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A view four miles from ground zero

Jim Henry is a New York-based staff reporter for Automotive News

NEW YORK -- Like everybody else in the world with a television set, I watched last week’s terrible events on TV, with co-workers gathered around the set, just like everybody did when the Space Shuttle blew up.

The difference was, this time I could look out the window and see the smoke. Before I knew just how awful the situation was, it surprised me – shocked me, in fact - that I could see the smoke. For me, that was the moment I knew something had happened that was much, much worse than I was prepared to believe.

The Crain Communication office on Third Ave. is about four miles from the World Trade Center as the crow flies. That sounds close, but in New York City terms, that’s an entirely different part of town -- almost remote, literally a different zip code. From the third floor where I work, you normally can’t see anything that far away.

At first, I only heard about one plane hitting the World Trade Center. I assumed it was probably a little one. Maybe an accident. Some kook in an ultralight air craft landed on the Statue of Liberty’s torch the other day. I thought the worst that could happen to the Twin Towers would be like the plane that hit the Empire State Building in 1945, with surprisingly little damage.

By the end of day, we all knew what had happened. There was so much smoke and dust downtown, it looked like a volcano had erupted, and you could smell something in the air. There were thousands of people trudging up Third Avenue past our office all day. Once in a while, somebody walked by coated with ash. One car was covered with ash. It looked as if it had snowed.

Our building is in the shadow of the Chrysler Building; around the corner from the Israeli Consulate; and down the street from the United Nations. All of those things seemed important all of a sudden, until with time, it became clear that the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the plane in Pennsylvania were going to be it for the day.

God knows, that was more than enough. For me, things stopped making sense after I saw the smoke.

Like other people -- including, we now know, people on the hijacked planes -- my first reaction was to call my wife and our twin 4-year-old daughters at home in New Jersey. I also e-mailed my brothers and sisters. Thanks everyone, to the friends, relatives and business contacts who checked in with me from Australia, Puerto Rico, Germany, Nashville, New England.

My own reaction is still sort of befuddled. It was bizarre to have even a semi-normal day, with all that carnage so near. Once I knew my family was safe, I’m very sorry to confess, I had no urge to rush downtown and help, or even to rush downtown and write a story. Maybe that’s middle age. I just turned 44 in August. To be fair to myself, I did give blood on my birthday, and I’m way past the two-gallon mark.

Fortunately, other people stepped up to the plate. My wife’s brother-in-law is a volunteer fireman in the New Jersey suburbs. He was decorated for saving a life in a flash flood after Hurricane Floyd a few years ago. He spent the night of Sept. 13 helping out the rescue effort in Manhattan. One of his sisters was working in the World Trade Center complex Sept. 11. She got out all right.

By the way, he was born in Lebanon.

One of my nephews, Ian Gomes, just got out of U.S. Navy boot camp, and got orders to join a destroyer in Norfolk, Va. I did a peacetime hitch in the Navy, 20 years ago. To me, my nephew is one of the few people I know who has a chance to really contribute to what needs to be done to respond to the terrorists. His father is an ex-Marine, if there is such a thing.

And I’m just about to go outside and put up a flag that was draped over the coffins of one aunt, who was a Navy nurse in World War II, and an uncle, another Navy war veteran. Another aunt used to date a guy who landed in Normandy, on D-Day. He once told me everybody in his boat began to cry, when they realized what was about to happen.

My mother used to fly a flag that belonged to her grandfather, who joined the Army in 1865. One of my brothers is a retired Air Force colonel (Vietnam and Gulf War), and another brother is a retired Army colonel (Vietnam).

My neighbors beat me to it, putting up flags, while I’ve been in sort of a daze.

I still can’t believe I could see the smoke.

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com

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