"Papers floated in the sky peacefully while there was complete chaos on the ground. Papers. I remember the papers."
Two Thanksgivings ago I shared a table amongst fellow Bikram yogis at the warmly decorated Harlem home of one of our instructors, Katya. I sat next to her brother, Kyle.
Kyle was a 6 foot 3, late 40's or fifty-something black man who worked part-time at the yoga studio. When we first met he handed me a set of towels from across the counter as I checked in for class. I remember thinking, 'what's this guy doing working at a yoga studio on the upper east side?' There is something to that saying ... 'more than meets the eye.'
That Thanksgiving I learned that Kyle was a chef ... a rather talented one ... and that he had worked at the Marriott Hotel that occupied the bottom 22 floors of the Twin Towers, connecting them. He'd also worked as Chef Tournant (a roundsman skilled enough to cover multiple cooking stations) at Cafe Pierre, frequented by kings and queens. It was not uncommon for guests to order a $40,000 bottle of wine accompanying their meal.
On September 11, 2001, Kyle arrived for work at the Marriott at 6:45 am. They had three large parties that day, one for 150 guests, one for 75, and the other 50. His boss kept asking him about another big party coming on Thursday. It was Tuesday.
"Just let me get today set," said Kyle, "and then I'll start working on Thursday."
Thursday never came.
While inside the walk-in cooler at 8:43am, Kyle heard a muffled rumble. He walked outside and was a little surprised that no one was around, but it was still early.
"A few minutes later," he said, "a guest wearing a suit, like for a business breakfast or something, ran into the back of the house. 'You gotta come look,' he said. 'You can't be in here,' I told him. 'You gotta come look,' he kept saying.
"I followed him out into the main area of the restaurant. At first I couldn't make out what I was seeing. It was like my eyes and my brain couldn't connect."
"What did you see?" I said.
"An arm ... and then the body parts of probably 200 people. Body parts and luggage ... going far back into the restaurant."
"How far?" I said.
Kyle looked up and pointed to end of the corridor opposite where was sat. We were at a bar inside the Hudson Hotel sitting in two big arm chairs facing the entrance. We looked out into a long hallway going back about 150 feet.
"Probably to the end of this hallway," he motioned with his arm. "Glass was everywhere, and luggage, so much luggage."
"Glass?" I said.
"The restaurant was all glass. Glass ceilings, windows. There was a courtyard. It was a really cool place to work, really beautiful."
"What was your first thought?" I said. "When you saw what you saw?"
"Terror. There were torsos strapped into airplane seats, with their heads and limbs torn off."
"What!?" I said.
"From the impact. Or from fire. Airplane fuel is very flammable. And these were cross-country flights leaving from Boston traveling to LA."
"So they were loaded with fuel," I said.
"They were loaded with fuel. Everything caught fire. There were burning pieces of metal, water shooting everywhere from the sprinkler systems ... and body parts."
"What's the next thing you remember?"
"Abdul. He was a restaurant employee. We were arguing about how to get out of the building, which way to go. I wanted to take the elevator down to the employee level, that's the way I knew best."
"Weren't you worried about taking the elevator?" I said.
"That's what the argument was about. Abdul wanted to go through the restaurant, but I wasn't going to run through all of those bodies. I couldn't do it."
"So what happened?"
"Abdul went his way. I went down the elevator. He didn't make it out.
"On the employee level everything was going on like normal. I couldn't believe it."
"Business as usual?" I said.
"Business as usual. Cooks were making breakfast sandwiches for the employees. They had no idea of what had happened. They were trying to get on the elevator to go upstairs for work and I wouldn't let anybody on. I stood in front with my arms up. They thought I was joking around."
"I had no idea what to expect when I finally walked outside the building onto Liberty Street. I was with one other woman. We stuck together. The first thing we saw was someone running, they were on fire."
"On fire?" I said.
"People got covered in airplane fuel," he said.
I was trying to comprehend this. "Let's say I'm sitting here in this chair, or strapped into a seat on an airplane, and I get doused in airplane fuel, how would I just catch on fire?"
Kyle pointed to the tea light candle sitting on the little round table next to us. "That right there would be enough to ignite you," he said. "There was a lady walking around, dazed. She went up to someone and very calmly said, 'can you help me?' You could see the flesh melting from the bones in her face. She died."
"My mother lived in Jersey. She was at home and had a clear view of the towers. She called me when I was still inside. I let her know I was okay and she kept telling me to get out. She was watching it happen.
"I remember the fire department showed up and they were just running into the building."
"Just running in?" I said.
"Running in. Looking up, there was a big fireball in the north tower. It was hit first. I remember the smoke. Orange smoke on one side of the tower, grey on the other. And paper, everywhere. That's one thing anyone who was there remembers, but the news didn't capture the papers."
"Papers?" I said.
"From the offices. Papers floated in the sky so peacefully while there was complete chaos on the ground. Papers. I remember the papers."
"What else do you remember?"
"People jumping ... from the buildings. The sounds. When the second tower hit, it was like an earthquake. But the sound of the bodies was a different type of sound."
" ... What did it sound like? The bodies?"
His face contorted. "Like a crumbling, bones crumbling. I looked up into the sky and saw people jumping. It was the worst sound ... when they hit.
"Everyone started walking uptown. They shut everything down below 14th Street. No one was allowed in. I climbed up onto the FDR. I was covered in soot. It was heavy. I still had my chef outfit on, even my apron. I covered my face with it and ripped it into pieces and gave it to other people. A lot of people died from cancer later, from breathing in the soot ... everything burned ... computers, bodies, papers. We all breathed that in. A lot of first responders died. They tested the air and said it was safe. But all these people died.
"I walked all the way up to 42nd St. I stopped into a restaurant to sit. They were nice, told me to come in and rest. Everyone was looking at me, just going about their day and I'm sitting there covered in soot. They gave me a burger. I had no money on me. Everything was in my locker at work.
"People were lined up to get onto boats taking us off of the island, all the tourist cruise boats on the Hudson."
"What's the first thing you did when you got home?" I said.
"I took off my clothes. Sat there for a minute."
"So you had your keys," I said.
"Yeah, I guess my keys were in my pocket. I took a shower. Then decided it would be a good idea for me to go to my mother's."
"I don't mean to suggest that anything positive came from this tragedy ... but what happened for you after? There must be something, that changed in you."
He thought for a minute.
"An awakening, I'd say. I was a chef for a very long time, and I was good at it. But I wouldn't say that I ever really wanted to do it. I became closer with my daughter. I found Bikram yoga. My sister convinced me to try it after I'd hit 300 pounds."
"What are you passionate about?" I said.
Kyle recently wrote his first book and is now working on publishing it.
"So what did you do after? After everything?"
"What did you discover?"
"Papa Bush was friends with the Bin Ladens. They had dinner together on September 10th."
"2001. And after 9/11, no flights were allowed to take off, except for one out of DC, carrying the Bin Laden kids, who were going to college in the United States."
"And," he said, "... an investigation into the stock market started immediately. The market crashed but some people made a lot of money ... money that was traced back to two families who benefited immediately after 9/11. The Bush's and the Bin Laden's."
"So do you think that President Bush Senior knew about the planned 9/11 attacks?"
"I refuse to believe that an American president had any knowledge of the attacks."
'But with what you just explained ... "
"I think somebody knew something."
"You're contradicting yourself."
"Somebody knew something. I still can't get the images out of my head. And I still can't stop researching."