The Experiences of an FBI Agent in New York City on 9/11
On the morning of 9/11/2001, I was in Jersey City, New Jersey, on my way to work at the FBI office in Manhattan. Driving an FBI car, I was stopped in heavy traffic heading toward the entrance to the Holland Tunnel to lower Manhattan. I was stopped just north of the Newark Airport, and to pass the time, watched the planes taking off and landing. At about 8:44 AM, I noticed a passenger jet flying at a low altitude, heading east towards New York City. What caught my attention was that the plane's nose was pointed upward, as if it were climbing, but it was flying parallel to the ground. A moment later, a tractor trailer pulled up next to me and I lost sight of the plane. Ordinarily, I would not have given this a second thought, but later realized that this may have been significant.
Traffic began to move momentarily, and I drove into what the locals call the "covered roadway", which is similar to a tunnel. When traffic emerges from the covered roadway, it is at the top of a long hill that slopes down to the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. From that vantage point, the skyline of lower Manhattan is just a mile away, across the Hudson River. As soon as I emerged, what caught my eye was that there was a fireball coming from near the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The fireball grew increasingly large, and I could only describe that moment as surreal. I had just missed seeing the jet hit the tower, so I had not seen what caused the fireball. Since I had never seen anything like this before, I tried to grasp what was happening. I thought that perhaps someone was making a movie, and the fireball was a spectacular special effect. I turned on the radio, and a minute later I heard the announcer, Don Imus, report that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
At that point, Imus said that this had apparently been a bizarre accident. The Port Authority Police of New York and New Jersey, who control the bridges and tunnels into the city, stopped all traffic entering the Holland Tunnel, except for emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks. I stopped a Port Authority police officer, identified myself, and asked him how I could get into the city. He told me that the Lincoln Tunnel into midtown Manhattan was still open, and suggested that I drive there. As I drove through Jersey City and Hoboken, I continued to listen to the radio, and a few minutes later Imus reported that a second plane had just hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Now I realized that we were under attack, and it became urgent for me to get into the city. When I reached the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, I found that the Port Authority had also closed that tunnel, except for emergency vehicles. I identified myself to an officer, and he waved me through. This was the second surreal moment when I realized that I was in the only vehicle in the tunnel, when ordinarily during the morning rush hour, traffic into the Lincoln Tunnel is bumper to bumper, and backed up a mile or more.
When I entered midtown, I drove south on Broadway, toward the World Trade Center. There were thousands of panicked people fleeing lower Manhattan, with some covered in thick dust, and a few with minor injuries. I found a parking space and put on my FBI "raid jacket" to identify myself, and started to walk towards the World Trade Center to see if there was anything I could do to help. By then, both towers had collapsed, and there was an enormous cloud of dust and debris in the air. It was like walking into a beige colored fog, and the closer I got to the WTC, the more difficult it became to breathe. I was stopped by a few fire fighters and police officers who advised me not to proceed further unless I had a respirator. I decided to report to my supervisor at the FBI Office, a few blocks away.
My boss told me that I was assigned to the midnight to noon shift, and we would be working, "twelve on and twelve off". For the next three nights I helped to escort technicians at "ground zero" who were using electronic equipment in an attempt to locate the four "black boxes" aboard the two planes. (The boxes were never recovered, as they apparently were destroyed in the intense fires.) I spent the next three weeks on a security detail at ground zero, until I was re-assigned to conduct leads.