By the time I reached Third Avenue the rows of office towers in Mid-Town Manhattan were emptying like spilt bottles, flooding the Avenue with tens of thousands of people all walking North and looking for a way home.
To get across Third I planned to ferry like a kayak in a tidal race: one part forward movement, one-part angling for the far curb and toward a building where I hoped a friend might still be waiting for me.
But when I stepped off the curb and began walking, the wheels of my walker started to skitter, hop and drag; my legs could not walk quickly enough to keep pace with the crowds and the mass was pressing up from behind me, causing me to trip and hang from the walker handles.
When I was a kayaker I learned that if you couldn’t control your boat with the current coming from behind you, you simply turned and faced the current – it’s easier to finesse unpredictable waters that way.
So I turned my walker and faced the moving crowd, and when I did the people broke on either side of me like a slip stream sliding down the sides of an island.
If I had waited any longer to make my move with my legs weakening fast, I would have been a smear on the black asphalt.
Halfway across Third Avenue I reached an abandoned car and I rested on the bumper. The car doors were wide open and the radio was playing.
I asked a women next to me “what’s the news?” and she said they could not yet account for all the airliners, some were still over the Eastern U.S.
A man in the crowd pointed his arm straight overhead and said “Look! A fighter jet.” There was one jet at so high an altitude that you could not hear it, you could only see the lazy loops and lines of its contrails.
A women asked why the jet was up there and not down here protecting us?
But a man next to me deadpanned, “it’s spelling the name ‘Dorothy’ like in the Wizard of OZ.”
A man running up the Avenue, holding high over his head what must have been one of the few cell phones that still worked in Manhattan, was being chased by a dozen people shouting desperately “stop!” and “make a call for me.”
The crowd picked up pace as it crossed 42nd Street where huge garbage trucks, parked bumper to bumper to block passage to the United Nations. There were a string of cops bobbing their heads as they watched nervously the crowd and the sky over 42nd Street. 42nd Street looked runway, perfect if you wanted to land a passenger jet and kill thousands of pedestrians.
Eventually I arrived without incident at the far side of the Avenue when a big man said he’d push me and my walker the rest of the way to the curb while I sat on the flip-down seat.
He asked me how much farther I had to go. I told him to 87th and 3rd, about two miles. He asked if I would make it, and I lied to him and I said my legs were weak but they were also spastic or stiff, and spasticity trumps weakness like an ace of spades.
The doorman at my friend’s office tower had a big mustache and a maroon uniform with gold piping. He told me that they had already evacuated the building “just like everywhere else”, and that my friend was long gone.
As I stepped back onto Third Avenue to begin my long walk to my friend’s apartment when there was a sudden, deafening shriek as a jet came up from behind the crowd, flying low over the tops of the buildings.
Everyone ducked and cringed perhaps thinking like I did that this might be our last minute on earth.
But once the jet was past us, it shot vertically upwards and we could see it was a fighter jet and not a passenger jet like those that hit the towers.
A brief uncertain applause broke over the crowd and for a short time the sirens went quiet and there was only the hushed sound of ten thousand foot falls and the skittering squeak of my walker wheels moving steadily up Third Avenue.
By Tom Herwig