip of Manhattan because the express trains Nos. 4 and 5 happened to be unusually crowded that morning.

When the local reached the City Hall station, I crossed to an express to save a few minutes through the final few stops. I smelled smoke at the City Hall platform, but did not think much about it. [The American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston's Logan Airport, a Boeing 767, struck World Trade Tower No. 1 at 8:46:26 a.m.]

The subway got me to Bowling Green close to 9 a.m. As I came to the street there was more odor and people were turning their heads to the north, staring at the sky. I turned, too, and saw thick black smoke spewing from the North Trade Center tower about 1/2 mile away. The WTC is three blocks north from the Battery along Church St. from Battery Place past Rector St. to Liberty St. Recalling the terrorist bombing attack of 1993, I guessed to myself that another attack must have taken place.

After entering our building at 17 State St., I rode the elevator to my office on the 37th floor and arrived to a scene of pandemonium, people screaming. [At 9:02:54 a.m., UAL Flight 175 from Boston struck Tower No. 2) Some of my colleagues had been at their windows watching Tower No. 1 afire. Having just witnessed the second plane attack Tower No. 2, they were reacting in terror. Their shock was for me the first startling sign that there had been more than a bombing or mere unfortunate accident.

Shortly, the building management gave an official order for all to evacuate 17 State Street's 38 floors. I happen to be the designated fire marshal for our Floor 37. We all proceeded to Battery Park, which is our southern neighbor, directly across the street, on Battery Place. We gathered, watching the two buildings burning. Then we witnessed the next terrible sight. The tower that was the second to be struck collapsed to the ground. [The South WTC Tower No. 2 fell at 9:59:04.a.m. 56 minutes after impact.]

The ensuing dust and debris enveloped us quickly, forcing our shift farther southward. How can I describe this cloud? Envision heavy snow in mid-winter. This was a "blizzard" of dust. It grew so thick that daytime (10 a. m.) turned to twilight. I was unable to see anybody - lost track of my fellow workers. I was temporarily "alone." Then, amid the swirling ash and other particles I luckily located three colleagues grouped together. I remained with them for the next hour.

Meanwhile, all the police, firemen and rescue crews that we encountered showed themselves to be highly professional and gave advice and directions courteously and accurately.

A little more geography is necessary here. At the southern tip of Manhattan is the Staten Island Ferry dock. You can't proceed past on land. You can only go east or west or north (uptown). At the dock, where we four had retreated, the wind was blowing southward. The dust, smoke and debris was in full swing in our faces. Breathing was hard. We quickly decided to head to the northeast, although upwind, just to get away. One co-worker, P.J. Brennan, literally took off a shirt and ripped it into four pieces, giving each of us a share. We wore the shirt-piece masks to shield our mouths and eyes.

We trekked northward on Water Street. After about 25 minutes, near the Brooklyn Bridge, we found ourselves back into "daylight" with much less smoke. We stopped to rest and studied the sad scene to the west. There we witnessed the second building collapse [North WTC Tower No. # 1 fell at 10:28:31 a.m., 102 minutes after it was struck]. Thankfully, we had moved far enough northeast so that we were now upwind of the cloud. We were, however, left with the emotional scars from some of the terrible events affecting trapped people that we could see from this distance with our horrified eyes.

Mike Brennan, one of my colleagues, and no relation to P.J., said good-bye to our co-workers, including P.J.'s mother, Patricia, who wanted to cross the bridge to Brooklyn and get to Staten Island and home.

Mike and I continued north, walking through New York's Chinatown and other streets in the Lower East Side that were strange to us. We felt numb and shocked along the way but managed to complete the six-mile-or-so walk from the Battery to Grand Central Terminal. It had just reopened and I was lucky. I caught the first train to Greenwich, CT about 2 p.m.

I arrived home to my wife, Susan, and four daughters amid tears of joy, grief and relief. This ends my story, but I must say one more thing. For all the confusion, I didn't witness any act of malice among the people who were trying to escape southern Manhattan. The crowds were extremely well behaved, and the local residents on many streets that we passed had set up water stations for the thirsty evacuees. They were a silver lining in a day that will remain with me forever.