While we knew a second plane had gone down, we didn’t know it had hit the South Tower. In lower Manhattan, the buildings are tall and the streets are narrow, so you can’t always get a good perspective on things. While we continued south, there were just as many people running north. Many of them lived or worked to the north, which explained why they were heading back towards what later became known as Ground Zero.
When we reached Battery Park, we started to cut across to the Staten Island Ferry Building. The ferries are huge, two decked ships, and the ferry building had two levels where you could wait and board above or below. We were probably among the first 500 or so people in the ferry building. There were two separate docks where a ferry could come in, and for awhile the crowd surged between one and the other. Finally, an announcement was made that the ferries were being searched for bombs, and the first one would arrive in about 20 minutes. This brought applause from the crowd.
We were inside the building at 10:00 when suddenly the ground shook and there was another loud rumble. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the south tower collapsing. Not long after that, a ferry pulled in, and we start to board. People were moving urgently, but there was no stampede. In fact, it probably wasn’t any worse than the typical New York crowd going through a subway platform. I remember seeing the name of the ferry- Samuel Newhouse- and according to the ferry’s web site, it holds 6,000 passengers, so there was no worry about getting on and getting a seat, although we didn’t really know that at the time. If you ever see the movie “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith, you’ll see a number of interior shots of the typical Staten Island Ferry.
The ferry has long rows of plastic benches that face each other, running widthwise, and two long aisles running the length of the ferry. We probably went about halfway through, and then sat down. There were signs in every row saying “Life jackets under seats” and probably for the first time ever on the ferry, all the passengers were reaching down and getting out their life jackets. Most of them hadn’t seen the light of day in a long, long time and were quite moldy. We just held ours, but lots of people were strapping them on.
It took awhile for everyone to board, so we were sitting for about five minutes. When you looked out the ferry window, all you could really see from the first deck were the sides of the docks, which were corrugated metal and more than one story high. You could see dust floating in the little bit of air between the ferry and dock. Finally the engines started to rumble (which caused a lady sitting across from us to panic) and the dock walls started to slide away. It made us think we were escaping, but what came next was the eeriest moment of the whole event.
The ferry glided out into that big white dust cloud caused when the tower collapsed – and the cloud was thick. At first, you couldn’t even see the water, much less the sky or anything else. This was causing some of the people in our row to panic, too. I told them “Don’t worry, the ship has radar, it can see where it’s going!” Frankly, I was only pretty sure it had radar, but I just wanted these people to settle down. Across from Sharon was a Dutch couple, and the lady was starting a major panic attack and was hyperventilating. Many other people were crying. Also in a row were a group of co-workers (they all had the same work ID badges), and they were trying to console one of their party. We probably glided through the dust cloud at low speed for a couple of minutes. As we went out a little farther, the dust cloud thinned a little, and we could finally see the water. It began to get lighter an and lighter. We finally broke out of the dust cloud, and you could feel the captain set the engines at high speed. I looked out the windows to the right, and we were even with Ellis Island.
According to the ferry web site, the trip takes 25 minutes, and the extra speed at the end probably made up for the time in the dust cloud. We docked at Staten Island, and everyone lined up to leave. Many people didn’t want to take off their life jackets, but they were making announcements to please leave them for the people on the next trip. As everyone streamed off the ferry, we could see firemen, Coast Guardsmen, policemen and paramedics waiting to take the return ferry back to Manhattan.
On our trip, there wasn’t anything organized to deal with refugees, although I’ve heard from others that on later boats they were directed to take a commuter train and go to the far side of the island. We walked through the ferry parking lot, where I stopped to take this picture.
At the end of the lot, to the west of the ferry building, is a baseball stadium, home of the Class A Staten Island Yankees. We stopped here to try to make calls to tell people we were OK. I figured to call my sister Ellen at work in Chicago, since I knew my mom and dad were out of town, and I wasn’t sure if my brother’s family, who had recently moved, had a new phone number or not. I got through on my cell phone (the time of the call was 10:40 am) and got Ellen’s voice mail and left a message.
Then I realized that her high-rise office building in Chicago was probably evacuated too, so I called her cell phone at 10:46 and left a message there, too. Only about every second or third call was getting through. Sharon was on her cell phone, trying to call Columbus, where most of her family lives, and other people from the ferry were also asking to use our phones to call. Since our cell chargers were back at the hotel, we were going to have to ration our phone use, before the batteries ran out.
By now, many people were driving up to the Staten Island waterfront to watch, and you could hear the news on the car radios. This was probably the point of maximum rumors- we had heard things like eight separate planes, striking the Pentagon (correct), White House, (no), Los Angeles, (no), Chicago (no). I can’t recall for sure, but it may have only been at this time that we learned it was hijackers who did this. At one point, a news report was talking about the American Airlines jet hitting the World Trade Center – and I’m thinking “No, no, no, it was a United jet”. It was only later in the day that we learned that the first plane was also a big jet, and that it had hit the opposite side of the North Tower.
While I had eaten an enormous banquet breakfast that was sitting heavily on my stomach, Rachel and Sharon hadn’t eaten yet. So we stopped at a little grocery to get some food. Sharon also saw Staten Island maps for sale and she bought one. Although we had no idea where we would be going, at least we knew where we were. We wandered around for a few blocks, and then saw a schoolyard with benches and shade. We started to enter the schoolyard, but were stopped at the gate by a man with a walkie-talkie. He was the principal, and said if we weren’t here to pick up children, we couldn’t go it.
At this point, I started for the first time to recount what I later started to think of as “The Story”, for I would have to repeat it many times over the next few days. “Look, we’re from Ohio and we were staying at the Marriott World Trade Center.” The principal visibly winced as I said that. “We just got off the ferry, we don’t know where we are, and we are trying to figure out how to get back to Cleveland.”
After that, he said we were welcome to sit in the schoolyard as long as it was open, but as soon as all the kids were picked up, we would have to leave, because they would be locking the gates. We found a bench and sat to catch our breaths for about ten minutes or so, and watched as parents came to pick up their kids. Later, we learned that many NYC fire and policemen live in Staten Island. I have no idea how many kids from that school were directly affected by that, or who had parents who worked at the WTC.
Finally, we left and tried to find the business district/downtown of Staten Island. I considered walking up to people and asking “Could you please direct us to the nice part of Staten Island?” but thought they might take it the wrong way.
©2001-2003, Bruce Kratofil