The book nobody wants to read.
That’s right, I’m working on my memoirs. Why? I have no idea.
It starts with a “Prelude,” which was the name of the yacht I was working on at the time. This is the first time I’ve set down the details of this particular day. I’m copying and pasting what I just wrote because I’m feeling too sick to motivate myself to come up with any other sort of blog entry for the day.
I was inside the transom when the first plane hit. It sounded like a fighter jet had flown low over the Hudson, breaking the speed of sound. As the rumble filled the tight fiberglass compartment, my first thought was that some reckless pilot was going to be in a world of trouble.
The boom lingered and seemed to shake the air. I was jammed inside the small access hatch at the rear of the boat trying to sort out a bum motor on one of Prelude’s winches.
Curious, I set my tools aside and wiggled out of the compartment to see what was going on. Raw fiberglass itched my arms and legs as I rubbed against it. I was happy for the distraction, the excuse to escape the claustrophobic confines of the mechanical space and avoid the work. My best friend was up visiting from South Carolina that week. The weather on that September morning was absolutely perfect. I resented the long list of repairs I’d laid out for myself.
Scott called out from the v-berth as I emerged from the engine room. He wanted to know what that noise was. I told him it sounded like a jet passing by real low. He emerged up the galley steps with a New York Times in hand and joined me on the back deck. Someone called out from the wharf that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
Scott and I shielded our eyes against the cloudless sky and peered up. The twin towers defied gravity above us. My home that summer was North Cove Marina at the heart of the World Trade Center complex. Dozens of people stood motionless around the marina and gazed up at the north tower. They held cellphones to their heads, rumors spilling and circulating.
Someone said it was a Cessna. I kept picturing that image of a bomber jutting out from the Empire State Building back in World War II. Scott said he wanted to go investigate. I told him I had to stay with the yacht.
Kevin Smart and Andrew Luck joined me on the dock. Kevin was my boss, the captain of M/Y Symphony, a 115’ luxury yacht. I was the captain aboard Prelude, a 74’ Sunseeker. Both yachts belonged to the same owner and Andrew was Symphony’s engineer. The three of us stood on the dock and watched smoke billow out of the tower.
Someone pointed out that the building had caught fire, that it wasn’t just smoke from the impact.
I still imagined a Cessna flying into the building. I felt awful for the inexperienced pilot and wondered if any others had been hurt. There were sirens. The buildings soared over us. At the right time of day, their shadows fell across Prelude, offering me reprieve from the day’s heat while I scrubbed the decks. This was my home. I had no idea it was about to permanently change, no conception of the danger my best friend had run off to investigate.
We watched the fire spread. Orange flames leapt out of a long row of windows, an entire floor slowly consumed. I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t got it under control. It was just a small plane. Where were the sprinklers? Hopefully everyone was getting out. Black smoke trailed off against the brilliant blue sky while the three of us joined scores of others, standing there looking up, speculating and worrying.
The first hint of the trauma ahead arrived in the form of Andrew’s wife, Leslie. Symphony’s chief stewardess rushed toward us along the docks, shaking and bawling, tears streaming down her face. She threw herself into Andrew’s arms. I had never known Leslie to be hysterical. She was as level-headed and fierce a woman as I’d met in a business full of them. But I thought she was overreacting, being melodramatic.
She blubbered that she’d been in the top floor of the Marriott, working out in the gym. The building had shaken when debris rained down on the roof. Dust had drifted down from the ceiling panels. She muttered something about getting through the courtyard, about bodies on the ground. I thought she’d lost her mind. I focused on the burning tower above, the flames marching across the building and spreading to the floors above and below.
If forced to guess, I would say an hour passed while we watched the north tower belch smoke and while sirens approached from uptown. In truth, it was only sixteen minutes. Long enough for my best friend to disappear, for Leslie to run through a courtyard where jumpers were plummeting to their deaths to escape the heat. Long enough to be deluded that a Cessna pilot had made an error. This was the fine line between the world I knew and the one I would come to live in. It was a line sixteen minutes thin.
I heard the second jet before I saw it. Looking south, the machine seemed to appear between the skyscrapers that blotted the sky. It was an object out of place, an incongruous item for my brain to wrestle with.
Time slowed. I’d never been so close to a jet in flight before. The immensity, the raw power, were terrifying. Air screamed over wings and turbines wailed as the pilot banked hard. He was fighting to avoid the building. I was convinced of this. Pull up, pull up, I screamed in my head, egging him on. I was there in the cockpit with him. Pilot and copilot, both yanking on the controls, trying their best, as fearful as me.
This was how scrambled my thoughts were. The jet hung in a frozen instant, paused by a surge of adrenaline and fear, angling over avenues and swiveling heads, the numbers on its tail and the words on its fuselage as clear as the bright blue sky.
I remember screaming in my head. The rest of me was paralyzed, but my thoughts were flailing. I watched in disbelief as the jet roared over lesser rooftops, drawn as if by some invisible force toward the south tower. In that split second, in those handfuls of heartbeats, my panicked brain whirred through the explanations. The antennas on the towers were drawing the planes in, interfering with the GPS, the autopilot system had taken over. I drove yachts for a living; I used similar systems; I’d seen them act screwy before.
I settled on this as a likely cause. It had to be mechanical, this failure. It was the only sort of breakdown that made any sense.
The impact came next. It shut off what little thought I was capable of. A building the size of a city block swallowed the massive jet and belched out a ball of fire. From its new gaping mouth and out its ears, a brilliant orange plume emerged, a Hollywood stunt of gasoline and props.
I could feel the heat on my face. Or was it the blush of fear? The fireball spread out overhead, and I gazed up into the face of a new and brief sun. Debris arced out, trailing black, and some of it hissed into the marina.
On the deck of a neighboring yacht, my friend Kelly Esser yelled out: “Did you see that?”
Everyone saw that, I thought to myself.
Gradually, the pathways for thought opened again. The fear, like a fist, loosened its grip on poor neurons. I wanted to run. Everyone else was running. Hands over their heads, clutching briefcases, a woman with a shoe in each hand, skirts riding up, business suits streaming away in a mob from the buildings, ties flapping over shoulders.
It was every horror movie I’d ever seen. It was the extras told to scatter and act afraid. But the wide eyes and open mouths made perfect actors of every one. We were all having the same thought: One plane is an accident, two is something else. Planes three and four and all the rest must be on their way. My legs wanted to run as well. They wanted to follow the crowd.
“We have to get the boats out of here,” Kevin said, his hand on my chest.
He was right. The boats were in danger. Our responsibility was to them.
While the Symphony crew hustled into motion, I jumped aboard Prelude. I was a crew of one. I scanned the wharf, looking for my best friend. He was gone. I concentrated on my duty, on my orders. The engines had to be cranked from down below. Pulling up the hatch on the back deck, I scrambled down the ladder into the engine room. I will die in here, I thought to myself. I was suddenly sure of this. Unable to see the sky, to see the next plane drawn in to the burning towers, I would perish while cranking those engines. I was only twenty-six years old. I was a yacht captain living in New York City. And while two massive diesels chugged to life, bits of my own began to flash before my eyes.