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9/11 From Brooklyn Heights

By Gunar Olsen

One single event changed the Manhattan skyline more drastically than any other: the attacks on September 11, 2011. While most of us are reminded of that day by the Global War on Terrorism, the surveillance state at home, and a barrage of images and videos, many people got to actually witness first-hand this transformation of a skyline over the course of a few hours. They watched the towers fall from one strategic location: Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood just south of the Brooklyn Bridge and directly across the East River from downtown Manhattan.

Though not a resident of the neighborhood, famous American writer John Updike witnessed the attacks from Brooklyn Heights. The events of the day did not even seem real to him. “The destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers had the false intimacy of television, on a day of perfect reception,” he wrote for the September 24, 2001, edition of The New Yorker.[1] His immediate reaction – more an observation than a terrified reaction – was not what many would expect: “It seemed, at that first glance, more curious than horrendous: smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface.”[2] Before the first tower fell, Updike wrote that it had “formed a pale background to our Brooklyn view of lower Manhattan, not beloved, like the stony, spired midtown thirties skyscrapers it had displaced as the city’s tallest, but, with its pre-postmodern combination of unignorable immensity and architectural reticence, in some lights beautiful.”[3] Here he compares the “not beloved” downtown skyline to the more composed midtown skyline.


Then the skyline changed drastically: the south tower fell. It “dropped from the screen of our viewing; it fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air…We know we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling,” Updike wrote.[4] This is where the horror sets in for Updike. He begins to empathize with the victims, hugging his friends as if they, too, were falling. Updike described what he felt after the south tower fell: “Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.”[5] For Updike, the skyline was changed in a matter of no time by an “electronic command” given seemingly by an unknown entity.


In the case of immense tragedy, it becomes difficult to shed any positive light. Updike’s description of the city in the aftermath, however, seems to do just that. “The fresh sun shone on the eastward façades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious.”[6] By describing New York on September 11 as “glorious,” Updike offers the reader a different, more nuanced perspective – one that does not simply describe the horror of the day’s events. He is able to overcome that overwhelming horror by considering how his country should proceed: “But fly again we must; risk is a price of freedom, and walking around Brooklyn Heights that afternoon, as ash drifted in the air and cars were few and open-air lunches continued as usual on Montague Street, renewed the impression that, with all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for. Freedom, reflected in the street’s diversity and daily ease, felt palpable. It is mankind’s elixir, even if a few turn it to poison.”[7] Despite the permanent and highly visible change to the skyline, Updike possesses the mental fortitude to look toward the future with an analytical lens.

Michael Foran, a blogger, watched the day’s events from the Brooklyn Promenade, a place where community members hold an annual ceremony on September 11. “There, I, like thousands of other people, witnessed the most horrifying events I have ever seen,” Foran wrote.[8]

Unpublished until five years after September 11, Foran wrote a short post on September 12, 2001, on a privately hosted website: “It really felt like the end of the world yesterday. It was quite a visceral experience. I felt and heard, rather than saw, the second plane hit while I stood in our backyard. The ground literally shook. I looked up and saw the already formed plume of smoke from the first attack crossing the sky.”[9] By feeling and hearing – rather than seeing – the second plane hit, Foran pinpoints the true immensity and ineffable realness of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Usually the only appropriate venue for the comment “It really felt like the end of the world yesterday” is in a movie like World War Z or a show like The Walking Dead. Only for September 11 does the “end of the world” comparison apply to reality.


Foran described his interactions with other people on the Brooklyn Promenade on September 11. “The crowd was in shock, but still cordial and there was a lot of discussion going on about who had seen what. I joined several conversations with residents who had seen both planes hit,” he wrote.[10] Though immensely disturbed and “in shock,” the crowd remained “cordial.” After seeing first-hand how precious life is, the people on the Brooklyn Promenade on September 11 supported each other in the face of unprecedented and visceral tragedy.

Like Updike, Foran observed the instant transformation of the skyline. He wrote:

I was in the process of unlocking my bike when I looked up and people started screaming as tower #2 collapsed. I just dropped my bike right there and ran to the railing. Watching the building collapse was probably the most terrifying thing I have ever seen in my life. My hands were shaking and I couldn't hold the camera still enough to take pictures. Many people, including myself, started crying from the shock and the knowledge that we had just watched thousands of people die.[11]

Both Foran and Updike specifically mentioned witnessing the deaths of thousands of people. That they both independently touched upon that same point emphasizes the drastic impactful that September 11 had. With phrases such as “most terrifying,” one can assume that September 11 can be defined as a day described by witnesses with ever-flowing superlatives.


Next, Foran described the dust. “The resulting dust cloud from the collapse oozed out between the buildings to encompass the entire southern half of the island. It kept expanding across the water until we too were enveloped in dust, smoke and debris,” he wrote.[12] At this point in the morning, the dust had “oozed” out from the collapsed buildings, just as tear gas oozed out of its canisters to suppress protests against the false war in Iraq that the very attacks of that day inspired.

When the dust moved from Ground Zero to the Brooklyn Promenade – where the crowd of people had been gathering since the first tower had been hit – it was so encompassing that “enveloped” became the proper word choice for Foran to describe how it was interacting with the crowd. “People were holding their hands and their shirts over their mouths and the dust stung our eyes,” he wrote.[13]

Near Foran was a man with a police scanner. Foran described what they heard on that scanner:

We stood in silence as we listened to a rescuer desperately call for help as he and the group of people he was trying to evacuate were trapped in the flaming rubble. Several people started crying as we listened to the growing desperation in his voice and the controlled determination of those trying to reach them. Their line eventually went dead although we surmised it was from interference caused by the huge amount of dust. Another call across the radio was from a fireman who had been trapped in his fire truck by flaming debris from the collapse. His Mayday cries were cut short and I don't think he made it.[14]

Here, Foran is listening to people who are actually at Ground Zero. He even heard what he thought was a dying firefighter. Very few other people had the opportunity that he had to experience the events of September 11.

“Hoping it wasn't inevitable, I hung around for the second building to fall. We waited against the railing, making small conversation. About twenty minutes later it too fell. By this time it was about 11:30 and all that was left was dust and smoke,” Foran wrote.[15] At this point, Foran decided to leave to make sure his wife was okay, who was in Manhattan. He described what he saw while riding his bike: “The ride back was surreal. Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens had been covered by a quarter inch of white dust, as if a light snow had fallen. Streets and bridges had been closed so the traffic was very light and it was very quiet. The smell of the fire was strong in the air.”[16] By comparing the dust to something with which we are all familiar – a “light snow” – Foran provides us with the perfect image of Brooklyn Heights on September 11. After two planes crashed into two buildings, exploding with gas, causing both towers to collapse, the scene in Brooklyn Heights was eerily “very quiet” according to Foran. Everyone’s day came to a halt: Foran wrote that traffic was “very light.” He even awakens our noses by describing the “strong” smell of fire in the air.


When Foran got home that day, he found two pieces of debris in his backyard: an accounting sheet and a piece of stationary, “both browned and crisp but still very much legible.”[17] He wrote that for more than a year, he searched the list of victims for the name on the stationary, but had been “quite relieved that the name never appeared.” These items composed the “light snow” that was falling from the sky that day.

Foran was not the only one to write about the scraps blowing around Brooklyn that day. Jeanne Henry, associate professor of specialized programs in education at Hofstra University, wrote about the “words that fell from the sky.”[18] She wrote, “Charred bits and shreds of paper were blowing in from over the East River, along with a black cloud of smoke and ash. The World Trade Center had been about four miles from my apartment, and I was surprised at the distance these pieces of papers had traveled. They looked beautiful as they caught the light and bounced around the sky.”[19] By describing the papers that “caught the light” and that were “bouncing around the sky” as “beautiful,” Henry juxtaposes the beautiful day with the destruction caused by the attacks. She pondered what to do with the papers: “I felt uncomfortable as I began picking up these papers, but it struck me as equally perverse to simply let them blow around on the street to end up in the trash.”[20] It is almost as if she felt morally obligated to document what she was finding.


Finally, one piece paper forced her to stop altogether: “But I stopped picking up papers when I came across a charred page with a child's rendition of his name carefully lettered and colored like a rain-bow. I stood on the sidewalk and cried. People realized what I had, and that I was crying, and came over to look at this piece of paper. Everyone's eyes were wet.”[21] After picking up charred financial documents, notes from a business meeting, and a proxy ballot from 1985, only a child’s drawing of his own name drew tears from her eyes and the eyes of those around her that morning.


What I picked up in the street that day were scraps of people's lives. The words themselves had little enduring consequence, but they might have been a shred of what was left of what someone had had to say. At the very least, they represented a portion of what their authors had once thought was important enough to write down,” Henry wrote.[22] On the day that changed the lower Manhattan skyline more than any other single day, the words of the victims of that transformation floated around Brooklyn Heights.

Jenna Piccirillo and her then three-month-old son have become the subjects of a photograph taken by Alex Webb that went viral in the months after September 11, 2001. In a piece for Smithsonian Magazine in September 2003, Paul Maliszewski wrote that “Piccirillo woke to a crack of what she supposed was thunder.”[23] After hearing about the attacks at her local deli, Piccirillo went with her son to the rooftop of their apartment where Alex Webb took the following photograph:

"Not knowing what was going to happen next was terrifying…Was the world going to end?" Piccirillo recalls.[24]


Jenna Piccirillo, like John Updike, Michael Foran, and Jeanne Henry, had the absolute most vital position to view the events of September 11, 2001. For many, Brooklyn Heights – especially the Brooklyn Promenade – served as the prime location to witness the transformation of a skyline over the course of only a few hours. Everyone has “9/11 story.” (I was in class in first grade in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.) Everyone’s story is unique. But only a select few experienced it first-hand from their own backyards or rooftops.

1. John Updike, “Tuesday, and After,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2001, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/09/24/1256341

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Michael Foran, “September 11, 2001 from the Brooklyn Promenade,” September 11, 2001, September 10, 2006, http://september11thbrooklyn.blogspot.com/.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Jeanne Henry, “What Madness Prompts, Reason Writes: New York City September 11-October 2, 2001,” Anthology & Education Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2002): 282-296, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aeq.2002.33.3.283/pdf.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Paul Maliszewski, “September 11 From a Brooklyn Rooftop,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2003, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/september-11-from-a-brooklyn-rooftop-89680350/?no-ist.

24. Ibid.