A Darkened Land
One crisp morning in late summer 2001, Chief Bill Hall of the Port Authority police was pulling on a motorcycle uniform for his daily
inspection of the transportation facilities he looked after when the phone rang in his Jersey City office. He picked it up on the first ring. “Hello?”
Rabbi Itchy Herschel, one of the chaplains Bill worked with at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was on the other end. “Hey, chief. What’s going on at the World Trade Center?”
“I dunno,” replied Bill, in his thick Jersey accent. “I’ll get back to ya.” Bill, a slight man with alert eyes and a silver sheen to his hair, walked over to a window facing east across the Hudson. After three decades with the Port Authority he’d been promoted to chief of surface transportation, and his office had a good view of one of his biggest responsibilities, the World Trade Center, towering two or three miles away in downtown Manhattan. He could see some smoke rising out of the top of Building One, the north tower. Bill turned and ran down the hall to tell his boss, Fred Marone, the superintendent of police for the New York New Jersey Port Authority.
“Hey, Fred. I’m going down to the World Trade Center to see what’s going
on. You wanna go?”
“Yeah, sure,” Fred answered.
As Fred and Bill slid into the eastbound traffic they saw more smoke.
As they entered the Holland Tunnel towards New York City, they decided to temporarily order the tunnel closed. Within minutes they emerged in Manhattan and drove down West Broadway to Vesey Street, just north of the World Trade complex. Chunks of debris pummeled the roof and hood of the car. Fred jumped out, calling back, “I’ll see you inside.”
Bill parked underneath a pedestrian overpass. He knew there was a fire burning on the upper floors of one of the World Trade buildings, but that was about it. On the way over, he’d heard a report on the radio that someone was on top of the Woolworth Building, a few blocks northeast of the Twin Towers, with a rocket launcher. Maybe that was it? Bill got out of his car and ran over to rejoin Fred in the lobby of Building One. “I’m going up,” said Fred. “You stay here at the command center.” He disappeared up the stairs.
At the command center, Bill oversaw the evacuation of the building, an operation that wasn’t nearly as chaotic as it could have been given that there could be as many as 50,000 workers in the complex, thanks largely to the dress rehearsal that the bungled 1993 car bombing in the underground garage had provided. After that attack, aware that the building would remain a terrorist target, the owners installed better stairwell lighting and easy-to-open exit doors. As a result of these and other improvements, people who worked more than halfway up the 110-story building exited safely down dozens of flights of stairs. The ground level had also been fortified against another car bomb attack, but that upgrade proved less effective.
A few minutes later, a Port Authority detective named Tommy McHale called Bill, asking him to come over to the plaza between the two buildings. Outside more debris was pouring down, some of it burning. Bill saw the detective emerge from the thick smoke dragging a piece of metal. “Hey, Chief,” he yelled. “I think this is a part of an airplane’s landing gear.”
“All right,” said Bill. “Take it downstairs to the police desk. Someone might wanna see it.” Just then, a falling body hit the ground between the two men, bursting apart on impact. Stunned, Bill realized that the people on the upper floors, faced with incineration, had started to jump.
Bill ran back to the command center and continued to supervise the evacuation until a fire chief yelled over to him: “We need to get out of here. I think those elevators are going to fall!” He knew that if the heat on the upper floors melted their cables, the elevators would plummet hundreds of feet, squeezing out a massive blast of air and blowing out the whole bottom of the building. Bill tried to relocate his command post just west of the towers, but there was so much falling debris that he had to move a few more blocks away.
In the midst of the still-unexplained catastrophe, he ran into Rabbi Herschel and another Port Authority employee named Jeff Green. Not only did Bill have no time for the ongoing news coverage, he never even heard the second plane hit Building Two. While the three of them were standing together, Building Two pancaked floor by floor down to meet the ground. The men raced across the street to a loading dock behind a Verizon building, trying to take refuge behind a wall separating the docking bays from an entry door. Bill couldn’t squeeze in. If this is it, he thought, so be it.
Seconds later a blizzard of dust, sand, dirt, insulation, and burned building material swallowed them, silencing everything. Complete darkness enveloped them, but they weren’t dead. After a minute or two, they felt around, and began creeping through several feet of silty matter toward what they thought was the exit to the loading dock. Every time he tried to breathe, Bill felt like he was sticking his head in a sand dune. After a few minutes of crawling he sensed that he’d made it outside, but if the city was still there, he couldn’t hear it. And no matter which way he turned, it was still blacker than night.
After an agonizingly long spell of groping their way along, the group stumbled into an Irish pub on West Broadway. They tried the building’s phones, all of which were down. A feeling of apocalypse pervaded the bar. Eventually Bill dusted himself off and went back out on the street to find the fire department and start the search and rescue.
That morning, for the first time he could remember, Michael Jackson rolled out of bed and decided to drive his daughter to school. He
called his government-assigned chauffeur, Mr. Howard, and told him not to bother, that he’d make it into work himself.
After dropping Catherine off at her first-grade classroom, Michael merged onto the George Washington Parkway, a green, tree-lined strip that afforded impressive views across the Potomac River to Maryland and Washington, DC. The deputy secretary of transportation for the past four months, Michael was a wiry and excitable workaholic who was running late, but he could still appreciate a stunningly clear day after three months of swampy humidity.
As he drove past the Pentagon, Michael’s phone rang. On the other end was an urgent voice from the Federal Aviation Administration’s operations center (the “FAA ops center,” in Beltway parlance). It was the first place where news reports related to aviation would be received, filtered, and distributed within the agency.