Editor’s Note: This post is by Points Managing Editor Emerita Emily Dufton. She holds a PhD in American Studies from George Washington University and is the author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America. Email Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @emily_dufton. Welcome back, Emily!
On the morning of September 11, 2001, recent health problems forced Dr. Samuel R. Friedman to get a blood test before going to work. That meant he didn’t catch the train from New Brunswick to New York until a little before 9 am. The hour-long PATH train would normally let him out right under the World Trade Center, where his suite of offices took up the South Tower’s entire sixteenth floor. Friedman was a senior fellow at the NDRI—the National Development and Research Institutes, formerly the Narcotic and Drug Research Institutes—and he was going to be late that day, but not too late.
But the train didn’t make it to Port Authority. As it drew into the Newark station, the conductor announced that all passengers would be taken to Penn Station instead, at no extra charge. Friedman, who had been commuting for years, knew all about the city’s problems with public transportation. “‘Ok,’ I said to myself, ‘that happens sometimes.’”
But when they pulled away from Newark, Friedman knew something else was wrong. “The track goes up and then goes down so you’ve got a good view of New York City,” he said. “You could always see the Trade Center.”
“We noticed that the North Tower was smoking like hell, it was on fire. And we go along a few miles later and we see there’s smoke coming out of the South Tower too.”
It was 2001, Friedman said; fewer people had cell phones then. But as they sat on the train, word spread. Something happened. A plane hit a building. The World Trade Center. Something’s going on.
“And so I get into Penn Station,” Friedman remembered. “And I’m able to get a payphone–they had them then. My first connection is home, where I leave a message saying I’m fine, I’m going to get the next train home. I then call the office to say, in case there’s anyone there, get the fuck out.”
But no one answered that phone. It rang in the emptying tower.