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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from THE PALL in PART 24}

There was the north tower, a monolith fearsomely dwarfing the atrium roof. A vicious cut had formed across the west face (and the north, barely visible). Smoke issued from the gaping holes around the tower, forming a sickening, broad stream into the grimy sky.

"Don't stop, ladies!" a police officer shouted. "Keep moving!"

The thick antenna was barely detectable. I grimaced as I viewed this wounded dragon and wanted to scream as loud as I could, just like Marian. Something tiny heaved out of the huge, smoky hole on the north - it looked almost like a person. I believe it was, since dozens of people did jump from the tower.

"Marian, don't look anymore! We've got to go!"

I yanked on her arm. I could see exits with personnel guiding the civilians out. Marian resisted, and I almost fell again. She was fixed to that spot. The officer who yelled at us pulled us apart. He began giving Marian a pep talk. Her eyes looked glazed as she continued to stare fixedly at that fractured tower.

"Keep going, miss. I'll talk to her," he said to me.

I burst into a sprint and ran across the rest of the atrium. My head was tilted back slightly. Distant palm trees bounced and floated in my peripheral vision before receding from view. My idiotic mind responded with ... this uncharted desert isle ... with Gilligan ... the Skipper too... I continued to the exit. The officials there told me to keep going and out to the marina.

Into the darkness of day. That was exactly what it was. Though my watch indicated 10:23 a.m., the entire world, formerly burnished by that brilliant late summer day, was now bleak and soupy gray. I stopped walking and began to closely study the tableau before me. I became the outsider, the witness I had always considered myself to be. It was more as if I were watching historic footage or were hermetically sealed from the disaster - suspended from space and time, as it were.

Everything was pasty gray - people, their clothing, the buildings, the greenery, the ground. Tattered papers corporate reports, letters, computer printouts, and the like also littered the area. I was in a kind of forecourt or plaza between the Financial Center and an inlet. This was the North Cove Marina, normally a docking for both luxury yachts and ferries. My fingers tapped on my camera.
north tower burns
i took several shots of wtc 1's suffering. i had to. there must be a record of this awful day

There were commuter boats, Coast Guard ships, and tour vessels. People - some injured, most gray ghosts - were being loaded onto the boats. A few chugged across the Hudson. The evacuation of the British at Dunkirk in 1940. This is what this is like. People either walked toward the marina or meandered about. Some people were crying or shaking their heads. A few tried to make cell phones work. Their clothes were torn and stained. Some had wounds and burns. Faces were hollow and frightened. They're casualties of some war. Will we soon really be at war?

Moving away from the Financial Center, I paused to look down at myself. I was a big, stinking mess. Bloodstains and spots were intermixed with that strange gray dust. The makeshift bandage on my arm was entirely red, barely visible beneath the gray. I turned and looked back and saw the north tower. It still loomed high over the petite, fragile-looking Winter Garden and Financial Center towers - belching that disgusting smoke. It was dominant but mortally injured. Would it remain standing?

I fumbled for my digital camera and took several shots of WTC 1's suffering. I had to. There must be a record of this awful day. I took more pictures of the marina, of the racket and confusion, of the beleaguered refugees. I tried to be energetic, but a faint dizziness hit me (I realized later this was due to my blood loss).

It was not enough to defeat me, but I finally decided to shut the camera off. I took out my drawing pad and made a quick sketch of the tower and surrounding buildings. As I looked up once during my artwork, I saw another object fall from the structure - another person.

I gasped but continued to draw, gripped with this fever that I had to preserve these events somehow. I thought, For everyone, especially those who die, and those who'll live to tell about this.

I drew distraught faces and shadowy figures walking from the destruction.

The lost souls who walked by stared at me oddly and peered at my pad in surprise. One man, his right eye a large welt, said, "Yeah, go ahead, draw it. Draw how the bastards are killing us."

Firefighters, cops, and rescue personnel directed people toward ferries. My watch now indicated it was 10:26 a.m. I saw the policeman who had assisted Marian escorting her out of the Winter Garden. When I eventually stepped onto a boat, I lost touch with her.

Insane. Insane again--

Standing there, I was reminded of my recurring tugboat nightmare. Now the captains were finally going to take us away from the towers. No, revise that - tower.

I glanced at my watch yet again - 10:27 a.m. Had I not been shooting images of the fountain and towers only four hours ago? Had I not been sitting there on a bench, gazing at Koenig's fine Sphere again, savoring doughnuts and letting coffee warm my throat in the bright early morning, topped by that wondrous azure sky--?

10:28. The rumbling began faintly, just as it had when the south tower disintegrated. Everyone's heads seemed to snap around to look in the direction of the sound, including me.

The north tower's antenna began to tilt, at first almost undiscernibly. Realizing what was happening, I dropped my drawing pad and pencil and pointed my camera at the scene. Fortunately I had left it turned on. My view of this last chapter in the WTC's life switched from my own vision to the liquid crystal viewfinder on the back of the camera.

"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" people yelled.

"Holy shit!" a few others said.



People panicked and ran toward the marina. Others dashed out of the Financial Center. Screaming and crying were ubiquitous. Insanely again, I remained where I was to remember the structure's end.

The antenna slanted crazily to the right as the north tower's summit dissolved and started spewing rubble outward. The antenna vanished in a haze of debris. The tower shrank before our eyes, precipitously dropping straight down. Like controlled demolition! Like the old Hudson's Building in downtown Detroit! All was accompanied by that unholy rumbling, that growling, earthquake-like thunder. The earth shuddered. Some cried and screamed. I pressed the shutter button as fast as possible, trying to save this nightmare for the future.

"No, no!"

"Please, God, please!"

"Not again!"

"Oh, my God, my God!"

"Why? Why?"

More sobbing and shrieking. The tower was mostly gone when it slipped behind the Winter Garden's arc, while simultaneously raining new destruction on it and the Financial Center towers.

WTC 1 was gone. The rumbling ceased. The ground grew still. I turned off my camera and let it slip from my hands. It hung as a dull weight around my neck. I picked up my art pad. The sound was succeeded by a new, thick cloud, a menacing, diabolical looking mass of dark gray that erupted from the tower's old spot. Part of it hung in a harsh plume, marking the structure's ruins. Other portions spread outward, joining the pall from the south tower. The fog engulfed everything and rapaciously spread over the Winter Garden and the Financial Center's spires. It ruthlessly expanded and charged toward the evacuees, the public safety workers, the emergency personnel, the ferries, the marina.

People started running, coughing, and covering their faces with anything they could find. My eyes watered, and I hacked again as the particles shoved their way past my face cover. I looked down at myself. I was coated head to toe in more gray powder, which was so persistent that it even concealed the dried bloodstains on my clothing. Now I am an apparition, too, departing this place of crying souls. I feel like I'm in some underworld of the doomed. You ARE part of this. You are not the outsider!

"All right, everybody, start loading up again!" a man said. "We've got to move out!"

I got into a line for a large, double-deck ferry with tinted glass windows and the words "NY WATERWAY" emblazoned across her upper level.


The line in which I stood moved toward the ferry. A couple other queues fed other boats. Most people were silent and looked grief-stricken or sullen. I looked at the huge boat's side and blinked with disbelief - her name was Yogi Berra. It was unnerving to see she was named for the language-fracturing, hilarious Yankees catcher.

A couple men helped people into the ferry, including myself. People coughed loudly. I heard a roaring overhead and flinched. Others jumped, too - it was a jet. When we looked up, though, we saw an F-16, not a commercial airliner. Even more so, I realized we were in a city under siege.

I was directed to the ferry's upper level and was lucky to find a seat by the window. Once the boat was full, its engines growled as we pulled away from the dock. It joined a slow, stern procession of others crossing the Hudson River.

I sat so I could see Manhattan Island's western shore. Normally, you would have seen Nelson and David, the gargantuan dragons, ruling the skyline, but now there was a void. It was a grotesque void issuing forth with a wide band of dark gray smoke, which gave the borough a ghastly pall.

I turned on my camera again and took a couple shots. I took a couple pencils out of my pack and set my sketchpad on my lap. I rushed to draw that maimed cityscape with its smoking wound. People next to me watched intently and silently as I drew, my pencil strokes angry and fast.

Few people spoke as the ferry continued to chug along, going who knew where. I discreetly draw some of the people on the boat. One was a fireman, clad in helmet, turnout pants with broad red suspenders, and dark blue shirt with FDNY in white letters. A white dressing could be seen wrapped around his forehead and left eye. He sat motionlessly and stared down at the floor. It seemed strange to see him among the civilians.

These were a diverse crowd, reflecting their city's population. They ranged from a couple young moms with kids to several seniors. They were of a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Many wore office clothing ranging from "business casual" to formal suits. One older black woman had a black Lab - a guide dog - at her side. Nearly all had one thing in common - a thick coating of the gray powder of destruction.

I pulled my makeshift face scarf off and cautiously inhaled. The air was okay. Soft crying came from a few passengers. Another fighter jet engine could be heard as the aircraft loudly passed overhead. The closer we got to the Jersey shore, the more the air and sky became clear.
Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal
...the central railroad of new jersey terminal, a victorian structure of dark red brick, a clock tower, windows with rounded tops, and dormers...

I saw a grizzled man walking by, who looked like a deckhand, and stopped him. "Do you know where we're going?"

"Liberty State Park. There's an emergency center set up there."

"Oh. Thanks."

"No problem." The man looked at my drawing. "That's a pretty good picture."

"Thank you."

"This whole thing's just been awful. Terrorist bastards. We oughta nuke 'em."

I said nothing. The man then looked at my arm. The stained T-shirt around my forearm was barely visible.

"Looks like you got hurt pretty bad there."

"Yeah. Big piece of glass in the north tower lobby."

"They'll be able to fix that up. There's all kinds of emergency crews set up. That's what they said on the radio." I figured he meant a two-way radio.

"Then I suppose I'm going to the right place."

The man nodded and continued on, occasionally speaking to others. I saw other boats in the evacuation stream; these had sailed from Pier 11 near the end of Wall Street. I finished a drawing, from memory, of the falling north tower and drew more pictures of several of the refugees on the ferry. I felt worn out and light-headed, but still I sketched.

As I put my pencil to the broad stream of smoke rising above the WTC site, I realized that my status as outsider and observer for nearly two decades was over. I was as encrusted in dust as the rest and had moved into the camp of participants.

I looked up as we began steaming up a narrow canal. I put away my pad and pencils. Boats tied up at several long docks and unloaded their passengers. A broad green was dominated by the Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal, a Victorian structure of dark red brick, a clock tower, windows with rounded tops, and dormers set within a peaked roof covered in black shingles. Dozens upon dozens of emergency vehicles were parked in nearby lots.

My boat pulled up to the dock and weighed anchor. Rescue personnel, police, and volunteers helped people off. I also saw National Guard soldiers, which bolstered the feeling of being in a war zone. The refugees were led into a large white tent near the docks that served as a triage center.

Emotions were high, as blank-faced survivors in their ragged, grimy garments filed ashore. The murmur of voices contrasted with soft crying and the shriek of a baby. Many survivors looked in shock and lost, so the volunteers and medical workers were quick to provide guidance. Some handed out towels and bottled water to the refugees, including myself.

I was taken to the nearby tent, where I saw IV poles and stretchers with people attended by doctors and nurses. A volunteer took me to an empty gurney and helped me sit down. I took off my cumbersome backpack and camera bag, setting them next to the stretcher.

{To PART 26 of Persistence of Memory}