“Wha…?”

I pronounced my surname in the most American way I could think of, rolling the T’s into R’s. “Charrerjee,” I drawled.

He still didn’t get it.  “Okay, what’s your first name then?”

“Forget it,” I said, “If you didn’t get my last name, no way you’re gonna get my first.”

We settled for ‘Bee.’

It was the third time we were meeting at the Blue Note, a music café in the Greenwich Village area of New York. It is a great jazz club with very competent live bands. I highly recommend it, if you like jazz as much as I do. This middle-aged,  big African American guy seemed to like the same numbers I did. The first time I noticed that we nodded to each other at the bar counter in mutual appreciation of one another’s exquisite taste in music. The second time it was a smile, a wave and a silent toast raised to each other. The third time he limped up to me and offered me a drink. I accepted.

It was 2005. I was going to the United States quite often on work those days, New York always being a stopover. Whenever I was in the city, I always made it a point to listen to cool, classy jazz at the Blue Note, since there was hardly any opportunity to do so back home.

“Brad Johnson,” he introduced himself. He was a towering personality, and yet there was gentleness about him, a kindness in his eyes and a smile that I liked. In his mid-fifties, I guessed. He was a cross between Barack Obama and Denzel Washington, which is certainly not a bad thing if you want to score with the ladies.

He was a New York cop, a homicide detective, just retired. We selected a quiet corner where the music wasn’t too loud and started to get to know one another. Initially, it was all small talk. I told him a little about myself, my work, my family. He insisted on replenishing our drinks and went back to the counter.

He noticed me glancing once too often at his limp. He didn’t miss much.  “I got this one four years ago,” he grimaced by way of explanation as he sat down placing the drinks on the table.

“Work or sport?” I asked him casually, not really meaning to pry.

“Work.” He paused fractionally. “Lower Manhattan. Ran into a building without thinking. Wasn’t the first time I’d done it, but this one was different. Lucky it didn’t kill me.” It was clear from his tone that he didn’t want to elaborate on the circumstances.

“Looks like your hip,” I said, as I continued to sip my drink.

“Yeah, they replaced it with titanium and plastic. Said I’d need a lot of physio, but….”

A New York cop, a destroyed hip, titanium pins to hold the bone together – means a major injury. He didn’t volunteer anything else. In my book, that is a plus. I was warming to him. There’s nothing worse than cops with war stories. Except for sailors.

Though he didn’t say it in so many words, it became apparent that the injuries he had sustained when he ran into the building were far more serious than a smashed hip. One lung had collapsed – perhaps a bullet, I guessed – his spine had been injured and he had sustained a bad blow to his head, all of which added up to three weeks in intensive care.

His ailments were more than physical, I sensed. Maybe it was fear, maybe it was cowardice, or maybe there was someone he couldn’t save. He didn’t explain. But whatever it was he’d encountered in that building meant he’d left a lot of himself behind. A traumatic experience.

Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did. I know something about shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder. I was sure he had suffered from it. Anyway, I did not press him for details and the conversation petered out. It was getting late and I had to leave.

We met again the next evening. Same time, the same place. This time I bought the drinks.

“Bee, you never asked me how I got my injuries, and I want to thank you.” I smiled in appreciation. I wanted to thank him for not boring me to death the previous evening with details of his injuries.

“I told you I was trapped in a building, right?” he continued. “It was a little more than that. It was here in New York. I was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it went down. September eleven.”

You could have knocked me down with the proverbial feather. I had never met till date anyone remotely connected with the disaster of 9/11. I sat there stunned, silent.

“Ever think about how many disabled people were working in the Twin Towers that day?” he asked finally.

I didn’t. Why would I

“No, it never crossed my mind either,” he continued, reading my mind, “not until just after the planes hit. Of course, if you were in a wheelchair your problems were far worse than anyone’s. It wasn’t as if you could try to get out by elevator, right? Those signs are always warning us to use the stairs. But say you can’t walk? If I ever get trapped in a burning building, all I ask is that I can use my legs. That’s not asking much, is it?

“There was this guy in a wheelchair, who had listened to all the fire drills and knew where his evacuation chair was. Ever seen one of those? It’s like an aluminium dining chair with long handles that stick out front and back so people can lift and carry you. He was a paraplegic, and I suppose he was proud he’d overcome his disability and had a job. Might have had a wife and kids too, you never know. He was alone in his corner of the North Tower when the American Airlines plane hit.

“The impact jumped his wheelchair halfway across the room. Through the window, he saw a blast of flame arcing into the sky. He knew he had to move fast, or else…

“He found his evacuation chair, balanced it on his lap and headed for the emergency stairs. On the way he got drenched – the sprinklers came on and with it, the lights went out. But he still managed to open the door into the Emergency Stairway, propped it open with his wheelchair and positioned his evacuation chair inside. He somehow transferred himself across. Immobilized now, he sat in an emergency stairway inside a burning building and did the only thing he could. He waited.

“All through the building people were deciding which way to run. Those that went up died – the door on to the roof was locked. The stairway was full of dust, smoke, people, and water. But the guy in the evacuation chair didn’t call out, didn’t ask for help. He just waited. For a miracle, I guess.”

Johnson paused, thinking about miracles. I remained silent. This was getting interesting. When he started speaking again, there was a tremor in his voice, but he managed to control it. “A long way below, a middle-aged, not very fit guy I know hears about the man in the chair from the humanity rushing past and starts yelling. He wants volunteers to go back up with him and help carry the guy down.

“Three men step forward. Ordinary guys. They follow the middle-aged man up the stairs, pick up an end of the chair each and carry him down. Through the crush of people, the smoke, the water and those goddamn tight corners.”

He paused again. “They carried him down for sixty-seven floors! And you know what they found when they got to the bottom? No way out. Ahead of them was just fallen concrete. Behind them was the fire.

“They turned back, reached a door on to a mezzanine and got into the lobby. A short while later, everything went to hell and the building crashed down. The wheelchair guy and two of the rescuers somehow made it to safety, but two of those who saved him didn’t.” He paused for a moment. ‘You know what took their lives?

“Compassion?” I suggested.

“That’s right. It was their goddamned attempt to help somebody else. Where was the justice in that?”

He caught his breath for a moment before muttering softly, “It ain’t fair. No, it ain’t.”

It was obviously an incident that had affected him deeply. I kept quiet in respectful silence, waiting for him to continue. He looked at me with his kind, brown eyes, smiled and said, “What the hell am I bitchin’ for? I survived, didn’t I? I was in that building too. As my wife says, ‘Bradley Johnson, are you gonna curse the darkness or light a candle?’ ” He emptied his glass in one gulp.

It was getting late. We took our leave, and as I was leaving New York the next night, I shook his hand and promised to meet him again the next time I was in town. Same time, same place. His bone crushing grip assured me that I’d find him here.

The next afternoon I visited Ground Zero, where the two towers of the World Trade Center had once stood. My flight was late at night; I had time on my hands, and I felt an irresistible urge to visit the site of the greatest modern disaster the world has ever known.

I’ve been to many sacred places, but none as strange as the sixteen acres of Ground Zero. On that quiet Sunday, the sight of that raw expanse moved me immensely. With breaking heart, I saw the brilliant blue sky again and the burning buildings. I watched people wave from jagged windows for help that would never come. I visualized the debris as it whooshed past, blotting out the sunlight and plunging everyone into a silent, twilight world of lurching, dust-covered people and tumbling ash.

I saw the wounded run down dust-filled streets. I heard the crashing thunder of the collapsing buildings. I saw rescue workers write their names on their arms in case they were pulled dead from the rubble. I saw billows of dust and smoke punch high into the sky over the end of the street.

I smelt it and lived it and tried to say some quiet words to the 2700 souls that would never leave that place. 2700 people – over a thousand of whose bodies were never found, bones burnt to ash at 2000⁰F. In fires that were not extinguished for a hundred days. A hundred days!

It took me a few minutes to notice the small shrines which had appeared on either side of the pathway. For the thousands of people who had never had the bodies of their loved ones returned, Ground Zero seemed to stand in lieu of a cemetery. In the weeks following the attack they had come and stood in silence – to think, to remember, to try to understand. But as the months rolled by and they visited on anniversaries and birthdays, it was only natural that they left flowers, cards, and small mementoes. Those shrines were dotted along the fences and pathways.

There were several soft toys left by three young kids for their dead father. I walked on and saw several shrines created by elderly parents for their lost children. I read poems from husbands who’d lost their wives and from wives who’d lost their husbands. From people whose hearts had broken. But in the midst of all this, it seemed to me that something else was shining through – the triumph of the human spirit. All around I saw that shattered families were making a promise to endure. I read about men and women who had risked their lives to save unknown strangers and I saw more photos of dead firefighters that I cared to count.

I turned to go back to my hotel. That was when I saw it – a white board hanging on the wire, half-hidden by a curve in the path, easily overlooked except for the accident of the setting sun glinting off its surface. There was a large pile of bouquets lying at its foot. I approached it, determined to get a closer look.

Written on the board were the names of eight men and women, all with photos. A caption said that they had been brought out alive from the collapsing North Tower by one man – a New York cop. A teenage girl whose mother was one of those rescued had created the shrine, and it was a loving tribute to the courage of a single man. The girl’s narrative listed the people the cop had saved and they included a lawyer in a spiffy suit, a bond trader with a picture-perfect family, a man in a wheelchair….

A man in a wheelchair? My eyes flew down the board and found a photo of the cop who had been responsible for getting them all out.

It was Brad Johnson.

When Brad had told me that he was trapped in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I had assumed he had been inside the building on business. But the teenager had the real story. She said he was on Fulton Street when he saw the plane hit and a huge section of the tower blossom into the sky. With debris raining down and everyone starting to flee, he dumped his jacket and sprinted for the tower. Like New York City itself, it was Johnson’s darkest moment and his finest hour.

Five times he made his way in and out of the building, each time climbing an emergency stairway against the sea of people coming down – trying to see how he could help, who he could save. He saved eight people one by one. At one stage, standing on an elevator landing on the thirtieth floor – with the first of two hundred jumpers hurtling down the façade – Johnson had to wrap his shirt around his mouth so that he could breathe.

From a window on the landing he saw an unbelievable sight –a hundred and twenty feet away the South Tower was collapsing. Until then, he hadn’t even known it had been hit.

He ran for safety to the Emergency Stairway and it was then someone told him that there was a guy in a wheelchair way up above, waiting for help. Thanks to the teenager’s account, I learned that ‘the middle-aged guy he knew’, none other than Brad himself, had called for volunteers, led three other men to find the crippled man and carried his wheelchair down the sixty-seven floors.

Sixty-seven floors.

Two minutes after that the world had caved in. The North Tower had collapsed from the top down as if it was being peeled. Everything in those minutes was random, including death – one of the four rescuers and the crippled guy took cover in a doorway that offered no protection, yet escaped the falling debris unharmed. Ten feet away, another rescuer sustained a direct hit from the blast of rubble and died instantly. Johnson and the bond trader threw themselves under a fire truck that got buried by a mountain of concrete. Johnson held the man tight and kept him alive to return to his picture-perfect family.

Five hours later, a fire crew with a sniffer dog hauled Johnson and the bond trader out, found his ID in his pocket, called his wife and told her to get to Emergency as soon as possible. She found him in Intensive Care.

I stood for a long time in silence. It was one of the most remarkable stories of courage I had ever encountered. Yet the humility of this man did not permit him to boast to me of his heroics. Why? Was it survivor guilt? Did he feel responsible for the deaths of the two rescuers he had enlisted?

I never met Brad Johnson again, because I never went back to New York. To my dismay, I realized too late that we had never exchanged phone numbers or email IDs during our encounters. I couldn’t find him on Facebook either. A hundred Brad Johnsons, but not that man. But he must be still around, listening to his beloved jazz at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village, trying to forget.

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Written by Beetashok Chatterjee

Beetashok Chatterjee is a seaman by profession. This old sea dog is also a wannabe poet/writer, avid reader, music lover, movie buff, cricket enthusiast and a restless spirit.