‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’

'The Valley of the Shadow of Death'

Dan Geraghty

On 9/11/2001 I stared into the gates of Hell … survived … and for that I am thankful. I probably should not be here writing to you, but I am. And when I go to that day, traveling through time, through all the moments of the past decade, I see myself there, questioning, wondering why I had survived …

9/11/2001 started much the same as many others of the previous few months. I awoke warm and happy next to my newly-wed wife and began my day. Now, to be honest, the start of a day for any person commuting to Manhattan isn’t all lollipops and fairy tales—there’s a long day of driving, running, trains, more trains, crowds, smelly people … and the more-than-occasional delay.

But that morning, I was up and ready, ready to start my day at 140 West Street and then head into the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers, the Towers I would~always~look for when I approached the city, the icons of my youth, the symbols of all that is New York, two words I, to this day, proudly profess as me: New York. There was always something electric, like static that followed my thoughts about working in the Big Apple—goodness gracious, I had made it, I worked at the World Trade Center! New York.

I mean that.

A new husband, a new corporate man, I tied my tie and headed out. And by headed out, I mean headed up because my wife and I were living in her parents’ basement. Kris had just started teaching (it was her second day in the classroom with 5 and 6 year olds) and I was learning how to trade in my Army greens for the white-collar world of business—we had to save money.

Now … here’s where you’ll say, “Oh, it’s another one of ‘those’ stories.” But, I assure you it’s the pure and exact truth:

When I walked to first floor, my mother in law, Carol, was there … and she was making me breakfast. Now, you might not think that’s anything special, but it was. This was not routine. In fact, it had never happened prior to that day. And we started to talk—the two of us love our Irish I-can’t shut-up-if-I tried trait and we started talking.

There was a homemade buttered roll in the toaster oven and Dunkin Donuts coffee in the hopper, so, instantly, we were not in a rush. I began to talk about my day, how I was going into Tower 2, how I needed to work with the “sales guys” from Verizon, and how I was hoping for a big lunch at Sparks. (We were hoping to land a big telecom deal with JP Morgan Chase.)

Well, the conversation continued ‘til I realized I was about to be late for my train, an express on the Metro North, Direct to Grand Central Station. Mom quickly poured my mug into a Trumbull Fire Department travel mug … adding one last shot of sugar. Right as I was about to dart, I shook the mug over the sink. The top flew off sending a wave of coffee off the side of the sink and onto my shirt ad tie. I was livid—growling.

“Mah,” Carol, my mother-in-law, gave me some advice, something along the lines of,~no big deal, life is short. This exchange likely saved my life … I was delayed. I was not inside Tower 2.

Fast forward, I remember running through Grand Central, but not so fast to keep me from looking up and appreciating the gorgeous ceiling, the constellations on the roof, a daily reminder of the beauty and class of the city.

I traveled the connector to Penn Station, grabbed the 1-9 and started down to Church-Vesey Street stop. I was late, but I might make it to the 15th floor of Verizon’s 140 West St. switch by 9 a.m.

This is when everything changed. (It makes me sick to think of this moment—a metallic taste in my mouth.)

As I exited the subway, right outside the turnstile, at the bottom of the stairs, bathed in the cool morning dampness, I was nearly knocked to the floor.

A black businessman dove down the stairs, landing on a combination of the first metal-lined step and pure concrete. Now, I distinguish the man was black because he was nearly colorless, a grey, an ashen, terrified grey. He grabbed me and screamed, “A plane! A plane just hit the Tower!” He then began to frantically tug and pull at the turnstile, desperately trying to escape, to run, to get back on the subway. Dumbfounded, and a bit of a seasoned commuter at this point, I thought, This guy’s nuts, and started up the stairs—

Then I heard them … the sirens. They were faint at this point. Coming to life and approaching, the entire heart of the City’s First Responders were enroute to the Trade Center. I wasn’t even to the top of the stairs when it also occurred to me, that guy was really well-dressed for a psycho—

That’s when I saw the paper—Goodness gracious, this is hard to type—it was everywhere, rolling in thick waves down toward the Canyon of Heroes, where I had not so long ago watched the World Champion Yankees roll as hometown heroes. The man who dove down the steps had the right idea. The world was coming to an end.

When I turned to see the Towers, I was expecting to see the magnificent image of all things New York. Instead, I was given a firsthand look into the gates of hell.

A moment here, I mean that … the gates of hell.

The North Tower was literally breathing fire. As the winds swept through the Tower, the tongues of flame began licking in and out of the wound.

That’s when I saw them, by the hundreds, waving, and I’m sure, screaming from the wreckage. Victims were hanging out of the building, straining to lean beyond the billowing smoke and horrific flames. We all began to scream—not scream in terror—scream in desperation. “They’re coming!” “Hold on!” “You’re gonna be O.K.!”

Moments later, I walked around Saint Paul’s and found myself standing with the Church’s cemetery on my left. I stopped screaming. I began to realize, the ladder trucks would be worthless, the Firefighters (God rest their souls) would have to walk in all their gear into the fire, into hell to save these people.

I’m sure shock began to set in. Life became blurry, a series of images, streams of people running from the Tower, others running toward the towers, most looking straight up.

This is where I begin to realize how lucky I am to be alive.

I started to think, You were in the Army—you know how to provide first aid! Get in there! Grab someone! Pull them out! Another sphere said: Leave. Live. You’ll be in the way. It’s time to go. The Heroes are on the way!

I turned and began to walk up Vesey Street to ward City Hall when the guy who was next to be screamed, “GOD! Damn it!” as he threw his Wall Street Journal to the street. When I turned back, I saw an image that has followed my thoughts, invading more times than I can express. Having jumped from the tower, a man was falling. I remember him vividly, dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, and red tie—he chose to jump, or he fell, as the flames of the thousands of gallons of jet fuel were literally melting the building from its innards.

As the crescendo of the crowds’ screams became deafening, an even more deafening roar began and ended in an instant, the second plane was about to strike the South Tower.

I was in the Army. I had seen many explosions, and had live artillery literally fly over my head. What was inbound is beyond anything I can express—Lower Manhattan was vibrating with the scream of jet engines. I remember diving to ground and rolling against the stone wall bordering St. Paul’s Churchyard. I honestly thought the sound was coming from Tower 1. Nobody was looking at the South Tower.

We were blindsided.

The fireball was massive, catastrophic, excruciatingly hot, and the fumes of jet fuel were everywhere—the taste, I can still taste that fuel—but the first moment is nearly frozen, like slow motion in every sense—the flames, you’ve seen them, rolled out in a glowing, rounded orange, red and black cloud. Instantly, the exit wound belched flaming debris that flew directly over all of us on the ground. The concussion and comet of flying debris sounded like a freight train flying directly overhead.

I don’t believe I screamed, but I do know all of my US Army Ranger training immediately kicked into thermonuclear, you-need-to save-your-ass mode. (Aside: I type that because if I didn’t just make myself smile at being silly I would break down. I honestly thought I was about to die, and I knew America was going to all-caps, WAR!)

I rolled to my right and began running up Vesey street, thinking the South Tower had been hit so hard it was about to fall as a tree would after being struck by a fatal blow. I had the image of a rolling inferno rolling behind me, rolling to consume me. At that moment, she fell—

—She … the woman who fell becomes a metaphor of the entire day for me. There was a woman on Vesey. She looked wonderful, clad in her high-priced business attire, a tribute to the contemporary, strong American woman. She was running right next to me. To my left I remember a man diving directly into the plate glass of a deli window, ahead the thump-thump-thump of a man running over a car that was trapped by the swarm of humanity, the stampede of hysterics on the run. But, the woman, she fell. Now, when I write fell, I mean fell, flat fell, like two-year-old, fall-right-on-your-hands-and-scrape-your-palms-and-cry fell. I was sprinting past Her—

I truly … truly! … thought I was about to die. But I couldn’t leave Her—

That’s when He appeared. I turned, thinking, I can’t just let this woman be trampled. That’s when He grabbed her. I mean this—he didn’t say, Excuse me. He didn’t say, Can I lend a hand? Would you care to dance? Let me help you up.

No … he ran, full tilt, full sprint, and simply picked Her up and … kept running.

Want a Hero? I saw one that day.

I will bring this to a close by writing … after a few blocks, I saw a Good Day New York news truck. I purposely walked, yes walked, in front of the camera—I hope it was live—and yelled, This is a terrorist attack! I am sure I also added a few expletives. I still wonder if they have footage of my terrified, angry rant that must have made the air that morning.

In that moment, I thought the second explosion was a bomb. Now I know it was a plane, but, in that moment, I was ignorant.

Horrified, zombified, I began walking past City Hall to the subway. I remember thinking, I’m dead, City Hall’s Next, or the subway I am about to enter, or Penn or Grand Central. Silently walking past commuters still emerging from the subway, I began to think, they are about to see what I just saw, they are entering through a gate from which few will return. I remember their faces, questioning, spinning and watching all of us going away from Downtown. I hope they all turned and left before the Towers fell.

I could go on and on for a decade. Thankfully, my story has continued. For thousands, the story exists in remembrance.

I have no idea how to end this …

Scratch that. NEVER FORGET! (‘Nuff said.)

Dan Geraghty is an English teacher at Staples High School. This article was submitted to Inklings Online after Alexandra O’Kane ’13 interviewed Geraghty on the subject of 9/11. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Dan Geraghty.