Only subscribers may read this in its entirety. What follows is a free preview, truncated midway through.Everyone around the world with access to a television set saw the cataclysmic destruction of the World Trade Center towers, saw it in constant replay, burning—and burning itself into our collective retina. I saw it that way too, but first saw it unmediated. On September 11th my wife, Françoise Mouly, and I had just stepped out of our Lower Manhattan home. Those towers had been our taken-for-granted neighbors, always picture-postcard visible a mile south of our front stoop. That morning, out of the very clear, very blue sky, a plane roared right over our heads and smashed into the first tower. The scale of the disaster was at first unclear: as many have since observed, it seemed “surreal”—and we had to get over our stunned disconnect to realize that this was no movie, and that our fourteen-year-old daughter, Nadja, was in the heart of the growing pandemonium.
Nadja was a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, right below the towers. I went upstairs to call the school. While I was trying to get through, I turned on the TV to find out what had happened. All of a sudden we heard this other crash, and on the TV screen we saw the second tower. My wife shouted, “Forget the damn phone—just hurry!” So, while everyone else began to run out of the neighborhood, we were beginning to run in. A half hour after the first blast, we had made our way into the lobby of the school to find Nadja. It took an hour to locate her among the 3,000 disoriented students in the ten-story building. Some of her classmates had parents who worked in the towers; some had seen bodies falling past their windows. While we were there, the building momentarily lost its power and shook as the South Tower crumbled right outside. We got Nadja out a few minutes before the school decided to evacuate, and we made our way home on the promenade alongside the Hudson. We turned back to see the North Tower tremble. The core of the building seemed to have burned out, and only the shell remained—shimmering, suspended in the sky—before ever so slowly collapsing in on itself. Françoise shrieked, “No! No! No!” over and over again. Nadja cried out, “My school!” while I stared slack-jawed at the spectacle, not believing it real until the enormous toxic cloud of smoke that had replaced the building billowed toward us.