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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 24}

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 / LIKE SOME ORPHEUS DESCENDING

My watch indicated 9:48 a.m. I was relieved to be down and confident I would soon be out on the street. My ponytail was loose, the bun long gone after I lost the hair stick somewhere. My jacket and blouse were caked with blood. Someone pointed out that my face was rather banged up.

"I know. I just want to go back to Detroit."

I stopped and looked through those tall gothic windows at the Austin J. Tobin Plaza.

I didn't recognize it anymore.

What I saw was chaos and ruin, the end product of wartime or disaster. The north tower base looked intact, but some windows were broken. This was a marked contrast to those now lame, colorful summer concert banners in some of them. The plaza itself was a landscape of devastation. The distant fountain and Sphere were surrounded by great pieces of structural debris, piles of paper, a number of fires, and - could they be?

I thought I saw bodies. There seemed to be a woman with a portion of her face gone, and a motionless, bloodied man in tattered garments in the debris--or part of a man--

I heard a crash and saw part of a window frame fall before my eyes and hit the plaza not far from the Deformed Paper Clip. It contained narrow little rectangles - little WTC window rectangles. I couldn't look anymore, and I never did again. What monsters did this, subject us to a nightmare in our waking lives?

I irrationally turned on my camera and aimed it at myself, holding it crookedly. The resulting photo showed me with stained clothing and bruised face, the windows slanted behind me like jagged glass shards. Fortunately, you can't see the debris in the plaza very clearly.

After I shot this image, I heard another strange sound of something else striking the plaza - PUUH!

Six months later, while watching a 9/11 documentary, I would learn that was how a human body sounded when it hit the Tobin Plaza.

"Don't stop!" a security man yelled at me. "Put that damn camera away and go down to the concourse!"
plaza
what i saw was chaos and ruin, the end product of wartime or disaster

I sheepishly complied and started walking in the direction the men pointed.

"You can't go out there. It's not safe," another man said to other evacuees. "Go this way." He pointed toward a bank of stalled-out escalators leading to the concourse level.

I followed others down these steps. When we got down, I stared with disbelief at a pile of abandoned footwear. It looked as if someone had looted a shoe store and then fled. Mostly women's shoes, but a few men's pairs were there, too.

Other security personnel directed us into the underground mall. My eyes felt bleary from having to adjust from the dull glare of the lobby to the dimmed retail concourse. The stores were a blur. I was lost. I didn't know a "9" line from an "N" line, Chambers Street from PATH. I didn't want to deal with stupid trains or burning buildings or death anymore. I'm from Detroit, for God's sake! We don't ride trains, we make cars, and we drive 'em!

9:52 a.m. Security men were motioning and directing people. I walked quickly across the concourse with other escapees. I noticed water was leaking on the floor from unseen broken pipes. A giant Bugs Bunny passed through my vision. The Warner Bros Studio Store was the only thing I remember clearly seeing. More mental detritus - U-G-L-Y! You ain't got no alibi! You ugly! You ugly! Everything was ugly! The people were neither shiny nor happy. I stopped.

"Where the hell do I go? I'm not from New York!" I said to a passing man in a charcoal three-piece suit.

"Just listen to the cops or security guards, or follow somebody else," he said.

I threw up my hands in desperation. People seemed to be going to several directions. I saw a couple men who appeared to know where they were going, so I stupidly followed them. I didn't pay attention to the main flow, the preferred evacuation route through WTC 5. I didn't stop to notice that more were coming down the escalators I chose than were departing.

Up the escalator, I hoped, to freedom, to the air, away from the terrorists' cruel craft. I will LIVE!

I trailed a bit behind the men. I arrived at a revolving door. Was it the exit from the nightmare? I passed through to see what was behind it, my peripheral vision vaguely registering human forms exiting other doors.

Have I gone in a circle? At the signpost up ahead, your next stop is--

"Oh, no! Holy shit!" I said. "Why did I follow those morons? Why? Why?"

I was on the lower level of the north tower lobby. The men I had followed had dissolved into the crowd. I noticed more people going back out the revolving doors. There were so many frightened and injured people that I think somehow the police and security patrol were briefly diverted, and we slipped through somehow. I should have paid closer attention, and I castigated myself.

I heard dozens of voices. There were knots of firefighters in their dark, heavy helmets and black turnout coats and pants with brilliant yellow stripes. Civilians were intermingled with them. I could see many by the security station. They were shouting commands and information at each other and into two-way radios. I had two options - ask the firemen, or go back to the mall and find the proper exit. I decided the latter was best, because I sensed that the fire officials shouldn't be bothered in such a pressure cooker situation.

9:56 a.m. Before I could turn and go back to the concourse, incongruously cheery music came from my pocket. My phone was still working? I regarded it as a miracle, because so many others were out of order.

I debated whether to even answer. I wanted to run, but I thought that it must be Michael. I badly wanted to hear his voice and thought I could run with the phone through the mall. A couple more times during my conversation I faintly heard the mysterious noise - PUUH!

"Hello?"

"Joanie!" the voice shrieked.

"Aunt Ellen! What--" Instead of exiting, I walked into a corner, pressed the phone against my right ear, and cupped my hand over my other one to block out the sound.

"Oh, thank God I got you. I can't reach Rocky." She started to sob. "Both of his phones are dead. I don't know what to do. Do you know anything?"

"No. The last time I saw him was last night."

"I'm scared, Joanie, I'm really scared. Jilly's been gone so long. What if I lose him too?"

"No! You're not going to lose him. Don't lose hope."

"It's terrible. Frightening! I've got the TV on, and both towers are burning. The fires are really bad. There's so much smoke! And they hit the Pentagon, too!"

"The Pentagon? How the hell did they do that?"

"Same way they got the Trade Center - with a plane. These horrible people. I want to hear Rocky so much. I can't talk to Rocky. What if he--"

"No! Don't worry! Pray! A lot of people's phones aren't working here. I'm--"

"Joanie, where are you?"

"Umm--Aunt Ellen--uh--"

"WHERE ARE YOU? Tell me!"

"Ellen--"

"Michael told me you were at the Trade Center today."

"Why the hell did he do that?"

"Because he's worried about you. You didn't call him back."

"My phone was tied up. People were borrowing it. Most phones don't work anymore."

"I can't believe you're there. You never told me."

"I didn't want to panic you--"

"Joanie, tell me where you are. Are you still there?"

"Yes."

My aunt began to sob loudly.

"Aunt Ellen, please, it's all right! I'm almost out. I'm in the north tower lobby, but I'll be out soon."

"Get out of there, Joanie! And please, find out what you can about Rocky. Please!" She cried hard and sniffled.

"All right, I'll try. May God be with you--" 9:58 a.m.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 / THE PALL

The rumbling was at first distant, like an approaching thunderstorm. My first quick thought was that a bomb the terrorists had planted was exploding. The sound gained momentum, and the building began to shake. The walls vibrated. The chandeliers clinked. The floor shook beneath my feet.

Oh, dear God, no! It's not a bomb, the building's coming down! I'm going to die! Nelson's taking all of us with him!

The signal on the cell phone started to break up. Before it was disconnected, I heard Aunt Ellen's garbled voice scream, "The south, the south!"

Dear Lord, into Your hands I commit myself. Please open heaven to me--

The building swayed harder, and the floor lurched. The firefighters' communications became louder and more frenzied. People screamed. I was thrown to the floor. My cell phone sailed out of my hand. Windows cracked, and I heard glass shatter and fall. I heard the firemen and the civilians scream and shout. I drew my legs under my torso and put my arms over my head.

I prepared to die. I spoke aloud, rushing through the words, but trying to still mean them, my voice barely audible:

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven--"

I braced myself for the crush of falling debris and the departure from my body. I tried to imagine what heaven would be like. The rumbling hit a crescendo, and the tower swayed and vibrated even more.

"--Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us--"

God, please, take me to paradise.

Michael, Naomi, and Christa, I love you very much. I love you, everybody--

"--But deliver us from evil; lead us not into temptation. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and forever. Amen."

I waited for it. I inhaled tightly and forced myself to anticipate the tons of concrete and metal devouring my insignificant little frame, and my passage to the other side. I realized that I was under the overhanging mezzanine, and this is the structure that would crush me.

I'm going now. The vibrations, the sounds like explosions, an atomic bomb, a thousand avalanches, a million volcanoes--

But nothing hit me.

Instead, the rumbles and vibrations subsided. When I breathed, I took in thick, stifling air. I responded with a paroxysm, which drove my eyes open. I seemed to be in some dark gray fog. Contours were barely visible as I lifted my torso up and cautiously turned my head. The tower remained. I could barely see carpeting, the floor, marbled walls, and the soaring windows' bases.

Visibility was terrible, and everything was enveloped in a thick charcoal fog. People yelled to each other or to the air; firefighters barked commands; voices sobbed and yelled.

I remembered Aunt Ellen's last words before I lost the signal - the south, the south - and realized that 2 World Trade must have collapsed, either totally or partially. Why did that happen? What about Rocky? Did he get out?

I brought my arms down. Something lanced my left forearm. I yelled.

I coughed violently and looked at my arm. My eyes watered from the heavy air, which seemed saturated with charcoal gray particles. There was a gash about four inches long on the inside forearm, gushing scarlet. I looked down at this gory thing. I could see yellow fat beneath the skin's layers and what appeared to be muscle tissue. I wept as the pain charged from the wound, up my hand, and into my fingertips. I felt a throbbing in the arm that felt like a giant pulse.

I also saw the cause of this injury, a thick shard of glass, with a lethal point, leaning at an angle against another. A bit of my own blood was on that point. I coughed more as the particle-laden air entered my lungs.

Medic! Attention, all personnel - incoming wounded! I slipped the backpack off my shoulders, which caused pain to lance through my left arm. I pulled the pack in front of me with my other arm. I reached inside, coughing the whole time. Blood splattered all over everything. I felt about until I detected a plastic bag and fabric. The "I Heart NY" shirt.

I yanked the shirt out, dotting it with blood. I struggled to wrap it around my forearm. I remembered I had a safety pin in the pocket allotted to purse things. I tracked it down. I managed to get it on the shirt to hold it in place. I coughed more, and my eyes watered. 10:02 a.m.

That building. That lousy building. That lousy, big, honking tower. I was IN that lousy tower--

The pain! The wound began to turn its makeshift dressing a deep red. I struggle to ignore it and the burning, throbbing pain that dominated my entire left arm. I took the scarf from around my neck and retied it bandit style across my nose and mouth. I noticed a small, oblong object about 3 feet away and realized it was my phone. I snagged it and stuffed it back into my other pocket.

Jeez, I'm still in a big, honking tower. The firemen. Get to the firemen. I now heard their voices again, yelling commands and bits of incomprehensible information. People cried and pleaded. Phantom figures bobbed through the pall. I put my pack back on my shoulders and forced myself to my feet, using a wall for support.

I tried to discern individual people. I fingered the camera around my neck. Quit it, you idiot. You're not a photojournalist! Go to the freaking firemen!

As I began to move in the direction of the fire personnel's voices, I heard a woman sobbing behind me. I stopped and turned, searching through the fog. Where? "Hello?" I said. No response.

I followed the voice's direction and soon saw a darker mass by the wall.

"Hey, who's there?"

Still no answer. The closer I got, the more it looked like a human in a sitting position.

When I was next to the figure, I saw it was a woman, maybe 55 or 60 years old, her light blue dress stained with blood. Her gray hair was a disheveled shag cut. I saw there was a gash on her forehead. She sat there, rocking and crying. She seemed oblivious.

"Ma'am!" I said. She continued to cry. "Ma'am! Hey! I'm here!"

She looked up at me, and her eyes went wide. "Ma'am, we've got to get out. We've got to go to the firemen." She stared at me and coughed. "Are you the angel who's taking me home?"

"No--I--uh--I'm only human. I want to help you, though. We've got to go."

"No angel. Well, you'll do. Please help me. I wanna go home to Rockaway Beach." She sobbed louder and rocked more vigorously.

"I want to go home, too. We can get there. But we've got to go to the firefighters. They can help us."

"The firefighters?" she said in a choked voice. She broke into more coughing.

"Yes. They're right over there. We can go to them. They'll get us out."

"I want to go with you!" She coughed again.

"I want you to go with me, too. First, let's do something about that cough. You need face protection." I took my scarf off my nose and mouth. "Put this around your face." I helped her tie it in back.

"What are you going to use?"

"I'll make something." I unshouldered my backpack and took out my jackknife. I bent over and began to cut into my skirt, starting at the hemline. I slashed about 10 inches up before turning the knife at a right angle and making a notch. I tore the strip off the skirt's bottom as the woman watched with wide eyes. I tied it around my nose and mouth and stowed the knife in my pocket.

"That's ingenious," she said.

"C'mon, I'll help you up." I reached out and helped her to her feet. "We can go now."

"Okay. What's your name?"

"Joanie."

"That's a pretty name. I'm Marian."

"Nice to meet you, Marian."

"Can I hold your hand?"

"Yes. Here."

She gripped it tightly as we walked. "I don't want to let go. Tell me you won't let go. Please!"

"I won't."

"You promise?"

"I promise. I won't let go."

10:12 a.m. With her hand wrapped around mine in a steel grip, we walked toward the firefighters. A man saw us walking and said, "Come on, ladies. South tower's gone. Everyone's going to the firemen." We joined a small crowd moving toward them.

"Could you say something, Joanie?" Marian asked me.

"What?"

"Something. I'm scared. Please say something so I won't feel scared anymore."

I took a chance she was religious. " 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea--' "

Some of the heavy air still got through our face cloths and made us cough. My eyes watered. Figures in long black coats and helmets flitted about, stripes and "FDNY" in canary yellow making them look like giant, labeled bumblebees.

Some yelled into their portable radios. Occasionally I heard "...get out!" They had to be evacuating men from this tower.

After I finished Psalm 46, Marian smiled and gave my hand a squeeze. I felt good she wasn't offended by the scripture. We approached a fireman with dark brown hair and a handlebar mustache. I could see he was a lieutenant.

"Help us, please, lieutenant," I said.

"Stay here. We're evacuating."

"We're taking people out toward the Financial Center," another fireman said. He had CHIEF in red letters on his helmet. "You ladies go this way." He pointed toward a group of his colleagues and some civilians. He turned to the lieutenant. "We can get them out through the walkway to WFC 2." He looked at Marian and me. "The group's going out toward WFC 2."

"To where?" I said. "I'm from out of town."

"Two World Financial Center," Marian said. Her voice now sounded perfectly calm. "I've been there before. I have friends who work for American Express."

"Right," the chief said. "The walkway goes out of the north tower and across West Street and into the Financial Center. Just stick close, follow our men, and don't let them out of your sight. You'll get out."

"Okay," I said. "Please just point the way. We just want to go home." Marian nodded.

We went to the group the chief had indicated.

"Stay with us and follow us," said a firefighter with the name Melendez on his coat. "We're moving out!"

I walked next to this man, who had a big "7" on his helmet.

"What's '7'?" I said to him.

"Engine 7," Melendez said.

"Where's that?"

"Manhattan, on Duane, just west of Broadway. We're housed with Ladder 1."

"Oh. My thanks to Engine 7, Ladder 1, and everyone else, then!"

"Yes, God bless you firemen," Marian said.

"Thank you, ladies. You two work in the WTC?"

"Yes, I do. I work for Empire Blue Cross, 31st floor, north tower."

"I don't," I said. "I'm from Detroit. I was in the south tower on business."

"You're a long way from home, ma'am."

"I sure am. Right now, it seems like all of us are."

"Couldn't agree more with you on that one."

We continued on in silence. Marian had her iron grip on my hand. 10:17 a.m. The stream of firemen and civilians poured through some doors. We were in what resembled a grimy, squarish tunnel with poor vision. We were marched along at a brisk pace through this passageway, with windows of even smaller squares. So many right angles, just like the WTC.

We moved too quickly for me to really see anything, which was irrelevant anyway, since vision was poor from the mysterious, heavy dust in the air. I didn't want to see anything outside anyway, for fear of spotting more carnage among the debris. Some people resembled smoky phantoms from coming in contact with the dust. I figured that it was pulverized concrete from the south tower.

The tunnel seemed eternal, when finally we entered what seemed like a fairyland with exotic trees.

"Keep moving! Let's go!" "This way!" "Keep moving this way!" Several firemen and police officers shouted and guided us. We continued through this great, airy space, topped by an extremely high glass atrium. The floor was rich gray and burgundy marble in circular and square geometric patterns. There were palm trees, of all things, and odd benches with curving backs.

"The Winter Garden," Marian said. "Such a beautiful place."

"Let's go, go, go!"

"Move quickly!"

"Keep moving!"

"Out, everyone! Keep moving to the exits!"

"You ready, Marian?"

"Yes, I'm ready."

"Then let's go. Let's get out!"

We walked fast across the atrium with the others, moving where the firefighters and cops pointed.

When we reached a place in the atrium where the floor marble formed a broad circular pattern, Marian turned her head.

She stopped abruptly and almost threw me off balance and to the floor.

She screamed and pointed with her free hand.

I turned in looked in the direction of her finger.

{To PART 25 of Persistence of Memory}