September 11

My son Joseph never saw the New York Skyline with the Twin Towers dominating its south side.  He was born six months after September 11, 2001.  All of his class mates in his school have never seen the skyline with the Twin Towers as a part of it either, except in photographs.  This is a telling fact.  An entire generation of kids is coming of age with a New York City skyline that is vastly different from the one I knew.  Even that was different from the one my father knew.  I clearly remember the towers being built, rising ever so slowly into the sky one floor at a time.  But my father also recalled another tragedy that befell a New York icon:  The collision of a U.S. Army  Air Corps B 25 into the Empire State Building.  This was a pure accident, an aircraft flying in a fog with no radar equipment to keep it out of harm’s way simply crashed into the building.  The damage was severe, but not catastrophic.  Several people were killed, including everyone aboard the plane, but that paled in comparison to the over three thousand that perished on September 11, 2001.

In view of the fact that an entire generation is now coming of age who were not even born when the events of September 11 took place, I thought I would do my part to preserve my own personal recollections of that terrible day here.  That way, it will not ever be forgotten.

I’ve seen many things from the cab of a locomotive over the years I’ve been an engineer:  Spectacular sunsets, beautiful sunrises, even a comet in the night sky dropping down behind the mountains.  Sights that are hard to forget.  But the one that will always be there is the sight of the twin towers, burning and smoking like a pair of factory chimneys after that had been hit in the dastardly terrorist attack on 9/11.  That day dawned unremarkably.  It was a crisp, cloudless day; very beautiful.  I operated my normal morning train from Suffern, New York to Hoboken New Jersey without any incident.  Another trainload of busy commuters had been delivered to the terminal safely, and as they hurried on to their jobs in New York, my crew and I switched trains to take our second train of the day back west.  It was a small pup of a train:  a locomotive and two coaches.  It was bound for the then stub-end Montclair Branch.  The Branch was in the process of being transformed at the time.  Transit was preparing to connect the stub end into the near-by Boonton Line to create a new combined rail line.  The branch had been electrified from the start, but the construction work had resulted in the overhead catenary wiring, which the trains contacted to operate, being turned off.  So, only diesel trains could be operated up the branch.

We left as usual that morning and reached the end of the line at Bay Street without incident.  The train would only stay at Bay Street for a short time, then proceed back into Hoboken.  It made only four stops along the way, but they were busy.  Very busy.   Unfortunately, a technical glitch prevented me from being able to get the train to operate back east on schedule.  By the time I was able to rectify this, we were over twenty minutes late.

We left Bay Street and headed to the next stop at Glen Ridge.  This was a small platform that was usually filled from one end to the other with commuters.  But when I pulled up to the station, the platform was empty.  I wondered just where everyone had gone.  In those days just before the explosion of cell phones and smart phones, my crew and I had no idea what was happening, until we pulled into that station.  As I wondered where my commuters had gone, my conductor stormed into my cab and said to me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I found this odd.  Like I said, the day was absolutely cloudless.  I figured it had to be a little “puddle jumper” plane that must have gone off course and somehow had hit the building.

We continued east.  Bloomfield –  No passengers.  Watsessing Avenue – No passengers.  I was really starting to wonder now just what the heck was going on.  We couldn’t see the city from where we were, but we would, soon enough.  The Montclair Branch junctions with the main Morris and Essex Line that runs west to Morristown and Dover at a point called Roseville Avenue.  This is set down in a concrete-lined cut in the heart of Newark N.J.  The cut opens up just before the line reaches the Broad Street Station in Newark.  From there, you can see clear across the Meadows of New Jersey right to New York.  As we approached the apex of the grade through the cut, I could see what I thought were black storm clouds.  I again said to myself, “They’re not calling for any storms today.  That CAN’T be the smoke from the plane crash.”

I was wrong.  The towers soon came into full view, and both towers were on fire!  My crew and I were just floored by the sight.  We pulled into Broad Street Station and looked at the smoking towers.  It was a horrific sight.  I turned to my conductor and said to him that we had to get the train into Hoboken.  New York was going to have to be evacuated.  I experienced this once before when a nor’easter had caused a panic and throngs of commuters had swarmed Hoboken to get on any train out.  It was a surreal experience, with passengers overcrowding the trains and even trying to ride on the running board of the locomotive I was operating just to get a ride out of town before the storm flooded everything (And this was years before Irene and Sandy!)  But I knew this was going to be different.  I said to my conductor that we would be pulling people out of the City all night long, so we had to get in and get ready with a bigger train.  The two car one we had was going to be useless for something so monumental.

Normally, I operate my train alone.  My crew is usually back with the passengers, collecting tickets, operating the doors, answering questions.  But this trip was different.  I told my conductor to stay with me up front and call out the signals, just to make sure we didn’t miss any.  We left Broad Street and continued east across the Meadows.  The towers grew larger and larger as we moved closer to the tunnel that pierced Bergen Hill and carried our four track main line into Hoboken.  We exited the tunnel into Hoboken.  That’s when I saw the extent of the damage on the north face of the North Tower:  The outline of a plane, wings and all, tilted slightly to one side, flames licking the edges of the hole that had been blasted through the building.  I saw another co-worker who was working in the rail yard that morning standing near the track I was coming into the terminal on.  I stopped and asked him what happened.  He said he saw the whole thing.  He described the plane as a 737.  We know now it was a much larger 767.  He said that as he was watching the North Tower burn, the second plane then just plowed right into the South Tower, setting it ablaze.  He was understandably, obviously shaken.  We then proceeded ahead to put the train into the terminal.  It was then that another thought crossed my mind.  I remembered the story about the B 25 that hit the Empire State Building some sixty years earlier and thought, “That building was BUILT.  These buildings are made to tolerance.  Can they hold up to that kind of damage?”

We put our little pup of a train into one of the storage yards in the terminal.  Then we walked solemnly back to the terminal.  We took up a position on the side of the building where we had a good view of the towers.  At that point, there was just plain chaos.  Communications were down.  The early cell phone network had been smashed when the North Tower got hit.  The land line phones were all down as well, overloaded by people trying to call loved ones.  There was no way to get in touch with anyone.  Then there was the sky.  The surreal, blue sky at once beautiful and eerie.  The smoke from the towers created a pall in that sky that for some reason, makes my memory of it to be similar to a cloudy day instead of a clear one.  And then there were the planes, or lack of them, except for the military  jets streaking overhead.  There was no mistaking the furious sound of those things.

We continued to look up at the towers, burning, smoking.  Thankfully, we never did see anyone plunging from them.  We were just far enough away to not be able to see that with the naked eye.  Suddenly, the South Tower seemed to “explode.”  A huge puff of smoke just enveloped the upper third of the building.  Then I started to see the debris falling.  The South Tower was collapsing!  Years earlier, I saw that building rise up into the sky, never thinking I’d ever see this, ever see it come back down to earth.  But it did.  And then I heard what to me sounded like the sound of a train’s slack running out:  A deep-pitched “Boom, Boom, Boom”  It had to be the building as each floor collapsed onto the floor below it.  I could be mistaken, but that’s what I recall.

I was watching it all happen with a crowd of people:  Commuters, fellow workers.  No one screamed as that building came down.  No one gasped.  There was just stunned silence.

My thoughts turned to my wife, who was at that time carrying our second child, Joseph.  She worked in the City, in Mid-Town, and would be on a bus on her way into the City through the Lincoln Tunnel at this time.  I ran to the Superintendent’s office, which had a completely unobstructed view of the towers.  Inside, their phones were the only ones that seemed to be working.  I was able to get in touch with my parents, who relayed to me that my wife was on her way home.  A fellow passenger had a cell phone, and it still worked!  She called her sister in Queens, who then called my parents, as there was no way to contact me.  The tunnel had been closed and the bus was returning back.  With that load off my mind, I returned to the open window where the office staff in the Superintendent’s office had gathered.  What I saw was perhaps the weirdest looking sight of that day:  Only one of the Twin Towers standing  in the sun, but burning and smoking badly.  It was the North Tower, the first one that had been hit.  It stood there, defiant.  It was the last time I saw it standing as I left the Superintendent’s office to head over to the Break Area for the Engineer’s.  As I walked through the large, empty Great Room of the Terminal, once used for the old ferry boats to New York, I thought I heard rumbling.  I thought it was the air conditioning system in the building coming on.  Then I saw another fellow engineer coming in from the old piers that the ferry boats used to use.  I commented how I couldn’t believe what was happening, and how weird it looked for there only to be a single Twin Tower still standing.  He told me it wasn’t anymore.  It had collapsed while I was walking from the Super’s office to the Engineer’s Room.  I entered the Engineer’s Room and looked out the window to where the towers once were.  They were now just a pile of smoking debris.

Some of the guys I worked with were crying.  These were gruff, tough old men who had decades on the railroad.  And they were crying like babies.  It was one of the most emotional points of my railroad career.

The day kind of dragged on from there.  Schedules were out the window.  PATH train service was out, obviously.  The World Trade Center station was gone and the rest of their system was shut down.  People made their way to Hoboken by any means they could:  Bus, ferry, taxi.  People were coming over without shirts, shoes, covered in a gray, ash-like dust.  Emergency services did what they could with water stations, but the challenge was to get as many people out of Hoboken as we could.  My crew and I took charge of a five car train, and then we waited, and waited, as more and more people dribbled in to Hoboken.  Once my train had been filled to capacity, we were ordered to head back to Suffern, New York, making all stops up our Bergen County and Main Lines.  It was as we passed through Garfield that I saw the first American flag.  It was a small one, the type a kid would hold in their hand a wave at a parade.  It had been planted into a pile of rocks that had been piled on the ground next to the tracks.  It was a moving sight, that lone, small flag.

We pulled into Suffern, and I was prepared to change ends and run the train back into Hoboken to pull another trainload of people out.  I believed we would be doing this through the night.  It was an emergency, to say the least, so hours of service laws were suspended.  I could work until I dropped if need be.  But the afternoon crew that relieved me normally in Suffern had been waiting up there for hours, waiting for our train to arrive.  And the line’s Trainmaster, the management official in charge of that line segment, was there as well.  I asked what he wanted us to do, if he wanted us to head back to Hoboken.  He said, “No.  Go home.  Go home and hug your children.”  So that’s what we did.  We went home.  And on the way, I saw a truck heading north on the Thruway, flying a big American Flag on the side of his cab like a Calvary rider riding into battle.  It was another indelible sight from that day.  When I got home, there was my wife, pregnant with my unborn second son, and my eldest son, home from school, both safe and sound.  And I hugged them.  Tight.  And then I cried.

The next day, we returned to work on our normal shift, at least as normal as it could be.  We arrived in Hoboken, and the smoke from the debris pile was still rising.  When the wind shifted, you could smell an awful smell.  One of burning wire insulation, and something else.  Just what it was is anyone’s guess.

Some days later, my conductor and I went to the area that would now be called Ground Zero.  We took a ferry to South Street and walked across town toward the Trade Center.  We walked in those ash-covered streets and saw that famous piece of the building shell that looked like a trellis.  When I got home that night, the dust was still on my boots.  I wondered if this dust contained the remains of some of those who perished in the collapse of the towers.  I’m sure it did.

For days afterwards, that smell would waft over Hoboken.  At the stations along the way, you could see vehicles that had been parked there since 9/11, and had not been moved.  One by one, however, they disappeared.  A couple of regular commuters were AWOL for some days.  My crew and I feared the worse.   But then they showed up, all safe and sound.  They were down there, at Ground Zero, but had escaped.  In fact most of the people in the buildings and in the area that day had escaped.  It was a very successful evacuation if you want to take any positive away from it all.  But I still know that I took a lot of commuters to work that morning aboard that first train who never made it home that night.  It still haunts me to this day.

September 11 is a day I will never forget.  And it is up to those of us who lived through it to make sure future generations never forget as well.  I’m doing my part.  Are you?  Until next time.

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