It was a beautiful sunny Tuesday morning as my 8:35 New Jersey Transit train was speeding its way from Hackensack to Hoboken, the second leg of a four-part daily journey from Teaneck to the “canyon of heroes” in lower Manhattan. I worked two short blocks north of the World Trade Center.
I was running a bit late that morning helping my children get ready for school because my wife had been up all night with our newborn. As a consequence, I missed my usual 8:05 train.
|On 9/11, Jonathan Kaplan (right) worked in Williamsburg and offered Uri Jacobs and others some water and a place to rest as they fled Manhattan. Jacobs met his unknown “benefactor” again several years later, after Kaplan moved across the street from him in Teaneck. Courtesy Uri Jacobs|
The first sign of the day that something was not right occurred a few minutes into that train ride, when everyone in my car began staring towards the Manhattan skyline, noticing the smoke billowing out from one of the Twin Towers. “That’s not a good thing,” I said to myself, as the train continued its way toward the PATH station in Hoboken. Passengers on the train began calling friends and relatives on their cell phones, asking what was going on. A small plane accidentally hit the tower, they were told.
The second sign occurred once we got to the PATH train: Only the midtown train was running; the one going downtown to the World Trade Center was closed, presumably due to the fire. I took the PATH to 33rd Street, and then hopped on the “A” train downtown.
At approximately 9:30 a.m., I ascended the train station three blocks north of the World Trade Center and there it was – the largest plane engine you never wanted to see up close was sitting in the middle of Church Street. There was no need for further signs; this was not going to be a good day for anyone.
Police told me I could not enter my office building, so I began to wander around lower Manhattan, along with thousands of others, looking aimlessly at all of the papers and debris that were spewing out of the Twin Towers. I found myself at the edge of City Hall Park on the corner of Broadway and Park Row, like in a dream – a surreal experience – not really believing what was going on, even as I was experiencing it.
Then, without notice, I heard a loud grumbling noise. The south tower, which was a block away from me, was suddenly transformed from a huge building of metal, steel, and glass into a cloud of dust and ash – and that cloud was coming toward me!
I stood there transfixed, watching this spectacular event unfold as if I was watching a movie and not moving an inch. People were zooming by me to get as far away as possible from the oncoming cloud. Then I realized I needed to join them, to run for my life.
I was finally able to outrun the cloud of ash as I made my way into Chinatown. All of a sudden, I heard that loud rumbling sound again. Looking southwards towards the sound, I once again saw a tower disappear into a cloud of smoke and ash. I wondered – and feared – about how many thousands of people may have just died before my eyes.
A few minutes later, I came across a Chinese grocery store owner who was allowing people to use his landline telephone. I tried to call my wife to tell her I was OK. It was already past 10 o’clock. Unfortunately, I could not get through to Teaneck, but I was able to connect with my parents in Brooklyn, who were understandably relieved to hear my voice. They said they would call my wife.
Once again, I was on the street, walking in a trance. What to do now? Where to go? How to get back to Teaneck? As I neared the Williamsburg Bridge, throngs of people were trying to escape Manhattan, and I decided to join. I would walk over the bridge to Brooklyn and make my way to my parents’ house in Flatbush.
We were tired, hot, sweaty, and drained from the ordeal of the past few hours. It was now past 11 a.m.
As we finished walking over the bridge, we saw one of the biggest kiddush haShems (sanctifications of God’s Name) I can imagine. Greeting us at the foot of the bridge were numerous chasidim and other Jews with 50-pound jugs of bottled water and cups, ready to quench the thirst of the exiled hordes from downtown Manhattan.
A person I had never met before, who looked more like a fellow YU graduate than a Williamsburg native, invited some of us into his nearby office so that we could freshen up, enjoy some air conditioning, drink some more water, and make some phone calls. The people I was now walking with and I accepted his gracious offer.
A few years later, our good friends and neighbors from across the street made aliyah and a young couple moved in from Riverdale. While walking home from synagogue one Friday night and speaking with my new neighbor (and current good friend), he told me that he worked in telecommunications. There had been something familiar about him, and when he told me that, something sparked inside of me.
I asked him if he had an office in Williamsburg. He used to, he said.
Was he there on 9/11, I asked.
He was, he said.
Was he among those standing at the end of the bridge handing out water to those fleeing from Manhattan?
Yes, he said, in a way that made it clear he was curious about where this was going.
Did he remember inviting a few people to his office, I asked.
“That was you?” he replied.
It is a small world – and there are no coincidences.