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Day of terror in New York: Pages from a reporter's 9/11 journal

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The brown-leather journal is my passport to Sept. 11, 2001. When I hold it in my hands, images and memories are no further away than yesterday.

I had no notebook with me when my husband and I dropped our children, 8 and 4, at school that morning. Then came news of the attacks at the World Trade Center, and my husband pulled the journal from his briefcase. He pressed it into my hand so I would have something to write on.

Rereading it, I wonder why I wrote in blue ink for several pages and switched to black. Why did I tear out pages and leave some with just a few scrawled words: "It looks like Beirut." "Whole south face coming down." "Fire dept. wiped out?"

Between chaotic interviews, I tried to get down what I was seeing: "Two guys, young guys, standing on the corner, looking up. One is screaming, 'Oh my God,' like were at a ballgame … a man w/a towel waving and then they jumped … two people jumping together. I don't know if they were office mates. They drifted down so slowly."

Some of this doesn't make sense: Why did I think people were jumping rather than falling? Tally marks appear for each person. There are eight. Was that all of them or had I turned away?

The journal had been an anniversary present to my husband. On that day, it served another purpose.

********

"Times Square, 9:15, people watching the zipper, no one moving at rush hour … people crying, on cell phones."

Times Square was frozen as people gaped up at the news crawl beneath the Jumbotron flashing a replay of the second plane crashing into the trade center towers.

The subway had shut down after only a few stops and there were no cabs, so I shoved $40 through the window of a beat-up car stopped at a light and asked for a ride downtown. The driver, a young man, waved away the money and said jump in.

Traffic stopped at 14th Street. I got out and jogged for several blocks before I hopped, uninvited this time, into another woman's cab. She didn't protest when I ordered the driver to tail a speeding firetruck. That's illegal, but on this day he did it.

At Canal Street, less than a mile from the burning towers, a cop on foot blocked the cab.

It turned out he actually wasn't a cop, but a uniformed guard, one of many citizens who took charge that day — directing traffic, handing out bottled water, crowding aboard flatbed trucks racing downtown to help any way they could.

"A businessman in a button-down shirt, open, hair completely matted. He's staring straight ahead, his hand firmly gripped around a bulging briefcase. He is in some kind of daze."

Heading south toward the trade center meant going against the tide, threading through a throng of disoriented people breaded in gray dust and dirt, their clothes disheveled.

On a side street three blocks north of the towers, a police lieutenant was examining a smoking hunk of jet plane engine that had landed next to a telephone booth. He said it had "knocked over a black lady and set her arms on fire." She had been taken to St. Vincent's Hospital with her skin hanging.

"A big roar. 10am. building collapsed. Cop cars going 50 mph backwards up Church. South building came down"

This was the first collapse. A wall of thick smoke and debris surged outward. Ash began to fill my eyes and throat. I banged on the glass door of a deli. Inside, two guys in white aprons shook their heads and mouthed "no." That was really upsetting. Finally I took refuge in a building lobby. People were gagging, vomiting grit. We broke into an emergency closet and retrieved plastic jugs of water.

"eerie eerie in lower Manh. Everyone had ducked into buildings. It was like people say is nuclear winter."

Outside it looked more like a Sunday morning after a heavy winter storm, but without the majesty of white. No footprints, no car tracks, just ankle-deep gray dust and rubble.

After a bit, I went back to Church Street to get a better view of the tower still standing. A policeman was telling a small group of people on a corner under the tower that the Pentagon had been attacked. My cellphone was dead and there was no way to know what was going on outside the cloud of dust.

That's when I first noticed people plummeting. How long did I stand there? Walter Pilipiak, an insurance broker who had just led his co-workers down 89 flights of the second tower, appeared. I took down his name wrong, spelling it "Pipiak." I was getting his phone number when there was another roar. The second tower.

What did it fall on? I remember thinking. Was it piled up in the East River?

Walter, a stranger just minutes ago, cupped his hand under my elbow and we sprinted ahead of the oncoming cloud.

********

"Suddenly the skyline is changed."

I can't tell whether those are my words or someone else's. I remember hunting for a pay phone to unload my interviews. But I was also consumed by concern for my children. Inside a small secondhand bookshop, the elderly owner let me call my husband's office. The children were safe, but he was beside himself. The last he knew, I was headed for the towers, he would later tell me.

After calling in my notes, I went out to a barricade where people were asking an FBI agent how they could help, but he wouldn't let them past. A nurse from Stamford, Conn., wanted to know where to go. He had no good answer.

"1pm, office chairs, gurneys, 20, covered w/white sheets … dozens of medical people in green scrubs waiting… beds waiting."

In Greenwich Village, outside St. Vincent's Hospital, university students had formed lines behind people holding up handmade signs that read "O+" "O-" and other blood types. St. Vincent's doctors and nurses hovered at the entrance. But no one came. Where were the wounded?

Kelly Badillo, a World Trade Center elevator operator, agreed to talk as he made his way to the river hoping to catch a ferry home to Jersey City. He said he'd seen charred bodies and people on fire that morning. Everybody who could ran out, he said, and then he added: "The rest, well, I don't know what's left of them."

Across the street, inside a small flower shop, a young woman with a dozen ear piercings was cutting lilies. The smell, the relief, was overwhelming. She gave me a Diet Coke and let me use the shop's phone. She also mentioned that she'd gone that week to get a gun permit. I remember thinking, if only a gun could have protected us from all this. I took her card to remind myself to call and thank her for her kindness.

"7 WTC is billowing in smoke. Every inch of West Side Highway is covered with emergency vehicles. Stopped, not moving. Hazmats, ladder 138, 262, 307, 136, helicopters. River oddly empty."

More interviews: firemen, a plastic surgeon, three Orthodox Jewish EMTs and several ironworkers from the local union. They had torches and tanks of oxygen and acetylene to burn through the rubble.

Police were holding them back, knowing that the trade center's building No. 7 was about to fall. At 6 p.m. it did. In a few minutes, police opened the highway and the rescuers all rushed toward the ruins.

The writing is dense on the pages of the diary, with words running up the sides and into the crevices. I think I was getting tired. I know my feet were killing me. I was wearing backless shoes.

Linda Solomon, a high school friend, lived in SoHo. Maybe she could lend me some sneakers. We wore the same size.

"What the hell are they doing?"

On West Broadway, two women were eating and drinking wine at a cafe as though thousands of people hadn't just perished. As though smoke wasn't still pouring from the tip of Manhattan. As though a charred stench wasn't still wafting through SoHo. Linda wasn't home.

Near Washington Square Park, I flagged down a police officer to ask whether there was any public transportation that would get me to the Times office in midtown. He offered a ride, which stunned me. They never do that. I sank into the back seat of his cruiser.

I hadn't realized how tired I was and sounded almost casual when I asked, "How's it going?"

"We lost our whole day tour," he said. He started crying.

Hours later, I finally made it home to the Upper West Side, where my little night owl, Louisa, opened the door. "Mommy, Mommy, your hair is gray!" she screeched. Ben was sound asleep, but as promised, I woke him. Fear welled up in his face. He grabbed me by the shoulders. "I'm scared, Mom," he said, and started crying.

I showered, put on a pair of white pajamas and took both of my children to bed with me.

********

This summer I went back to find the flower shop. It is gone, replaced by a chain coffee shop known for cutting-edge barista technology. St. Vincent's is also gone, now that a charity hospital is no longer needed in the upgraded neighborhood. Its main building is slated to become apartments.

My friend Linda is gone as well, to Canada.

Kelly Badillo was out of work for six months after the attack. He drank too much and was plagued by nightmares, he recalled when we had lunch the other day. But his union eventually found him a new job running the elevator at the Bank of New York, a sturdy old cement building close to the trade center site.

"I was hoping after 10 years everything would be finished and the trade center would be open," says Kelly, now 50. "I think it will get done before I retire. Then I can leave, move to Florida, knowing what I went through is behind me."

Walter Pilipiak, the insurance broker whose name I had misspelled, has a new office near the site.

"I always forget you're not a blond," he said this summer. My dark hair had been covered in ash when we first met.

We had seen each other only once since Sept. 11 — the following Monday, when I showed up at 5 a.m. at his suburban New Jersey home to chronicle his return to work in a midtown high-rise.

In the last decade a lot has happened to Walter, now 58. He left one job and landed another; one son is about to marry and the other is just out of college. His wife, Carol, who had also been working in the financial district, was more traumatized than he had initially understood. She still won't set foot in Manhattan.

In the months after Sept. 11, Walter was preoccupied with trying to find who led him and his co-workers to a stairwell, saving all their lives. Finally, he was able to identify "our hero" — Pablo Ortiz, a Port Authority employee who had died helping others. A photograph of Ortiz's family hangs on Walter's office wall.

During our visit, he kept fiddling with a charm on a chain hanging around his neck. It's a replica of the twin towers. First he bought a cheap one from a tourist vendor. Then he had one made of 14-karat gold. "This is my little baggage," he says. "That was my World Trade Center, where I became president of a company. That was my life and it is what it is."

********

I am still not sure why we save mementos from a day we would all just as soon forget.

Walter boxed up the tassel loafers and the hockey jersey he'd worn around his neck as he descended the tower. Kelly Badillo kept a ring of about 30 or 40 keys. They are to utility closets, lockers and offices that no longer exist.

Just an hour after the towers had fallen, Ryan Sheehan, then 17, filled a bottle with the soot. Ryan had been looking for his mother. I talked to him briefly that day. "I'm going to save this," he said.

How could he have already been thinking about a time when the calamity would be over? The diary holds no explanation.

But just as they saved shoes and keys and dust, I still have my journal.

I also live with two realities of Sept. 11 that still stagger me — the people plunging off the buildings and the children. Nearly 3,000 children, average age 9, lost a parent. My son was close to that age.

Like many parents, I measure my life by the progress of my children. We will soon be dropping the kids off at school again.

Louisa is starting at a big public high school in the Bronx. And on Sept. 12, we get to take Ben to college.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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