From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America


New York City Transit puts a lot of faith in paperwork. At times, it seems to have missed the whole computer revolution, or at least mistrusted it. In fact, in a dusty file room in downtown Brooklyn, there are boxes containing minute-by-minute records of the daily movements of your subway line, going back several years—all handwritten on paper.

But in the weeks since September 11, 2001, weeks that have generated enough paperwork to wrap every subway car like a Christmas gift, there are three pieces of paper that have survived consignment to the oblivion of a cardboard file box.

Instead, they have been copied and copied again and passed around like Soviet samizdat [a means of expressing oneself and communicating with one another in a sphere outside the censor’s supervision.] They were written by a fifty-five-year-old man named John B. McMahon, who works as a superintendent over several stations in Manhattan. The pages are dated and stamped, and start like any transit memo, heavy on military accuracy and acronyms, like “F.O.” for field office.

“While at my office at Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue at approximately 0900 hours,” it begins, “the F.O. notified me . . .”

But as the memo continues, recounting Mr. McMahon’s journey on September 11 from his office to the area around the World Trade Center, it quickly becomes apparent that it is something other than official correspondence.

It is the soliloquy of a man trying to figure out what happened to him that day. In essence, it is a letter from Mr. McMahon to himself.

That morning, he rushed downtown to get into the Cortlandt Street Station on the N and R line to make sure that no passengers or transit employees remained inside the station. When he found none, he went back up onto the street and, as debris began to rain down from the fires in the towers above him, he took refuge under a glass awning in front of the Millennium Hilton Hotel.

At 9:58 A.M., he looked up.

He saw what appeared to be a ring of smoke form around the south tower. “Except,” he wrote, “that this ring was coming downward . . .”

There was a truck parked next to him in front of a loading bay at Cortlandt and Church Streets, and he dove between the truck and a roll-down door, grabbing onto the bottom of a wall.

He wrote: “There was an upward, vacuum-type of air movement, followed by a ‘swoosh’ of air and then . . . NOTHING. Not a sound, but pitch darkness with a powder-like substance covering every inch of the area. It also filled my eyes, ears, face and mouth.”

He struggled to breathe. He scooped ash and dust from his mouth. But as soon as he did, his mouth would fill up again. He felt other people around him, and he remembers hearing himself and the others count off, signifying that they were still alive.

“Then,” he wrote, “the strangest thing happened.” ”While I was facing this wall, I turned my head slightly to the left because I saw two lights that were too big to be flashlights and there were no automobiles around. Although I thought I was losing my battle to breathe, I was comforted by the lights, which gave me a sense of peace. We yelled, ‘help,’ and joined hands, walking toward the lights. The more we walked, the lighter it became, until finally I saw images of cars and people.”

But as he emerged from the cloud of ash, he wrote, he looked around him and realized that he was not holding anyone’s hand. He was alone. He has no idea what happened to the other people. He still has no idea what the lights were, and no idea how he found his way out of the debris.

“I’m a Catholic,” Mr. McMahon said. “But I only go to church about once every five years. I don’t know what that was that day. I don’t know how to explain it. Somebody got me out,” he said.

Mr. McMahon wrote the memo to his boss on a yellow legal pad at the end of that week, sitting in his backyard in Westbury on Long Island. When his fiancée read it, she cried.

“I wrote it,” he said, “because I had to get it off my chest.”

The day it happened, as Mr. McMahon recounted in the memo, he wandered until he came upon New York University Downtown Hospital where nurses pulled him inside and checked his vital signs. He rinsed out his mouth and took a shower. Then he had his fiancée buy him some new clothes at Macy’s so he could, as he wrote, “finish out my day performing my duties.”

He is taking some time off now, struggling with hearing loss and problems with his right eye, which was injured by the dust. More than those ailments, he said, he is struggling with his own mind.

“When I tell my psychiatrist, I know it all sounds crazy to him, but that’s the way it happened,” he says.

Mr. McMahon’s memo ends like thousands of others. On a line by itself are the words:

“For your information.”

Randy Kennedy

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