For Walls, the terror is fresh, even 19 years later

‘Pulverized debris fell in sheets on the street. It must have sluiced off neighboring rooftops. It hurt to breathe.’

Posted 9/11/20

On Sept. 11, 2001, Dwayne Walls Jr. was working as a freelance stagehand at the World Trade Center. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, tentatively entitled “Autumn ’01.” Walls and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.

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For Walls, the terror is fresh, even 19 years later

‘Pulverized debris fell in sheets on the street. It must have sluiced off neighboring rooftops. It hurt to breathe.’

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Editor’s note: Beginning in 1981, Dwayne Walls Jr. worked building sets and props in regional theaters and outdoor dramas throughout the Southeast, including five seasons with “The Lost Colony” on North Carolina’s coast. In 1998, he moved to New York to build sets and props for television, film and theater, most notably for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” On Sept. 11, 2001, Walls was working as a freelance stagehand at the World Trade Center. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, tentatively entitled “Autumn ’01.” Walls and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.

The day still echoes, even after 19 years.

I took the subway to the World Trade Center on that second Tuesday in September, just like thousands of other “bridge and tunnel” commuters. I lived in Brooklyn, but my work as a stagehand bounced me all over town. Have tool-bag; will travel. That was my motto.

The day’s work was to have been on the temporary stages erected for Cirque du Soleil, but falling debris from the impacts of the jets dispersed the crew, each of us making his own life and death decisions. I stuck with my work partner, George. I never learned his last name; “Jurassic George” is what everybody called him since he was always the oldest guy on the crew. He and I were to finish decking the stage in the Wintergarden Atrium; instead, we bore witness to the agony of the two towers.

Lugging our tool bags on our shoulders we had made it out as far as Chambers Street when I felt the street move beneath me. There was a massive rumbling, and I turned back to see the South Tower collapsing, erupting into a ghastly dark gray cloud like some street-level pyroclastic flow. It seemed just to come apart, to disintegrate into steel and aluminum and dust, all of it accelerating as it fell. Huge pieces of façade, blown away from the building, exploded from the cloud at crazy angles and cascaded down in all directions, the steel bouncing and thrashing like fish when it hit the ground, the building itself pancaking floor after floor.

Displaced air created a hurricane of wind roaring up the street, so the only way to keep upright was to lean into it. I saw one person hold onto a corner lamp post. A couple of blocks down I saw a man in a bloody white shirt lifted off his feet along with windblown debris. He must have been 20 feet up in the air, cartwheeling off into space like a leaf in the breeze. I never saw where he landed.

The malignant cloud of smoke and dust and ash roiled up West Broadway, enveloping everything. It grew taller, picking up speed as it pushed up the concrete canyon. This tremendous gray cloud obliterated the mob of screaming human beings tearing north up West Broadway, men and women of all colors and ages and sizes running for their lives.

The thick gray cloud swallowed them all.

But one young man stood out against the furious background. He was tall and athletic and very, very fast, passing people like they were standing still. The people running behind him disappeared into the gray, but he stayed in front of the cloud, and I found myself cheering for him. With his head thrown back and his mouth open, his white running shoes pumped furiously towards some imaginary finish line.

He never saw me, or if he did, he saw me only as an obstacle, or just another hurdle to clear. At the last second, I tried to move so he only clipped me on my left side. But I was still wearing my backpack of tools, and the impact sent me spinning onto the hood of a parked car. By the time I made it to my feet he was long gone up West Broadway. When I tried to move out from in front of the parked car and merge with the thick crowd, the rushing mob knocked me back each time. I was too slow. People knocked me around like a pinball until I bounced off the hood of another parked car. I slid off and stood there between the two cars to let the mob run by me.

Jurassic George was gone, swept away into the crowd. I yelled for him but never heard him above the pandemonium. The cloud was rolling towards me, getting taller and closer, so I fought my way across West Broadway and started humping it east on Chambers Street toward the Brooklyn Bridge, tightening the straps on my pack, not daring to look back.

I found the No. 4 subway train at City Hall. Across the park, I saw the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of people streaming across it on foot. As I paused for breath, the leading edge of the dust cloud from the collapse exploded on my right three blocks down. It was 10 stories tall and rolling over everything. I looked at the Brooklyn Bridge again. If there were another plane out there, that old bridge with all those bodies could be a target. I rolled the dice on finding a train and ran down the steps into the subway station. It was quiet underground, and I paused to catch my breath at the bottom of the steps until I heard the whir and felt the wind from a train bulling into the station.

I paid a token, I think, and stepped onto a southbound No. 4 train to Brooklyn. The doors swished closed, we started moving, and I went into complete and utter denial. It was literally not possible to have stepped out of that mad world and stepped into this slowly rolling, gently rocking subway car. I stood there trying not to shake. There were about a dozen people in the car, all looking at me like I was supposed to tell them something.

The train stopped at the Bowling Green station in Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan. The conductor announced that the tunnel to Brooklyn was closed; we had to leave the train. Across the platform was a northbound No. 4. As that train pulled away from the platform and roared up the tunnel, it sucked the debris cloud down into the station from street level, smacking everyone in the face and panicking the crowd of already confused people. People started screaming, thinking this was some sort of chemical attack. But I had worked concrete before, and I knew what the smell was. I tried to calm a panicked Hispanic lady, reassuring her that this was dust and smoke from the collapse. Denial left me slowly, replaced by acute claustrophobia. I had to get out of the subway station, and I had to get out now.

On the street I found a world of gray; not the granitic gray of buildings or the dirty gray of sidewalks, but a pale, desiccated gray covering everything and hovering in the air. Peering down the street I saw maybe half a block through the fog. Concrete dust, ash, sheetrock dust, pulverized ceiling tile and insulation lay a half-inch deep on everything. The silence was unnatural; the cloud, thick with particulates, dampened down sounds completely. The only thing I could hear was the hissing of dust hitting the ground like gritty rain. Pulverized debris fell in sheets on the street. It must have sluiced off neighboring rooftops. It hurt to breathe.

I found a roll-up door halfway covering a glass door at ground level. I groped for the handle and lunged inside to get out of the cloud. I pulled the door closed behind me and gasped for breath. The air inside was foul, but not nearly as awful as the air on the street.

I was in a record store, maybe one of the relics of an older New York, when this part of town was known as “radio row.” Muffled music played from unseen speakers.

“Hello? ...” I called to no one. “Anybody here?” The lights were on; it was bright in the store. I stood there dumbly watching swirling waves of dust blow down the street.

I reached out waist high and touched the on-edge stack of album jackets with my fingers. Reflexively, I started flipping through them. The store was tiny, just a couple of hundred square feet — a nook, really, nothing more than three or four rows of vinyl and an old-fashioned cash register sitting on a dirty Formica countertop next to a stack of compact discs. For several minutes, I stood there in the silence like a fool, blithely imagining the proprietor had stepped out for a second and would be returning in a minute or two. I fantasized about being invited to some inner sanctum where there was clean air.

Then, in a flash, I envisioned the owner coming back with a gun. I took several deep breaths and hit the door, turning towards where I thought the Hudson River should be. Almost immediately, a man emerged from the cloud in front of me. He was short, and even through the dust I could see he was wearing the most expensive suit I’d ever seen. He looked like a little gray ghost carrying a gray briefcase.

“What happened?” he yelled at me. At first I didn’t hear him because the air was so heavy and thick.

“What happened!” he yelled, again.

“Planes crashed into the World Trade Center!”

“Yeah, I know, but what is this?!?” He indicated the cloud with a sweep of his arm.

“I … I guess the tower must have collapsed!”

“But what is it?”

“Concrete dust! Sheetrock dust! Breathing it is really bad. You need to get out of it!”

He looked at me blankly. Then he turned and walked away, disappearing back into the gray dust. He didn’t seem to know where he was going or what he was doing. I watched him fade away.

Still walking, I found two men wearing bandannas over their faces and grappling with a large, truck-towed coffee cart. One man wrestled with the hitch while the other unblocked the wheels, then they started rolling, one pushing and the other steering. The little trailer tires made little dust clouds. They ignored me. I kept moving.

The next open building I found was No. 2 Broadway, which, I was told, was a federal building. Security guards gave away bottles of water and white particle masks. The lobby had floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, so for our own safety we were herded into an emergency stairwell; I stood between two floors, packed shoulder to shoulder with strangers, looking at the gray paint on the wall and then looking through a small window into an open air shaft with gray air. A man near me had a battery-powered portable radio, and he spoke the news in a low voice as he heard it through a single earphone. As time passed, my crowd in the stairwell grew restless and noisy. Security must have noticed it because they brought us all back to the lobby to calm us down. I found some floor space to sit on with my back against an interior wall.

I had my butt on the floor and my back to the wall when the guards started yelling that the North Tower was coming down. I felt it through the floor. The rumbling and shouting built to a crescendo and our building shook down to the bedrock. Within seconds, the first black cloud rolled down the block. Jets of dust poured through the cracks around the revolving doors. Teams of men and women with rolls of packing tape ran long strips over the seams in a futile attempt to keep the cloud out of the lobby. Swirling, cascading waves of dust and smoke and ash poured from right to left outside the glass before dissipating into thick, sickly fog. I could not see the buildings just across the street or the parking signs. Day became night; the street lights had turned on. Claustrophobia gripped me. I went for the doors as soon as the guards announced that it was safe enough to be allowed outside.

Since the wind was blowing from New Jersey, I thought I could escape the acrid smoke if I got to the Hudson River. I shouldered my tools and somehow found my way down to Battery Park. Powdery gray dust smothered the grass on the ground and the leaves on the trees of the park, making them look like a sculpture garden, like someone’s idea of concretions as art. At the first building I found was the Museum of Jewish Heritage. My left hand led me past letters spelling “HOLOCAUST” and “MEMORIAL.” I kept moving northwards toward broken sunlight.

At the South Cove wharf, police boats motored against the current, using their engines to hold themselves in place at the dock while the dazed and the injured were loaded onto boats to New Jersey. The farther north I got, the thicker the dust. Paper, ductwork, pieces of insulation, computer parts, electrical conduit, plumbing pipe, notebooks and wiring lay thick on the streets and sidewalks.

At the North Cove a uniformed cop wearing a particle mask stopped me. The man with the badge and face mask said I couldn’t go any farther.

“Who are you?” he asked threateningly through his mask.

Who am I? What kind of question was that? I couldn’t think of an answer.

“Nobody,” I stammered, trying to figure out why he had asked me that question. He pulled his mask down and spoke straight to me in a gentle voice.

“Do yourself a favor and get the hell out of this damn place.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” I insisted.

At a distance off to my right, I saw a lone man standing between two straight rows of short trees. He seemed dazed and lost, and it occurred to me that I was just as bewildered as he was. As I stood there trying to figure out what I should do next, a photographer behind me took a picture of the lone man between the rows of trees in the dust cloud. She said she worked for The New York Times.

There was charred paper everywhere. I picked up a letter that was burned on all four edges, like some kiddie treasure map. The paper in my hand told me someone at Fuji Bank had applied for a new ID card and had been approved. There was an authorized signature from a woman named Michelle. I held onto this charred piece of paper for a long time, staring at it and staring to the absolute blizzard of paper on the ground. After some soul searching I dropped the paper and walked back to the South Cove for evacuation.

The police boat’s diesel engine roared, and we started across the Hudson to New Jersey, men packed tight on the fantail, women amidships, and the injured in the wheelhouse cabin. The boat bobbed like a cork. I didn’t have a railing to grip, so I spent a lot of time praying not to fall overboard wearing my backpack of tools. I would sink like a rock. Having lived through the attack, I dreaded the irony more than the indignity of dying at the bottom of the Hudson.

We docked safely at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. The police boat dumped us on the dock, turned, and went back across the water. I sat down on a bench by the water in Liberty State Park and watched lower Manhattan burn.

The son of a journalist and a teacher, Dwayne Walls Jr. was born in Charlotte in 1963. In 1971, his family moved from Charlotte to rural Chatham County, where he attended Horton School before graduating from Northwood High School. It was as a student at Northwood that he discovered his love of live theater, a love that has lasted a lifetime. His first book, “Backstage at the Lost Colony” (Coquina Press), is available online and in bookstores. In 2010, he and his wife, Elizabeth, returned home to Chatham County to be closer to family.


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Barbara Leary

Thank you for publishing this beautiful, devastating account of what it was like to be at the World Trade Center when the towers fell. Dwayne Walls is a master storyteller, and it's rare to find writing of this calibre in newspapers these days.

| Wednesday, September 9

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