"You just got up? Turn on your TV," my friend Dennis, from Custom Care Cleaners, said frantically on the phone, "The Twin Towers are on fire -- hit by planes!" Grabbing my clothes, I went outside. There were hundreds of people below 14th Street on Sixth Avenue, transfixed by the black smoke spewing from the World Trade Center.
NFTE's offices were down on Wall Street, only a few blocks from the catastrophe. A strange emptiness gripped me. Putting on my Walkman, letting Mozart drown out my anxiety about the predicament of my colleagues who were already at work, my priority was to get to Wall Street as soon as possible.
I went down Broadway but at Canal Street, a burly officer blocked my way, but I was grim and determined and I managed to sneak past all the police barricades. Finally, at City Hall, I thought I was in the clear, but suddenly there was a huge roar and a sea of flying papers and dust engulfed the area. It could have been like a ticker-tape parade, except the papers were burnt, as if every office building downtown had set fire to the contents of their file cabinets and dumped them out the windows.
Running along the East River, I suddenly found myself at Wall Street, in front of our building. It never occurred to me that the second tower had fallen. I took the elevator to our offices on the 29th floor. I was gasping and sweating. I went to the teacher training room. Our team was there and I asked what had happened. Mike Caslin, our CEO, explained that two airliners were hijacked and used to destroy the towers. "Those poor people!" I heard myself shouting. It had taken me two hours to get to work. It was now 11:15 A.M.
Laura Larimer, one of our development officers, got me a class of water. For hours, we listened to the radio and debated what to do. Mike, and Dave Nelson (our COO) decided that we would put people into groups, based on their neighborhoods, and evacuate the office group by group. As the elevators were shut down by now, we walked down the 29 flights of stairs. I remember giving my white socks to our director of development Leslie Koch, so she could walk the six miles home to the Upper East Side.
The last to leave was Mike, Dave and I. We helped Dave down the stairs -- he had had an accident a few days before and was on crutches! We came out into a deserted Wall Street covered an inch deep with pulverized ash. Pieces of burnt paper were still coming down. Mike went to the pier, negotiated a loan of a hospital patient cart, and we helped Dave onto it and began to wheel him up Water Street. When we got to Canal Street, we passed through a police line and flagged a cab. They drove off to Grand Central Station so Dave could catch a train to Connecticut.
I was ready to go back to my apartment. Mike said he had to go back. I asked why, he said, "I promised to return the cart and I want to help. So you go home and call our team and supporters. I'll call you later." I watched Mike walk back down Water Street toward the site of the tragedy.
An hour later I was home, and began calls to dozens of our supporters and associates. For the next few weeks, the grants that keep our programs going slowed down to almost nothing. NFTE almost went under. In November, we were preparing to lay off half the staff, but were saved by the Atlantic Foundation and our dear friends Mike Hennessy and John Hughes at the Coleman Foundation in Chicago, and Ray Chambers.
That night, Mike was a hero. He walked to the devastated site full of death and destruction and, with a doctor, helped set up the first victim recovery morgue in the blown-out Brooks Brothers store, next to Ground Zero. He wrote a book about his experience that night, a moving first-person account he called Fallen Innocence, Towering Love: Thoughts for Healing from Ground Zero. It makes you feel as if you were right there.
An electronic copy of Fallen Innocence, Towering Love: Thoughts for Healing from Ground Zero can be obtained from Michael J. Caslin III's Facebook page.