Across the Street From the World Trade Center

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On September 11, 2001, I was 7 years old, and my second-grade teacher called a class meeting to explain that two airplanes had hit the twin towers in New York City, about 25 miles from where we were in northern New Jersey. I remember raising my hand and asking how there could be a plane crash on such a sunny day. The pilots just not seeing the towers, an honest mistake, was the only explanation I could fathom. I don’t think I knew what terrorism was then, but now I wonder if it’s something today’s American 7-year-olds know too well.

Many parents in my hometown of Ridgewood, including my dad, were among the thousands of people who commuted into New York each day. In 2001, my dad was working for Merrill Lynch in downtown Manhattan: His office stood opposite the World Trade Center. I am extremely lucky that, when my mom took me home from school that day, he was waiting there, unhurt.  Since he is very reserved by nature, it wasn’t until this week, 15 years later, that I finally got his account of what happened. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows.

Emily Goldberg: How did you find out about the planes hitting the towers? Did you hear it or see it?

Ken Goldberg: I was in at work well before anything happened. I remember noticing, before anything happened, that it was a really nice day. When it first was announced, people were talking about a small plane hitting one of the towers. So that was the initial story, which seemed strange at the time because it was a perfectly nice day. The first plane, I found out about it on our newswire about the markets. After that, no one really knew anything and no one was overly focused on it. Then, when the second one hit, people knew it was an attack. When the second plane hit, people were running towards my office to say that they either saw it or felt it. Then everyone started walking down the stairs. We were on the 19th floor.

Emily: Was the building evacuated, or did people just realize at that point that they should get out?

Ken: I don’t remember exactly what caused people to go, but I think the building staff had basically directed people to leave down the stairs. The elevators were shut off, and everyone walked out. It was very quiet. People didn’t know what was going on.

When I got outside there were hundreds of people pouring out of my building. You saw a lot of smoke, and it seemed like it was really bad. It seemed like people were going to be in really bad shape up in the towers. We could see some people had broken windows, different things hanging out of building, and no one really knew what to do. People were just walking around, trying to find other people they worked with. Eventually it just got more and more crowded, and I decided to head for the ferry to Hoboken where I could get on the train because I figured it was a good time to get out of there.

Emily: Did you call Mom at that point? Did everyone even have cell phones then?

Ken: I had a cell phone. I think I called Mom before I left the office, when the first plane hit. I told her the story, but I said don’t worry. I think I called again when I was on the train, and told her the second one had been hit, and at this point it looked like terrorism. I lent my phone to someone on the train, and then I think it actually died after because I don’t remember using it after that.

It was very quiet on the train, very strange. Everyone got on, and we were waiting for it to leave to go to Hoboken. It was like like a normal commute home, but they were waiting for trains to fill up before they left, and I just remember it was really quiet. I think shortly after we left the station people started hearing news that one of the towers had collapsed. We had gotten far enough away at that point, though, that it was surreal.

Emily: Was there a general sense of panic? Were people concerned that you weren’t in the clear yet, that you could still be in danger?

Ken: People were definitely worried, but it was very quiet. I think it was like being in shock. We didn’t know what was going on. We were able to get away from all the worst stuff though. There wasn’t anyone who was trapped in my building, everyone was able to get out. I think they ran a few more ferries after I left—until the buildings fell and then clouds came over, and visibility was gone so they started sending rescue boats from New Jersey to pick up more people. Some people had to walk up Manhattan, or over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Emily: Was your office building damaged at all?

Ken: My building probably had some minor damage from when the towers fell, some broken windows, but for the most part it wasn’t damaged. I was at 250 Vesey Street and the towers were on the other side of the West Street, but it always seemed so close because they were so big. It  looked like it was right out your window. We used to go over there for lunch. I had meetings up in the towers, so I remember thinking about people that I knew who worked there when it happened. Luckily, anyone I had worked with closely there was able to get out, but you probably remember the families in Ridgewood. There were a few in your grade...

Emily: Yeah, I remember. There were two kids in my grade whose fathers died that day. One boy was in my class.

What was it like when you got back home to Ridgewood and got to the house?

Ken: It all became more clear when I got home. I remember hearing fighter jets in the sky. It was like a war was starting or something. Mom and I were just watching the news reports over and over again, but I think hearing the fighter jets was really what hit me, because by then I felt kind of removed from it, I was back in the suburbs, but I could still hear them. It became clear that this thing was terrible, how many people may have been killed, and no one knew what had happened with people they knew who worked downtown, or what was going to happen with business.

Emily: What happened in the weeks after? When did you go back to work, or even back into the city?

Ken: The markets didn’t open for a couple days, and then we got moved around a bunch. We had space in the Bloomberg offices for a couple weeks, and then we relocated to Jersey City for a couple months before we got back. I did go down there just to see what it looked like in that first week, and there was this terrible smell of burnt metal once you came out of the subway. You couldn’t get near it, but I took the train as far as you could go and walked around a little, and you could see the giant pile of rubble. I couldn’t get into my building either, but I wanted to go down there and see it. It just seemed like, how could this happen? How could these buildings actually be down?