The day the Towers fell: Barry McKinley on 9/11

The author of A Ton of Malice relives his experience of the New York terrorist attack

Barry McKinley in New York City, with the World Trade Center in the background

Barry McKinley in New York City, with the World Trade Center in the background

 

My diary entry for August 4th, 2001 is just two lines: “Drinking martinis and Pisco Sours at the top of the World Trade Center. Visibility poor; can’t see the city.”

A month later, the bar is gone, its fixtures and fittings collapsed within a cloud of atomised humanity. The world is in shock, and New York is in mourning.

But on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, I’m not in New York City; I’m on the island of Nantucket with a small crew of Irishmen – carpenters and painters – repairing an old cedar shingle house.

With a hangover that feels like a dogfight behind my eyeballs, I’ve popped down to the store to grab a bagel and some strong black coffee. On the newsstand, the front page of the New York Times is all about the mayoral race, and bipartisan deals to revive the economy. It’s a slow news day.

The music on the store radio is interrupted by an announcement. “News reports are coming in regarding a twin-engine plane that crashed into one of the World Trade Towers.” The guy behind the counter shakes his head and says, “Probably some senile dentist from New Jersey, got lost in the fog.”

Makes sense, although it’s a warm morning and there’s not much chance of fog. I picture the pilot of a little Cessna, thick eyeglasses and the sun shining directly in his face. I feel sorry for him, because the sky is such a big place, and you don’t really expect to run into an obstacle.

An attack on America is the last thing that springs to mind. After all, it’s been a long time since Ramzi Yousef drove a bomb-laden truck into the basement of the World Trade Centre. The plan was to topple the North Tower into the South Tower and bury 35,000 souls under rubble. Ramzi, the Wile E Coyote of terrorists, struck a match and lit a twenty-foot fuse. He killed six people.

The time is just about 9am and I take my coffee down to the wharf, where the arriving ferry from Hyannis grinds against the rubber buffers. Nantucket is coming alive, but not with wealthy tourists and summer residents; their season ended a week ago, on Labor Day. Now, working men and women emerge from the wings to tidy up the mess left by three months of partying. We come from Boston and New York with mops, buckets, saws and paintbrushes.

The bagel tastes like window putty, and the coffee makes a passable weedkiller. A woman rushes by on the quayside, face flushed, tears on her cheeks. “This is terrible,” she says, “this is like the end of the world.” I should ask what she means, but seven years in New York has taught me not to engage with people who sob as they talk about the apocalypse. In any case, it’s time to get to work.

I hop into the open Jeep, supplied by the homeowner, and head for the job. The hangover is starting to bite, and sharp fragments of the previous night are pricking the balloon of memory. Was I in every bar on the island? I’m reminded of the old joke, “Irishmen only drink on days that start with the letter M: Monday, Moosday, Mensday….”

The house we’re working on is modest by Nantucket standards, but it does have a spectacular sea view, and it is right next door to Tommy Hilfiger’s $25 million mansion, which he will eventually lose in a divorce. I pull up outside the house and notice something unexpected: the stillness. No hammering, no grinding, no sanding, no sawing. Above all, no cursing and swearing. It is a bit like the end of the world.

Inside the house, the silence is cut by the stunned voice on CNN.

“It looked like the plane lined itself up perfectly to hit the building.”

When I enter the living room and see the ashen faces staring at the screen, it’s clear we’re not talking about a myopic dentist from Jersey.

The rest of the day becomes a battle against failed communications. All cell phone systems are down. Land lines too. We have to get back to the city, to family and friends. Loved ones.

Tools are packed away. The house locked up. Tickets for the ferry purchased. Back on the mainland, we pile into the old Ford station wagon, and start out on the five-hour journey to New York city. There is no conversation and this road, the busiest in America, seems to close in around the car. Our thoughts, the only traffic.

Finally, the piercing noise of Manhattan: police sirens, fire trucks, and F-16s roaring overhead. Everybody wants to go downtown and help, but nobody wants to see the gaping wound.

According to a man in my local bar, “if you want to attack America, you don’t bomb New York; we don’t have any Americans here. It’s just a bunch of immigrants tied together with a subway system. If you’re looking for Americans, go to Nebraska.”

An Afghan cab driver tells me, “I am not ashamed of who I am, but I have a friend from Kabul, he lives in Brooklyn and wears a T-shirt that says, Proud to be Puerto Rican.”

The New York Times starts printing obituaries, hundreds at first, but then thousands. We read as many as possible, but it’s hard to catch up with the dead. Graffiti appears on a wall in Central Park: “America. Love it or leave it,” but sometimes, a country is too big to love, and a city is just the right size. A city can easily fit inside the human imagination.

In my apartment, stuck to the fridge with a magnet, a sheaf of documents that should have been taken care of a long time ago. I spread them out on the kitchen table. Form N-400 is twenty pages long and every question must be answered correctly. It’s the first step on the path to citizenship.

Barry McKinley is author of A Ton of Malice

barrymckinley.com

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