• U.S.

We’re Under Attack

15 minute read
Amanda Ripley and Eric Pooley

On the morning of Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani is having breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue in midtown with an aide, Dennison Young Jr., and his friend Bill Simon, a businessman who is running for Governor of California. Just as breakfast ends, Young gets a phone call. A plane has hit the World Trade Center.

RUDY GIULIANI: My first thought is sort of a rejection: How could this happen? Airplanes don’t hit the World Trade Center. What are we talking about? [Racing through Greenwich Village on the way to the scene, the mayor’s Chevrolet Suburban passes by St. Vincent’s Hospital.] I see on the street half a dozen stretchers and doctors and nurses in operating gowns. It registers that they must know something–that this is really bad. That’s when the second plane hits.

BERNARD KERIK, police commissioner, who is already at the Trade Center: The explosion is enormous. I’m thinking, “Jesus Christ, we’re under attack.” There’s a black man in the middle of the street. He has a vending pushcart. When he sees the people jumping, he completely loses it. He runs toward me to grab me. I have to get somebody to drag him away from me. I can’t think with him screaming in my ear. This is minutes before the mayor arrives.

Giuliani pulls up near his state-of-the-art command center at 7 World Trade Center. But the $13 million bunker–in the shadow of the Twin Towers–is being evacuated. (Later that day, it will collapse.) The mayor looks for his top commissioners, and they begin a long and harrowing search for a place to set up a new base of operations.

GIULIANI: I want to get through to the White House to reiterate that we need air cover. Have we closed down bridges and tunnels?

KERIK: I shout to one of my guys, “You gotta shut down the airspace!” And I’m the police commissioner. I’m not the general of the Army. I don’t have F-16s. I’m yelling, “Shut down the airspace! Call…somebody–whoever does that. Is there a number for that?”

The group walks three blocks to the fire department’s temporary command post on West Street in front of the American Express building.

GIULIANI: When I make the turn south on West Street, I get the first real view of the building and see that, no matter how it was described, it’s much worse. The top of the building is totally in flames. I look up, and for some reason my eye catches the top of the [north tower of the] World Trade Center, and I see a man jump–it must have been at least 100 stories up.

KERIK: When you first get there, and you’re looking at people jump from the buildings, there’s this helpless feeling. You can’t imagine what it’s like. [The mayor’s] looking at this. And then he just kicks into overdrive from there on.

GIULIANI: I go up to [Fire Chief Peter] Ganci and I say, “What should I communicate to people?” He says, “Tell them to get in the stairways. Tell them our guys are on the way up.” And then he looks at me and says, “I think we can save everybody below the fire.” What he is telling me is, they’re gone. Everybody above the fire is gone. He says people are not panicking. They’re moving fast. I grab his hand, shake it and say, “Good luck. God bless you.” We sort of do a little hug. Then I shake [First Deputy Commissioner] Bill Feehan’s hand, and I wave to [Battalion Chief] Ray Downey–I had just given a dinner at Gracie [Mansion] for him and all his people, about half of whom are gone now. So I wave to him, not thinking I am saying goodbye. No way. I’m actually thinking our guys are pretty safe, because we can’t get above the fire. Fire fighters are in jeopardy above the fire.

TONY CARBONETTI, Giuliani’s chief of staff: You can tell [Giuliani] is devastated, but he’s in his element–surrounded by fire chiefs. He always wants to know how they’re going to handle fires.

GIULIANI: I say to Tony, “I need the police and fire commissioners with me. We gotta all be on the same page.” I know [Fire Commissioner] Tommy [Von Essen] might want to stay there, but I want him with me.

SUNNY MINDEL, communications director: The mayor keeps saying, “We have to talk to the people. We have to communicate. Get a press conference.”

VON ESSEN: I’m told, “The mayor wants you.” It always aggravates me because I never really want to leave. The fun is being there. I’m probably alive because I went to meet him. Most of my guys survived the first collapse. Not the second.

Von Essen will spend the next half an hour looking for the mayor before finding him on a neighboring block. In search of working phones, Giuliani’s entourage ducks into a squat, undistinguished office building at 75 Barclay Street and takes over a cluster of cubicles on the main floor. An aide gets through to Chris Henick, a deputy assistant to the President, at the White House.

GIULIANI: I say, “Do we have air cover?” He says, “Yes, planes were sent out 12 to 15 minutes ago, and they should be there.” “Has the Pentagon been hit?” Henick replies, “Affirmative. You can’t talk to the President right now because we’re evacuating the White House. But the Vice President should be calling you back.” “Are you all right, Chris?” “I dunno. I’ve gotta leave now. But I hope so.” “Well, God bless you.” I hang up the phone and say, “My God, I never thought I’d have that conversation. They’re evacuating the White House.”

I walk into another office, grab the phone, and there’s a secretary. “Mr. Mayor? The Vice President.” I’m waiting, waiting, waiting. I hear a click, like the phone went out.

KERIK: Somebody runs in and yells, “Hit the deck!” As the guy swings the door open and yells that, I see windows shattering in the hallway outside. It feels like an earthquake. All of a sudden there’s this gush of black smoke and ash and debris, and it just pours into the room. Some people jump under the desks. We start pushing the mayor to the back.

GIULIANI: I don’t remember hearing a rumble, but I see the desk shaking. Still, in my mind, it is not the building collapsing. In my mind, the radio tower [a 360-ft. mast atop Tower One] came down, and that’s the noise I’m hearing. When I look around, what I see is something close to a nuclear bomb. I see dark smoke. The decision is made to evacuate.

We go to the basement and try many different exits, all of which are locked. We come back upstairs, but things have gotten much worse outside. Things are flying through the air. We can’t get out.

At this point, two guys from the building show up. They say there’s an exit downstairs that leads to the building next to this–and it faces east, so we’ll be able to exit. So we go downstairs, and I’m thinking, I hope these doors aren’t locked. And for the first time, very slightly, the thought enters my mind, “We could get trapped here.”

We walk along, push the exit door, and it comes open. There is definitely a sense of relief. [The exit door leads into the lobby of the neighboring building at 100 Church Street.] I look outside, and I don’t know if we’ve gone from bad to worse. The outside is horrendous. I can’t see anybody outside yet.

KERIK: The revolving door turns, and this guy walks in. He is solid white, and his eyes are bleeding. We’re looking at him, [thinking] Holy Christ. And as I get closer to him, [I realize] it’s one of my deputy commissioners, Tibor Kerekes. I’ve known him forever.

GIULIANI: Tibor was on my security detail. He is a black belt, one of the toughest men you’ll ever meet. His clothes are white except for blood. He looks exhausted and beaten. I have never seen Tibor like that. He is shaking. He says, “It’s terrible out there. Terrible.” We have to sit him down and relax him.

KERIK: Tibor tells me that when the building fell, he ducked into an insert in [a neighboring building], and it fell around him. If he’d been four feet away, he’d have been dead. That’s when it really hits home.

CARBONETTI: There is a debate. Some people say, “Let’s stay here until it clears.” The mayor doesn’t want any part of that. He is for getting out. The cops keep saying, “Let’s find out what’s going on before we leave.” He says, “No, let’s go.”

GIULIANI: We need to communicate, and we have to find a place to re-establish city government. I am also thinking that if I have to die, I’d rather die outside than get trapped in a building.

At this point, I do not have a picture in my mind of the building coming down. I do not know what it means. I say to Sunny [Mindel], have the research office find out how many people died at Pearl Harbor. One of my first thoughts is that this could turn out to be worse.

There are some press outside. I grab [Andrew] Kirtzman [a reporter for NY1, a local cable-news station] by the arm and say, “We’re taking you with us.” Some of them look a little stunned. I begin holding an ad-hoc walking press conference in which I tell people to remain calm and go straight north.

VON ESSEN: We are kind of like pied pipers, you know, shooing everybody north. He is the perfect guy for it. In the midst of being on the phone trying to talk to the White House, he’s telling civilians, “Keep walking north!” I remember him grabbing a few people, saying, “Careful, take it easy, just keep walking!” I keep thinking about how many guys I am gonna lose.

The group heads for the Tribeca Grand, a boutique hotel less than a mile north of the Trade Center.

RICHARD SHEIRER, director, mayor’s Office of Emergency Management: As we’re walking, you hear a plane, and that’s the thing that sticks in my mind. Everyone looks up. And all of a sudden someone yells, “It’s ours.” And it is the greatest thing to see a U.S. Navy jet fly over.

GIULIANI: Just about that time, the second building comes down. As you look south, you see big clouds of smoke traveling through the canyons.

Giuliani and his aides break into a run, chased by the rush of debris snaking through lower Manhattan. When they arrive at the Tribeca Grand, the eight-story atrium lobby is big enough for them to work in, but there is a problem.

KERIK: The entire ceiling is glass. I don’t want to see the sky right now.

GIULIANI: Without even talking to each other, we walk through and exit. The entire city government marches through the lobby followed by the press. I say, “We’re gonna have to find someplace else.”

Von Essen recommends Engine Company 24’s firehouse off Houston Street, just a few blocks away. But when the entourage arrives, the door is locked.

GIULIANI: One of the guys grabs an oxygen tank and wants to throw it through the glass. We stop him. Then he jimmies the door. We get in and get right on the phone. At that point, we hold an actual press conference. I talk to the Governor; he says, “We couldn’t find you for a while.” And I talk to NY1 on the telephone and get back in touch with the White House. Then I call to make sure my family is O.K. [Earlier, Giuliani has asked Kerik to have Gracie Mansion evacuated and make sure Giuliani’s children do not return to the city from school.] Knowing the tension that goes on, I want to get Donna [Hanover, his wife] on the phone and tell her directly. I also call Judith [Nathan, his companion] to make sure she is O.K.

SHEIRER: We’re there for 45 minutes. That’s where we learn that Bill Feehan and Pete Ganci have been killed. Feehan and Ganci are the most experienced people in the world. They are the [fire department’s] institutional memory.

Desperate for space and phone lines, Giuliani and his throng of commissioners and aides move around noon to the police academy, on East 20th Street, where they will remain for the next three days.

JUDITH NATHAN: I receive a phone call telling me to go to the police academy. I am very anxious, to say the least. As we’re driving, there is one sight I will never forget. A group of people at a red light in midtown have gathered around a large boom box-type radio. It’s a cross-section of New York–teenagers, business people, elderly women. And the radio is so loud. I can hear the mayor’s voice. I hear him telling people to go north. And I also hear that his voice is extremely calm. It reminds me of my grandmother telling me that everyone would gather around the radio and listen to the Voice of America. It is apparent that the mayor has already become that.

The mayor has recently battled cancer–we battled that together. And on the way down, I think to myself, he has to be O.K. He cannot have come through this to have anything else happen to him.

SHEIRER, at the police academy: By 4 p.m. we are up and operating. I make the library into a small emergency- operations center and get Verizon to install additional hard lines. All the agencies start coming there–30 or 35 agencies. Everybody you need to make any decision is there.

KERIK: It is perfect. Plenty of room. I say, “Under no circumstances can anybody know where this building is.”

NATHAN: There are any number of people who of course need the mayor to make an immediate decision. I literally mean they are standing in line waiting to talk to him. The more aggressive are cutting in line–“Just one quick thing, Mayor.” One of his most incredible traits–I’ve said this to him for years–is the ability to focus 110% on whatever he is doing. Even in this situation, he looks the person in the eye, and he listens to exactly what they are saying.

At the academy, the mayor continues to get reports that friends and colleagues of his have perished–including Barbara Olson, the wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and an old friend of Giuliani’s.

CARBONETTI: The rest of the day, when you see someone who could have been inside, you just hug ’em. You are so happy to see them. There are tears in your eyes.

That afternoon Giuliani leaves the academy to visit Bellevue and St. Vincent’s hospitals.

GIULIANI: It is hard to visualize that there will be virtually no survivors [rescued] from the buildings themselves. Whatever survivors there are are the ones who get to the hospital the first day.

KERIK, at the hospital: He is almost like God. People are coming up to him crying, thanking him for being there. All they want to do is make him say it’s gonna be O.K. And that’s exactly what he does.

NATHAN: Someone comes up to him and says, “They’re telling me they don’t need my blood. What should I do?” He puts his arms around him and says, “You should wait, and you should give blood, if that’s what you want to do.”

Giuliani returns to the attack site once that afternoon and three times at night.

NATHAN: When we get in the van, alone, he expresses over and over again his absolute horror that human beings could do this to other human beings.

KERIK: Going to ground zero that night is like going to hell. I remember pulling up five blocks away. Everything is on fire. Rudy and I say nothing. There is nothing to say.

GIULIANI, at a press conference that evening: It’s going to be a very difficult time. I don’t think we yet know the pain we’re going to feel. But the thing we have to focus on now is getting the city through this and surviving and being stronger for it. New York is still here.

–By Amanda Ripley. Reported by Eric Pooley/New York

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