In September of 2001, PW’s offices were located on West 17th Street in New York City, with a great view of lower Manhattan. It was there on the morning of September 11, against a backdrop of a sky that was “an unbelievable blue,” that much of the staff watched the Twin Towers fall. To mark the 20th anniversary of the attack, I asked PW employees at the time to share some memories of the day.
For my part, I was the PW business editor, and wasn’t planning to go into the office from my home in Westchester that morning, since BISG was having a 25th anniversary lunch uptown and I was intending to go directly there. I listened to Imus in the Morning back then and heard Warner Wolf call in to the program, saying it looked like a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. I turned on the TV to see what was happening and, not long after, watched the second plane strike the other building. Steve Zeitchik, editor of PW NewsLine, called from a phone booth soon after to check in.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur, watching the TV coverage and waiting for my wife to come home from work and my kids to get back from school. That Thursday, two days after the attack, I walked from Grand Central through a very eerie city to the PW offices to begin reporting on how the book publishing and bookselling industries were affected by the events of 9/11. This group of people, under the direction of editor-in-chief Nora Rawlinson, did a remarkable job in capturing the early reactions to an historic event. I was proud to be a part of it.
Book news editor
Rushing to work down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, I saw a trail of smoke rising from one of the World Trade Center towers. Word came from the TV inside a dry cleaner’s shop that a small plane must have flown off course. So I immediately jumped onto the subway, anxious to get past Wall Street in case the station needed to be closed.
At our 17th Street office, the desks were strangely empty. Then someone ran down the hall saying that the Pentagon had just been attacked. A knot of people were standing at the south-facing picture windows. Joining them, I saw that both towers had been hit. My stomach seemed to fall away. Soon we learned that all subways, bridges, and tunnels into and out of Manhattan were closed. Despite the jammed phone lines, I managed to get hold of my partner. As she walked 30 blocks down to our office, I held my breath, not knowing what she might encounter. (We had no cell phones in those days.) On arrival, she reported passing a handful of survivors covered in ash making their way uptown, but far fewer than expected.
By the late afternoon, we heard that a subway line had been opened to Brooklyn, and we prepared to return home. But first, my colleague Diane Roback escorted us up to the roof of the 17th Street building to get the lay of the land. The smoke column from the Twin Towers was bending toward Brooklyn on the wind. The eerie silence on the streets below was thrown into relief by the shrill black military fighter jets circling Manhattan against that clear blue September sky.
As the editor of PW's Book News section, my job was to report on publishing trends. September usually marked the beginning of the busiest season, leading up to the holidays. And Tuesdays were key, because the biggest titles were always released that day. That unraveled on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. All media interviews and author tours were canceled as the country ground to a standstill. Even the biggest books were completely shut out of the one-track conversation on TV and radio.
9/11 had an immediate impact on nonfiction, as readers cocooned at home and began searching for insights into the 9/11 attacks, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Islam. Cookbooks were hot, and books by Karen Armstrong, Geraldine Brooks, Bernard Lewis, and Thomas Friedman quickly jumped back on bestseller lists. When it came to fiction, I wondered if there were any overlooked international or domestic authors who might finally get their due. But digging into the Ingram database and talking with booksellers yielded only handful of backlist books by authors of Egyptian and Arab descent, few of which got a bounce.
It was clear that 9/11 had created a historical fissure that divided books written afterward from those written before. Now that the gaps in the existing canon were so glaring, publishers embraced many more immigrant and international authors in the months that followed, including Asne Seierstad (2002), Khaled Hosseini (2003), Marjane Satrapi (2003), Azar Nafisi (2003), Mohsin Hamid (2007), and many others. In the two decades since 9/11, the nonfiction and fiction about the attacks, and their antecedents and aftermath have only gotten richer and more diverse, as a result of the larger shifts in national and global perspective, and the benefit of hindsight.
Controller, Reed Business
I was sitting in our offices on 17th Street with our then CEO Tad Smith. We watched the second plane go into the towers from our offices. I watched the towers crumble later in the day. I worked in Tower 2 for five years on the 101st floor before moving to Reed Business and PW.
Group publisher, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal
The towers collapsed as we watched from our Chelsea offices. As group publisher, I felt that the 99 people who worked in our publishing group must not perceive a loss of leadership or a waning of perspective. I called a meeting to emphasize that all the familiar faces were among us and safe. For a time, a first in my life, it seemed we were truly one American people, a caring but wounded nation.
I came in early that morning to find an email from Tim Donnelly at the Boston Review accepting a long poem I had submitted a week before. Quite elated I was—I still have that time-stamped email somewhere. That was about five minutes before the first impact. I don’t know who was at the south window first, but some PW people gathered. I was concerned about my eight-year-old son, who was in school on Bleecker Street where I had dropped him off. The night before we had gone to Yankee Stadium with another father/son, to see the Yankees play, but heavy rains came and the game was canceled (the next day, of course, was famously clear and blue-skied). The school advised parents to sit tight; then the second tower was hit. I waited for word. I remember our art director, Clive Chiu, at the window, as we looked at all the smoke, saying, “It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone.” The North Tower had collapsed. Dermot McEvoy (a lifelong Villager and longtime PW contributor) and I left to go get my son. We walked past St. Vincent’s Hospital; Sixth Avenue in front of the hospital was full of beds in triage mode, beds that never were used. As we approached Bleecker Street, ashen and ash-covered survivors were trudging up the avenue, carrying briefcases and their horror. It turned out my son had been fetched by another father (the guy at the Yankee game) who lived in the Archive building on Christopher Street near the river, so Dermot and I headed west to get my boy. West Street was one long line of emergency vehicles headed downtown.
Executive editor, bookselling
That morning a little after 9 a.m., I was on a New Jersey Transit train in the Meadowlands headed to Hoboken. The car was quiet, then suddenly someone behind me said in a loud voice, "Another plane just hit the World Trade Center." We all looked up and saw the smoking towers in the distance. In Hoboken, there were repeated announcements that all PATH service to the World Trade Center was temporarily suspended. (It was reinstated two years later.) Wall Street people were trying to figure out how to get to their offices downtown via the 33rd St. line. As I walked up Hudson Street to PW's offices, people were in the streets with taking pictures of the scene downtown, and sirens were continually sounding.
At the office, I watched for a while from the windows, when part way down the South Tower glass seemed to explode out the sides of one floor. Then the whole upper part started falling. The building seemed to take a while to collapse, but couldn’t have taken longer than a few seconds. Our art director was particularly upset. If I remember right, he knew people who worked in the towers.
In the weeks afterwards, I kept commuting via PATH through the area south of 14th Street that was closed to traffic. I remember being choked up seeing so many police and fire department cars and trucks from as far away as Florida--they had driven to Manhattan to help.
Associate editor, PW Daily
On the morning of September 11, I had been one of the first people in the office, there for an early meeting with an online textbook seller called BigWords.com. Moments after I sat at my desk, my phone rang. It was my then wife telling me to go look out the window since the television was reporting that a “small plane had hit the World Trade Center.” I asked where she was calling from—she worked on Rector Street, two blocks from the World Trade Center—but she was still at home, luckily, as later in the day we learned her colleagues had been forced to shelter in a nearby bank’s safe.
The weekend before, I’d been in Oklahoma City at the Mid-South Independent Booksellers Conference. My wife went with me, and among the sites we visited was the then recently opened memorial for the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. When flying back, we bought barbecue in the Oklahoma City airport. When we complained about getting plastic utensils and asked for metal, the server replied. “Nope, no metal. Don’t want no hijackings.” Both of us were struck just how odd that was.
After my wife told me about the first plane, I went to the big window in our office that looked south and started taking photos of the smoking tower when the second plane hit. Someone in the conference room, where colleagues were watching on television, gasped. Then reports came in about other hijacked planes and, eventually, crashes in Washington and in Pennsylvania. Some worried about one hitting the Empire State Building.
I remember the first tower falling in slow motion; the second one seemed to fall faster. Word reached us that nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital wanted volunteers to go and give blood, as they were expecting a wave of casualties Several people stood transfixed at the window, crying; our art director, who’d used the towers to orient himself on the island—kept repeating, “It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s just... gone.”
Someone came back from St. Vincent’s and said that no one was coming from the site of the fallen towers. There weren’t waves of survivors or wounded. Eventually, people started making arrangements to try and get home. I lived in Williamsburg, at the first stop on the L train, which was one of the few lines running that day. I left the office around 1:30. The smell from the fallen towers, a kind of toothsome singed electrical smell that would linger for six months or more, had already started creeping uptown. The missing persons posters that shortly blanketed every available inch of the city had already started to appear. Then the scariest moment of the day for me happened, as two fighter jets on patrol flew very low down Broadway, north to south, before each peeled off in a roar in opposite directions. It was intimidating, terrifying. The site of those warplanes over Manhattan sent a chill through me that I can still viscerally recall now, 20 years later.
While trying to grapple with an event that is, as Jonathan Safran Foer put it, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” you lose perspective. As the staff watched from the large glass windows in PW’s sixth floor offices on 17th Street, the first of the World Trade Center towers shuddered and collapsed. Our instinct was to race to the conference room to see on television what we had just seen in real life. For some reason, we needed the news to validate what we’d just seen.
The next day, coming out of the subway, the city was eerily quiet. So quiet, I was able to hear someone whistling in the distance.
We once again gathered in the conference room. Group publisher Fred Ciporen reminded us that we had all come through this and even though it seemed paltry in comparison to what was going on blocks from us, we were still a news organization. The News section of our next issue was dedicated to what had happened to the booksellers and publishers below 14th Street. We felt incredibly validated when we learned the owner of one of those stores was able to get past the police line blocking off the area by showing a copy of his printout of the story. I wrote an editorial, reminding myself as much as anyone else, that books still matter.
So much has changed since then. The group of people who gathered that day are now mostly dispersed and one of them, a woman who loved the business and the magazine fiercely, executive editor Daisy Maryles, recently died. Even the company that once owned PW, Cahners, no longer exists. Of the over 100 trade magazines Cahners published, PW, Library Journal, and School Library Journal are among the few that still exist. And books and the publishing of them still matters.
My wife, Jody, and I were jolted awake on the morning of September 11 by a concussive explosion that seemed to rattle our apartment building on the Lower East Side. Thinking the explosion was nearby, we rushed to look out our south-facing kitchen window, where we saw smoke and fire coming from the World Trade Center towers, which loomed over downtown Manhattan in the distance. Almost immediately we saw a sickening black fireball bulge outward as the second plane hit the tower.
We turned to the TV for news. I had a meeting scheduled at PW, and while I knew it was absurd to worry about it—Jody was quick to point that out—I just couldn’t stay home. I headed for the subway and miraculously, the F train was running. I recall taking one of the most frenzied and weirdly reassuring subway commutes ever. People on the train were all talking to each other, exchanging whatever information, or misinformation, they had with whoever was nearby; New Yorkers desperately and enthusiastically communicating with each other despite the aura of impending doom and destruction hanging in the air.
At the PW offices, my cubicle faced a big floor to ceiling window with a spectacular view centered on the World Trade Center. I joined a group of PW colleagues who were moving between the conference room, where we watched the crisis unfold on a TV, and the big window near my desk. I’m pretty sure I watched the second tower collapse partly on TV and partly at that window; later, sitting at my desk, I watched the smoke rising from the devastation downtown. It’s a morning that I will never forget. Later that week, I wrote the lede paragraph in the PW news story (co-written by the PW news team) that marked our first report on the state of the publishing industry in New York City in the wake of the terrorist attack.
Sonia Jaffe Robbins
I set out to vote in the mayoral primary that clear-blue-sky morning before getting on the #1 train at 110th Street. At Times Square came the announcement that it wasn’t going further. So I set off for the A train, until I heard a woman coming up from the subway platform say there were no trains, and a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I imagined a small plane/amateur pilot accident.
Next, a bus? On the street I noticed cars headed uptown dotted with ash. That was strange. I turned on my portable radio, tuned as always to WFAN, where I was surprised to hear the early morning voice of Don Imus (it was around 10:15 by then). And more startled to hear that one of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. No buses south of 34th Street, so I never got to work that day.
In the office the next day, I watched the plume of smoke from the site of the World Trade Center merge with a puffy cloud above lower Manhattan. Tad Smith, a Reed Business Information executive, walked around asking everyone how we were and thanking us for coming in. I didn’t know who he was.
As we did every morning, my wife, Martha, and I walked together from our rowhouse in Jersey City to the Grove Street PATH train. As we approached the station, we looked up to see smoke coming out of one of the Twin Towers. It looked scary, but we figured it was a fire that would eventually be put out.
We kissed each other goodbye as we each took our train to work—mine on the 33rd Street line, hers to the World Trade Center, where she would transfer for the subway.
I got off at 14th Street and looked up to see more smoke, this time coming from the other tower. By the time I got to the PW offices, my co-workers had all gathered, as we knew by then that two planes had crashed into the towers. I immediately tried calling Martha, but there was no answer. By this time, I had assumed that she had reached the World Trade Center and made her transfer.
We stood at the long windows and watched the smoke billow. The first tower collapsed in a cloud of smoke and dust, and we gasped in amazement and fear; then the second tower crashed. Many of our cell phone lines were down, and I ran back to my desk to try the land line to reach Martha, but with no luck.
The minutes felt like hours, and I panicked, thinking that she never made it out of the switch from train to subway under the towers. Then my phone rang, and she said she was walking up Seventh Avenue on the east side of the street, and we agreed that I should begin walking down to meet her.
As I walked south, I saw a stream of New Yorkers making their way north, many of them covered in ash and smoke. They proceeded in an eerie silence, as I imagined soldiers might, returning from a battleground. Martha and I did reunite (her train had been diverted to 33rd Street), and we spent the rest of the day at a friend’s apartment in the West Village, listening to the sirens in the streets and the fighter jets overhead, horrified at what had happened to our city.