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Close Call: Two New Yorkers recall the final moments of the World Trade Center from a very unique view

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By Dave Chamberlain

“I noticed Manhattan over the horizon,” says Ryan Gowing, “and I could see smoke coming from one tower, with smoke blowing east. I was looking for emergency vehicles, because I assumed it was a fire.”

On the morning of September 11, Gowing and his friend James Cole were returning to their home in New York from San Francisco, on an ATA flight headed toward LaGuardia Airport. “It didn’t look like a plane crashed into it, it just looked like a big black splotch,” continues Gowing. When the airplane passed the World Trade Center towers, only one was burning. By Cole and Gowing’s estimation, they flew by approximately ten minutes before the second tower was hit.

“I don’t know if the pilots knew and just didn’t disclose it,” says Cole, “but there were no reactions at all on the plane to the smoke or anything. Everything was business as usual, the same old ‘Welcome to New York’ crap.”
It didn’t take long for the news to get to the passengers. “Once we landed, a lady got a cell phone call and she just started talking out loud. That’s when we found out,” Cole says.

But even then, it didn’t yet seem like disaster. “We got off the plane, and everything was normal in the airport, except that my cell phone wouldn’t work,” says Gowen.

But soon thereafter, it was evident that something was very wrong. “We got a cab, but it would only take us as far as the Bronx—Manhattan was already shut off,” says Cole. “We had to walk across the bridge right into the heart of Harlem. We were able to get a bus that was going as far south as Fourteenth. On the bus, everybody was speculating. One guy had headphones on and was giving a play-by-play. A lady kept saying, ‘This is it, this is the war.’”

Upon arriving home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the nature of the disaster became clearer. “It is as surreal as you’ve heard on the news,” says Cole as he looks out of his apartment window. “There are people carrying water, all the ATMs are jammed. We can see a giant plume of smoke from my place, I’m not even in line with [the financial district]. Since we got home, there’s been a steady stream of business people moving north on the sidewalks, like a modern-day Trail of Tears.”

Cole and Gowing spent the better part of their morning trying to contact family members, but the two attempted to go donate blood as well. “The lines were out of control,” says Gowen. “In fact, we even saw a fight break out in one of the blood lines.”

“To think that I was one of the last people to see the World Trade Center before the second plane hit, it’s amazing,” says Cole. “This is going to be the ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ of our generation.”

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