9/11 and Penguin Place

The view from our neighborhood on 9/10

Unless you made a personal pilgrimage to Penguin Place most folks didn’t know that for a dozen years or so (1998 -2009) our igloo was located on the top floor of an old factory building on the Brooklyn waterfront about a block from the anchorage of the Manhattan Bridge. As the crow flies we were about a mile from the World Trade Center which we saw day and night out our windows like a pair of giant exclamation points rising over the bridge.  As Penguin Place was situated in the back of our live / work loft on Water St., my wife Molly and I were blissfully sleeping in on the morning of September 11th.   My assistant Jeannie wasn’t due for work until 10 and Molly and I had gone out the night before, so we were still half asleep with Molly’s head buried in her pillow, and I had my eye mask on as shelter from the morning sun when we heard what sounded like distant thunder.  “What the heck was that?” I said to Molly. There was a small recycling center next door, and we were use to being greeted every other morning by the sounds of bottles and cans being dumped by the thousands into the back of trucks, but the sound we heard wasn’t that. Still, we only heard it once, and this was NY so we were use to lots of strange sounds, and that wasn’t even close to being loud enough to rouse us from a few extra minutes of shuteye.  Then a few minutes later the phone rang, and I walked right past our windows to answer it momentarily oblivious to what was happening outside.  It was my assistant Jeannie who told me she didn’t think it was a good idea to come to work that day. “Why not, are you sick?” I asked.  “Can’t you see what’s going on?!  She shot back. “A plane just hit the Twin Towers!  Look out your window!”  I turned to my right and there in front of me was the south tower of the WTC with smoke pouring out the top.  There was a long pause, and Jeannie shouted my name into the phone.  “Eric, do you see what I’m talking about?!”  “Geez,” (or something to that effect) was all I could say until I was finally able to compose myself, after which I told Jeannie not to come to work right before I hung up the phone.  “Molly look out the window!” I yelled as I back-peddled into the kitchen to turn on the radio, never taking my eyes off the towers.  The first thing we heard on WCBS was that it was a small commuter plane that hit the tower, but the amount of smoke and damage we were looking at told us otherwise.  We quickly got dressed and I grabbed my camera as we stared out our windows.  We simply didn’t know what to do or what the heck was going on, and by all accounts neither did the people on the radio.  I heard some commotion in the hallway and it was some of our neighbors heading up to the roof, so I told Molly I was going to join them, and she said she’d follow shortly.  At some point during the minute or so it took to get down the hall and up the roof ladder the second tower was hit, and when I emerged on the roof I found both towers now burning and my neighbors in various states of shock, panic and disbelief as they had just witnessed a commercial jet explode into the south tower.   From our vantage point we could see most of east side of lower Manhattan as we watched the bridges and FDR Drive fill up with both pedestrians and traffic all heading away from the WTC, while dozens of firetrucks and other emergency vehicles headed in the opposite direction.  I ran downstairs and grabbed my portable radio and brought it back up to the roof as I desperately needed to know what the heck was going on.  At first it seemed the broadcasters were almost as much in the dark as we were, but by now were getting some info, like these were hijacked commercial planes, and that other planes were unaccounted for and may be on their way to who knows where.  At this point in time from our roof we had one eye on the burning towers and the other on the sky looking for more planes.  Then we heard the Pentagon was hit, and our minds raced as we nervously scanned the skies,  turning north every now and then to see if the Empire State Building was o.k.   We could now see the smoke of the south tower start to change to a lighter color as the fire burned up to the top of the building looking like a giant cigarette on end, and as I asked my neighbor Rick if he thought it was possible to put out a fire 90 floors up or would it simply burn itself out to our horror the first tower collapsed onto itself, followed a couple of seconds later by the thunderous rumble of the sound of the collapse reaching us.  It happened so fast, we were dumfounded and wide-eyed as we watched an enormous gray cloud engulf lower Manhattan.  The thousands of people on the bridges and FDR surged forward as smoke and a paper confetti shower began to drift over the East River driven by a steady west wind.  Molly went downstairs to man the phones and call her family back in Michigan.  I stayed on the roof with our neighbors as we sat vigil for the north tower and mourned the south.  At the time I honestly didn’t think the remaining tower would collapse as I argued that it was struck higher up and looked to be in better shape than the south tower.  Perhaps it was wishful thinking.  But, soon the smoke from the remaining tower began to change to a lighter color and a couple of minutes later with a horrible roar the north tower collapsed.  I remember saying to Rick that I think we just saw 10,000 people die, to which he replied that 100,000 people work in the towers.  Silence.  As the smoke and dust began to clear we saw blue sky where the towers use to be, and like the rest of the world we were simply stunned.  Then Rick mentioned, “Isn’t your brother-in-law a fireman?” “Oh my God yes!” I said. “He works out of Queens, but I don’t know if he’s on duty today.”  I rushed downstairs and by now footage of the planes hitting the towers and the subsequent collapse were being shown in a continuous loop on tv.  I called my sister, but she didn’t answer the phone, then I called my parents, who did.  But, they had no luck getting in touch with my sister either, and had no idea if my brother-in-law Kevin was scheduled to work that day.  I tried to re-assure them that even if he was on duty that his firehouse in Queens was too far away for him to get downtown before the collapse.  Or at least I hoped.  Sometime around noon Molly and I decided to get out of our place and go for a walk.   As we made our way up to Brooklyn Heights the scene of thousands of stunned people, some covered in soot and ash, some injured, but all with the same dumbfounded expression emerging from the Brooklyn Bridge and subways was surreal.  All the while we couldn’t take our eyes off the tremendous plume of smoke drifting our way over the river.  A couple of hours before it was a beautifully boring September morning and now New York looked like a war zone.  Sirens blared from every direction.  I told Molly that I didn’t think things would ever be the same again.  That this was only the beginning.  “Beginning of what?” she asked.  “I have no idea.” Was all I could say. As the NYPD began to seal off the bridges, subways and roads leading into the city we trudged home.  Once there Molly and I decided to go back to the roof and this time scale the scaffolding  enveloping the fifty foot tall, 19th century smokestack that topped our old factory building.  We sat near the top for a long time.  Listened to the radio, talked and held each other as we watched the surreal, sickeningly beautiful sunset though the smoke and debris haze that engulfed lower Manhattan.

Molly on our roof, sunset September 11th, 2001

When it finally got dark we climbed down from our perch and went back inside.  The first thing I did was to check to see if I could still get on-line, and I was relieved to find I could.  There were lots of e-mails waiting for us from friends and family checking to see if we were o.k., but also to my surprise I had not 1,or 2, or even 3, but 4, 5, 6, yes 6 Penguin Place orders.  Four from the night before, but two orders were made after the planes hit.  I guess either some people didn’t know what was going on or they really needed their penguins. Who knows?  Maybe it was their kids birthday and after all that happened this day they didn’t want to disappoint their 6-year-old as well.  Perhaps, it was the first defiant statement not to let the terrorists win. Either way, I was relieved to have something to do while I watched the news that near sleepless first night.  The next morning, I received a phone call from my parents that Kevin was at the WTC site, but O.K..  His unit arrived after the towers collapsed.   So, with the smoke still drifting over the East River to Brooklyn I walked my six packages about a mile to the post office.  It was open and there was no line.

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One Response to “9/11 and Penguin Place”

  1. Jo and Pete Rivers Says:

    We visited NY in November the year befor and again the November the year after when we dropped in your place in Brooklyn. And i clearly remember where we were when the towers fell. We had both been off work that day and had just walked in after eating lunch in a small place in Market Harborough. It was just after 1300 Hrs UK time and we watched it live on the TV. A truely shocking event in history that I still find it hard to believe.

    We will visit NY again and pay mour respects at ground zero.

    Jo and Peter Rivers

    penguinpages website (Now no longer on line)

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