Think of it as an irony of our media-wired times that I was the first to tell my cousin Mike McCalman when the second World Trade Center tower fell. He knew the first had fallen, and he might have watched the second one fall with his own eyes from New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he works.
Then again, as he helped the hospital prepare for an expected flood of patients, Mike was a busy man on the morning of Sept. 11. I had phoned, very concerned, shortly after the first tower fell, but Mike assured me that both he and his companion, John Hoffman, an Emmy-winning TV producer for Home Box Office, were alright. We would talk later, he said, and so we did, 10 days later.
"John was in our apartment when the first plane hit," Mike said. "He was in the bathroom when the building shook, and he thought wow, that's going to make the news."
Meanwhile, Mike was in a cab on his way to the hospital, where he works as a manager of information systems. It was there he learned what had happened.
"I was up and down to the observation deck. I went up three times," he said, as people informed him about what was happening. "The first time... I saw one building with a hole in it smoking." When he went up the second time only one of the twin towers was still standing. When he went up again, "there was nothing there."
As the day progressed, and New York Presbyterian prepared to tend thousands of wounded New Yorkers. Mike and John--worried that the attacks would continue--spoke by phone and designated a place in Central Park where they would meet in case they couldn't get home again. Then Mike braced for a flood of the injured. It never came. "That was a very odd thing," Mike said. Thousands were dead, but relatively few were merely injured. All New Yorkers were changed, however.
"Life now is very sad for a lot of people living on this island. We don't know quite what to feel. I have not comprehended what happened. I've heard a lot of people say how angry they are. I don't even feel that."
Mike had often worried about his safety in New York, mostly because his apartment building is next door to the federal courthouse where some of Osama bin Laden's henchmen were tried for earlier acts of terrorism.
"There's a huge amount of military and police, and yellow police tape is stretched everywhere to keep anyone from walking on the streets (on the south side). Only ambulances, bulldozers and military trucks are allowed through." Again, this was on Sept. 21.
For several days after the disaster, Mike and John stayed with friends in Soho, a 30-minute walk away. "As we walked, looking down West Broadway, Church or Greenwich, the scene at the time was of this huge fire, with workers walking around covered in dust and some of them bloodied. Vehicles were being pulled out of the wreckage. We saw the bed of a truck full of shoes. What else could it be (but the shoes of the dead)? We saw a lot of workers, emergency workers walking around dazed.
"People who lived there were having them into their homes, serving them food, letting them lie down for a while. Trucks became more and more decorated with flags and messages.... There were locals sitting on streets waiting to clap and wave the flags," whenever emergency vehicles passed. "It was a nice show of support from New Yorkers. You couldn't NOT cheer. The whole street erupted with clapping."
Other demonstrations of support were more somber. On Friday, Sept. 14, a friend of theirs drove Mike and John upstate to their getaway in the country near Anenia. "All along Route 22, this country road, we saw little communities gathering for candlelight vigils. It was really heartbreaking....
"Part of me still wanted to be here (in Manhattan), but it was nice to not hear the sirens, the jets and smell the smoke. Coming back, Sunday, we were on a train full of New Yorkers heading back to Grand Central, not knowing what Monday would bring, feeling very disconnected. We were all returning to a place we had never returned to in that way.
"All around you it was just very sad. We're still walking by billboards erected with pieces of paper describing the missing. They're in subway stations, on the streets, in any public settings that will receive a lot of traffic. That's pretty hard to look at."
One thing that changed--at least for a while--was the way New Yorkers look at one another, Mike said. New Yorkers have a reputation for being cold, opaque, for looking away on the streets, but Mike says they're mostly misunderstood.
"People don't want to speak to other people on the streets because there are too many of us; you can't maintain it." But on Sept. 11, that changed. "A lot of people lost their game face. They've opened up a lot more. They want to look into people's eyes to share a feeling and look for a response from someone else."