That Day in September - A 9/11 Survivor Tells His Story by Artie Van Why
A Note for Future Productions:
“That Day in September” is one person's story of 9/11. Mine; told in
my own words; through scenes and monologues.
Though originally conceived and performed as a one-man theater piece,
“That Day in September” can easily be adapted to accommodate more than
one actor; dividing the monologues between a multiple cast.
[I've seen productions with two actors and one with a cast of
eleven; each actor representing a cross section of varying ages,
genders and races. That concept seemed to give an "everyman and
everywoman" quality to the words; a reminder that though it is one
person's story being told, we each have a story of that day.]
When “That Day in September” premiered in Los Angeles the set was a
bare stage with a stool and a music stand, which held the script.
The Off Broadway run had a minimal set, consisting of two small
benches, folding chairs and a scrim. The lighting design and use of
music were important elements. Slides were used sparingly; projected
on the back wall.
“That Day in September” was performed without an intermission. Running
time is 90 minutes, plus. If you need to edit the script (for whatever
the reasons) I will be open to your suggestions; with the
understanding, you can implement changes in both text and presentation
with my approval.
The most important thing for me is to have my story told. That is why
you will see no stage directions or precise set descriptions in the
script. All you will see are the words. I hope that they will give you
the inspiration of how you want to portray my story to your audience.
Artie Van Why
SETTING: OPTION 1: A bare stage except for one stool with a music
stand in front of it.
OPTION 2: Stage is comprised of varied levels. A bench or benches are
placed on one of the levels as are chair(s) or stool(s).
OPTION 3: The director's vision.
STAGE IS DARK.
AT RISE: Spotlight hits ARTIE as he stands at the front of the stage,
ARTIE: I want it to go away. I don't want it to have happened. But
it won't, and it did, and I was there.
I wanted to catch that falling man with the flailing arms and legs.
But I couldn't, and I didn't, though I was there.
I wanted to be a hero, doing more than I humanly could. But I
wasn't, and I didn't.
I wanted to stay there, in the street, not afraid. But I didn't, and
I wanted to be there through the end. But I wasn't.
I wanted to stay and rescue. But I didn't.
I wanted to be more injured, more dirty, more at risk. But I
I want to imagine being buried, being missing, being gone. But I
I want to know why I survived, and others didn't. But I don't.
I want it never to have happened. But it did.
END OF SCENE
LIGHTS COME UP ON ARTIE
ARTIE: I don't remember which came first, the shudder of the
building or the loud sound. They probably came at the same time.
I don't remember how long it took before someone ran into the word
processing center where I worked and told us that a plane had hit one
of the World Trade Center towers. It seemed like seconds but was
probably at least a minute or two.
In whatever the order, there was a loud boom, our building shook and
then there was quiet. My coworkers and I looked at one another.
I remember saying, "What was that?" Someone else asked "Was that
thunder?" What it had sounded like to me was as if a huge, metal
trash dumpster had been dropped onto the 24th floor above me. That
would have explained the reverberations of the building I had felt,
but I knew there was no construction going on up there. Had something
Someone ran into the center and told us that a secretary, who had just
come to work, was hysterical, saying that a plane had hit one of the
towers and that it was like a war zone out there. One of our phones
rang, and it was our supervisor, calling from home. She screamed to
the person who answered something about seeing it on T.V. and for us
to, "Get out of the building!"
What? My initial reaction was to go downstairs and see what was going
on; more out of curiosity than alarm. I went to the elevator bank,
along with a few other people who had the same idea. As we descended,
though I didn't consciously think it through, I know I assumed a
light plane had smashed into the tower. I imagined a small hole in the
building, with the back end of a plane sticking out. Our conversation,
as we headed down from the 23rd floor, was tinged with nervousness,
but not fear. When the elevator doors opened to our lobby, I took a
quick right and walked through a side revolving door.
As I passed through that door and out onto the street, three things
went through my mind. The secretary was right; it did look like a war
zone. It also looked like a movie set . . . for a disaster film. And
it was like going through the door in The Wizard of Oz, walking out
into a world that was unlike anything that I could ever have possibly
END OF SCENE
ARTIE: As I passed through the revolving door and out onto the street
it was like stepping into a snowstorm. Everything was white. The
sidewalks and the streets-as far as I could see-were covered with
what looked like a surreal blanket of fresh fallen snow. Paper. Of all
sorts and sizes was scattered everywhere. Coming down from the sky all
around me, like bizarre flakes, whole sheets of paper, scraps of
paper, bits of paper floating down from as far up as I could see. I
had never seen so much paper.
I took the few steps that brought me to Church Street. I stood in
front of the World Trade Center, between the Millennium Hotel and the
Century 21 store. I noticed other objects and forms and substances on
the ground-clumps of insulation, chunks of what looked like plaster
board. My attention left the ground, though, as, with those few steps
toward Church Street, my head tilted upward, finally letting the north
tower become my focus. Oh my God! What was supposed to have been just
a small hole made by a little plane was a huge canyon blasted into the
side of the tower. Smoke, the thickest and blackest I've ever seen,
billowed from the gaping wound. Flames of the brightest oranges and
reds shot out from the blackness.
I know that, in the back of my mind, the thought that people were dead
had to be registering, but right then, I couldn't get past just
staring at the destruction and thinking about how bad it looked. The
sound of sirens seemed to be coming from everywhere. The surrounding
buildings were starting to evacuate, and the streets were filling up
with people. Behind me, a crowd already had gathered, everyone doing
as I was, staring at the burning, smoking north tower. Large pieces of
debris were falling down the length of the tower. One of the pieces of
falling debris seemed to be moving. It was moving, and it wasn't
debris. It was a person falling, arms and legs waving madly. A woman
behind me screamed. I and others screamed with her as more and more
people began jumping from the tower.
END OF SCENE
ARTIE: I fell in love with the World Trade Center my first week down
there. Oh I had certainly been down there a few times before in all my
years of living in New York, usually as a tour guide for friends or
family who happened to be visiting. Then, all I thought it was about
was going to the observation deck. I had no idea those twin towers and
what was below them and what surrounded them were like a city within
I adapted quickly to working days; that was no problem. Since I had
gotten sober, I had discovered the pleasure of rising early. I loved
getting downtown each day and soon developed a daily routine. I'd be
coming up onto the street, out of the subway, by 8 a.m. If it wasn't
raining (which I don't remember it doing much during those months),
I'd walk the few blocks to the World Trade Center. The streets were
always dotted with the familiar sight of shiny aluminum carts, with
just enough space for a person to stand inside and serve coffee,
bagels, and assorted pastries. My first morning I stopped at one and I
went to the same cart, on the same corner, across from Building Number
5, every morning, including September 11th.
I didn't know his name, and he didn't know mine, but the man in
that cart became my "coffee man." Within my first week, he had
memorized how I liked my coffee, which I think he tried to do for all
his regular customers. Every day he greeted me with a "good morning,
my friend" and had my large coffee, half regular, half decaf, skim
milk, Sweet'n Low on the side, ready for me by the time I got my
dollar out. If I happened to miss stopping by on any given morning,
he'd ask me where I was the next time he saw me. That only happens
in this city.
With a copy of the newspaper I had picked up, I'd sit each morning
on one of the stone-slab benches that were around the perimeter of the
fountain at the World Trade Center. I'd read my paper, drink my
coffee, smoke a cigarette. I'd watch the people passing me on their
way to work.
Often during that morning ritual of mine, I felt reassured that life
was good. And if the weather was favorable, the sky a bright blue, and
the summer breeze light and warm, it seemed, in those quiet minutes
alone, that all was right with the world. Just as it did that morning
If the weather was bad, there was the massive shopping mall below
those looming towers-a perfect refuge and ideal place to pass extra
time. There was the spectrum of stores and shops to look through and
all those places to get something to eat. I also spent many a lunch
hour in the bookstore in Building Number 5, flipping through a
magazine, looking for that next good book to read, or listening to CDs
in the music section.
But, my favorite thing to do at lunchtime, if the weather permitted,
was to sit in that expansive plaza area watched over by not only the
towers but also the other buildings that made up the World Trade
Center. It was summer. And summer down at the World Trade Center was
glorious. At lunchtime the plaza would be filled with people and
activity-vendors selling hot dogs or ice cream or pretzels; people
who were part of the community of workers, eating their lunch (brought
from home or bought from there); the men would have their suit jackets
off, their ties loosened, and top shirt buttons undone; the women, in
their business attire, would be sitting with their shoes kicked off.
People would be getting a head start on their tans, sitting within and
around the plaza area, heads tilted back, facing the sun, getting
those few important minutes of "sun time."
There were the tourists, identifiable by the inevitable camera around
their neck or in their hands. Though they're easy targets to poke
fun at, they're the ones who reminded me of the magic of this city,
seeing in their expressions and hearing in their exclamations the
astonishment of what they were experiencing all around them.
Then there was the fountain, balancing the sculpture of a sphere atop
it. A stylized globe made of different color metals. It was right in
the middle of the plaza, circled by one continuous bench. I often sat
there, my own face up to the sun, listening to the soft sound of the
water spilling over into the fountain's bottom. If I closed my eyes,
I could pretend I was near an ocean's shore- very relaxing.
During the summer months, there were free noontime concerts in the
plaza. Rows of folding chairs faced a temporary stage of steel and
metal. Each day a specific style of music was performed live. Jazz,
country, Be-Bop, Do-Wop or my favorite, "golden oldies" day. Here
I'd be, in the middle of New York, in the middle of my work day,
listening to Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits one day, Mark Lindsay
of Paul Revere and the Raiders on another. On those days in
particular, the "golden oldies" days, people would get up out of
their folding chairs and dance in front of the stage or right where
they were-an elderly couple here, two female coworkers laughing
while dancing over there-the maintenance man, the business man, the
young secretary, everyone forgetting they would soon be heading back
to work-and, oh yes, the tourists smiling for the picture being
taken of them dancing away.
Perhaps I idealize it, now that it's gone, but I don't think so.
It was an oasis for the worker in a tedious work day, a fascination
for the visitor seeing the sights, a small world of its own that held
some of the elements that make New York so dynamic, so interesting,
and oh so alive. It had a breath of its own.
LIGHTS GO DIM
END OF SCENE
ARTIE: (screaming) No! No! No!
One person after another plunged down the length of the North Tower,
alongside pieces of wreckage from the plane and the tower. Why were
they jumping? I wanted to stop them. To stop this awful reality. I
wanted each "No" that I screamed to stop each person from hitting
the ground. I wanted my shouts to push them back up to where they had
jumped from. No, I wanted to help them. I started running toward the
plaza; running past the stone benches I used to sit on. Past a
photographer quickly snapping pictures. I ran through that blizzard of
falling paper, knowing I had to help those people. I could now see
much larger objects, were falling in the plaza. Out of the corner of
my eye, I saw a man following behind me on my right.
I bolted up the plaza steps and stopped at the southwest corner of
building number 5, under the protection of an overhang. The north
tower was right across from me, less than a block away. It loomed
upward; the only thing separating me from the tower was a section of
the plaza, where huge pieces of twisted metal shapes were crashing
onto the concrete, each impact booming thunderously. Large shards of
glass from blown out windows fell steadily, sounding like a hard hail
storm as piece after piece hit the ground, shattering. I wanted to run
across the plaza toward the tower, but there was all that debris
falling. Frantically looking around, I saw that the overhang I stood
under went along the length of building 5 and I thought maybe I could
run around to the tower, protected by it, and be able to get closer to
the people on the ground. Maybe I could pull someone to safety that
might still be alive. Hold someone's hand until help came.
Just as I started to move, my attention was broken when something
caught my eye and I looked up and to my left, and saw another man
falling. But this time, much closer, and with much greater detail. I
couldn't take my eyes off him, and as he neared the ground, I saw
clearly how frantically his arms and legs were moving, as if he were
desperately trying to slow himself down. As I was about to see him hit
the ground, his descent took him behind the stage where I had watched
those noontime concerts.
The man who had been running behind me from my right reached me and
stopped. I turned to ask "What do we do?" and was aware of someone
falling on top of a pile of clothes just across the plaza. It took an
instant to register that it wasn't a pile of clothes. The person had
fallen on top of a pile of bodies that were already lying there. I
stood and stared as one body after another fell.
And the bodies and debris kept falling and falling until shouts from
two guards drew my attention to a side entrance of building number 5,
where they were holding the door open and screaming for us to get in.
One last, quick look at the intensity of wreckage and people falling
told us we had no choice. If we wanted to live, we had to run toward
the two guards. We ran into Building 5 and joined a crowd of other
people evacuating the building. We went out a front entrance right
next to my favorite bookstore. I pushed through the crowded streets
and sidewalks to get back to where I had been standing on Church
Street, feeling I needed to get back there, to that exact spot, though
I don't know why. Whatever the reasons, I was only standing there
for a brief moment before I and the others heard the incredibly loud
sound of an airplane; the second plane as it approached the south
tower. Looking up, and to my left, the plane was so big, and so close
to the top of the buildings it passed. I stared at the plane not
believing it would hit the tower.
The middle floors of the tower blew outward in a massive inferno of
bright orange flames and dense clouds of black smoke. Time stood still
for just a second, as if we all were suspended in disbelief. In the
next beat pandemonium broke out. Screaming, panic, mass confusion. I,
along with everyone in the street, just started running, literally
running for our lives. Twisted metal, glass and other debris were
raining down on us. I ran towards Fulton Street, thinking, at one
point, that I was going to run right out of the loafers I wore. As I
turned east onto Fulton I slipped, and fell to my hands and knees.
Some people stepped on top of me, pushing me to the ground, and I
thought, for one brief moment, that I was going to be trampled to
death. But I got back to my feet, started running and stepped on
someone, myself. I remember running and saying out loud, "God save
To my right I saw a man scrambling to get under a van. He was dressed
in a suit and was lying on his back, desperately trying to slither
beneath the protection of the vehicle. I remember glancing at his face
and our eyes locked for one brief second. The look of sheer terror on
his face was so contorted that I almost laughed out loud. I don't
know why I didn't.
Up ahead of me, a man was lying in the middle of Fulton Street. He was
a heavy-set man in a suit, lying on his stomach. Everyone was running
right by him. I started to run past him myself, but for whatever
reason stopped and ran over to him. I dropped to my knees at his side.
It was then I noticed all the blood and where it was coming from. His
skull had been split open, and the top part of his brain was
protruding through the split. Blood was gushing out of the wound.
Amazingly, he was breathing. I saw, lying near his head a putty knife.
A regular looking putty knife that had an almost even line of blood on
its blade. I thought "Oh my God, is this what hit him?" I remember
putting it back down as another man came running over, dropping down
on his knees on the other side. Someone handed a denim jacket to me
saying "take this." I took it and applied it over the opening in
his skull. The other man who had come over put his hand on top of mine
and we held the jacket there with all the pressure we could summon,
trying desperately to slow down the flow of blood. Now that the
falling debris had lessened people were stopping and others ran over
to us. An ambulance was on Church Street. We all started screaming for
it. "Over here! Over here!"
As the ambulance began to make its way toward us, through the debris
in the street, someone, who said they knew first aid, suggested we
turn the man over onto his back. Four of us did so, carefully. His
teeth were covered with blood and dirt or soot or something and two of
us used our fingers to clean out his mouth. I noticed that his watch
was lying there beside him, having come off. I picked it up and put it
in his left pants pocket. His employee work tag, was hanging around
his neck. I didn't really look at it. I wish, now, that I had. I
wish that I had looked at his name and memorized it so I could find
his family and tell them that he wasn't alone; that he had people
The ambulance reached us and a flat board was brought over. He was so
big it took at least six of us to gingerly get him onto it. He was
belted to the board and we lifted him and carried him to the back of
the ambulance. I remember touching his arm and whispering to him,
"You'll be okay. You'll be okay."
As the ambulance began maneuvering up Fulton Street, I followed it up
to Broadway. I looked at my hands and saw that they were covered with
the man's blood. There was another ambulance on Broadway, already
treating some of those with minor injuries. I went up to one of the
EMS workers and just showed her my hands. At first she thought it was
coming from me, but I told her, "No . . . it's someone
else's." She had me sit down on the curb and said she would be
right over to wash my hands. A man in a suit looked down at me and
asked if I was okay. He was the only person who asked me that all day.
The EMS worker returned, knelt in front of me and began cleaning my
hands. I looked right at her. "What's going on?" I remember her
looking at me and saying, "I don't know, but this is awful."
She helped me up from the curb and went to attend to others. I was in
front of my office building and I saw one of my co-workers. I went up
to her and we hugged. She later told me I was shaking like a leaf.
I suddenly thought of my parents seeing all this on TV. I started
going up to people asking "can I use your cell phone?", but none
of them were working. The lines at the pay phones were already very
long, so I started walking north asking anyone I saw with a cell phone
if their phone was working. Some were, some weren't but no one would
let me make my call.
Finally, I darted into a coffee shop that was empty except for a few
of its workers. There was a man behind the counter, I screamed, "Can
I use your phone?" In a daze, he motioned towards the back. I could
only remember one number and it was a friend who worked uptown.
Amazingly I got through to him and simply yelled into the phone,
"Billy, it's Artie. Call my parents. (pause) I can't remember
their number. Van Why. In Millersville, or Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Tell them I'm okay. Okay?" I hung up.
When I walked out of the coffee shop I was about 10 blocks north of
the towers. It was then that the south tower collapsed, sounding like
yet another explosion. In frenzied confusion, everyone looked at one
another, not knowing what was happening. In panic, we all just started
running. I looked behind me and saw this huge wall of debris, dust and
smoke rapidly moving toward me. "What in God's name was
happening?" People were screaming, some crying hysterically. I kept
running until I couldn't run any more. Eventually, I slowed down,
gasping for breath. I then began the long walk home, to midtown
Manhattan, along with everyone else. In absolute silence.
END OF SCENE[end of extract]