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9/11: A decade after

Day of terror in New York: Pages from a reporter's 9/11 journal

Los Angeles Times writer Geraldine Baum shares excerpts from her diary, scrawled in a leather-bound journal in the chaotic streets of Lower Manhattan the day the twin towers fell.

August 21, 2011|Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — The brown-leather journal is my passport to Sept. 11, 2001. When I hold it in my hands, images and memories are no further away than yesterday.

I had no notebook with me when my husband and I dropped our children, 8 and 4, at school that morning. Then came news of the attacks at the World Trade Center, and my husband pulled the journal from his briefcase. He pressed it into my hand so I would have something to write on.

Rereading it, I wonder why I wrote in blue ink for several pages and switched to black. Why did I tear out pages and leave some with just a few scrawled words: "It looks like Beirut." "Whole south face coming down." "Fire dept. wiped out?"

Between chaotic interviews, I tried to get down what I was seeing: "Two guys, young guys, standing on the corner, looking up. One is screaming, 'Oh my God,' like were at a ballgame … a man w/a towel waving and then they jumped … two people jumping together. I don't know if they were office mates. They drifted down so slowly."

Some of this doesn't make sense: Why did I think people were jumping rather than falling? Tally marks appear for each person. There are eight. Was that all of them or had I turned away?

The journal had been an anniversary present to my husband. On that day, it served another purpose.


"Times Square, 9:15, people watching the zipper, no one moving at rush hour … people crying, on cell phones."

Times Square was frozen as people gaped up at the news crawl beneath the Jumbotron flashing a replay of the second plane crashing into the trade center towers.

The subway had shut down after only a few stops and there were no cabs, so I shoved $40 through the window of a beat-up car stopped at a light and asked for a ride downtown. The driver, a young man, waved away the money and said jump in.

Traffic stopped at 14th Street. I got out and jogged for several blocks before I hopped, uninvited this time, into another woman's cab. She didn't protest when I ordered the driver to tail a speeding firetruck. That's illegal, but on this day he did it.

At Canal Street, less than a mile from the burning towers, a cop on foot blocked the cab.

It turned out he actually wasn't a cop, but a uniformed guard, one of many citizens who took charge that day — directing traffic, handing out bottled water, crowding aboard flatbed trucks racing downtown to help any way they could.

"A businessman in a button-down shirt, open, hair completely matted. He's staring straight ahead, his hand firmly gripped around a bulging briefcase. He is in some kind of daze."

Heading south toward the trade center meant going against the tide, threading through a throng of disoriented people breaded in gray dust and dirt, their clothes disheveled.

On a side street three blocks north of the towers, a police lieutenant was examining a smoking hunk of jet plane engine that had landed next to a telephone booth. He said it had "knocked over a black lady and set her arms on fire." She had been taken to St. Vincent's Hospital with her skin hanging.

"A big roar. 10am. building collapsed. Cop cars going 50 mph backwards up Church. South building came down"

This was the first collapse. A wall of thick smoke and debris surged outward. Ash began to fill my eyes and throat. I banged on the glass door of a deli. Inside, two guys in white aprons shook their heads and mouthed "no." That was really upsetting. Finally I took refuge in a building lobby. People were gagging, vomiting grit. We broke into an emergency closet and retrieved plastic jugs of water.

"eerie eerie in lower Manh. Everyone had ducked into buildings. It was like people say is nuclear winter."

Outside it looked more like a Sunday morning after a heavy winter storm, but without the majesty of white. No footprints, no car tracks, just ankle-deep gray dust and rubble.

After a bit, I went back to Church Street to get a better view of the tower still standing. A policeman was telling a small group of people on a corner under the tower that the Pentagon had been attacked. My cellphone was dead and there was no way to know what was going on outside the cloud of dust.

That's when I first noticed people plummeting. How long did I stand there? Walter Pilipiak, an insurance broker who had just led his co-workers down 89 flights of the second tower, appeared. I took down his name wrong, spelling it "Pipiak." I was getting his phone number when there was another roar. The second tower.

What did it fall on? I remember thinking. Was it piled up in the East River?

Walter, a stranger just minutes ago, cupped his hand under my elbow and we sprinted ahead of the oncoming cloud.


"Suddenly the skyline is changed."

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