| The strike
Five years ago on this day the world saw the biggest terrorist attack of all on New York’s World Trade Center. Lubica Hauswaldova recalls the story of an Indian American survivor
The day started like any other: Anthony Joseph Pallivathuckal got off at 8.30 at the Bowling Green station near the New York Stock Exchange.
His office was on Beaver Street, one block from the exchange and almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Reaching his office as was his wont by 8.45, he did the routine things: switched on the computer, went to the washroom.
Suddenly he heard the sound of a collision. Something like a very powerful “thaaak”. He calmed down and dismissed it as one of the many dumpster trucks hitting one of those big containers along the streets of Manhattan. That happens.
Then Anthony noticed something unusual: only about 1 in 10 of his colleagues had come in. Usually about 75 per cent of them were in by that time. “Where are they all'” he asked himself. At the same time he smelt a strange odour...
Somebody shouted that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. Everyone in Anthony’s office rushed downstairs. They saw the unbelievable: the top of the northern tower was in flames. What a horrible accident! Police cars were rushing up and down, urging office workers to return to their buildings and not hinder relief operations.
Anthony’s phone started ringing. A desperate friend — whose wife worked in the Twin Towers — was calling: “Please, can you find out whether Razia Kutty is all right' I can’t reach her.”
Achamma, Anthony’s wife, called with the same plea: “Go and find her.” He had hardly put down the phone when he heard another hit. All his colleagues stiffened and he could read in their terrified faces: “The first plane was no accident! This is something much worse.”
Suddenly, policemen swarmed into Anthony’s office. They instructed everyone to leave the building immediately. Anthony grabbed his briefcase and emergency medicines. The lifts did not work. A stream of men and women was rolling down the stairs.
Thirty floors. He ran with his friend Alex, also an Indian American, and another co-worker. Crowds carried them to a subway train station but Anthony resisted.
He was caught up in the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, too. Then they had to remain underground for long hours. Therefore, he insisted on taking the ferry to Staten Island across the bay. As far away as possible!
The look of the skyscrapers in flames was urging them on. But by the time they reached the ferry, it had stopped sailing. In the shadows of the burning Twin Towers, they tried to return to the subway. Policemen and firefighters rushed into the buildings.
There was already so much smoke underground that people started to suffocate. In panic they rushed to exits, helter-skelter, terrorised by the unknown. Anthony lost one of his colleagues and stayed just with Alex. And then they saw it: the whole south tower began collapsing.
It stood firm for just 44 minutes since it was hit. Anthony was watching as the building slowly crumbled, debris flying around
like bizarre fireworks. There was a lot of smoke, dust and sticky microscopic droplets in the air. Some people were crying, others were running up and down. The dust was everywhere. It transformed their faces into grotesque theatre masks. Their clothes had taken on a greyish hue.
Anthony could barely breathe. He was glad to have a big Indian handkerchief — people in the US mostly use paper tissues — which he tied around his mouth and nose.
After a while they saw a bus on the street. They ran into it in search of some protection against the enveloping smoke and dust. The driver was weeping. He tried to move the vehicle but the street was full of running people. Some women in the back of the vehicle were weeping. Suddenly everybody looked up: at 10.28 the northern tower too started collapsing.
It had been bright and sunny but the dust created a dense, dark and sticky fog. Anthony realised the all-enveloping matter was a mixture of buildings, airplanes, jet fuel and human flesh.
The bus started to move slowly along crowded streets. Anthony tried to call his wife and children. But mobile connections did not work.
The bus stopped on 14th street and would go no further. Anthony and Alex waded through dark smoke. Approaching East River, they entered a cafe to wash their faces. Its Chinese owner started to scream hysterically to prevent them from entering the place. She didn’t want such dirty guests.
In contrast, at a shoe shop, the shopkeeper was handing out sneakers and comfortable sport shoes to women stumbling in high heels and men in elegant dress shoes. Free!
Somewhere there Anthony found a phone booth. Finally he could call Achamma to tell her he was alive. She was in her office watching the whole horror on TV with fellow workers and shivering in fear.
On 43rd Street next to the UN building a person in the crowd with a radio started crying that some airplanes were nearing New York to attack the UN headquarters. The crowd started a mad run again towards the Queensboro Bridge. It was between 1 and 2 pm, completely dark and nobody knew for sure what was happening.
Low-flying airplanes hove into view over the river. People on the bridge were falling down in terror, lying flat on their stomachs, covering their heads with their arms.
Only then somebody recognised the planes and shouted: “Those are ours! Those are F16s!”
It took several hours to cross the river and Queens. Some buses and trains were working. Anthony and Alex somehow reached Alex’s home. The children started crying, seeing them.
Anthony Joseph lived the tragedy many more days through the pain of others. Razia, whom he was to look for that morning, had not reached the Twin Towers. When she exited the subway, she saw a horrifying scene: Some of those who could not get out of the buildings that were an inferno jumped in desperation from the windows of the skyscrapers. Some bodies fell near her. She could not speak for several days.
Even the church was a scene of tragedy. Every day brought funerals of some of the firefighters fallen in the Twin Towers. Many of them were Irish and members of the same Catholic church like the Pallivathuckal family. For some two weeks he could not read the papers or watch TV. He stopped working at the Manhattan office. Whenever he went there he felt unwell and his breathing problems grew worse. Some colleagues fell sick, too. Even today he avoids going to the place where the World Trade Center once stood.