Survivor's account eclipses unreality of terrorist attacks

September 16, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BY THE TIME of the 47th television replay of the World Trade Center explosions, a sense of numb unreality began to creep in. Surely, this was just television. Those were miniature buildings on the TV screen, compliments of somebody like Steven Spielberg run amok. Surely we could go to a baby food commercial at any time and make the world better again.

Then came an e-mail from a relative with a friend who'd been in the second tower when the first one was hit: She described the screams in her office, the "enormous gash pouring out flames and smoke in the first tower, papers and CDs and files flying out of the building and fluttering to the ground."

She described fleeing the building, looking up to see the second plane hit, "and I turned to run, feeling the heat of the explosion on my back," and crowds of people running, and realizing that her foot had been broken in the race to get out of the building, and "three boys picked me up and ran with me to safety."

And then she described "watching bodies fall 70 stories and hearing them land," and then an "unearthly sound" as the second tower collapsed and "the sky turned black, and a cloud of dust and noxious fumes washed over us, and all we could do was sit on the grass huddled, breathing through our shirts. And the ash kept coming and the fumes got stronger.

"There was perfect silence. Perfect. Occasionally we would hear a child that we couldn't see, screaming not too far from us, and images of volcanic eruptions raced through my head as we were steadily blanketed in layers of ash, until I just pushed everything out of my head but two words: Keep breathing.

"We spent 20 minutes like that, just praying for a gust of wind. And finally I looked up and noticed that some people had shadows again. To see the sun again was indescribable. I honestly thought we had lost it forever."

The sun is shining again, but the world is changed forever. The woman's name is Sybil Guys, and she works for a firm known as Deloitte Consulting, formerly doing business in the World Trade Center in the city of New York.

Her images read like the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima: the lucky survivors stumbling through the ash, walking toward bridges to take them out of the city, wondering if they will ever see the shadows of the sun again.

This is not Hiroshima, but it is also not the Persian Gulf war, where we luxuriated in the TV coverage and did not feel personally threatened. This one hit home right away; this time, it's on our land.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the mayor and the police commissioner of Baltimore scheduled a news conference.

From the back of The Sun building, I drove down Guilford Avenue to Baltimore Street - a distance of about half a dozen blocks - when absolute gridlock hit. People were already leaving their jobs, trying to get out of downtown. The radio was reporting bomb threats in Baltimore.

Leaving my car, I ran down to police headquarters, where Officer William Harris, of the police quick response team, stood guard at the front door. He wore riot gear and carried a submachine gun. On an intercom, a voice could be heard, saying, "All personnel - police and civilians - must display identification in the building." Suddenly, police veterans had to identify themselves to each other.

A moment later, Mayor Martin O'Malley rushed into the building, wearing a shirt and jeans. He'd been on the New Jersey Turnpike, "somewhere around the Clara Barton rest stop," O'Malley said wryly, trying to pin the location where he'd gotten the first phone call about the attacks.

He was on his way to New York to help his brother Patrick's campaign for a City Council seat there. Another hour up the highway, who knows where he might have been when the terrorists hit? Instead, he turned around and drove back home.

Now he stood next to Police Commissioner Edward Norris. People should stay calm, Norris said. What about reports of bomb threats? He shrugged; bomb threats are routine business on the best of days, he said, but there was no indication of organized Baltimore targets.

Then O'Malley repeated it: Stay calm, he said. His voice had a studied reasonableness to it, an implicit signal to those watching television: This is Baltimore, and not New York; it is Baltimore, and not the Pentagon.

By the time I got back to my car at Baltimore and Guilford, the traffic gridlock was not only broken, it was gone. There were no cars in the street, and only a handful of people on the sidewalk.

A police woman, Officer Renee Holmes, was there to direct traffic, but there was no traffic at all. She pointed to my car, parked illegally.

"You don't have to worry about that," she said.

A couple of guys from the city's Department of Public Works came over. One of them pointed a block east on Baltimore Street toward The Block's strip joints and porno shops. There were no signs of life.

"Look at that," he said. "When The Block is empty, you know it must be serious."

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