Letter to the editor: ‘Three blocks from ground zero’ by Dawn Knipe

Dawn Knipe, UNF Assistant Director


Working only three blocks from Ground Zero, I am often asked if I was there on 9/11 and what happened. I have written my story for those who are interested. For those who have had their fill of 9/11 stories, I understand! Feel free to discard this insert and enjoy your holiday. For those who are curious, read on. To all, peace.

My nephew, Dan, said it best. There are exactly eleven beautiful days in the northeastern United States. And that’s it! Otherwise, it is either too hot or too cold. On those cold, windy days, Ernie often says the “Hawk” in the air. However, September 11th was one of the eleven. It was crisp, clear and made you feel good just being outside. If you’ve read any of the news reports, then you know Tuesday, September 11th began as an ordinary workday. I work at Pace University, and we had just finished our new student orientation and were prepped for the Fall semester events. I started the day as I usually do. I caught the 7:37 A.M. train to Hoboken, and then I took the commuter ferry across the Hudson River. I remember being in a very good mood when I arrived at my usual time, 8:35 A.M., at the World Trade Center. I walked the route I usually do on nice days — toward the Winter Garden, crossed north to Vesey Street, and continued east to Broadway. As I approached 5 World Trade Center, a young woman asked me how to get to 1 World Trade Center. I stopped and showed her two different paths. I continued across Church Street and passed St. Paul’s Chapel (the now famous little church that was miraculously kept out of harm’s way. Not only did George Washington worship there, but also Ernie and I on several early Sunday mornings when we lived downtown.) I passed the chapel, crossed Broadway and had just started up Ann Street when I heard the unmistakable sound of a low flying jet followed by a horrible explosion. People on the street thought it was a bomb, but I was certain it was a plane. I knew that sound instinctively. I grew up living in military housing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where the sounds of low flying planes were commonplace. There was no mistake. That sound was a plane flying much too low for New York City and it had just crashed. Some passerby’s claimed it was at the World Trade Center, but we didn’t have a view of it from Ann Street. We walked around Nassau Street to Fulton and saw the Tower in flames. The sky was filled with papers and black smoke. I remember looking at the Tower and trying to figure out how many of the floors were on fire and thinking many people must have died in the impact. I kept staring at the damaged floors and wondered how they would repair the facade. It seemed too high up to put scaffolding. The immensity of the tragedy had not yet hit me.

A woman next to me was crying and another was panicked because her apartment was only a few blocks south of the Towers and her daughter and husband were still at home. “Do you think the building could topple over?” she asked us. “No, I don’t think so,” I said, “No way.” I was around when the building was bombed in 1993. If it didn’t topple over then when there was a bomb at its base, surely it couldn’t from a simple accident at the top.

Back in ’93, many of the people who were evacuated walked over to Pace University to use our phones and bathrooms. I thought I should head over to the university’s Security office to let them know what had happened so they could prepare for the crowds to come over. As I walked toward Pace, the panicky woman followed talking to me and wanting more reassurances that everything would be okay. From our conversation, I learned that she was an art professor at the university and was on her way to teach class. She didn’t know if she should teach class or go home. I suggested that she call her family and see how they are. If she was still worried, I told her the school would understand if she wanted to cancel her class.

By the time I got to the Security office, Rich, the director, was not there but already in the President’s office briefing him. I gave the security officer on duty my telephone number and said I was available to help if they needed it. I headed for my office on Park Row but first stopped to get a cup of coffee. I thought I’d take another look at the Tower, so I walked over to City Hall Park to get the best view. Now, to my amazement, both Towers were engulfed in flames. I was shocked to see that the flames had spread to the second Tower! At that point, I realized just how scary the fire had become. I turned back to my office building and met the Dean for Students in the lobby. She told me that her staff and the counselors were going to relocate to the front of the main building and that I could join them. I told her I was going to see how my staff was first, but that we would be over if they closed the Park Row building. On my way up the elevator, I met the art professor again. She was near hysterics. I told her to come with me and she could use the phone in my office. When I got to my office, the staff told me about the second plane hitting the tower and that it was some kind of attack. We put the radio on and listened to the news reports. There were seven of us in the office, and we decided to stay put rather than go to the main building where most of the university was congregating. We concluded that we had water, bathrooms, telephones, a radio and each other – we didn’t want to leave unless we had to. Our offices are located on the eighth floor and face north, away from the towers. We could see the crowds gathering on the street and the masses of people evacuating north, but our only source of information of what was happening was the radio. I called my mother to tell her that if she was watching the news, not to worry about me – I was safe in my office.

One of our student leaders, Susan, came on the floor with a woman who was crying uncontrollably. “She was on the street upset because her family is in there,” Susan said, “I told her she could use our phones.” The woman could not contain herself enough to dial. I asked her where her family worked. She said her aunt and her cousin worked on the 101st floor. I tried to comfort her by saying the plane probably didn’t hit that high and that she shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Susan had to dial the phone for her because the woman was shaking so much. We could not get a call through. We did our best to calm the woman and keep her from assuming the worst.

As we listened to the news, we learned about the Pentagon attack. Two students were visibly upset because they were on the street when they saw people jumping out of the Towers. Telephone communication was sporadic, and the radio reported that all public transportation had stopped. I was in the office next to mine, when my colleague, Hope, started screaming, “Oh, my God, oh, my God.” I looked out her window and saw the people outside on the street running in a panic. Then we heard “rat-a-tat-tat” on the building, and we assumed that the people on the street were being shot at. I screamed, “Get on the floor, everybody get away from the windows! They’re shooting outside!” Everyone hit the floor. Hope was the first to see the smoke rising outside the windows and warned that they may be bombing the buildings. We all agreed that being on the 8th floor was probably not the safest place to be if, in fact, they were attacking our building, and that we should probably walk down to a lower level so we could get out quickly. Everyone started down the stairs. I walked door to door telling everyone on the floor to vacate while Hope started evacuating the other floors. By the time I got to the fourth floor, a student from the Education Department, Navjot, told me that one of the Towers had collapsed. He also told me that if you looked out the window you couldn’t see anything. I walked with him to one of the windows and saw that he was right. The windows were opaque white. When I got back into the stairwell, I could see the air was getting smoky, and I realized we had left the doors and windows open on our floor. Navjot and I ran up the stairs to the 8th floor. Our offices were filling with smoke. We closed all the office doors, shut the Activities Center gate, and ran back down the stairs. When we got to the first floor, the air was thick with dust, and I was genuinely fearful that we might suffocate. Someone in the crowd suggested that we get wet paper towels out of the bathroom to use as an air filter. We waited about ten minutes for the air outside to clear, and we all evacuated to the main building.

The crowds were being directed to the gymnasium in the basement. I looked again for Rich from Security, but there were too many people. Our staff had gotten separated, and no one seemed to know what we should do. I walked to the Student Union and was surprised to see the Book Exchange still in progress. The Book Exchange is a student-run program where students buy and sell used books. Remember that this was the first week of classes. There were about twenty students still in line to buy books. I told the students selling the books that they needed to close down. Qin and Annie, two of the leaders, asked me what they should do with the money? I asked all the “customers” to please leave and collected all the cash from the student workers. We put the money in a cash box, I took it and promised I would keep it safe for them. We then asked a security guard to lock the room, and I sent the students to the gym.

When I got back to the gym, I found two of my co-workers. We decided we should try to regroup the staff and make a plan. Danny stayed put while Sumeira and I went looking for the others. Shortly thereafter, the second Tower fell, and the air in the basement was getting worse. We knew we wouldn’t be able to leave the university until the air cleared outside, but we were getting claustrophobic in the gym. After gathering the staff, we decided to walk up to higher ground! We took the stairs to the third floor and camped out in one of the classrooms. The air was much clearer, very few people were on the floor, and we could look out the windows. It was strangely quiet as we watched people outside, covered in white soot, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. We took turns trying to call home on our two cell phones, but with limited success. We sat in the classroom thinking what to do. We had left the office in such a panic, that no one except me and Hope had thought to take so much as a pocketbook. We didn’t know how long we could stay at the university nor how any of us would get home. Like most New Yorkers, we commute long distances to work by either subway or commuter rail – none of which was running. Hope suggested that we all walk to Houston Street (about two miles away) and go to her brother’s apartment until public transportation was running again. We counted the money in the cash box that I had been schlepping and had a whopping $5,000 in cash. We decided to record how much was there and divide it among ourselves, both to protect us against looters and to make sure that if we got separated, we each had emergency cash for hotel, food, or whatever we might need. We wished we had a radio for information. About the time our plan was in place, a security officer came into the classroom and told us we had to go back to the gymnasium. As we were walking past the first floor, I began hearing the rumors. Brooklyn’s Borough Hall was supposedly bombed. Enemy planes were circling Manhattan. None were true but scary enough to paralyze many of the students. Oh, yes. One was true: a plane had crashed near Pittsburgh. There were police officers on the floor, and they suggested that anyone who could leave the building, should, and walk uptown. I counted out each person’s share of the cash and recorded his or her debt in my notebook. Hope was able to get her hands on a surgical mask and she handed it to me. “Here, you’re the oldest! You need this more than we do!” We all laughed, and I stuck it in my purse.

Being outside was surrealistic. Everything was coated in a layer of white dust, and we felt like we were walking through a sandstorm. The students held fresh paper towels to their faces, and I slipped on the surgical mask. When we walked north beyond Police Plaza, the air got much clearer. We stopped to look back at where the Towers once stood. Now there were just billows of smoke. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the movie, Gone With the Wind when Rhett and Scarlett stop to watch Atlanta burning. Prophetically, Rhett tells Scarlett to take a good look because it marked the moment the world would change.

We were among thousands walking uptown. People were standing on corners suggesting everyone stop at a local hospital and give blood. Others were handing out water to the walkers. Restaurants had handwritten signs hung – “Rest Room Available.” I had never before witnessed such an outpouring of people wanting to do something – anything — to help.  We finally reached Hope’s brother’s apartment. It was good to be someplace that felt safe. Her brother, another Dan, had bought lunchmeat and bread and all the fixings for sandwiches. As we nourished ourselves, we sat in the living room watching the news, and for the first time, we saw the devastation of the collapsing Towers – knowing we had been right there, a mere three blocks away.

All the sudden my cell phone rang, and it was Mrs. Resnick, the Vice-Principal from Ernie’s school. She was practically in tears knowing that she could tell Ernie I was okay. By five o’clock, the news reported that ferries were running to New Jersey again, but at a temporary pier near Wall Street. I figured that was my best bet to get home. Ironically, it meant I had to walk south, back toward Ground Zero. Alone, I started the trek downtown. Nothing could prepare me for this eerie, disconcerting walk. New York had instantaneously turned into a war zone. Police were everywhere and National Guardsman began appearing. The streets were closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles. A convoy of trucks miles long was bustling across Houston Street. I walked along an empty, quiet FDR drive interrupted occasionally by sirens. As I made my way past the Seaport, the road became littered with burned office paper. I picked up one sheet with singed edges filled with financial information. From what file did this come? From whose office?

I got to the ferry about 5:45 and asked a worker which one went to Hoboken. “That one is going to Jersey City.” “Is there one going to Hoboken?” “If you want to go to New Jersey, you’d better take it. It’s the only one crossing the river.” I hopped on the ferry figuring there must be a way to Hoboken once I get to Jersey City. Three students with bandanas protecting their faces yelled, “Dawn, Dawn.” It was Rachel and Anna who work for me at the Information Desk along with one of their friends. When 7 World Trade Center fell, the university lost all power, so the students in the Residence Hall were sent home. These three were trying to get to Weehawken.
As the ferry passed the site where the World Trade Center once stood, no one spoke. There were hundreds of us making our way across the Hudson River and not one sound. We all just watched the enormous bulbous of smoke. There was no real comprehension of the tragedy – just disbelief that those immense Towers were gone.

At Jersey City, no one knew how to get to Hoboken or Weehawken, but there were dozens of volunteers helping travelers with water and food. A medical triage center was already set up and emergency workers were asking if anyone needed attention. Someone pointed the four of us to a bus stop and said volunteer vans were going by now and again. Maybe they would take us where we needed to go. We waited and a van did arrive, and the driver said he’d take us as far as Journal Square. We crowded in the van and were pleased to see that the PATH trains were running when we got to the station. From there we took a train to Hoboken, and the three students decided they would take a commuter rail to Rachel’s mother’s house in Nutley. I was able to catch a train headed for Little Falls and got home by 8:30 that night.

The scope of the event didn’t hit me until two days later. I was obsessed with the news reports on TV and watched the collapsing Towers over and over again in stunned disbelief. Ernie had gone back to school, but I was stuck home for at least a week. I was watching a TV reporter interviewing a high school student from the Midwest who had written a memorial poem about the tragedy. As he read the poem, I broke down and cried and cried and cried.

I am still obsessed with the news, but I try to limit how much I watch. Although I did not know anyone personally who died in the tragedy, our university lost four students and about 20 alumni. Also lost were the wife of a colleague, the brother of another, and the college roommate of a good friend. In the office, our talk often goes back to that chilling day. I was surprised to learn from my staff that when we were crawling on the floor, I was reciting the “Our Father.” We weren’t permitted back into our office building to collect our personal belongings until ten days later. Unfortunately, we had left our windows open, so we found everything coated in dust and debris, but I am happy to say that all $5,000 was accounted for upon our return and deposited to the Book Exchange. Now, as I get off the ferry and walk by Ground Zero during my daily commute, I often reflect on the magnitude of our country’s loss. I wonder about the woman who I gave directions to that day. Could she have been on the elevator when the plane hit? Which floor did she go to? Did she get out okay? I think how foolish I was to proclaim to the art professor that there was “no way” the building would topple. And I think of how we tried to comfort the stranger in our office to not assume the worst. In retrospect, the chances are her family members were trapped and did not survive, but we never saw the stranger again to find out. But mostly I think of how important it is to live in the present with those you love. It may be a cliché, but the past is over, and the future is uncertain. We just have today.

May God Bless You,