Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'My waking dream': What one reporter lost - and found - on that day of death and dust

Daily News reporter Chris Brennan and photographer Jim MacMillan set out for New York on Sept. 11, 2001, after the first jet hit the World Trade Center.

This article was originally published in September 2011.

Daily News reporter Chris Brennan and photographer Jim MacMillan set out for New York on Sept. 11, 2001, after the first jet hit the World Trade Center.

Some of Brennan's recollections of that chaotic day:


Jim is afraid of rats. They gather in the middle of the alley, maybe eight or 10. These are big-city rats, sturdy and unafraid of the streetlights at each mouth of the alley that reveal their meeting spot by a line of Dumpsters. The alley is our only route past the cops that block our way at nearby intersections.

I walk into the alley before Jim can argue. He follows. The rats, unmoving, watch us approach. But there is movement here. Low along the walls of the buildings on each side, the shadows are scurrying. There are hundreds of rats here, agitated by the day's explosions, driven above ground into the space we are now crossing.

They close in on us at the halfway mark, so close to our feet that we could kick them with little effort. Would that scare them back or anger them forward? We press ahead briskly. A pickup truck is abandoned at the end of the alley. We will have to squeeze by one side. The rats squeeze in with us. I can feel them brush my ankles, skitter across my shoes. And then we are out of the alley, in the open, clear.


I started the day on foot, running home from the gym. In a taxi, I learn from the radio news that the trains running to New York are at a dead stop. I get the cabbie to change course, from the train station to the newspaper to meet a waiting car.

The New Jersey Turnpike is pandemonium, but that is not normally news. We get off and use back roads across the state to reach the river bank in Jersey City. Our first view of it. Towers gone. Huge smoke plume. A ferry captain agrees to take us back across with him. But on the far bank, the FBI has other ideas. "Back on the boat," an agent yells as I step off.

We drive north to a bridge still open, far north of the city. "You going to Manhattan?" the toll taker asks. "It's closed." In New York, we race the car down the other bank on a highway closed to traffic. When the road ends, we are still 50 blocks from where we need to be. Back on foot.


On our way to New York, my cellphone is not working. I can't call the office or check my messages. I am out of touch. Then the radio makes me think I should turn around and head home. A newsreader just said that an airplane has slammed into Jenkintown. Jenkintown? Why?

The pay phone at a North Jersey McDonald's is working so I call an editor. "We're sorry, due to a plane crash in your area, your call can not be completed. Please hang up and try your call again." Which area? New York or Jenkintown? Does the phone company really keep this as a recorded message? I call again. The editor answers. Jenkintown is fine. Keep heading toward New York, she urges.

On Wednesday, on my way back home, the cellphone starts to work again, giving me messages from the previous day. One is from my sister: "Please, don't go to New York!" she tells me. The other is from my chiropractor in Philadelphia: "We're going to have to cancel your appointment. We're closing early, in case of terrorism."


The soot and papers cover just about everything inside the office building next door to the Trade Center. The windows of a first-floor gym are all blown out, the shards of glass mixed into the powder. Weights and towels rest where the exercisers dropped them.

Jim snaps pictures through the frame of a former window while I root around in the paperwork, looking at the expense report of a man who spends $10,000 a month on dinners and flowers. Emergency medical teams are setting up in some of this space, but there are no survivors to treat or comfort.

A firefighter starts talking about the many missing bodies. I had seen some parts - a torso in a uniform, a woman's hand with a wedding ring still on her finger. The firefighter holds up a handful of soot, letting it sift through his fingers. "You know where they went? They were vaporized. They're right here."


The paper looks like a movie prop, perfectly singed by flame around all sides. The typed writing remains, telling of a bank in Madrid, established in 1869, that has a credit line of $10 million and is being approved for an upgrade to $100 million. This memo came from Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond firm I had never heard of until today.

The airplane wheel sits in the middle of the street. It is massive: round black rubber on a rim connected to the appendage used to lift and lower it. It looks like a limb wrenched from its body and dumped here among the parked cars.

The fire truck is there in front of me but, mixed in with the debris, I don't see it for several minutes. In the jagged lines of girders and rebar and crushed cars and office furniture, my eye follows the truck's lines. Here are the doors, flung open, where emergency gear is stored. There are the ladders. It is otherwise empty.


The little guy with shifty eyes keeps coming back to us. He claims to be an emergency volunteer. He offers to take a camera deep into the pile for us to take pictures of broken bodies. We say no thanks and, when he turns away, we lose him.

He's back, now drinking a can of Heineken. It seems strange, a beer in the middle of all this. There is more beer down in the boats at a nearby harbor, he tells us. I think he is a looter. We duck him again. The last time I see him, two cops are holding him by his T-shirt, lifting him so that his work boots brush the ground.

We find the boundaries by accident. Firefighters bellow when we get too close as they carry out a fallen comrade. A man in a blue windbreaker emblazoned with the words "Mayor's Office" throws tantrums when things slow down. He eyes Jim and me. "You can't be here," he screeches, looking around. "You have to stay back by that tree." The tree, its branches twisted and tangled with paperwork, is just 10 feet from where we stand now. We go and stand by the tree for a while and then move again.


My feet ache and my shoulder is sore from lugging the laptop computer. It is very early Wednesday morning and I have been on the go for 19 hours. Firefighters doze in dusty office chairs, dragged from the ruins and set up in lines on the sidewalk.

I worry about sleeping - about missing something and taking up space where a firefighter could crash. I'm swaying on my feet. Several chairs open up. Jim and I sit down and try to nod off.

The bulldozer pulls steel girders from the pile and then drags them along the street. The girders slice screeching, sparking scars into the asphalt. Another machine with a huge mechanical claw grips these girders, pivots and lumps them together. The heap is a few feet from the office chairs. Each time my head drops, a load of girders slams down, jolting me awake.


Jim is now satisfied that we walked with the rats. Some places should be hard to reach. He thinks we passed some sort of gate in that alley. I hadn't thought about it like that. Jim talks about it more than I do, thinking aloud.

In a hotel room on Times Square, I yell on the phone at an editor in Philadelphia. Computer problems have caused another story of mine to vanish. I feel unhinged, telling him I am working my ass off so that good work can meet a pathetic death far away. I argue loudly. I know I should temper my anger. I cannot.

I write more stories - the reopening of Broadway shows, the work of Philadelphia firefighters in New York, fear among office workers in trademark skyscrapers - but I feel something slipping away. This may be as big as it ever gets for me and I can't stand the words I have written about it.


Back at home, I wake many nights aware - but wrong - about where I am. I am still there in my waking dream. This has the vividness of a nightmare but not the feeling of horror. I get up and look out my window, looking for the heavy equipment and piles of concrete. I wander around my bedroom, looking at familiar shapes and objects.

I am home. That long day has passed. I can relax. I should relax. Back in bed, I remember the day as I slip back to sleep. The next night, the dream wakes me again. I am up, wandering.

And then the dream is gone. I don't notice its absence right away. It takes weeks. But then I know. I sleep through the night, knowing somehow, the whole time, that I am still home in my bed.