Before the Rev. John Hartman became a priest and moved into his position as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Kingston, he was director of an AIDS foundation in New York City. More specifically, he was employed in Midtown Manhattan and was on his way to work the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hartman’s first-hand account of the events that occurred that day in New York’s financial district are those of a man who saw the scene unfold from far enough away to remain physically unharmed but close enough to experience the sites, sounds and dread of an unforgettable tragedy. His memories are both vivid and retroactively perceptive.
Hartman lived in Plainfield, N.J. but worked on 37th Street and Madison Avenue. He would take the train into Penn Station and walk the rest of the way to work, crossing through Herald Square.
“When I got to that corner, I heard an airplane and it was way too low,” Hartman said. “There was a woman standing beside me, and all I remember was she was in red from head to toe.”
The woman, Hartman said, confirmed his observation that the plane was too low and together they listened to the aftermath.
“Because of the buildings, we didn’t see anything,” Hartman said. “We just heard it. Then that New York minute was over, and I continued to walk to 37th and Madison.”
When Hartman got to work, he turned on his radio. He heard a plane had hit One World Trade Center.
As Hartman realized the magnitude of the collision, he joined a mass of people on an elevated section of 5th Avenue to look down at Lower Manhattan.
“You could see the towers very clearly, and we could see smoke coming from the first tower,” Hartman said. “No one really knew it was an attack yet. All of a sudden, the second tower became inflamed. It was dark, dark smoke.”
Hartman and those watching with him did not see the plane, only the result of the second impact.
“There was an uproar of hundreds of people on the corner and total disbelief,” he said.
Rushing back to his office, Hartman intended to close up shop and get on a train back to New Jersey, along with the many others who quickly became aware the situation in the city was life-threatening.
New York authorities had closed off 7th Avenue to all vehicles except emergency vehicles.
“You heard constant sirens, the likes of which you never heard in New York and, in New York, you heard a lot of it,” Hartman said.
Arriving at the Penn Station terminal at 10:30 a.m., Hartman had to wait until 4:30 p.m. before he was able to get on a train to Newark because trains were stopped while authorities swept tunnels for explosives. While standing in line, he saw something he’ll never forget.
“There was a man standing in front of me and I said to myself,’ He has the worst case of dandruff I’ve ever seen,” Hartman said. “Then I looked around and saw other people with this, and it was the people who had run and walked all the way from the World Trade Center, from the Battery. And they had been in this massive downfall of ash.”
“That was a very compelling moment for me because, even though I saw the towers on fire, it didn’t hit me until I saw these ashes, how bad it really was.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts