The sun shone gloriously through the windows of our 15th floor classroom. Outside, it was warm, and some of my classmates had voted in the mayoral primary before coming in. Inside, at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, soon to be renamed the haughtier Institute for Culinary Education, we were making pesto. I was at a work table with Adam and Laura; Laura was cutting basil into chiffonade strips, Adam finely minced garlic, and I was grating Parmesan. Our classroom smelled like the kitchen of an inn I once stayed in, outside Siena. The only things we needed were stacks of freshly baked Cecina flatbread, sliced salumi, and several cases of tannic red wine.
Our classroom faced north, towards the Empire State Building ten blocks away. Across the hall sat two other classrooms which faced south, with few visual hindrances all the way to the Battery. And the World Trade Center. The WTC towers were merely visual references if we got lost, as we usually did after our third bar of the night, pointing us either away from or towards whatever conveyance we needed to get home. Much like when I lived in DC, and the Lincoln Monument was merely a waypoint after I crossed Memorial Bridge from Arlington, I took the towers for granted. By then, however, almost all New Yorkers did. My dad had been one of the maintenance managers in Tower 1, or the North Tower, when I was in elementary school. I recall visiting him at work, the thrill of taking service elevators instead of the tourist-filled metal cages, up higher than many aircraft. For a seven year old to see his dad on the radio, sounding authoritative as he dispatched work crews throughout the building, it was heady stuff.
Someone screamed from a south-facing classroom. Then someone else, the sound carrying through two sets of closed doors. Several of us rushed across the hall, because the scream sounded like pain. It was, but not the kind we expected, though we didn’t know that yet. I don’t know why I looked out the window just then, but I saw an airplane. This was such a mindfuck that I couldn’t process I was looking at an airliner barreling south towards Tower 1. A second later it hit. More screams from the class. I looked down, and a girl I only recognized from the elevator and hallway sat in a fetal position on the floor. I looked up again, black smoke curled out of a ragged maw near the top of Tower 1. More screaming. Some crying. Some looked at me, as if I, one of only two veteran students in the now-overflowing room, had any idea what was happening. They seemed disappointed that I was as much in the dark as them.
Needless to say, we quickly forgot about pesto. We watched the tower burn. We heard more sirens than any of us could remember hearing at one time, running south on 5th Avenue past our school. My first coherent thought was wondering if Mac, my father’s longtime foreman, a skinny black man with missing teeth, was working; almost like in the military, managers in building maintenance come and go, but good foremen, like NCOs, stay on. Many of us dug cell phones out of our lockers and attempted to call our families, tell them we were all right, but no calls went through. I tried to phone a friend who was supposed to work in a polling center near the Trade Center, but it went straight to voice mail. That was the only cellular call that actually made contact, of sorts, all morning.
I’ve seen some big explosions in my life, I even caused some of them. Okay, a lot of them. But the magnitude of United 175’s impact on the South Tower buggered the imagination. My second coherent thought – odd that I remember this despite all the screams, and now crying – was, who the hell would do this? I had never heard of names like Atta, bin Laden, or al Shibh, but I couldn’t help but believe I was witnessing my generation’s Pearl Harbor. One of the instructors had a tv cart brought up and tuned it to channel 2 or 4 or 7 – ultimately, the channel itself wouldn’t matter, since nothing else would be shown on any network for weeks to come. The rumors, the unsubstantiated hearsay backed by nothing that my experience would deem hard information, dominated the news. Remember, this was antebellum 2001, it wasn’t as if any of us could fire up our CNN app on our Nokia or Motorola phones.
Then Tower 1 fell. You could almost hear a thousand stifled screams as 110 stories of mammoth skyscraper crumbled down. I wanted to stay in that room. God, how I wanted to stay in that classroom. Instead, I changed my clothes and left while everyone was still watching Tower 3 burn. Down on the street, I waited in a ridiculously long line for a pay phone and was still standing there, trying to call my mother from my cell, when Tower 3 fell. Several hundred people, probably more, ran like hell, north on 6th Avenue, away from the conflagration four miles away.
I walked west to 7th Avenue, where MTA buses full of cops sped south towards what had been the World Trade Center. A bunch of firemen in full gear were waiting for a bus. I saw a battalion chief (major’s oak leaf insignia on a white shirt), the only one not wearing a turnout coat. When I tried to ask if I could be of any help, and showed him my military ID, he kindly but firmly told me to get lost. A civilian ambulance idled across the street, so I went over. I’m not a trained EMT or medic, and my only formal medical training was the US Army’s combat lifesaver course, which teaches soldiers how to administer first aid until a trained medic can take control of the casualty; think of it as EMT-lite. When I told this to the the ambulance driver, he told me all ambulances were being routed either to St. Vincent’s or NYU, being kept away from the Trade Center. Even so, on that day, I guess, a volunteer was a volunteer; he radioed his superiors, then waved me over. He said to wait in the back of the bus, he’d be leaving as soon as his partner returned, and don’t worry, we were heading downtown.
You didn’t have to tell me twice, not that morning. The EMT returned from a deli where he’d been using the restroom, the siren and lights came on – odd, how quiet the siren was inside – and the driver floored it all the way down the West Side Highway. I poked my face out of the small window in the back of the cab, to see forward. The towers weren’t where they should have been, had been until maybe an hour ago. A black and brown cloud hung over everything south of Houston Street. Then we were at the edge of it and had to slow down, because we couldn’t see more than 50 meters past the hood. The driver and EMT donned surgical masks and handed me one. It probably wouldn’t help, since Ron the driver had turned on the wipers up around Canal Street. The ash coated the ambulance like thick dry snow. Ron made things worse when, almost out of habit, he tried the windshield sprayers.
The radio had been oddly silent, then everyone tried to talk at once, even Ron’s partner. A squeal went over the net, too many people trying to transmit simultaneously. All ambulances were routed to St. Vincent’s Hospital on 12th Street, the closest trauma center to the Trade Center. Ron explained that we’d most likely prepare to receive patients, assist with triage, and await further orders. Hurry up and wait. The soldier in me could readily identify with that.
I got turned away by the EMS supervisor at St. Vincent’s. I gave blood. I chain smoked and watched the smoke cloud. Ron came by, saw me standing on the corner. “You still want to help,” he asked me. “You a 100% fuckin’ sure about that?”
“Is the Pope Catholic?” Apparently he’d expected something like that, because he told me he’d snagged extra scrubs, I could change in the back of his bus.
Then … nothing. The number we kept hearing over and over was 15,000. As in, expected patients, vice a capacity to accept maybe a thousand at best. But for every patient (singular) that came for the rest of the day, it seemed there were two dozen EMS and hospital guys treating them from the moment they left the ambulance. Ron’s crew, to which I’d been informally (and probably illegally) attached, didn’t leave St. Vincent’s until nightfall. We ate hot dogs from the corner vendor in the bus. We cursed in the bus, waiting for orders to head south. We smoked outside the bus. We listened to AM news in the bus. We tripled checked every piece of equipment inside the bus, packed and repacked trauma bags that would never get used. We talked in the bus about how we hoped some special operations unit would get the scumbags who did this.
The radio beeped, a staticky voice came on, and Ron started the engine before the transmission ordering us south was over. Flashing lights from hundreds of police, fire, and EMS vehicles reflected against the ash cloud. We parked near Chambers Street and ran south. Five blocks to where the towers had been just twelve hours before. Now the streets were clogged with emergency vehicles, the ash-covered men, some sucking oxygen from a portable tank, some washing their eyes out with bottled water, some just wandering aimlessly, some weeping in the middle of the street.
“Who the fuck are you?” This, to me, from the EMS supervisor. I told him the truth, but in retrospect I wish to Christ I’d just lied because no one was checking credentials that night. Either you were part of the crew or you weren’t. Ron apologized to me, said he couldn’t let a civilian past the checkpoint, but if I wanted to get my stuff, the bus wasn’t locked, I knew where it was. We shook hands, I told him I understood, gave him the trauma bag on my shoulder, and I never saw him again.
On my way back to the ambulance, I kicked something. It was a shoe. It was a white – or formerly white – Adidas sneaker with scorch marks on the toe, blood on the ankle, and a foot still inside. A dirty bone stuck out. I picked it up, handed it to a nearby fireman, then went into an alley to vomit. Then I cried. At my helplessness. At my unworthiness, inability to help, or do anything. But then I realized I’m a soldier, and a cook. God’s Love We Deliver, a charity where I’d volunteered at night after class, was a mile up on Spring Street. I spent the next week cooking for the guys at the site, delivering styrofoam containers of food and bottles of water to first responders. During the Concert for 9/11 at Madison Square Garden, I scanned all the shots of the audience for Ron and his partner, two skinny black guys with mustaches, to no avail. The music provided background noise while I chopped vegetables for a stew; the prep was easy, you could make tremendous batches of it in a five-gallon rondeau, and the soup containers were stackable.
Some risked their lives on that day. I didn’t. I cooked for those men, though. Fourteen years later I’m okay with my small contribution.