By Ron Benvenisti. The e-mail threat sent to the Police Commissioner said the bomb was set to go off in Times Square by noon. Was it credible or not? That was my job to find out, after three hours of sleep.
Despite lights and sirens I almost broadsided a speeding School Bus that blew a red-light on the way to my Brooklyn office sending the, thank G-d, empty bus onto a wide sidewalk on Avenue J and Ocean Avenue. Thank G-d the driver was safe and the bus was intact as it came to a stop on East 21st street, a block away. If there was a mosquito on my front bumper it would have had about a ¼ of an inch to fly away.
In 1998 I was appointed by the Giuliani Administration as New York City’s Associate Commissioner and Manager of Network Systems and became responsible for the systems of all 110 New York agencies, thousands of servers, network devices and the desktops of over 300,000 employees. Every single project that had to with city networks had to be approved by my office and my capable staff. I was also a consultant and investigator for the first Cyber-Crime unit in the United States, the NYPD Computer Investigation and Technology Unit (NYPD CITU) working specifically on cyber-terrorist threats to NYC including threats like this one: an international threat to bring down Times Square directed specifically to the New York City Police Commissioner. That was Chutzpah. I got that call on my Nextel from the Commissioner’s office at around 4 AM. Ron, we need you to find out if this is real”.
Now it’s not easy to track down a threat made over the Internet, it can take days if not weeks, if at all, but by around 10 AM, covered in sweat and fueled by adrenaline after tapping keys for what seemed like days I traced it. I determined, and CITU agreed that the Middle Eastern perp had motivation and NYC contacts to carry it out. It was a credible threat. A mobilization was escalated and the target was an US Army Recruiting center in Times Square. This evolved into the famed “Bicycle Bomber” case. After that I was sort of a free agent pursuing my own hunches, observations and uncovering evidence about criminal activities using the tools I new best – Information Technology, soon to become a major crime fighting tool of the 21st century. I followed many of my leads some of which led to charges based on digital evidence and forensics. But something was amiss with some of them. Despite rock solid evidence, cases against politically connected officials were extended, delayed and ultimately would stagnate and evaporate into the atmosphere. Evidence was destroyed; secret meetings were held, agencies including regular NYPD, and bureaucratic snafus hindered my efforts. My spiritual guide in such ethical matters was the renowned Rabbi Avigdor Miller, may his memory be blessed.
In June of 2001 I was appointed Special Investigator and Manager of Citywide Information Security for those same agencies and desktops for the United States oldest Law Enforcement Agency, The New York City Department of Investigation in Manhattan. I was now an official “cyber-cop”, partnering with the FBI, Secret-Service, NYPD and Postal Inspector’s Office to really fight waste, fraud and corruption and the emerging more elusive terrorist communications. Exactly three months later 9/11 happened.
The morning of September 11, 2011 guaranteed a gorgeous Indian summer day. The sky was soothing deep blue. Not a cloud in the sky, it was a perfect sunny, gently breezy day. As I finishing the morning prayers in my synagogue I realized I left my Nextel at home; a phone/ radio that rang or beeped at all times of night and day. I was on call 24/6 and sometimes on 7 too. Hoping I didn’t miss any calls I rushed back home to retrieve it and lying right next to it was a large micro fiber eyeglass cleaning cloth that I had never used since the day I got my first pair of glasses. For some reason I decided to stick it in my jacket pocket. Little did I realize that G-d’s hand was already guiding me. I kissed my wife and kids goodbye, and for the second time that morning I had the joy of seeing them wave from the upstairs window, “Bye daddy, see you later.” A prophecy I never thought may not have come true that day.
Generally, I drove to work every morning down Ocean Parkway onto the Prospect Expressway and get to my new office at 8:30. I was allowed to use the HOV lane and sail through the Battery Toll Plaza and park just about anywhere in the City. My office was on Maiden Lane, along with the Manhattan South Detective Squad just opposite the Federal Reserve Building, about a half a city clock from the World Trade Center.
On the way down Ocean Parkway I suddenly had the desire to park my car on Ocean Parkway, by the last Command Bus stop in Brooklyn, buy a paper and take the bus the rest of the way. After all, the bus uses the HOV lane, sails through the toll plaza and would drop me off just about 8:30 on Trinity Place and Liberty Street (where I usually come up by car from West Street anyway) right beneath the North Tower, a half a block from my office. I got off the bus and was running a few minutes late, it was 8:38 on my trusty 16 year old Omega. Since I’m late anyway, and the radio is quiet I head down the stairs into the North Tower mall to pick up pictures of my kids and get my black coffee when I hear what sounded to me like a missile followed by a series of explosions.
It was a Tuesday, the day of the Democratic Mayoral Primary so I dismissed the missile scenario and assumed it was some roman candle or something because I could now see “flyers” falling all over the place. Nevertheless my instincts told me to step back outside. I grabbed a couple of the “flyers” out of the air and they were not flyers at all, they were badly singed office memos, resumes, telexes, faxes… I looked up and saw the downtown side of the top of the tower billowing a dense black smoke. The missile scenario became more credible to me and I immediately radioed my supervisor who was on the Staten Island ferry as usual coming to work.
He was in the on board coffee shop and I told him to go on deck and tell me what he saw. After a few moments of silence he radioed back that there was a huge fire and smoke coming from the upper floors of the tower. By that time I was taking refuge under the first canopy I could find while office equipment and charred body parts were landing all around. I quickly ran to my office just a few hundred feet away, got into the elevator, ran to my office on the 18th floor and watched out the window as what looked like a 757 slammed into the South Tower just as I turned on the TV and watched it hit again in instant replay thanks to the seven second TV delay. After a few seconds of pandemonium on the news the TV screen turned into a flurry of tiny “Fruit Loops”. I couldn’t believe I had the thought, “Fruit Loops” but the mind can do strange things in such situations. I immediately ran down the two flights of stairs to the Manhattan South detective squad. They were gathered around a huge plasma screen in “the lounge”, watching the buildings burn on the cable channels as portable radios were screaming. Guys started crying. Now these are not your average detectives. These are the toughest undercover, stingers and gang infiltrators that looked like you’d better cross the street if they’re heading toward you. These guys were the finest of NY’s Finest. Here they are in tears saying, “This is it, we’re under attack.”
My supervisor, still on the ferry, got on the radio between the pandemonium coming out of every portable and screamed “Get the h*** out of there, go home now!” Go home now? No way. We all ran down the stairs and ran down the block toward the towers against a flood of screaming, panicking, crying and bloody civilians, dodging fleets of police cars, fire engines and ambulances, our gold shields swinging around our necks. Here we are, trained in “Command and Control” trying not to freak out running towards what looked like the gates of h***. I was thinking, no one’s in the office; what if files got compromised, the phony shell companies, the bogus license plates, the unobtrusive cars and phony city agency cars and company trucks that we used in our undercover operations were destroyed or discovered. But there was no time for that now. People had to be rescued, led to safety and brought to makeshift trauma centers.
A few minutes after we got there, we all split up, portables dead, grabbing whoever we could. Then the North Tower started to lean precariously toward the East River and within a minute started to collapse, floor by floor, each floor causing a deafening sound like a gun set on full auto next to your ears. Each boom was sending a spectre of huge clouds of dust that smelled like a crematorium and felt just as hot; a huge demon speeding rapidly enveloping the entire scene, turning the morning into total darkness literally carrying people off their feet, flying. People were pulling up their undershirts and clothing over their faces to breathe through makeshift respirators. At that moment I took the eyeglass cloth out of my pocket. It was made out of micro fiber which would filter out the toxic dust. I covered my nose and mouth. Surely my car would have been totally destroyed amongst the scores of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
Trying to outrun the heated demonic cloud I screamed to everyone running along with me to follow me. My plan was to get them into the Chase Bank sub-basement deep within the bowels of lower Manhattan on Cedar Street. But they were too scared, too confused, too traumatized. I was able to lead about 100 people into the lobby of my building at 80 Maiden Lane, yelling for everyone to crouch or lay down under the cloud that was rapidly filling the lobby. Four completely distraught women ran into an elevator and I saw one repeatedly press the top floor button. I just managed to jump in between the closing doors and pressed the second floor. As the doors opened, there was no dust, lights were on and plenty of empty offices doors were unlocked and wide open due to those that had already fled the building in haste. The air conditioning was on, doing a good job of filtering out the dust, in fact it looked like nothing was even happening!
I led them to an office which had a portable radio and still working telephones and told them to remain there until further notice, I then went back down to the lobby, now completely engulfed in a cloud of dust and instructed those who were still there to get into the elevators to the second floor. Not everyone did, many were in fear and fled, but those that did, I situated in offices on the second floor which to me, were remarkably clear and lit as a normal business day even though outside the windows we could hear the constant wail of sirens and total human vocal crescendo of pandemonium. It was dark as the plague of darkness in Egypt. An announcement from the Mayor’s Office came over the building PA system for everyone in Lower Manhattan to evacuate. I thought to myself, evacuate where? Into the Plague of Darkness? Into the phone-less, bus-less and train-less city of doom? We’re not evacuating. This was an oasis in the middle of devastation, and only G-d was going to take us out of Egypt. Not the Mayor, not the President only G-d. The more I thought about it the surer I was if we held ground we were going to get out of there alive.
We all used the phones to call loved one’s to say we were okay until they died. The main Verizon hub was under Hudson Street and I knew there was no backup. I tried my best to calm everyone down, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and we stayed calm. My own wife had been trying to reach me on my cell, but the lines were overwhelmed. I finally got through and remember telling her I love her, I was okay and that I will see her and the kids later. I still wasn’t 100 percent sure that I would. I passed the phone around.
My portable, which was set on the NYPD Special Operations Division and Emergency Management frequencies, was silent as a brick. All the city radios were dead. Motorola bricks. The same company whose no-bid capital contract I thought was fishy. I realized that sub-consciously I had been uttering Psalms and Prayers over and over in the back of my mind. All I could think about was my wife and four year old twins at the window. “Bye daddy, see you later” a million times in my head, multi-tasking with Psalms and Prayers while trying to keep the other fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters calm, everyone of them covered in dust and tears. It was now almost 10 AM and a glimmer of sunlight began to appear through the cloud but just as soon as it did there was that deafening machine gun sound again, with each seismic blast the windows shook. After everyone in this little family were finally settled, panic struck again. I knew the South Tower had now collapsed. Seven seconds later that’s what the radio reported. In 20 seconds that glimmer of sun got shoved back to heaven and the Plague of Darkness returned with a vengeance.
By that time it was confirmed that the planes that hit the Towers were hijacked. And another 767 just slammed into the Pentagon. A couple of minutes later we heard that a fourth plane was also hijacked and just crashed near Shanksville, PA. I thought to myself, “Command and Control”, keep calm, keep these people calm. I assured them, wait it out and you’ll get home. “Bye daddy, see you later”, began to echo in my mind. I pictured them waving happily at the window. Surely G-d wouldn’t let the innocent and loving words of four year olds go unanswered.
As my cell battery was dying I told my wife again, “Everything is okay, I’m safe and I will see you later.” My kids are not wrong. David and Simcha; David being The Master of Prayer and the Simcha meaning the promise of Joy. The Almighty will take us out of Egypt and we will sing together. Although Moses’ Song of the Sea enveloped my being, the pit of my stomach wasn’t exactly singing.
Periodically I would check the other offices and other lower floors to see that others were okay. Some panicked and fled, others remained in tears, others tried to comfort them. Somehow the appearance my badge seemed to calm people down as I told them to hang in there and they will go home soon. I guess the story I was telling them was taken as kind of “official,” the den-mother who knew there was hope. Like there was some Boy Scout survival tricks up my sleeve but really all I had were prayers. And most of them were already praying. That was a good thing. That was the only thing left.
While it felt like days, I don’t remember when the sun started to shine through the dispersing huge cloud of dust, but I think it was around 1 PM when we could actually see out the windows. What we saw looked like a war zone on the moon. Overturned, smashed and burnt out fire engines, ambulances, police cars and civilian vehicles. Hundreds if not thousands of dust covered people running towards the East River leaving footprints and tracks in six inches of dust and debris while covering their faces with their own clothing. Some were bleeding from the mouth and nose and eyes. It was time to evacuate.
The East River Bridges were closed to all vehicles outbound. There were thousands of people running across the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges to Brooklyn. The FDR drive was closed in both directions except for emergency vehicles.
As we exited the dust covered building into the running crowd I found myself motionless as everyone else made their way eastward toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Within a couple of minutes I found a couple of my agency’s colleagues, wearing their raid jackets and soon there were nine or ten of us. On Gold Street we found a small but intact unmarked Ford Aerostar van covered with dust and debris that barely could seat six. Fortunately one of us had a key that fit. We wiped the dust off the windows and ten of us squeezed into that van. With lights and sirens blasting we headed toward the east side to find all the bridges closed. A police officer directing the mayhem told us that the 59th Street Bridge was open so we headed up the deserted FDR drive toward the bridge. As we got to the bridge people were waving and cheering at us because the van looked like a disaster.
Our radios were still out; all we had was the AM radio in the van. As we proceeded through Queens to drop each one of us off at our homes safely, we made ten stops from Long Island to Brooklyn. Wherever we went people waved and cheered. It was a good feeling but completely evaporated as the impact of what happened still engulfed us, like the acrid dust we were powdered in. We could see the smoke and dust spewing from the Twin Towers no matter where we were. We learned that WTC 7, which housed the Office of Emergency Management Command Headquarters, had also collapsed. My heart sunk. It was just a few weeks before that I was there feeling good about the state of the art network in those offices that was one of my agency projects. Now it was gone. How will we set a new one up? My mind was boggled. But that would have to wait until tomorrow. There was nothing that could be done now that the truly heroic firemen and EMS folks weren’t already doing.
As soon as I got dropped off (I was the last one except for the driver), I got in my car on Ocean Parkway and I immediately sped home. Everyone on the block knew I was downtown at the site and no one heard from me for hours. They were practically jumping up and down when I pulled up to my house. There were my wife and kids on the porch. Still pumping with adrenaline, I ran up the stairs to hug and kiss them like never before.
It was then that I realized why I had to come back to the house in that morning to get my “forgotten” cell phone, which I have never ever forgotten. It was to take the micro fiber cloth, which I never ever used to protect me from the toxic dust; the strange impulse to take the bus, which I never do, which saved my car from being a burnt out skeleton of steel and plastic. How I jumped through closing elevator doors that only a cat good get through to stop those justifiably frantic women from going to the top of the building which was surrounded by the heat and toxic dust only to get them out of the elevator on the second floor where we found a dust free oasis in a terrifying desert. This was all the hand of the Almighty Father in Heaven.
Finally I was home! I was covered with dust, that I knew was toxic, I smelled like a crematorium, I got out of my clothes and jumped in the shower until that acrid smell was gone. It was a ghoulish and ghastly odor that I smelled and breathed for weeks after.
I looked out the window of my home office overlooking our Brooklyn postage stamp sized backyard ((compared to Lakewood) and saw it strewn with singed papers and pieces of clothing that got there way before I did. I placed them in a plastic bag and saved them as a memorial to whomever they belonged to for surely they were no longer with us. True martyrs for American liberty and freedom, may they rest in peace.
All I could do was hug my family for hours while being updated on my now charging Nextel (The Verizon hub in Lower Manhattan was trashed in the attack) on what I needed to do tomorrow: join the investigation as how this all happened, rebuild the destroyed OEM at a secret location, figure out how this whole evil plot was put together. But that was for tomorrow when I could see my kids at that seemingly brand new window again:
“Bye daddy, see you later.”