Remembering the Day the Twin Towers Collapsed- A Telephone Operator’s Account

 

It started out as an ordinary work day with my daily half hour commute from Standish to Portland, Maine en-route to fulfill my duties as a 411 operator. I knew that even though I may only speak to a caller for fifteen seconds, that I had to be very alert when handling the call volume.  On the way, I always listened to a radio station to receive the news of the day. This particular day, I listened as the news unfolded and hurried along faster to see if there might be something on the television at work. I arrived to find our break room full of people, I had never seen, mostly managers whom worked upstairs. The room was silent as we all watched the story unfold. Looking back, it may have been Katie Couric who narrated exactly what was happening in Lower Manhattan. What I did notice was a lack of display of emotion from those giving us the news. No dramatic display of hysteria, like Hebert Morrison’s radio broadcast witnessing the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937.  It was all ‘matter of fact’ and as I recollect, which seemed sterile and detached from the event. Regardless, nothing could have prepared any of us for what we witnessed happening via live satellite from NYC. As we viewed the television screen in horror, we saw ordinary people like us plunging from windows towards their deaths. Then the first tower slammed from the top floor into the next, subsequently, like a giant domino line, until the giant skyscraper was leveled into what surmounted into an “atomic” dust cloud chasing thousands of New Yorkers through the streets and across bridges running for their lives. We were in complete shock and denial, and acutely horrified. And then, the second tower collapsed. I abruptly shouted an expletive… and then I looked around the room and saw other operators scrambling to enter the directory assistance office to handle our day to day information calls. Having been a 411 operator for three years, this was a day I was unsure that I could perform my job with full concentration. I had the entire morning’s events weighing heavily of my mind, and so did my co-workers. In fact, one of my co-workers ended up unplugging and telling a manager he needed to leave. His daughter was in Lower Manhattan. He managed to reach her and instructed her to go quickly to his friend’s office at Newsweek magazine and stay there until he arrived. Managers rushed around the office with papers outlining information the callers would be looking for such as emergency info for the airlines, listings for government agencies and any other information which would be pertinent to the callers’ requests. It was complete chaos in the office for an hour or so when one of some of the managers ran around the office with clipboards asking for volunteers to go to Dover, NH to field phones calls from only NYC and surrounding boroughs. I did not hesitate and raised my hand along with six or seven others. My mind was on this disaster and doing whatever I could do to help. We grabbed our things and car pooled to Dover which was over an hour south of Portland. I called home before I left and told my family I would be home very late. I was unaware my sons had witnessed it on televisions at their school. They were twelve and fourteen and old enough to see this. Later, reflecting how I felt that my sons’ witnessed the WTC collapse on television, my reasoning was that it was historically significant.
Once in Dover, we saw many whom we used to work with in Directory Assistance. This was the Zero Operator office. The break room was full of pizzas for us and they welcomed us to help them field calls from NYC. We all sat in a room and did emergency training for about 3 hours. A Zero operator’s responsibilities were far different from a 411 operator. The keyboards had different functions which we needed to learn. None of us could have been prepared for what we were to hear when we plugged into our switchboards. In Directory, we could hand off a call to a service assistant if the customer needed more help. As a Zero Operator, the call belonged to you from beginning to end. Handing off a call was not an option.
We all went to our stations with our manuals and notes in hand. It was a day I will never forget.The phone company waived all coin phone fees that day as the urgency prevailed all day in Lower Manhattan. Hysteria met our ears all day and we had to remain calm and professional throughout our tour of duty. I recall becoming emotional a few times, when people were yelling that they just escaped from the 84th floor, the 79th floor, and after a while, I felt relieved that some people had escaped. They were in a panic, trying to reach family members. I tried to connect a few however with the steady stream of the flow of communication; often times calls were met with ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY. It was not like cell phones were carried by everyone as they are today, ten years later.
I remember we were taught how to break into a line to connect a person to a person. One man calling from Brooklyn to Staten Island, asked me to intercept the call. I broke into the line and informed the woman I had so & so who needed to speak with her. She agreed and I heard a short piece of the conversation. He was yelling, “The towers are gone!! Can you believe those people are all dancing in the streets in Pakistan?? ” I continued with my next call. It was a suicidal man from Queens. He was saying the world was ending and he wanted to hurt himself. I quickly tried to reassure him to hold a moment because I was going to get him some help (Samaritans). With this call, I needed assistance from a trainer. It was very stressful and this person believed this was the end of the world… he was exasperated. We connected him to an operator for Samaritans and then onto my next call. I received many calls from people who were looking for their friends and family and wanted me to dial the name of the business at the World Trade Center. They were in complete disbelief. I told them the towers were gone and I wished them well and said a prayer for them. I did not know how I was going to get through the day talking to New Yorkers all day. I felt like I had been through battle after only one day on the job. That night, I went home and cried. The following day, we did the same thing again. The second night, I went home again and I cried. The third day, we resumed our regular jobs as 411 operators, as Dover did not need us anymore.
Life changed drastically after that day. For the next year or so, I would get up in the middle of the night to check Headline News for any little bit of details related to the terrorist attack. I was consumed with news 24/7, a dramatic change from the early days of my youth when we had a B&W TV and saw the news once a day. I recalled my father waking us to watch the moon landing. It seemed such and innocent time and a time when news didn’t rule our lives. We are addicted to news and information in the moment and we are all on a fast train heading for somewhere.
For at least a year after the attack, every call into Directory Assistance was noticably different. The callers were all on high alert. They listened when the operators asked them for more information. They were kinder and polite for a long time, perhaps prioritizing the important things in life. I think it forced all of us to reevaluate our lives. Maybe we all needed a wake- up call.  I remember thinking that the effort to look for survivors and to clear the area of debris needed to be photographed. I hoped someone was brave enough to take on the task. Joel Meyerowitz, photographer was from the New York area. He started carrying his camera everyday and was questioned and sent away. He was persistent and finally received clearance to document the area. He then heard many stories as he spoke with rescue personnel nearly every day. Then the calls began coming into 411 for young men and some women looking for recruiter’s listings. This went on for a long time, as young men and women joined the armed forces to fight against those who dared attack us.
I recall seeing the haze in NYC after the collapse of the twin Towers, a haze which lasted days upon days. I saw a silhouette of a large twisted steel form similar to cathedral windows cast against a backdrop of soot and ashe whiteout. That piece of twisted steel, I later wrote to the editor of the New York Times was something which needed to be salvaged for a Memorial. Apparently, I was not the only one to think so, because I was in good company with the head of Metropolitan Museum of Art also mentioning this piece of twisted steel needed to be considered for a Memorial. I have a copy of my email sent and also the letter from the New York Times. In fact I saved many different newspapers from that day. In 1983, before my visit to the Twin Towers, I would visit the Empire State Building and photograph looking down towards Wall Street earlier that day. I also saved some artifacts from the World Trade Center and went to the Observation Deck to photograph. I took photos from all the four sides looking out over the New York skyline including a spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge lit up at night. I took photos looking down towards the street, which I now realize was the view people witnessed just before their plunge from the building that day. My artifacts include a green ticket to the Observation Deck which has an outline of the WTC and also a brochure which unfolds to show the NYC skyline. On the front of the color brochure is written in bold letters, “The Closest Some Will Ever Get to Heaven”

 

Reprint permission with author’s permission @ fiddlinsuz@roadrunner.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *