20 years after the towers fell, he still feels the impact

Posted 9/8/21

Editor’s note: Starting back in 1981, Dwayne Walls Jr. worked building sets and props in regional theaters and outdoor dramas throughout the Southeast, including five seasons with “The Lost …

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20 years after the towers fell, he still feels the impact

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Editor’s note: Starting back in 1981, Dwayne Walls Jr. worked building sets and props in regional theaters and outdoor dramas throughout the Southeast, including five seasons with “The Lost Colony” on North Carolina’s coast. In 1998, he moved to New York to build sets and props for television, film and theater, most notably for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Walls was working as a freelance stagehand at the World Trade Center when the first airplane struck.

I was in the Wintergarden atrium when the first plane hit.

We were about to start decking the temporary stage inside the barrel-vaulted glass greenhouse when the pink marble floor convulsed and shuddered and threw us up in the air.

I did not so much hear the collision and explosion so much as feel them through my body. There was a high-pitched shrieking over both. Someone told me later that was the sound of the engines echoing off the skyscrapers.

There were three of us: myself, my work partner George, and a young security guard. Everyone called George “Jurassic” George because he was always the oldest guy on the crew. The young security guard wore no name tag on his blue blazer.

We gaped at each other wide-eyed. The echo of the blast faded into eerie silence. As one we said, “That was a bomb!”

“Don’t go near it,” ordered the security guard. His face went blank, and I could see he was reaching back to remember his training. “It is a crime scene.”

“Listen!” said George, holding his hand up in the air.

Then I heard it: a hissing sound rising until it roared like hard rain on a roof. The storm brought its own thunder; a great thudding and clanging and banging mixed with the hissing until it sounded like it was on top of us before abruptly fading as quickly as it had started.

Bewildered, I thought of running, but I was inside a 10-story glass greenhouse; there was nowhere to run.

I still was deciding what to do when the double doors leading to the North Tower flew open and a solid stream of humanity surged down the pink marble stairs toward the exit doors to the North Cove. A woman running fell in front of me. I picked her up and decided the best thing I could do was to hold the exit doors open. Soon the stream slowed to a trickle and stopped, leaving only Jurassic George and me in the greenhouse. The security guard was gone, so George and I went out the doors leading to the North Cove and looked up.

The North tower, on the left in my field of vision, burned far above us. Black smoke plumed into a great black clot shaped like a fist. Bright flames pushed out from the empty windows on the highest floors and smoke billowed out of the stories immediately above them. I could not see two sides of the building; I was too close. It hurt my neck to look that high up. I saw shapes falling. Most of these shapes left little smoke trails.

I did not realize these shapes were people until I recognized arms spinning or legs kicking.

A small crowd gathered behind George and me in the North Cove. When anyone in the North tower fell or jumped, singularly or in groups, our little knot of people cried and groaned as one. So many people fell that our wails became a chorus.

I heard a woman scream, “There’s another plane!”

I looked to my right, both seeing and hearing the jet for the first time. It was coming in low and fast over the harbor, engines screaming like a million monkeys. I remember how bright it was, as if it had been painted that day. Its wheels were up. In the last second, the left wing dropped as if to turn and miss everything; instead, it disappeared into the South Tower with a hideous crunch like stomping a beer can.

Every pane of glass in the South Tower exploded.

I saw the building recoil from the impact, whipsawing back and forth as it absorbed the shock waves. One of the jet’s engines punched completely through the structure, emerging with its intact turbine fans still turning and flaming as it arched downward. What must have been 10 floors erupted in a massive fireball that blew people and wreckage out into the air.

“RUN!” is what George said at the top of his lungs, but I could not move.

I cannot explain it, but the scale of the destruction froze me to the spot. I saw the debris hanging in the air, getting bigger as it got closer, and I knew I should run, but I just stood there, dumb with incomprehension, until I realized George had turned around and come back for me.

“I’m sorry, George… I can’t…”

I was still trying to speak when a wave of glass hit us. We should have died the death of a thousand cuts, but the shards were safety glass from the Trade Center windows, all of it in tiny cubes the size of my little fingernail. The tiny cubes came down in torrents, wave upon wave, floor after floor of safety glass, like some crazy summer sun shower.

Then the big stuff hit. Chunks of concrete and pieces of metal came at us from over the top of the Merrill Lynch Building, bouncing off the tempered glass roof of the Wintergarden and off the side of the American Express Building, smashing and crashing all around us. With every impact the concrete fractured into smaller pieces that went bouncing or flying or rolling all around us. Most were small and sharp, like sea shells; others larger, like pumpkins or footballs, each with its own comet tail of dust.

I saw two pieces make 20 when they collided in mid-air. Flaming, smoking things landed all over the place. I recognized parts of office furniture: pieces of desks and chairs, or of fabric and wood, all of it charred in one way or another.

But the most frightening pieces of wreckage were made of metal, because instead of fracturing on impact, the metal bounced back into the air. Everything was mangled and bent into unrecognizable shapes. One piece of metal pipe or conduit landed in front of us. It was crudely coiled like a ribbon or a spring and it danced up and down every time it hit the ground, hissing like a snake.

One huge piece that must have been structural steel landed 20 feet in front of us and bounced straight back up into the air, ringing like a turning fork 20 feet long. When it landed again it cartwheeled straight at us, spinning end over end like a majorette’s baton. I crashed into George so hard that we both lost our balance and went tumbling into the side of the American Express Building. George said he saw the steel bounce all the way into the Hudson River.

I got up and walked to the spot where we had been standing and looked at the wreckage of the South Tower. I was amazed that the structure took that kind of a body blow without crumbling to dust. I thought it was a miracle the tower was standing at all.

For almost an hour George tried unsuccessfully to coax or cajole me into leaving the North Cove. Only when I saw the South Tower sagging visibly above the impact point did I agree to shoulder my tool bag and start slogging uptown.

We turned the corner of the American Express Building and passed a herd of hundreds of people milling and talking and texting on their cell phones. I put my head down and followed the boots in front of me.

We made it across the West Side Highway before North End Avenue dead ended at Hudson River Park. By this route we moved East through the crowds at a pretty good clip. I was still following Jurassic George when he pulled up short and stopped. I almost walked right over him. We were on the corner of Chambers and Broadway.

“This is good,” he said above the screaming sirens, dropping his tool bag onto the sidewalk. “This is far enough.”

“Far enough for what?”

“Far enough not to get killed when it comes down,” he said.

We were both breathing heavily, and I remember wondering to myself just how old Jurassic George really was.

The corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway was an axial vantage point to see the city in crisis. I saw ambulances, firetrucks, marked and unmarked police cars roll down West Broadway from uptown with their sirens blaring. The noise was deafening. You had to yell to be heard. Looking west on Chambers Street I saw the race to remove the kids from Stuyvesant High School and PS234. Looking south I could see straight down West Broadway onto a wedge of the North tower. Beyond that, across the Plaza, I saw a tall, narrow slice of the South tower down to Plaza level. A couple of blocks east was City Hall Park; on the other side of the park was the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

George and I were in a knot of about a dozen people on the northeast corner of the intersection. We were all looking up at the wrecked, burning buildings. We were still so close that my neck hurt to stare up at the sight for too long.

It was a ghastly sight, and to have seen it is to know the face of cruelty, for high up the North tower a crude face had emerged from the smoke and flames, with two burning eye sockets where the jet’s engines had punched through the building. Flaming jet fuel made the beard. A smoking turban topped out this grotesque death’s head. It was an evil, dreadful apparition, at once djinn-faced and evil.

One of the men standing in our little knot of people on our street corner was obviously distraught. He pointed at the crude smoking face and said, “Look! The face! The face of God! Look what God did!”

I wanted to punch him for saying that. I lunged for him, but George caught me before I could lay a hand on him, saying, “Stop it, Dwayne!”

George was right; I had lost my temper. I needed to calm down. As my mind cleared I remembered something I had heard in church a long time ago. I looked up to the burning wreckage and said out loud: “Your words are not my words, and your ways are not my ways, so sayeth the Lord.”

“Amen, brother,” responded a man wearing restaurant kitchen whites, his eyes fixed upward.

“I went to the eye doctor this morning,” he said in a distant, unbelieving tone. “I went to the eye doctor in the concourse this morning instead of going straight to work. I work at Windows on the World and now everyone is trapped but me. My God, we had 28 people on the shift this morning.” He stared up to the top of the edifice as long as he could, until pain made him wrench away for a few seconds. His eyes always went back to the buildings.

I turned back to the man in the crowd and said as calmly as I could, “I don’t see the face of God, I see the face of the Devil! I see the face of a madman named Osama bin Laden!”

The chef in white turned and looked directly at me and asked, “Who?”

“Osama bin Laden. That’s who did this.” I was sure it was him because I was a hardwired news junkie. My father was an investigative journalist. I grew up reading the newspaper every day. I watched network news religiously every evening on television. I had answered this question to my own satisfaction while I stood with George in the North Cove. If I had not, I might have been standing there still trying to figure it out.

“How do you know? How do you know it’s him?” He was looking at me now.

I thought about the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed hundreds. I thought about the bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors and maimed 39 more. I thought about the murder of the famous freedom fighter, Ahmad Shah Massoud, in Afghanistan only three days earlier.

“You will know him by the trail of dead.”

He gaped at me, staring and thinking before yelling, “What?”

He looked as surprised as I was at what I just said. Then he demanded, “What?!? What did you just say?”

“You will know him by the trail of dead,” I said out loud again, and then I told him what I had read and seen about bin Laden. When he knew what I knew, I speculated, “I think we’re under attack. God knows how many more planes are out there.”

A middle age woman with a cellphone in her hand heard the two of us talking. She held a cell phone above her head as a proof she was not lying. “My friend said a plane hit the Pentagon.”

The chef turned from looking at her to looking at me and asked, “You’re telling me you know who did this?” I nodded. “Will you repeat what you said to my boss?” and I nodded again, thinking his boss was in some anonymous, mid-town office wearing a suit and tie. It did not occur to me his boss was in the top of the burning tower in front of me.

He produced a flip phone. “My boss has a lot of confused people up there.” He said as he tapped the keypad. Putting the phone to his ear, he said, “A lot of my people think God hates them, that they did something to deserve this.”

I reached out clumsily for the phone. “Let me talk to him.” But he pulled it away from me.

“No!” he said firmly. “You don’t know her.” He put the phone to his ear and looked at me. “She knows me. She wants to hear it from me. You tell me what you just told me and I’ll tell her.” He put the phone to his ear and looked at me hard. “You swear you’re telling me the truth?”

So I told him again what I knew and he repeated it to his boss over the cellphone. Again in the end I speculated, finishing with, “We’re under attack,” before saying what had been on my mind since we hiked out of the North Cove.

“We’re going to war!” I sounded pathetic, and I immediately felt ashamed of myself. I looked around at the faces of the people with whom we were standing. George was looking at me with that level, see-through gaze he had. But I could not control myself and I said it again.

“We’re going to war.”

The chef covered up the microphone end of the phone. “Don’t say that.”

“They’ve got to find a way down from there,” I said more to myself than to anyone. Then to him: “Tell her they’ve got to find a way down from there.”

“She says there’s too much smoke.”

“Put water on a cloth and breathe through it.”

“She says the stairs are blocked and there’s no water.”

“She HAS to find a way!” I looked back to the fires and said, “That South tower is coming down.”


“That South tower is coming down.”

“What makes you say that? How do you know?”

“Before we hiked here, George and I were standing in the North Cove. We saw the steel melting. The South Tower is visibly sagging above the impact point. We could see it sagging.”

He repeated what I said into the phone and gave brief description of how we were dressed. The answer from the other end of the phone surprised him.

“She says they saw the two of you standing there in the North Cove. Why didn’t you run when the second plane hit? Everybody thought you were going to die.”

Before I could think of an answer, George looked at me and pronounced, “Because he’s crazy.”

“That’s great, George,” I said. Maybe he was right, but I defended myself, “Where am I going to run? Where am I going to hide? I saw a lot of good people die this morning. Maybe I am crazy, but I am not afraid to join them. I’ll be in good company.”

George looked at the chef and said again, “He’s crazy.”

The chef was still on the phone with Windows on the World, and he turned to me and repeated each sentence he heard from the woman at Windows on the World. “She says she’s glad you stayed. You gave people hope. When you two left the North Cove, they knew it was over.”

In a gush I said, “I wish I could do more. I wish I could say more.”

I wanted to say something uplifting or something wise, anything to comfort these doomed people in their hour of trial, but all I could think of was a corny line from an old television show.

“Live long and prosper,” was all I could say. It haunts me to this day.

“He says ‘Live long and prosper,’” the chef said into his phone. After a couple of seconds, seconds full of sirens and yelling all around us, he looked at me and said, “She says, ‘Thank you, but I fear I shall do neither.’”

I tried to speak but my mouth would not make sounds. My jaw opened and closed and my lips made shapes but I could not make a sound. The chef was looking at me.

“He’s speechless.”

Then everyone started screaming because the South tower was coming down.

Dwayne Walls Jr. and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.


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