Struggling to comprehend the events of Tuesday, Gotham-based industryites described scenes of devastation and chaos that defy belief.
And as ash swirled and debris fell like an eerie snow, the bigger picture became clear: The glittering nexus of global media and business lay in tatters, along with New York’s famously irrepressible pride.
“The city is in an extraordinary state of silent shock,” said USA Films distrib prexy Jack Foley, his voice rough with emotion.
“Amid all of the chaos there was a gentleness. As people got on the train, no one was pushing, no one was shoving. Everything felt so silent, so somber. I haven’t felt like this since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Even those who weren’t in the immediate area caught glimpses of the tragedy, sights they will never forget.
From an upper-story office, Viacom spokesman Carl Folta saw the second plane hit. “We could see it crystal clear from midtown,” he said. “We didn’t believe what we were seeing. It smashed into the side of the second tower.”
Pamela McClintock, Daily Variety‘s Washington correspondent who was on assignment in New York, watched from 26th Street as the second plane hit.
“At the corner of 6th Avenue, a large group of people were gathered, facing downtown. I thought there was some accident, construction or something,” she recalled. “As I entered the intersection, everyone gasped, a horrible sort of whimper.
“I followed their gaze and looked down 6th, which boasts a clear view of the World Trade Center, and saw something smash into one of the towers. There was a huge cloud of smoke. I tried to use my cell phone, but couldn’t. Everyone on the street was likewise trying to use their cell phones, with no luck. There were lines at all the public pay phones.”
One expert on terrorism even suggested that the second plane to hit the World Trade Center was timed deliberately to be captured by television cameras already focused on the buildings after the initial attack.
“It was meant to be right before our eyes,”‘ said Joan Deppa, a Syracuse University professor and author of The Media and Disasers: Pan Am 103. “This was staged like it was a TV show.”
Tom Tyrer, Fox Cable Networks senior VP of corporate communication, clung all day to his Blackberry portable communications device.
“It was the best way to reach people. Everybody on the street had a cell phone in hand and were locked out. Hard phone lines were tough, too,” Tyrer said. “I was able to send emails by the Blackberry to let my wife back in Los Angeles know that I was OK.”
Tyrer was in the city, along with the majority of the nation’s cable execs, for a variety of now-canceled cable industry events this week.
Laureen Ong, prexy of the National Geographic Channel, got word to Tyrer that due to the chaos of the morning she would not make it to the Millennium Broadway Hotel on 44th Street. She was set to serve on a panel there at the National Assn. of Minorities in Communications conference.
Tyrer said that following the conference’s keynote, an announcement was made of the Pentagon accident and the room cleared.
Jeff Shell, prexy-CEO of Fox Cable Networks Group, canceled plans to fly from L.A. to Gotham today to attend the cable events.
Working from the Fox lot Tuesday, Shell said the first task that morning was confirming the safety of his staff.
“Our first priority has been finding and accounting for our employees. We have about 400 people who work for us in New York and 300 or 400 in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “That was the first job this morning, and it’s been so far, so good.”
Foley headed in to USA’s Bleecker Street offices earlier than most colleagues Tuesday, however, and found himself at the epicenter of the attack. He was in the final leg of his New Jersey-Lower Manhattan train commute when the first plane hit.
As the scope of the disaster became clear, the train made an emergency stop to let passengers exit. That was just blocks from the place where Foley transfers each day to the subway: the World Trade Center.
That left him in a crowd of commuters watching in horror as people jumped or fell from the doomed twin towers. Billowing clouds of ash, dust and soot coated people and streets.
Onlookers listening to radios called out the dizzying updates about the Pentagon attack and the Pennsylvania crash. Shaken but uninjured, Foley managed to board a still-operative subway and escape the blast area.
(Jonathan Bing and Melissa Grego contributed to this report.)