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I saw a woman sitting calmly in a cafe sipping coffee. She looked perfectly normal except for the tears streaming down her face. Related Gully Coverage

New York Faces Terror
Fleeing a gigantic ball of black ash and fire.

WTC Attack
Complete guide includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Complete New York City coverage.

View from writer's roof as the World Trade Center's twin towers burn. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Sally Heckel

Watching the Twin Towers Fall

by Kelly Cogswell

NEW YORK CITY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2001. I was standing at the yellow police tape on Hudson Street, staring at the billowing clouds of smoke coming from the wreckage of the World Trade Center a few blocks south, when a middle-aged New Yorker told me she'd seen the first plane hit the north tower.

"We were just a few blocks away, over there," she said. "The plane flew directly over our heads and right into the building. Then flames came out. It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen. I just started screaming and couldn't stop. I think my husband was embarrassed."

He shouldn't have been. Everybody on the streets was stunned in their own way by the terrorist attacks here and in Washington. Walking downtown this afternoon, I saw a woman sitting calmly in a cafe sipping coffee. She looked perfectly normal except for the tears streaming down her face. People slouched on stoops, or gathered around car radios, and in bars. Every now and then someone glassy-eyed and grey with dust would pass you walking uptown on the sidewalk, and you knew they came from the heart of the disaster.

Even fifteen or twenty blocks away the air was thick with dust. Five or so blocks away, you had it in your eyes and mouth. The cars were covered in ash and grit an inch thick. Ambulances appeared on the horizon in swirls of white dust devils. There was a blazing sun and blue skies in one direction, and in another huge black poisonous clouds.

I woke up this morning to the boom of the plane hitting the first tower. I didn't know what it was, and would probably have gone back to sleep, but there was a man's incredulous voice from the building behind me going, "Holy shit! Holy shit!" A minute later there was a woman's voice going, "Holy shit!" before dissolving into hysterical giggles.

I thought it was the usual New York domestic drama until I turned on the TV, and saw flames coming out of the top of one of the 110-story Twin Towers. Having seen "Independence Day" and all the other alien attack movies that flatten New York, it still just seemed like one more movie trick.

When the second plane hit, I went up on the roof and just stared at Lower Manhattan, trying to understand. There were ragged plane-shaped gashes in both Towers. Smoke trailed from them like candles. All the roofs of my neighborhood were lined with people, half of them with cameras. It was less voyeurism, than a sense that we better get this on film now, because it won't be true in the morning, and no one will believe us. It all seemed unreal, the hijackings, the attack on the Pentagon, even a Palestinian group taking credit.

When the first tower collapsed, everything fell from such a height it seemed to come down slowly, almost gracefully, like it was made of paper and flour. It was only then that I understood how there were thousands and thousands of people under the debris, ordinary people like me who turned up on time, skipped the Starbucks, and got this.

I also started thinking that their deaths, if they were truly at the hands of Middle-Eastern terrorists, will probably refuel the evil machine of revenge and hatred that killed them in the first place. Anti-Islamic sentiment may rise throughout the Western world like it did after the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover in Iran.

The cycle of retribution could scatter dead Muslims and Americans worldwide, giving the hawks in the Bush administration the opportunity to rise out of the ashes of the ruined economy, and push for a missile shield that couldn't have stopped these hijackings and bombs in a million years.

None of the dead on either side will just be dead sons and daughters, but all patriots and martyrs. The tentative Sharon-Arafat talks will probably be canceled. The primitive love-it-or-leave-it view of America will be in ascendance. No one will dare to moderate Israeli attacks on Palestinians. Bush will probably give in to demands to make war, though we weren't attacked by a specific nation. Instead, we will bomb phantoms and profiles.

Meanwhile, burned-up buildings continue to collapse here in New York, slowing the rescue process, killing hundreds of firefighters and rescuers, and changing the urban landscape forever. New York will survive, though. It always does.

Just hours after the disaster, people lined up at the hospitals to give blood for the injured. The usually irritable cops patiently answered questions in the heat and dust. There was a woman on the street corner giving out cups of water for free, as if we were running the New York marathon. Maybe we are.

For New York Faces Terror

For Complete Coverage WTC Attack

For Complete Coverage New York City

In Depth

WTC Attack
Guide to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on NYC and DC. Includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

New York City news, opinion, and headlines. Dirty secrets and surprising treasures of the city.

Bush Plus
U.S. politics and the Bush administrationAll about the morass of U.S. politics, George W. Bush, Dems, Greens, GOPs, activists, silently irritated masses and global impact.

Color and Cash
race and classThe Gully's complete coverage of race and class, two intertwined pillars of American society.

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Guatemala to Puerto Rico and more.

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