Monday, 5 September 2011

9/11 remembered: my eye witness account

As I walked between Broadway–Lafayette and Bleecker Street subway stations I looked over my shoulder, downtown, and noticed smoke billowing into the clear blue sky. It was an eye catching sight but I wasn't alarmed; although it was unusual to see such a dramatic amount of smoke, apartment fires were not uncommon.

I continued with my commute on the 6 train to my stop at 32nd Street and Park Avenue, headphones on, reading a magazine. My normal exit out of the station was chained shut, so I continued to the exit on 33rd street and headed into my office on the 9th floor of 2 Park Avenue.

18 months earlier I'd managed to bag a job in New York. I'd been working for emap in the UK as a magazine designer in their Peterborough office and decided I wanted to work in the States.

I sent letters and photographs of my work to all the CEOs of the major publishing houses in Manhattan.  A prehistoric way of getting a job compared to today's social networks, but it worked! One of my packages landed on the desk of Efrem Zimbalist III, the head of Times Mirror magazines (TMM).

TMM were looking to launch a golf magazine. I'd been working on the now defunct Fore! and Efrem liked my work. Coincidentally, Popular Science, also owned by TMM were looking for an designer, so when the golf project was shelved Efrem handed my portfolio to Chris Garcia, Popular Science's Art Director.

As I walked onto the editorial floor of Popular Science on Tuesday September 11th 2001 there was a commotion in an advertising executive's office. A few of my colleagues were staring, opened mouthed, at the TV. A plane had hit one of the twin towers.

At this stage it was assumed to be an accident, perhaps a private plane that had gone off course. I had a brief chat, took in the news flash and then continued to my desk and got ready for the day ahead.

The magazine was on press and we had a lot to get through. I was waiting for delivery of the contact sheets from a photo shoot on Long Island with photographer Robert Mayer. We'd been photographing Christopher Langan, "the smartest man in America", in bar, because he used to be a bouncer there.

Screams suddenly erupted from the Editors' offices  - another plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre.

Shocked staff started to congregate into one of two offices to watch the attack playing out, Democrats in the editor's office and the more hawkish Republicans in the advertising chief's office.

I was friends with people in both camps so switched between the two rooms for a while. The hawks were beginning to sound too aggressive for my liking and the editor's office was packed.

I felt like an outsider, detached, it wasn't my country. I didn't really know what to do so I went back to my desk and got on with work, for me the best way to cope with the enormity of the situation.

I don't think American TV was broadcasting the same footage as that seen in the UK. Talking to British friends later, it seems the BBC was showing far more horrific imagery than what we were seeing in New York.

Later on, more loud screams. I rushed over to the editor's office to see the first tower collapse. Staff were alarmed and fearful. Many planes were still unaccounted for and we'd heard the Pentagon had been hit. Our building was two blocks away from the Empire State Building so we were worried there could be another strike close by. America hadn't been attacked since Pearl Harbour, we felt incredibly vulnerable.

Colleague, Gunjan Sinha, was anxious. Her husband, Manolo, worked in one of the Twin Towers, he was unaccounted for and she couldn't get through to him on his cell phone.

By 11.30am there was news. Manolo was alive! He'd gone to an early meeting up-town and arrived at the World Trade Centre later than normal, to witness people jumping, he left the scene immediately.

By the time the second tower fell the decision was made to send people home.

I'd managed to get in contact with my wife Kirsty in Brooklyn and friends and family in the UK to say I was OK. But I was stuck on Manhattan, the subway was closed and although millions were walking across the bridges back to their homes in Brooklyn I felt safer staying put in the office.

By mid-day, Editor, Cecilia Wessner and I were the only staff on the floor. We carried on getting the magazine to press. I spent the day building pages, looking at Quark Express 4.1 instead of the TV.

I got to know Cecilia a little better that day, she was already reworking the next issue. It was too late to run a 9/11 story in the present issue but she rewrote her editorial, a page not yet sent to the printers.

9 floors below me the yellow taxis had been replaced by people streaming northwards, Park Avenue was heaving with survivors making their way home.

By 8pm the subways were working so I caught the F train home to Brooklyn. From our apartment roof you used to be able to see the top of the towers, now just smoke. Kirsty, who was 5 months pregnant with our son had said debris had been falling from the sky all day around where we lived near Prospect Park, 4 miles away.

The next day the office was closed, I told Cecilia I'd help finish the magazine so I took the empty subway train to Manhattan.

The city was in mourning, street lights which normally had the odd missing pet flyer were now covered with heartbreaking home made missing person posters. There was a sickening smell that stayed in the air for what seemed like weeks. The Stars and Stripes appeared outside homes and flew for the remaining time we lived America, another two and a half years.

The attacks had a dramatic effect on magazines. Every magazine published after the attack ran a 9/11 story, however incongruous. A golfing magazine used 9/11 as an excuse to get people onto the fairways - golf was the best medicine, relieve the 9/11 stress by playing 18 holes!

Popular Science's November issue was a patriotic look at how technology will prevent future attacks - designs for terrorist proof sky scrapers with armour plating and radar, battle field drones and the future soldier were squeezed into a special 9/11 issue.

But magazines were in trouble, advertising contracted, budgets were cut, Popular Science was sold to Time-Warner. By March 2002, out of 30-odd staff, only 3 or 4 who were employed the previous September remained. Many had been sacked and replaced by the new employers, others had decided to move out of New York, back to their safer home towns.

I was leaving too, Rolling Stone had called and offered me a job on the design team so it was time to move on.

Monday September 10th 2001, Long Island photoshoot. Polaroid by Robert Adam Mayer

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