BY Mubarak Dahir
September 11 2011 3:00 AM ET
Normally Chris Young wouldn’t have been anywhere near the World Trade Center. But on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, the 33-year-old actor was temping for the Marsh insurance firm and had volunteered to shuttle reports from the company’s midtown office to the 99th floor of 1 World Trade Center. He delivered the reports by 8:40 a.m. and then got back in the elevator for what would turn out to be the longest and scariest ride of his life.
Thousands of feet below, 38-year-old attorney David Draigh was just getting out of a taxi. His metered receipt recorded the time as 8:39 a.m. He then walked through the north tower’s revolving door and headed toward the elevators to go up to his 54th-floor office. Before he could get there, the building shook around him as American Airlines Flight 11 hammered into it. “Next thing I knew, a fireball of debris was headed right at me” says Draigh, who dived for shelter behind a steel planter. As black smoke mushroomed through the lobby, he choked for air and then jumped through the lobby’s blown-out windows. Once outside, he says, “I thought about my mother and my boyfriend, John. I was just glad to be alive.”
Directly across the street, Artie Van Why felt a tremor in his 23rd-floor office and ran out of the building. When he got outside, the city was unrecognizable. “It was like a war zone,” he says. Insulation, plaster, soot, and paper were everywhere. Van Why looked up to where the first plane had torpedoed the north tower of the World Trade Center and stared in disbelief. Then a disturbing realization hit him. “It wasn’t debris dropping from the buildings,” he says in a whisper. “It was bodies.”
Close by at Bellevue Hospital, “Ed,” a 23-year-old gay medical student who asked that his real name not be used, geared up to help with the anticipated deluge of casualties. He waited for hours. “There were no patients,” he says, “because everyone was dead.”
Now stuck by himself for about an hour inside the 1 World Trade Center elevator, Chris Young started to think he wasn’t going to make it out alive. By this time he’d felt two violent explosions. Never imagining that they came from airplanes pounding into the buildings, he figured they must have been bombs. He ripped off his shirt and covered his mouth so he could breathe; dust was creeping into the elevator. He tried to calm himself by reciting a monologue from Man of La Mancha, a part he’d recently performed. But as the air thickened and his emergency calls went unanswered, Young felt more and more trapped.
In Washington, D.C., Bill Craven was about to feel trapped too. Still in workout clothes from an early-morning session at the gym, where he’d seen the awful images from New York on TV, Craven, 42, hopped into his car and rushed to work. Traffic was crawling, though, and at 9:40 a.m. he found himself stalled in front of the Pentagon. The odd noise of a commercial aircraft overhead caught his attention. “It was flying way, way too low,” he says. “Then it came down like a kite doing a nosedive.” The plane plowed into the side of the Pentagon, producing a column of black smoke topped by brilliant orange flames. Oh, my God, I’m dead! Craven thought as chunks of the fortresslike edifice flew his way. He scrambled to lie flat on his stomach in the car while shards of debris rained from the skies.
In her 15th-floor office on Wall Street, Peg Byron, 45, communications director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, read of the first crash on the Internet. She then heard the other plane exploding into the second tower. She scrambled outside and had a clear view of the World Trade Center. “You could see a gash, and you knew people were dying,” she says. “But we didn’t grasp the magnitude.” After she returned to her office, the south tower collapsed, and Byron’s building was immediately evacuated. Coughing, she pulled her shirt over her mouth and groped her way outside into a street scene that was harshly different from the one she’d seen just minutes before. Particle-clogged wind had turned the clear day gray. “It looked like a hazy winter afternoon,” she says. The grainy air stung her eyes, coated her hair and clothes, and pricked her skin. She kept spitting grime to clear her mouth. Punching fruitlessly on her cell phone to reach her father, she joined hundreds of numb New Yorkers in an uncertain march to an uncertain future.
It was 10:05 a.m. when the south tower of the World Trade Center disintegrated into a graveyard of steel, concrete, and ash. The collapse violently shook the north tower elevator—where Chris Young was still trapped—for the third time that morning.
“I really started to freak out then,” he says. “I thought that whatever was wrong, it should be under control by now.” Then, for the first time, he tried to pry open the doors. It was impossible. He tried again when the power went out in the building 20 minutes later, and they opened easily.
When he was finally able to step out of the elevator, Young discovered he had been marooned on the first floor the entire time. Fallen building parts and shattered glass covered the lobby floor. Everything was coated in pink and gray dust. No one was in sight. Dazed, he just stood there for a moment until two firefighters yelled, “We’ve got to get you out of here! Run!” Two minutes later Young felt the earth shake for a fourth time. And as he sprinted from the building, he looked over his shoulder and saw the north tower crumble like a sandcastle.
In the hours and days that followed the catastrophe, life for gay men and lesbians in New York City and Washington, D.C., completely changed—as it did for the rest of the nation.
The southern tip of Manhattan—including the gay mecca of Greenwich Village—became a militarized zone. Only residents flashing photo IDs could pass beyond the patrolled border. At the far end of Christopher Street, military and fire trucks zoomed up and down the West Side Highway. A closed sign hung in the window of the famed Stonewall Inn.
Overnight, “thousands of fliers of missing persons went up,” recalls Jeffrey DiGangi, a 36-year-old designer from the West Village. Lampposts, sides of buildings, and telephone booths were wallpapered with the images of lost strangers.
But in the devastation, there was also a sense of community that many had not seen since the worst days of AIDS. Another West Village resident, 39-year-old Gary Spino, says he walked around the neighborhood those first nights “because I wanted to be with others, and the streets were filled with gay and lesbian people. Everyone was crying and hugging.”
Spino eventually made his way to the Hudson River and joined friends from his gym in a human assembly line—spreading mustard on bread, piling on lunch meat, slicing tomatoes, and bagging sandwiches, fruit, and cookies into care packages for the rescue workers.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve been a part of in ages,” he says. “It wasn’t about being a gay person or a straight person or a financial person or an artist. There were little women in nuns’ outfits standing next to gym bunnies in tight shorts, and we were all pitching in together.”
In this issue, The Advocate salutes some of the brave gay men and lesbians who gave their all—sometimes their lives—during the attacks. We tell their stories so that their voices as American heroes, and particularly as gay and lesbian citizens, are not lost.
But we know these are just some of the tales of loss and courage. In the coming days, as more names and stories of American heroes are unveiled, other gay men and lesbians will surely be among them.
The Advocate joins the the nation not just in mourning our collective losses but also in celebrating the finest our community has to offer.
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