New York feels like California about seven days a year, and Tuesday, with its dry, fresh-washed, cloudless sky, was one of them at least for a while. As we rode our bikes to work, everything unfolded evenly, even melodramatically, with every development exponentially more horrendous than the previous one.
First we heard sirens. They sounded confused there were too many all at once, all heading in different directions. When we crossed Broadway, we saw smoke above the buildings, and heard some murmuring about the World Trade Center being on fire. I stopped my bike and someone mentioned a plane had hit it. I assumed a Cessna had clipped one of the weather spires, or crumpled onto the massive roof. Then we turned the corner of Greene Street and could see the hole.
Even then, it seemed as likely to be a small plane as not: it was impossible to get a sense of scale with those buildings, even when they were intact. I rode my bike down West Broadway to get a better view and pictures of what I assumed was the aftermath of a single, terrible accident. Everywhere I stopped, people were trying to piece together what had happened. The one person who suggested that it had been a big plane he said a 727 was immediately dismissed by everyone around. It had to be a small plane, everyone thought, because no commercial pilot could make so horrible a mistake.
Sure that everything was over, that it was one isolated wreck, I began to worry about being late for work. I was standing by a post office, clearing old pictures from my camera, and the post office manager was trying to herd all the other workers back inside. "Okay, guys, we've seen enough."
Then flames burst from the middle of the second tower. Half of the people around me started screaming, holding their stomachs as though they were about to throw up. The other half, including me, just stood there, mouths open. I started taking pictures, but my whole body was shaking. No one from where we stood had seen the second plane, and it seemed as though no one wanted to believe that terrorism was behind it that, surely, it was caused by fire jumping from one tower to the other, that some gas line connected the two towers, that it was just a freak coincidence.
I rode farther south, as if getting closer to the buildings would get me closer to answers, but I was stopped at the court building. I took a few more pictures, but I was desperate to get to the office, to hear the news and see people I knew. It was only when I got there that I realized there had been a second plane. And it was there that I watched the two towers fall, watched people come running into the main room in tears, having just watched the plane crash, the people leaping from the flames, or, in some cases, having just run from the base of the buildings themselves.
A group of us went out to lunch and made a hopeless attempt to celebrate a friend's birthday. By 6pm, after sitting on a friend's roof on Houston Street and watching the smoke drift toward Brooklyn, we were exhausted and headed home, where our once spectacular view of the towers down East Broadway had been replaced by a red smoky view of the Woolworth building.
It still doesn't feel real, even as the smoke from the fires soaks into our clothes and our apartment. To me, the gravity of the tragedy is conveyed best by the machines gathered here to clean up: a convoy of dozens of dump trucks streaming down Houston Street, hundreds of ambulances lined up outside the makeshift morgue at the hockey rink, the refrigerator trucks lined up in front of the movie theater. It's so horrifying, so enormous, and so pervasive, I can't even get angry.