Today we’re bringing you an interview with a transit authority bus driver who was working in Manhattan the morning of September 11th, 2001. Talking about 9/11 is rarely an easy topic for anyone. If you haven’t already seen our post from Monday, we talked to several people to get their ‘where were you when…” moments about that day. I don’t think there was a single one that was not packed with raw emotion. During this interview, the bus driver, the interviewer and a handful of people who were on hand observing, all became emotional. There were moments where we paused to take a breath or to wipe a tear.
The mood was quiet and contained a somber tone that I can’t convey in words. I can honestly say that this interview reminded me that anyone who was impacted directly by those events, carry deep wounds with them to this very day. This interview brought us right back to that morning. We so appreciate someone opening up to us so that we can get a better understanding of something.
I hope that you will read this interview and take a moment to appreciate his efforts to tap into a very painful and emotional time in order to share with us. Please, share in the comments below with us, and with the bus driver (who will be reading), where you were, what you were doing, how you felt, anything at all. Sometimes unity comes in the wake of tragedy. Sometimes we need to reach out and let someone know that we feel what they’re saying. Sometimes we need to be one, unified.
Can you tell us what you do for a living?
I drive a bus for the New York City Transit Authority.
Were you working at that job on September 11th, 2001?
Where were you when you first heard what was going on at the World Trade Center?
I was just exiting the Lincoln Tunnel when I heard about it on the portable radio on my bus. Then a few seconds later my dispatcher came on and announced it, and when he did, he could even not believe what he was announcing!
What is the bus route that you usually drive in New York City?
It depends on what I pick for that season. We pick routes that usually go 3-4 months at a time.
Do you or did you ever have a route that went to and from the area of the World Trade Center?
At one time I actually used to drop off and pick up people at that bus stop (the World Trade Center) every day at that time- the time that the first plane hit.
You weren’t driving that route that day though?
No I wasn’t.
So you had heard on the radio and from your dispatcher what was going on not far from where you were. From the route you were on that day, when were you able to actually visually observe any signs of what was going on?
When I made a left on 57th st. and looked east I could see the smoke- only the smoke. But as soon as I got to the area where I was supposed to drop my bus, which is the old Greyhound depot at 41st and 11th, I could see the towers.
So when you dropped your bus off the towers were still up and on fire?
What were you and the other people with you doing? What did you observe?
We went to get a better view of the towers, we got on top of the roof of the old Greyhound depot. Whoever was there to park their bus that morning got up there to look at the towers.
What was going on around you?
We were just watching for the first hour I guess. We heard a lot of special service vehicles, sirens, shooting down to the southern part of Manhattan. Then after about an hour and a half that’s when we started seeing all the people walking from there.
What did they look like? Were they people who were coming from the World Trade Center?
People looked scared, in shock, confused. They all wanted to go home. It was hundreds at first, then thousands of people just walking, walking on West st. They made their way there because that’s where the waterway shuttles have their ports. They wanted to get home that day. They were trying to get the shuttles to take them out of there and get them to Jersey.
So the people you were seeing come by, did you get the impression that they were people who had gotten out of the towers? Or just people working in Manhattan and realizing what was going on were just trying to get away from the city as quickly as possible?
There had to be a lot of them who worked in the towers, the ones that got out before, so they got out without really being covered with a lot of the soot and stuff. It just seemed like anybody who worked downtown just walked and walked, like 3 1/2 miles to try to get out.
Were you still watching when the first tower started to come down? Did you actually see it happening?
I saw it happen. I saw it come down.
I know it’s hard, but is there any way that you can describe what it was like?
(a long silence occurs here and both the driver and the interviewer have tears in their eyes).
Is it even possible to explain? It’s okay if it’s not.
The first words that came out of my mouth were… “all of those people!” Then when I saw it come down, I don’t know… at that point it seemed like no one was looking at the tower at that moment but me. And I said, “look it’s coming down!” And when they saw that everyone, men, they just started crying like little kids. After, you go to the locker room and men were in there just crying like babies. People were trying to comfort each other you know. It was just a tough day.
How were you guys getting information? I mean I know you were watching things unfold from a distance, but how were you finding out what was officially going on? Were you guys aware of what happened at the Pentagon and in the field in Pennsylvania?
We found out on tv. We were watching it but we were watching it on tv too, on tvs we had in the garage.
Were you guys afraid? Was there a sense of fear, of not knowing what was going to happen next, if something else was coming?
Well, we were afraid for our families I think. We couldn’t communicate with anyone. I think that was what our main worry was about.
How long was it before you were able to make any kind of contact with your families? How long was until they knew for sure that you were safe?
It was maybe 7 or 8 hours.
I should mention that you lived in Philadelphia at the time. How long was it before you were able to get out of Manhattan and back home to your family?
They wanted to keep us in Manhattan so that we could start bringing back any people who still needed to get home. I did only one trip on the regular route. I got a couple of people I was able to get home, not many. I just told them you know come on, come on board, we didn’t take money or anything. They just wanted us to be able to pick up people who normally took that route home but everyone had already been trying to get home way before that.
By that time, later in the day, by the time the immediate chaos had died down and that surge of people trying to get where they needed to go had died down, what was the mood on the street? Was it empty? Quiet?
It was empty. There wasn’t many people. The people I saw were people who were out trying to help other people mostly.
Did you see a lot of people who were injured from where you were?
No not really, no.
I know after the towers came down, on tv we could see just a massive amount of damage to property for quite a ways- cars crushed, windows smashed, signs toppled, debris everywhere, did that make its way as far as to where you had been observing?
No. No. It didn’t make its way to us.
Were you able to get close enough to witness all of that, the soot on everything, the demolished buildings?
No, not then. I mean when I was going home finally and I was going through the small tunnel, inside the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, I looked ahead and I could still see smoke and I could see the soot on everything, firefighters, policemen, you could see the part that was left of the big building leaning over.
When you got back to Philly that night, how long was it until you had to go back to Manhattan?
I had to go back the next day. We didn’t have any service. The whole city was just shut down. They just kept us in house for a few days until the TA decided to bring just express service back to the city.
A lot of people only got to see this all unfold on tv. The media really showed a lot of stories of people coming together trying to help one another out, lending a hand, sacrificing to help at Ground Zero and in other areas, did you see this?
After a couple of days I was able to walk around the city. The police dept. had tents set up with supplies, stuff to take to the fire dept. down to Ground Zero or wherever they were needed. Those who were helping if they needed to take a break, they could just come and sit down for a few minutes, eat something, get water.
It’s been said that the mood in New York in the days that followed was one in which everyone had each other’s back; everyone was able to pull together and put aside any differences for the greater good. Would you say that that is true?
You know it was a bad time for New Yorkers, however it was pretty good to see the goodness come out in everyone, that was great. I mean you know what they say about New Yorkers… we get a bad rap, about our temperament and things like that, but during that time I think every New Yorker was an angel. There was no crime, nothing.
As a New Yorker, how do think (then) Mayor Giuliani and the city handled what happened? I can’t imagine facing a much more difficult situation as an elected official.
He was wonderful. He handled it great. They all did.
Do you think in the days and weeks that followed, there was any kind of fear in the city that it may happen again?
We know it’s gonna happen again. I mean we think it’s going to happen again. We don’t know where. We don’t know when. But New Yorkers are back to where they belong, who they are, their attitudes and all that.
Have you been to the new site at Ground Zero, the memorial and all of that?
I go by it almost every day.
Is it well received by people? Are there a lot of visitors?
It’s a very popular place for tourists! They’re making a lot of money there. I’ve seen it from the bus, that’s about it.
Do you think that it’s a fitting tribute for all of the people who lost their lives there?
(Long pause) Yes, it is. It is. I don’t think they should be charged for it, but then how are you going to keep supporting something like that I guess. You need funding.
One thing that always struck me after that morning was the walls and walls all of signs and posters people put up of their missing loved ones, hoping against hope that perhaps somehow they had made it out and were simply missing or wandering with amnesia, or in a hospital without identification. Did you see any of those? Were they as impactful as they looked on tv?
Yes, yes. I saw that the first night. When I started doing my trips to try to take the little bit of people left back home, I saw them. That was sad. There’s an armory on Lexington and 24th, that’s where I first saw that.
You witnessed something that is impossible for most to even fathom because it’s so surreal, like something you’d see in a movie, not occurring before your very eyes. When something so inexplicably tragic and senseless happens, do you think that there is any lesson that can be learned, any message that people can take away from it as some tiny comfort in all of this, even all these years later?
The only thing I can say is love one another, you know? Be kind. Help each other whenever you can. Love each other.
That’s a great lesson.