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Flash Dispatch, 9-14: Frontline, New York City
"We Had Just Witnessed a Mass Murder of Horrific Proportions"

By Jay Weissman
Copyright 2001 Jay Weissman

It is inconceivable what has happened. I haven't been able to believe it is real. Only when I look out my southern exposed window (toward the WTC) and see a giant cloud of gray smoke filling the bottom half of the horizon do I know it is.

Before I tell you my account, I again want to say, as tragic as this is (and I have no words to explain the enormity of my empathy for everyone who has been injured or killed and their families and friends) I don't take for granted that everybody I know is accounted for and okay.

I took a subway downtown at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. I got out at Prince Street and Broadway, 16 blocks or so north of the World Trade Center.

As I walked up the crowded stairway, one person was walking down the stairs yelling "The empire state building is on fire!" I had no idea what he was talking about. Although his information was a little confused he started a buzz. As I ascended to street level, slightly concerned because my cell phone was not working, I saw the dark gray smoke thickly pouring out of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I emerged from the subway at 9:10, after both buildings had already been hit. The word on the street was... it was an airplane that hit the building and that is what the fire was from.

This summer I worked for a concert series that included four months of shows on a stage which was built in between the Twin Towers, right against Tower 1 on the WTC plaza. Although the stage was quite substantial, it stood dwarfed between the two towers (Tower 1 was the back drop and Tower 2 was about 100 feet away). The concert series started in June and was scheduled to continue through to the end of September.

When I saw the fire and heard the news of an airplane crash, my first instinct was to make sure my best friend and co- worker Aaron was okay. After it was apparent cell phones were not working, I found a pay phone and made a lucky, but long-shot attempt to reach him at home. There are no words to describe the relief I felt or the wave of emotion that hit me when he answered the phone. Although the stage crew was supposed to be on the stage at 8 a.m., Aaron had accidentally slept through the call time and was safe at home and not on the ground directly below the impact. Although I had worked all summer, I happened to have quit my job on the stage as of September 4. My brother Stuart had scheduled a breakfast meeting at the site for 10 a.m. Thank god he, too, was late.

After I talked to Aaron, I called my wife, Rebecca, at home. "I need you to pick up the phone sweetheartâ" I spoke into the machine. She answered, awakened by the terrible phone call. "Something horrible has just happened.... Turn on the t.v. and watch the news," I said.

Although my stage crew was on stage when the first plane hit, they all are accounted for and okay. They ran across the plaza and watched as the second plane hit Tower 2. I saw one member of the crew running uptown, where I was, on Broome Street (15 blocks north of the WTC). He had been parking his car during the impact. He told me that the plaza was full of debris and littered with bodies. This shocked me and made me immediately more aware of the magnitude of the disaster. "Is there anything I can do?" I asked. He produced a business card and wrote his wife's phone number at work. He asked me to let her know he was okay, he had been running and still had a few blocks to go to get to the office to use the working land phone lines.

The reason I was downtown on this historic morning, was to help with a one-day photo shoot at a studio on Mercer Street. My friend Mark, whose shoot it was, was supposed to meet me at 9 a.m. He had left me a cell phone message at 8:30 a.m., saying he was in traffic leaving Queens and planned to arrive at 9:15 a.m. I was outside on the street anxiously waiting to see him. At 10:30 a.m. I realized Manhattan access must have been closed and he was not going to be allowed into the city. I went into the photo studio to report that Mark was not going to make it in. (I have since talked to Mark, he is fine, although he witnessed both plane crashes into the towers as well as their subsequent collapses).

I hadn't phoned home in over an hour -- since then the towers had collapsed, and the severity of the day had begun to become apparent. I needed to get to a phone. At this point, pay phones had lines fifteen people deep, so I headed for Aaron's apartment to see him and use his phone.

I watched the first tower crumble in front of my eyes. Gasps and cries of people dominoed up through the cavernous streets much like the clips the t.v. news are showing. The sounds emulated the debris, smoke clouds plowing through the streets from the physical building collapses. It was an aural confirmation of the horror of what we had just witnessed in a scenario that still didn't seem real: The Twin Towers had just collapsed in front of our eyes. I was too far to see specific people, but it was painfully obvious that the buildings could not have been completely evacuated. We had just witnessed a mass murder of horrific proportions.

Hordes of people were leaving downtown, some of them all white; covered in dust like a construction worker sanding-putty. Some resembled street performers who paint their bodies and they stood in poses frozen with stunned visages of disbelief. Some were dressed in business suits with white hair and bleeding injuries, fleeing the scene.

I headed uptown to Aaron's apartment on 19th Street and 10th Ave, passing St. Vincent Hospital as I walked. I looked back at the smoking stub of the Tower and I looked forward at the faces of the New Yorkers witnessing and trying to process what had transpired, to make this real.

I arrived at Aaron's apartment. We embraced and cried. For the first time I watched the news and learned the specific details of what was going on. I once again called Rebecca to tell her I was okay, and I walked home to 70th Street. On my way up the West Side I saw a parade of ambulances about a mile long. I watched a mass evacuation being staged across the Hudson River: ferries, circle line tour-boats, etc, trying to evacuate thousands of people to New Jersey. I saw a giant, block-long warehouse seemingly overtaken by the FBI, who were mostly standing outside, along my path, with drawn automatic weapons. I saw entire public school staffs walking students uptown. I looked downtown and my jaw dropped and I rubbed my eyes in disbelief: a New York City skyline that did not include the Twin Towers. It is the most unfathomable sight I have ever witnessed. I finally made it home.

Volunteer efforts here are so great that we have tried to donate blood three separate times and were turned away each time. Volunteers are being turned away at the site (we also volunteered at the Red Cross and are waiting to be called) ,skilled workers as well. All we can do is watch tv, call friends and make sure friends networks are safe. Phone lines are not working consistently, e-mail us instead.

We send peace and love.
Jay and Rebecca

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