It was a magnificent day: wonderful temperature, beautiful blue skies and billowy white clouds.
A few minutes before 9 a.m. I was working in my office in Philadelphia’s City Hall, when one of my staff came in to say that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York. I immediately thought of the accident involving the plane that flew into the Empire State Building.
While watching the news coverage, we saw another plane strike the second tower, and everyone knew that it was an attack – not an accident. I called my mother at home in Chestnut Hill and told her to put on the news. She asked, “Which channel?” I said, “It doesn’t matter – every news station will be covering the attack.”
About an hour later, reports followed about the attack on the Pentagon, and then about Flight 93 crashing in Western Pennsylvania. There were also reports about a car bomb outside the State Department in Washington, D.C., and a plane crashing on the Mall in Washington – both of which were unconfirmed and later reported to be untrue.
Then, the South Tower fell. A half-hour later the North Tower fell. The images of jumpers and trapped office workers signaling for help in the Towers was awful, followed by the flow of pulverized concrete and dust down the streets of lower Manhattan. It all seemed surreal.
Commentators suggested that the plane that went down in Western Pennsylvania had been headed for either the White House or Philadelphia. I figured that was possible since the targets had been selected for their symbolic significance: New York as a financial center and Washington for its political/military significance. Philadelphia could have been selected for its historic/cultural significance: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.
All flights were grounded, and Philadelphia International Airport had been closed. Around noon, Mayor Street declared a state of emergency. He closed the schools and city offices. All the high-rise buildings were evacuated. I closed our office and sent my staff home.
Before I left, I called my mother again, telling her not to worry. I said that while I would be heading home later, I’d wait to see if anything happened in Philadelphia, and if it did if I could be helpful.
I stood in Dilworth Plaza outside City Hall, watching and waiting for whatever might – and hopefully would not – happen.
People poured into the streets, heading home. Essentially, it became a mid-day rush hour that extended well into the afternoon. The trains had been shut down for fear of terrorist activity. Everything was eerily quiet and orderly, as commuters found ways to get home. People were nervous but respectful and helpful to those around them.
Extraordinarily, the daily newspapers put out extra editions later in the afternoon. I’d never seen that before.
But everyone knew this was an extraordinary time. You knew this would be one of those historic moments that people will indelibly remember where they were when it happened, like Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion.
I tried unsuccessfully to use my cell phone to call my brother in Michigan, and then, unsuccessfully, tried to reach my mother again. The cell phone system was overwhelmed and stopped functioning.
Center City was deserted. It became apparent that nothing more was going to happen. I figured it might take me four hours to walk home to Chestnut Hill, so I determined to leave by 3 p.m. That was unnecessary, however, since rail service had resumed by then.
I got home, found my mother relieved, and then we monitored the news. Prayer services were organized simultaneously throughout the City that evening. Mother and I went to St. Paul’s.
It was an infamous day that made us all feel more vulnerable. It was bad, but it could have been worse. Given what I saw happening in Manhattan, I can’t believe there weren’t more deaths. I thanked God that it wasn’t worse. But I was heartened by the support, sympathy, generosity and heroics demonstrated by firefighters, police, medical personnel and ordinary people that day and thereafter.
Also, I remember finding hope in the notion that our predecessors had faced a seemingly unsolvable problem with the Anarchists a century earlier … and succeeded. I was confident that with the terrorists, we would, too.
Stewart Graham, a former president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association and former Community Manager, is Councilman Frank Rizzo’s chief of staff.
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