Today we’d like to introduce you to a genuine New York City hero, Tim Brown. As a boy in middle school, Tim had big dreams of becoming a New York City fireman. And years later, he ending up not just achieving that goal but becoming a brother in some of the most elite firefighting companies in the world. For over 20 years, Tim has served the FDNY, Rescue 3, the NYC Office of Emergency Management, FEMA, and NY Task Force 1. But as Tim tells it, there is no training that could have mentally prepared him for the morning of September 11th, 2001. We all know what happened that day, but Tim’s story is one you have not heard. Almost unimaginably, Tim was at the base of Tower 2 at the moment it collapsed. And what happened to Tim in the days, weeks and years afterward makes for a moving story as big as the heart of the man telling it.Portrait of Tim Brown by Craig LaCourt for On the Real. www.craiglacourt.com.
I arrived at work at West 55th Street at 8:30am. In 2001 I worked in TV production and people generally don’t roll in until later, so it was just a handful of producers and PA’s drinking their coffees. I walked in to the Executive Producer’s office to say good morning and he happened to be watching the news. He said, “There’s been some kind of explosion at the World Trade Center, no one knows what it is yet.” That was disturbing; I pulled up a seat next to him. One or two other colleagues wandered in and also pulled up chairs. We began to hear sirens outside. And then when the second plane hit, there was a collective shock that went through the room. It was the realization that we were under attack, in our own city. By then, everyone in the office was gathered around that one TV, many of us crying at the live footage and all of us incredibly frightened. It was one of the most powerful and upsetting shared experiences I suspect I will ever have.
After moving to the city in October of 1994, I had half-heartedly relocated to Baltimore a few months before. I came back for my first visit on September 10th. I was staying at London Terrace with a friend and the first plane woke me up as it barreled toward the North Tower. I didn’t realize what had happened until my friend Jennifer frantically started banging on the door screaming that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.None of the phones in the studio worked, they were all jammed. I couldn’t reach my girlfriend, my family, anyone. The TV news was saying that the subways were going to be shut down, that buses would be shut down and that bridges and tunnels would soon be closed to traffic. At the time, I lived in Williamsburg and we were all ordered to get to our respective homes and find our loved ones. I remember leaving the studio on Ninth Avenue and cars were just speeding through the lights at that intersection. Across the street I noticed there was a cycling shop still open. I ran in, pointed at the first bike I saw, slapped a card down and biked out of the store. I proceeded to race downtown to get across the Williamsburg Bridge. Both Towers had collapsed, and the air was thick and white with dust to the point the sun was obscured. It felt like twilight. Most people were on foot, civilians were directing what little traffic there was. I pedaled as fast as I could.
We went down the hall to our friend Melissa’s apartment and sat down in front of the television just as the second plane hit. We all immediately realized that this event was going to change everything and sat in horror watching the towers burn and eventually fall. The city outside was dead silent. There was no traffic except for the occasional siren. That night, I walked alone to St. Vincent’s hospital where they had set up a triage unit on Seventh Avenue to tend to the injured. There were no injured. The unit was quiet.I went to the pile a few days after to lend a hand and I stood on line for 4 hours. That’s how many people were there to help, to do whatever they could. The line snaked around for blocks and blocks. And it wasn’t just New Yorkers lined up, there were people that had driven there from points all over the map. No one knew what needed doing, but there was the sense of wanting to do something, anything. As horrendous and unfathomable as the tragedy was, the way my fellow New Yorkers and the entire country came together in the days and weeks that followed was one of the most profound and humanity reaffirming experiences in my life.
The next morning I was leaving town and watched from my train headed south through New Jersey the smoke from Ground Zero rise above lower Manhattan. I’d never had a pit in my stomach like the one that I had right then. I felt as if someone had lit my house on fire and I was leaving it to burn with everything I loved inside. It was at that moment that I knew New York was my home and had to get back as soon as possible and at any cost. I did just that a few months later. The following few years were not easy ones…downright scary ones in fact. But, had I not moved back when I did, how I did and where I did, I would not have the beautiful family that I am so grateful to have here in Manhattan 11 years later.I’m probably not alone in feeling pissed initially that it took so long for the various bureaucratic and governmental agencies to agree on issues like who pays for what. As opposed to the admirable way the citizenry banded together in the aftermath of 9/11, I think the way the rebuilding effort was handled was pretty embarrassing. Better late than never, I guess. To date, I have watched 1 World Trade reach for the sky from my window in Brooklyn. It started slow, and then it seemed to grow noticeably every day. I like having it in the skyline. It belongs in the skyline.
When the real and proverbial dust settled, I was disheartened to see how disparate the entities working to design a memorial and figure out what, if any, kind of commercial development was going to be built on top of this grave to so many brave souls. I was disappointed that such a huge deal was made of the competition to design the World Trade center’s replacement which Daniel Lebiskind “won”, but then how almost none of his original design will stand when construction is complete in 2013. It made my blood boil to see so much ego, cronyism and greed stand in the way of what could have been the strongest signal to the world that we Americans will always stand together and never back down.I understand this is a hot button for a lot of people but I personally like what they’ve done with the Memorial. In truth, my initial reaction to waiting on line to get in was that it felt inappropriately touristy. I had my hackles up a bit, I wasn’t sure what the experience was going to be like and I was concerned about the memory of the people who died being profaned. But once inside, there’s none of that. It is sacred ground, and I think the landscaping and architecture are incredibly appropriate and entirely respectful.
I visited the memorial for the first time about six months ago and again last week. I think it is a powerful and respectful tribute to the events that occurred and the lives that were lost 11 years ago today. I am so thankful that gluttony did not prevail and that the footprints of the North and South Tower were preserved with Michael Arad’s plan and that so many trees were planted in Peter Walker’s landscape design. As the 400 sweet gums and white swamp oaks grow to form a canopy and the awe-inspiring fountains continue to drown out the noise of the city, the memorial will hopefully be a place where families of the victims and anyone else who was affected by that horrible day can come to not only reflect on loves and lives lost but to focus on moving forward everyday with grace and humility.