Twenty Years Ago Today: The Warning Bell Nobody Heard

Ken AshfordWar on Terrorism/TortureLeave a Comment

February 26, 1993

I was a third-year law student at NYU in 1993.  As any third-year law student will tell you, a 3L's focus in the second semester is not so much on completing law school and passing law school exams, but preparing for the impending bar exam. 

Throughout law school, I clerked part-time at the law firm of Slotnick & Baker, a small "boutique" law firm specializing in high-profile criminal defense cases.  The firm consisted of 4 lawyers, me, a paralegal, and a secretary.  I had worked there since 1987 (I started as a paralegal).

A few weeks earlier, I had informed the senior partner Barry Slotnick that it was my intention to cut back on my time with the firm during my second semester, so I could focus on BarBri bar exam preparation courses.  So I was there only once or twice a week.

I was not supposed to work on February 26, 1993.  But I made an unscheduled visit to the law office, mostly to tie up some loose ends.

Wtc18_1[1]Slotnick & Baker at that time was located at 225 Broadway, just diagonal from the World Trade Center towers.  Pictured here is 225 Broadway on 9/11/01 (it's the tall building on the right side of the photo — one of the Twin Towers behind it is collapsing).

Every day when I was employed there, I took the subway to work.  I typically would get off at the WTC stop, and come up to the street through the underground concourse mall two stories below the entire WTC complex.

I only planned to be at the firm for only a few hours on February 26.  I had just finished a class that morning, and I had another one sometime in the early afternoon.  I was just going in to get a few things, grab some lunch, and go back to school.

Nadia was glad to see me.  She was the paralegal there, having replaced me a few years earlier when I moved up to "law clerk".  A few days earlier, she had been given an actual office with an actual window.  She no longer had to work in the law library, sitting at a long desk.  "Come see my office," she said.  "I've decorated it."

I was happy to oblige.  Her office, in fact, was my old office (or one of them, I should say).  It was full of girly Nadia-things, as I expected.  We did our usual amount of chit-chat and flirting.  I looked out her window from the 22nd floor, which faces south. 

"Nice view," I said sarcastically. 

"At least I have a view now", Nadia smiled.

We chatted a few minutes more about various things.  Office gossip.  Nadia's second job as a tour guide for Big Apple NYC Bus Tours.  More flirting.

Suddenly, the building shook.  The window, which I was leaning against, rattled.  And a large bang.

"Bangs" are not uncommon in New York.  Usually, it's a sanitation vehicle slamming down one of those large green industrial trash bins.  But this is something different.

"Whoa", I said. 

Nadia giggled (because that's what she does).

We speculated as to what it might be, but seeing nothing from her window, we quickly forgot about it.  And ten minutes later, I was saying "so long" and venturing out of the office to get lunch somewhere in the WTC concourse, and eventually return to NYU up in the Village.

As soon as I stepped outside 225 Broadway, I heard the sirens.  I turned the corner and headed toward the WTC and that's when I saw the flashing lights.  I connected it to the blast I heard ten to fifteen minutes ago.  My initial reaction was one of annoyance: will this prevent me from getting lunch in the WTC concourse?

Then I wondered if there might have been a subway accident — a collision of trains perhaps — which might explain the bang we heard.

I hovered for several minutes, inching my way closer to what appeared to be the center of attention at the foot of the towers.  Others on the street were craning their necks upward, and so — like a lemming — I did, too.

I was almost at the base of the towers, on the plaza (which was surprisingly devoid of people), when I saw them: two women coming out one of the doors on the east side of the North Tower.  They were holding each other and looking very fatigued.  One of them was covered in soot and coughing.

The explosion, as we know now, was a bomb set off in one of the underground parking garages by an al Qaeda terrorist bent on causing one of the towers to collapse.  He grossly underestimated the strength of the building.  However, smoke from the explosion had poured up through the tower's interior, and cut off power inside.  Just as they would eight years later, workers were evacuating the building — sometimes through smoke — by stairwell.

I went to the women and asked if they were okay.  One of them — the sooty one — asked for water.  I said I didn't have any, but I said I would take them to where I had seen emergency vehicles minutes before.  And the three of us walked.  They asked me what had happened.  I said I didn't know, even though I suspected it had something to do with that "bang" I heard half an hour ago.

As we walked around the base of the building toward the west side.  A fireman saw us approaching and helped the stricken woman to a paramedic vehicle, her friend in tow.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another fireman looking up, and I looked up as well.  There was a plume of smoke coming from one of the high floors in the tower.

Just then, I head a scuffle and looked over to see a man in a gray business suit collapse to the ground.  I assumed he was another worker in the office, although (from the glimpse of him I caught) he didn't appear to be covered in soot.  Several firemen and policemen quickly went to his aid.

Apart from me, there were a few other civilians in the immediate area.  I heard a policeman instructing them to move back several blocks.  He was concerned about falling glass from the upper floors plummeting down to the streets below.  Not needing a hint, I left the scene and made my way to the subway, looking back over my shoulder to watch the events.  On my way, I ran into a few other people looking for medical attention, and I directed them to the emergency workers.

I arrived at the subway entrance, where a policeman said that they were closing the subway.  This meant that I would have to walk several city blocks uptown to get to the next station. 

I doubted that the subways were running, so walking to another station didn't make much sense.  With nothing else to do, I stayed around for a while (behind police barricades) watching what I could.

About 20 minutes later, I happened to see an empty cab, which I hailed. I took it to NYU, just in time for class.  The cabbie said he heard it was a bomb on the upper floor (he was wrong, it was in the underground garage).

Six people died that day, and over one thousand were injured, in the first largely forgotten al Qaeda attack on American soil.