The original owner of my cat Bonnie said goodbye to the seven month-old calico kitten and walked the short distance from Battery Park City to the World Trade Center. She never saw Bonnie again.
A few minutes earlier, my roommate Leslie Ballard and my upstairs neighbor and close friend, Jeffery Cotton — the celebrated classical composer — had both left our condo on Montgomery Street. It was a delightful, sunny fall morning and they walked to the PATH station and waited for a train to take them to the downtown World Trade Center stop.
I had been up until about 2 am on the night of September 10, sharing cocktails with a couple of friends, and planning my upcoming business trip to Denver on September 12, a trip that would never take place. As a result, I slept in later than normal on the morning of the 11th. Living so close to downtown Manhattan, the noise of daily traffic and motion was a constant sonic background, but that morning it seemed louder and more urgent that usual.
My girlfriend at the time, Jackie Ho, was an early riser and when I walked into the living room, she’d already been up for a while. “There’s a fire at the World Trade Center,” she said, quietly, in her characteristically controlled manner, much as if someone had said: “There was a fire at the car factory but it’s nothing serious.” And so I did not feel alarmed until I looked out of our east-facing front windows to see the enamel-blue sky filled with brown and white smoke. At that point we didn’t know what had happened and assumed it was a conventional fire.
Jackie and I lived only a couple of miles from the Trade Center and for some reason I wanted a closer look. I am not the sort of person who gapes at road accidents, but the scale of this fire was astonishing enough for me to want to investigate. I dressed quickly, grabbed one of my cameras and Jackie and I walked out onto Montgomery Street and headed for the Hudson River. The streets were full of people pointing and staring at the towers. During our fairly short walk, the second plane hit, and by the time we arrived at the west bank of the Hudson River—directly opposite the Trade Center—both towers were ablaze.
The south tower collapsed right in front of us, so quickly that I could scarcely believe such a massive structure disintegrated so rapidly. For a couple of seconds a ghostly three-dimensional pillar of dust hung in the air, exactly mimicking the size and outline of the vanished tower. I am a photographer and it is my duty to record remarkable sights, but I left my Nikon pointed at the ground. I knew hundreds or maybe thousands of hard-working New Yorkers were being crushed at that moment and I did not want to preserve the horrible scene. The tower falling is the most haunting image in my memory and I am glad I don’t have a photograph of it.
And then the survivors arrived.
Ferries, tug boats and other small vessels began discharging evacuees where we stood. Many were covered — I mean literally covered from head to toe — in dust the color of buttermilk. I wanted to give my cell phone to anyone who needed it to call a loved one so they could say, “The Trade Center just collapsed but I’m okay,” but the WTC towers were the cell phone towers and mobile phones were not working. I distinctly remember several young women — probably secretaries — in their work attire but still wearing street-friendly sneakers, indicating that they were on their way in to their offices when the planes hit. It was a good day to be a couple of minutes late.
Jeffery Cotton and Leslie Ballard were both on the PATH train, in the tunnel near the WTC station when the towers burst into flame. Passengers on the train ahead of them were crushed or incinerated by burning, cascading jet fuel. An elderly PATH employee knew something was terribly wrong above ground, and jumped on the tracks with a flashlight to stop incoming trains. I met him, entirely by accident, exactly one year later, and thanked him for saving my friends’ lives. Leslie moved to Connecticut and — some years later, still uneasy about riding the PATH train — Jeffery moved to Pennsylvania.
For two weeks after September 11 I did rescue work, and took photos, all day, every day. I devoted time to the Hudson County SPCA, also known as the Assisi Center, where I worked as volunteer art director. None of us at the shelter were prepared for the flood of orphaned animals who would suddenly and desperately need homes because their owners had been murdered by Saudi Arabians (yes, let’s please not forget who piloted those planes — citizens of “Western-friendly” Saudi Arabia).
I never met Bonnie’s owner, and I suppose I will never really know anything about her. As best I can figure, Bonnie was rescued, on the morning of September 14, by fireman going through the shattered apartments of Battery Park City. She was put in a donated plastic cat box and left on one of the downtown piers, along with scores of other cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds. Our shelter was already overcrowded but we took her, and a few other cats anyway. Bonnie was a tiny thing, soaking wet and terrified, and doubtless wondering why she had been taken away from her home. None of the volunteers at the shelter could get her out of her box, but when I opened up the door, she took a few steps and brushed her cheek against my hand. We’ve been together ever since.
If I had been trapped inside one of the burning towers ten years ago today, my final moments would have been spent worrying about my adored pet. Bonnie’s owner didn’t need to worry. On the very rare occasions when Bonnie is naughty and claws up my couch or knocks something over and breaks it, I don’t shout at her, but rather I remember the silent promise I made back in 2001 — that I would always look after her and always give her the best life possible, because her original owner could not.
Text and photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.