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'We had seen things no human being should see': An eyewitness report of the Rev. Douglas Brown, prior of Holy Cross Monastery

By The Rev. Douglas Brown
2001-262
9/12/2001
[Episcopal News Service]  I cannot sleep and so I thought I would try to put into words what I experienced yesterday morning. I was to be part of an all-day filming of a program by Trinity Broadcasting of meditations and dialogue with Archbishop Rowan Williams. I was going to share a cab with Jonathan Linman, the new director of the Center for Christian Spirituality, but he begged off as his flight from Chicago was delayed by 7 hours and he did not get in until 2:00 a.m. So I got a cab myself and got to Trinity Place at 8:30. We gathered in the parlor on the second floor for coffee and danish and were chatting, getting ready for the taping to begin at 9:30 a.m.

I was chatting with a former directee, Peter Grandell, who is the liturgical man at the National Cathedral. Peter had his back to the window, which looked across to Trinity. We didn't hear anything (because the first plane went into the north tower of the WTC, the farthest from Trinity) but I noticed all these papers floating through the air. I went over to the window and looked up and as high as one could see there was paper floating down, sparkling in the bright sunlight.

A number of us went out on to the bridge that crosses over to the church and the sirens were starting to scream and traffic had stopped. The debris continued to fall and I picked up a memo from an office on the 94th floor of Tower 1.

Someone on the Trinity staff told us the news said that a plane had flown into the WTC and we assumed that it was a terrible accident. Once outside, we could see the plume of smoke above the building. We went back in and joined hands for prayer and during that the second plane went into the south tower which is one block from where we stood. The sound was unearthly and, at that point, we didn't know what it could be--probably a secondary explosion from the accident. But someone rushed in with news of the second plane and we were taken to the studio as the safest place: in it interior with no windows.

We were all very tense and a monitor was set up so we could watch CNN after Rowan Williams had led us in some prayer again. It was after this that reports came in of the similar attack on the Pentagon and it began to be a little apocalyptic.

I was with a lot of people I know well, some of which some of you will know as well: Rowan Williams, Fred Burnham, Dan Matthews, Courtney Cowart, Peter Grandell, Carl Ruttan, Gay Silver, Jerome Berryman, Mary Haddad, Lyndon Harris, Elizabeth Koenig, and about 10 others. We were seated in a double horseshoe and people drifted in and out to go to the bathroom.

After about 45 minutes, there began a terrible rumble and everyone in the front row threw themselves on the floor. It was a terrible sound and most of us thought that it was a bomb or, correctly, the collapse of one of the towers. But that is just a block and a half away and we knew the possibility that it could fall on us.

We were then given smoke masks and herded into the stairwells as the building was beginning to fill with smoke. In the stairwells, we joined the children and women from the day care center and what followed was a time of awful confusion: children screaming, various Trinity workers screaming at us about where the air was better, etc. We went up and down through several interconnected buildings and I had no idea where we were. The other thing that we confusing were the ubiquitous cell phones and the attendant rumors. News flew up and down the stairs that another plane had flown into the Sears Tower in Chicago (false) and that the sound we heard and felt was the collapse of the tower (true), etc. By and large, though, everything was quiet and I think we all felt numb.

Finally, around 10:15 came the worst part. The wind was blowing from the north-west which blew the smoke and debris directly over Trinity. But around 10:15, the plume from the collapse of Tower 1 had passed and the air was beginning to clear outside. So we were taken outside and this is where words begin to fail me. It was eerily quiet and we were the only people. I can only say it was like those movies that depict a 'nuclear winter' following a nuclear apocalypse. The ground was covered with about three inches of ash, mixed with papers, mail, machine tapes, shoes, ties, pens.

The cars had all their windows blown in and it was snowing ash and debris. The ash was oily and gradually my glasses covered over and all our clothes and hair turned gray. We were directed south and after a block the ground started rumbling and there began the most unearthly sound I have ever heard. It was the collapse of the second tower and I was sure we were all going to die. This was the moment of pure terror. It was like thunder that just wouldn't stop; it went on and on and on. But as you have seen on the videos, the buildings collapsed straight down and we were protected by the block of buildings that separated it from us. But we could see the huge cloud of debris roil across the intersection above us. Many screams and most ran into the alcoves created by pillars on the bank we were passing. People began running and came to join other survivors of the area and we were herded into a construction trailer (sweltering!) just outside the terminal for the Staten Island Ferry. There we had a third round of prayer, this time led by a construction worker of the 'We just want to thank ya' school of prayer; but he perfectly captured where we were.

I was still with about eight people I knew (including Rowan Williams) as the group had gotten separated in the evacuation. It was a comfort to be with people like Fred and Carl. I didn't want to be alone in what was going to happen.

By then it was clear what had happened and the three things that took root in me were the fear for the people of Fiduciary Trust in Tower 1, imagining the terror of those on the hijacked planes watching their impending impact and finally the police and firefighters who must have been under the towers when they came down. I began crying, as others were. In retrospect though one thing that strikes me is how quiet we all were. There was very little conversation through all of this and my enduring impression is of silence.

After the plume from the second collapse passed over us (about 20 minutes) and out over the harbor, we left and there were a number of city buses that had been trapped down in the financial district. We piled into one and it slowly went around the bottom of the island and up past the South Street Seaport and onto the FDR.

The tower of smoke from the WTC site was indescribable. As we started up the FDR, it and everywhere we could see were thousands of people, all walking north. We got up to and went across 34th St. and I got off with Elizabeth Koenig and Carl Ruttan at Penn Station and walked down to GTS. It was surreal: we were all gray with ash; but at Penn, the air was clear, the sun was shining brilliantly and everyone look perfectly normal. They stared at the three of us as we passed like we were refugees of a different country. The worst moment was when we got to a clear spot from which the WTC could be seen and there was nothing there! It was like being sucker-punched.

We got back to Chelsea Square and climbed into the shower. The rest of the day and night were, again, surreal. The streets were almost deserted and quiet except for the occasional outbreak of sirens. All you could see on the streets were police and ambulances. The priests and senior students went to St. Vincent's, the closest hospital to the WTC and Chelsea Piers is being turned into a huge morgue for the identification of victims as they are recovered.

I called Larry Huntington's house when I could and their cleaning lady said they weren't there and that Larry had not gone in. I also called Carl Scaturo, my contact at Fiduciary Trust,: he had been late for work and was walking towards the towers when the first plane went in. He started crying as we talked. We had seen things that no human being should see. As the plane headed into the tower, people who saw them coming threw themselves out of the 79th floor windows!

This city remains uncannily quiet. One disturbing event was as I came back from dinner up 9th Ave. with a friend after Mass. A couple passed us and the woman was waving her arms and screaming that all the 'towel-heads should be killed.' Mayor Giuliani has placed extra police protection for all Moslem mosques and institutions.

I'm fine and was not hurt but am still pretty shaky. I find my eyes filling with tears from time to time and I am a bit jumpy when a load noise comes suddenly. GTS put together a 'Mass in a time of National Crisis' which was brilliantly done, even though hard to get through but I had to be there. This has given new meaning to the phrase that each day is a gift. Dr. Johnson said once that 'knowing that one is to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.' I think I know what he meant.

I tried calling Larry again last night and couldn't get through and will try again today. Fiduciary Trust offices were well above the floors of impact and my assumption is that those floor could not be evacuated and they all perished. But I don't know and will let you know if and when I find out.

I just wanted to try to get down these remembrances while they were still relatively fresh. And I hope they may give you a bit of the emotional flavor of a 'close-up and personal' encounter with this event. It will be like it was 40 years ago and when all remembered where we were when JFK died; only this time, I was on Dealey Plaza.