Adapted from an article published in the June 13 issue of the Paulite Link.
On September 11, 2001, Rajendra Belgaumkar reached his office on the 46th. floor at the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan, New York at around 8 am. The first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at about 8:45 am.
Who would have thought that the US would ever feel insecure?
September 11 is a day that all of us (whether in the US or India) will never forget. Raj was at his desk, and heard this huge roar of an airplane above his building. The Hudson River that lies on one side of the whole complex is a frequent path traversed by US navy ships with aircraft that can make a sound in pretty proximity. Yet, this sounded larger and closer than anything he had heard. A fraction of a second later he heard a massive thud. Raj had till then not realized that a plane had crashed into the World Trade center.
Raj further says, “Ten seconds or so later we had people on that side of the floor running toward our side, some with tears streaming down. I walked over to that side and what I saw was a huge fireball emanating from the World Trade Center, the same one in which I used to work in for the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York on the 103rd. floor. Some debris had started falling down and a body or two fell down.”
He ran back to his cubicle and called his wife, Ashwini with the news at what had transpired. As his colleagues watched the WTC in a state of shock each one there was even more terrified to see another plane approaching the other tower. This was total proof that this was a terrorist attack. All on the floor decided, despite the fact that the public address system kept advising us to stay put, to leave, they proceeded down to the marina along the water.
Everything was orderly and the waterfront was crowded. People headed to New Jersey were lining up to take the ferry. Raj stayed back to calm down a secretary in his department. Many ferries passed by and eventually this service was stopped. He saw some debris fall down and some people with cuts and bruises walk by. After about 15 minutes of this he decided that he was very uncomfortable with the whole thing and decided to keep walking away from the buildings on fire. Amazingly, it was almost like an orderly march of an entire community of people. No stampedes. No frayed tempers – Just a solemn march in the North Direction, away from the buildings. At intervals he kept looking back to see the towers on fire. It was a painful sight. Then, a few blocks later, the unimaginable happened. One of the towers collapsed in a cloud of dust that seemed like hell had engulfed the earth. They kept walking. Sometime later, the second one followed suit.
Along the way, he was making inquiries in PATH train stations if the trains were running. Every type of transportation in New York had been suspended. Raj says, “I could not call Ashwini as the lines were not working.” The secretary lived in Manhattan. They reached 33rd. Street, near Macy’s. At this point, she felt comfortable enough to walk home. There were many people milling around the PATH station on 33rd. Street. News had spread that it was hijacked planes that had crashed into the WTC, and that there were at least six other such planes of which one had hit DC and another had hit LA (which turned out to be false). Around noon or so, Raj made a determination that it would be a long time before he reached home, and that things could only get worse and hence decided to eat something to keep up his energy levels for the possible hardships that lay ahead.
Raj went to Dimple (Indian restaurant – Bhel Puri place) on 31st. Street. They had closed, as had most eating establishments. He puttered around their door and struck up a conversation with their chef who had come outside to smoke a cigarette. He let Raj in and allowed him to eat something that they still had left over from what had been cooked that day. After thanking the chef profusely he walked back to the PATH station on 6th. Avenue.
Now there was more chaos and no one knew the answer to this question – How do we cross the river and get into New Jersey. He struck up a conversation with a Chinese guy, Jamie, and they stayed together throughout from this point on. They heard rumors that a ferry was running from 33rd Street on 12th. Avenue to somewhere in New Jersey. After much debate they decided to walk the six long blocks to 12th. Avenue. After about three long blocks they heard a rumor that the PATH trains had started running. They walked back in a hurry to Sixth Avenue. The rumor was false
Then, deciding that it was logical that water would be the best option out of the island of Manhattan, they decided to walk to 12th. Avenue. Around 9th. Avenue, they got confirmation that a ferry was indeed running. Their hearts were warmed by this news. Along the way, they saw the fires burning. They got to 12th Avenue and it was a shock. The line had snaked around a number of times and was at least a couple of miles long. The ferries were running though. Decision time, it surely was. “What do we do?” A policeman told them that they were running ferries out from 23rd. Street (another 10 long blocks away), and that the lines there were reasonable. Both Raj and Jamie decided to walk to the 23rd. Street. They were at the end of a very long line when another line opened up on another side of the harbor and were able to sit in the ferry. Finally, at 3:00 pm or so, it took off.
They just sat down on the floor and waited to reach some place along the Jersey shore. The ferry had been requisitioned by the city of New York, and the ride was free. The waiters on this ferry that is normally used for luxury rides around Manhattan were passing water around for the tired masses gathered in the ferry. It was their small way of being helpful. The ferry dropped them at the Weehawken harbor. Weehawken is the town after Hoboken that is located right before the entrance to the Lincoln tunnel. Jamie walked away toward his destination.
Raj was now looking around for some form of transportation to either Hoboken or Jersey City. None was in sight. After a minute or two, he simply decided to walk the distance. Along the way, he passed a factory on the outskirts of Hoboken where workers from the factory had brought their water cooler to the street and were providing all passersby with water – Another small and welcome gesture. As Raj walked south along Park Avenue in Hoboken, for the first time that day, he had some time and strength to reflect about the events that had transpired. Strangely, only one thought permeated his consciousness – utter sorrow at the destruction that had been wreaked upon the WTC. There was no anger, no thought of blaming anyone – just sadness.
Park Avenue in Hoboken is interrupted for a block by a park that is bounded by Garden Street on the east and Willow on the west. It is the place that Raj and Ashwini used to spend many an evening while they lived a block away on Garden Street. As he traversed the diagonal on this park that brought him to the intersection of Fourth Street and Willow, on which he wanted to head south to Jersey City, he realized how intertwined their lives had been with this landmass.
After Hoboken, he walked through Jersey City, which by this time, had a massive police presence, and reached his building. His journey ended that day when Ashwini opened the door and Raj was able to see his children, Jayant and Pallavi. It was close to a quarter past four.