WTC Bombing 12/20/19

Recollection by Richard Bleil

Ask about the World Trade Center bombing, and I’m guessing that most people will assume that you are talking about the planes crashing into them on September 11, 2001. But I wonder how many people remember the February 26, 1993 bombing.

Working at a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, I was running late on Friday. It didn’t really matter; as a research assistant I didn’t teach classes, and I had no appointments on that day, so I slept in. As I dressed, I turned on the television, which was uncharacteristic of me (and still is today). I probably would have paid no attention, but something struck me.

The regular programming had been usurped by the news. Something, something big, was going on. Had I had my wits about me, I would have popped a cassette into the VCR and hit “record” as the drama unfolded.

Somebody had driven a van into the basement of the World Trade Center with over 1,300 pounds of explosives. It had already been set off when I turned on the news. Later I would learn that it basically took out three floors of the parking garage (the floor it was on, one above and one below), but caused no damage to the support pillars. The damage was extensive, but superficial. Smoke from the explosion and resulting fires filled the towers resulting in an evacuation.

The news was like a drama. In New York City, the local news coverage was more or less continuous. They had reporters and camera crews commenting on the story as it unfolded live, with live streaming video. The only interruptions were when the national news periodically broke in to tell the story. Of course, anything the national news reported was already known by anybody watching locally. It was fascinating to see the delay and double coverage and note the difference in the depth of the reports.

The people flowed out of the building exits like water through the floodgates of a damn. It was steady, and most were fine save for smoke inhalation. Emergency workers met them as they exited, throwing blankets around many and escorting them to waiting ambulances.

Eventually, the news reported of a class of elementary school kids who had gone to the World Trade Center for a school trip that day. At first it was just a part of the story, almost matter of fact.

The news continued and the stream of survivors were going strong. On the ground, reporters and rescuers began asking the survivors if they had seen these children. Somberly, the news reporters said that so far, nobody had seen them.

The day wore on. The stream of people began to slow to a steady but significantly less vigorous exodus, and still no sign of the school children. Reporters learned more about when they had left, and as reporters are wont to do, they began speculating on the children. They were scheduled to arrive about an hour before the bomb went off, but were they running late? Did they stop for an early lunch?

The steady stream of survivors broke, becoming spotty clusters of people and individuals as the building emptied. Still no children. Were they in the parking garage when the bomb exploded? Did their bus get caught in the fires? The emergency workers still couldn’t get to the epicenter of the blast. Could the children have been buried under three floors of parking garage?

The stream came to a halt. Nobody was exiting the building any longer. Hope for the children was waning. Tensions ran high, and emotions were off the charts. I broke down and cried. We all waited.

And waited.

And waited…

Eventually, one final group of survivors emerged from the building; the group teacher, with all of the children, unharmed. As it turns out, their small lungs were struggling with the exercise of going down so many flights of stairs. After all, it had over one hundred floors (104, in fact), so the teacher had the students stop periodically to catch their breath. I’ve never felt such relief in my life.

As a side note, the FBI apprehended the perpetrators fairly quickly, and for a ridiculously comic reason. See, the people who did the bombing had rented the van, and apparently paid cash. Before long, it was announced that the bomb was carried into the garage in a van, but let’s be real, a lot of vans are rented in New York City every day. Even in 1993, the population of the city was nearly seven and a half million strong. As it turns out, though, the day after the bombing, one of the persons who had rented a van returned to the rental place and, even though he didn’t have the van to return, asked if he could get his deposit back. The rental agency thought this suspicious and said they would need to check with headquarters to see if they can refund the deposit without the van and asked him to return the next day. They called the FBI, and, sure enough, the man returned for his deposit the next day only to find that the agents waiting for him were not from the rental company.

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