My personal 9/11 odyssey began not 13 years ago today, but the evening before.
At 6:00 pm, to be exact.
That’s when my creative partner Alfredo Rossi and I were at Ogilvy, attending a pre-production meeting for a TV commercial we were to begin shooting early the next morning.
Ironically, it was a tourism spot for New York City & Company.
“New York City: The Ultimate Theme Park”: a wonderland filled with all kinds of exciting rides (the subway, buses and cabs), more international experiences than Epcot, and lots of memorable characters on the streets. (Think Naked Cowboy.)
We wanted to focus on the things that give NYC its vibrancy and character, while only peripherally showing the typical tourist attractions – the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and yes – the World Trade Center.
Our director took us through the storyboard, frame by frame, as the producer spelled out the logistics of each shot: we’d start just after dawn at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, then move on to a street scene in Prospect Park.
A semi-celebrity client who hadn't been at any of our previous meetings and obviously didn't appreciate our concept showed up to demand, “I want to see the Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. The World…”
The director finished the sentence for him. “Trade Center. We end our day near there tomorrow, so if you can get us the permit, we can shoot a scene there in the early evening.”
Less than 12 hours later, I pulled into a garage on Duane St. in lower Manhattan and walked to a coffee shop, where our crew had been assembling. We boarded a couple of vans, which whisked us past the Towers and into Brooklyn.
The first scene, in the Botanical Gardens, went beautifully. After all, it was, as everyone will recall, a gorgeous, clear day.
As we massed at the vans in a parking area in the Gardens, before moving on to our next location, I noticed a strange cloud formation directly ahead of us.
“It looks like smoke,” said Alfredo.
At that very moment, our producer came running towards our van. “Turn on the radio,” she said. “A small plane just hit one of the Twin Towers.”
As we turned on the radio, another plane came into, and then out of view, swallowed up by the smoky cloud. A voice on the radio completed the picture. This plane had hit the other Tower.
Two planes had just slammed into the two tallest skyscrapers in NYC. This was not an accident. This was beyond horrible.
We didn’t know what to do.
In retrospect, it seems insane. But we went to our next location – the entire production crew – set up our scene, and started shooting. We had a bride and groom coming down the front steps of an old brownstone.
As our beautiful scene unfolded, a more bizarre one enveloped us. People were coming out of their homes in a panic. Sirens were blasting everywhere.
The first Tower came down.
Everyone was looking up at the sky as rumors began spreading about other planes heading for the city. Military jets started appearing overhead.
We finally decided to scrap the shoot and all wandered into a restaurant on Atlantic Ave. that opened its doors to us. We all stood at the bar watching in horror as history unfolded before us on the small TV on the wall. As the local WABC-TV newscasters tried to make sense of what was happening, a small Chyron title started to crawl across the lower third of the screen. "American imperialism has brought this upon you..." We all looked at each other in shock. Someone had hacked into the local cable feed. I've never seen these onscreen messages mentioned in any media reports.
Some of the crew then ventured over to the Promenade just as the second Tower fell. Our producer and I walked to the Brooklyn Bridge, hoping to get back to the city. But the exodus of the walking wounded was coming our way. People in tatters, covered in dust, dazed, expressionless. The police weren’t allowing anyone to go the other way.
After many hours of trying to get a cellular signal, I finally reached my wife, who reminded me that I had cousins who lived in Brooklyn Heights. We made our way to their apartment and were graciously welcomed in. Amazingly, the windows of their place looked straight out across the water, perfectly framing the spot-lit, smoldering crater where the Towers had stood only a few hours earlier.
After a sleepless night, I nervously took the subway back into the city, to Penn Station, where I would catch my train back to New Jersey and the hugs of my wife and daughters.
Ten days later, my oldest daughter, Hannah, and I were at Shea Stadium when Mike Piazza hit that magical, winning home run against the Braves in the first baseball game played after the attacks. It’s often said that the healing began with that swing of the bat.
My 9/11 experience was “Zelig”-like. Surreal. Bizarre.
Here’s to the many thousands for whom it was simply tragic