Thursday, September 8, 2011

My 9/11 Began On 9/10

I don't know if it's a symptom of the mass post-traumatic disorder we all experienced after 9/11, or if it's simply because each decade becomes proportionately smaller as we age, but for me, the past decade flew by like no other. Just as it does for many people, 9/11 feels, to me, like much more recent history.

But my personal 9/11 odyssey began not on that day, but the day before. At 6:00 pm, to be exact.

That's when my creative partner, Alfredo Rossi, and I were at Ogilvy; attending the pre-production meeting for a TV commercial we were to begin shooting early the next morning.

Ironically, the spot to be shot was for New York City tourism.

The concept?

"New York City: The Ultimate Theme Park." A wonderland filled with all kinds of exciting rides (the subway, buses and cabs), more international experiences than Epcot, and lots of great characters (the Naked Cowboy and other such street performers).

We wanted to focus on the things that give our city its vibrancy and character, while only peripherally showing the typical tourist attractions, like the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and yes – the World Trade Center.

Our director took us through the board, frame by frame, as the producer spelled out the logistics of each shot: we'd start just after dawn at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, then move on to a street scene in Prospect Park.

Suddenly, a client who we had never met before (but a pretty famous name) interrupted the proceedings to announce, "I want to see the Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. The World..."

The director, a man obviously skilled at these matters, finished the sentence for him. "The World Trade Center. We end our day near there tomorrow, so if you can get us the permit, we can shoot a scene there in the early evening." 

Satisfied, our surprise celebrity client remained quiet the rest of the meeting.

Around 6:00 am on 9/11, I pulled into a garage on Duane St. in lower Manhattan and walked to a coffee shop, where our crew had been assembling. We boarded a couple of vans, which whisked us past the Towers and into Brooklyn.

The first scene, in the Botanical Gardens, went beautifully. After all, it was, as everyone will recall, a gorgeous, clear day. A perfect day for our shoot.

As we massed at the vans in a parking area in the Gardens, before moving on to our next location, I noticed a strange cloud formation directly ahead of us.

"It looks like smoke," said Alfredo.

At that very moment, Carrie, our producer, came running towards our van. "Turn on the radio," she said. "A small plane just hit one of the Twin Towers."

As we turned on the radio, another plane came into, and then out of view, swallowed by the smoky cloud. A voice on the radio completed the picture. This plane had hit the other Tower.

Two planes had just slammed into the two tallest skyscrapers in NYC. This was not an accident. This was beyond horrible.

We didn't know what to do.

In retrospect, it seems insane. But we went to our next location – the entire production crew – set up our scene, and started shooting. We had a bride and groom coming down the front steps of an old brownstone.

As our beautiful scene unfolded, a more bizarre one enveloped us. Debris started raining down. People were coming out of their homes in a panic, their mouths covered. Sirens were blasting everywhere.

The first Tower came down.

Everyone was looking up at the sky as rumors began spreading about other planes heading for the city. Military jets started appearing overhead.

We finally decided to scrap the shoot and all wandered into a restaurant on Atlantic Ave. Some of the crew then ventured over to the Promenade just as the second Tower fell.

Carrie and I walked to the Brooklyn Bridge, hoping to get back to the city. But the exodus of the walking wounded was coming our way. People in tatters, covered in dust, dazed, expressionless. The police weren't allowing anyone to go the other way.

After many hours of trying to get a cellular signal, I finally reached my wife, who reminded me that my cousins, Scott and Jen, lived in Brooklyn Heights. We made our way to their apartment and were graciously welcomed in. Amazingly, the windows of their place looked out straight across the water, perfectly framing the spot lit, smoldering crater where the Towers had stood only a few hours earlier.

Scott, who worked at the Trade Center, had arrived shortly before I did. Fortunately, he was okay. But I could tell he had witnessed things nobody should ever see.

After a sleepless night, I nervously took the subway back into the city, to Penn Station, where I would catch my train back to New Jersey and the hugs of my wife and daughters.

10 days later, my daughter, Hannah, and I were at Shea Stadium when Mike Piazza hit that magical, winning home run against the Braves in the first baseball game played after the attacks. It's often said that the healing began with that swing of the bat.

My 9/11 experience was Zelig-like. Surreal. Bizarre.

Here's to the thousands for whom it was simply tragic.


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