On the morning of September 11th 2001, I was in New York City, thinking about motorcycles. Specifically, a Ducati and a Honda: my perfect RC45, which I had agreed to trade to a guy in the Midwest for his 1991 Ducati 851 SP3. Both bikes were World Superbike homologation specials, which the factories were required to sell in limited quantities to the public in order to race them. I’d wanted an SP3 for years: it had a tuned, fuel injected 888cc engine with a close ratio gearbox, full Ohlins suspension, an alloy fuel tank & carbon fiber mudguard – very high spec for a streetbike in 1991, a true treasure.

That said, I was a bit conflicted about trading the Honda. Honda brought about 50 RC45’s into the USA, only a few of which made it into the hands of the public. The exotic V-Four sounded like an angry 500-pound bumble bee, the gear driven cams whistling along in harmony. But compared to its legendary predecessor, the RC30 (which I also owned at the time), the 45 felt a bit too much like a production bike. Like many 1990’s bikes, the Honda was visually hobbled with tacky splash graphics, and where the RC30 felt light and lithe, the 45 felt big. The Ducati I was trading it for looked visually perfect; the question was how well it had been maintained. So on September 12th, I was going to trailer my RC45 out to Ohio and meet the guy halfway, to inspect the Ducati in person before doing the swap – better safe than sorry.

Out with the new(er)...

Out with the new(er)…

Back then, I lived on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, in a brownstone built in 1832. Brooklyn Heights was New York’s first historic district, and sits just across the East River from Manhattan. The Promenade, a walkway that runs the nearly the entire length of the Heights along the waterfront, provides a dramatic, panoramic view from the Statue Of Liberty to the Chrysler Building. I guess I didn’t really know how dramatic a view it could provide until the morning of September 11, 2001.

My September 11th started a bit late, I’d been up past 3am and was dragging my ass. Shortly after 9am, while plunging the French Press with thoughts of gear drives and desmodronic valve trains dancing in my head, I heard an explosion. The bang was like an 18-wheeler filled with washing machines hitting the pavement after a 20-story drop. It was Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower; I had been in the shower when Flight 11, the first plane hit and didn’t hear it. At first I thought there had been a major accident on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which ran under the Promenade. So I filled my cup, put on some Miles Davis and sat down, finger popping as “So What” honeyed through the speakers. I was in no rush to get to work that morning.

A few moments later my phone rang. It was my mother, hysterical. She told me of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, terrorism, many victims. I looked out my window as we spoke, puzzled and skeptical. It was a beautiful late summer day, the sky so incredibly blue. People were on their way to work with briefcases and coffee to go, just like every workday morning on Willow Street. I asked about my father, already at work in Manhattan just a couple of blocks away from the WTC. My mother had spoken to him, and he was okay but shaken. So, I told her I’d call back, told her everything would be ok, and went outside to take a look for myself. Many of my neighbors, hurrying with the same nervous energy, were heading in the same direction, towards the water.

We reached the Promenade and there was a collective gasp of shock. Huge plumes of black smoke were pouring out of both towers. Thousands of papers fluttered from the massive gashes in their sides, rising and falling on the hot air currents from the fire. A woman standing next to me dropped to her knees, sobbing “No!” It’s difficult to put into words how it felt seeing the World Trade Center that way, mortally wounded, with less than an hour left to stand, although I did not know that at the time. In retrospect, I guess it felt like saying goodbye to a dying old friend.

Twin Towers on fire

I shot this photo of the Towers less than an hour before they fell, two old friends emitting a dying breath.

I ran home to find the phones and internet not working, I didn’t have TV. The radio spouted fragmented information and rumors for the next 45 minutes; things seemed bad, but not out of control. Then the first tower fell, and I heard screaming from the radio, the apartments around me, from the streets. It suddenly felt like the end of the world. I raced outside and ran towards the Promenade again to see what had happened.

On the street, I heard a mechanical scream, a jet engine impossibly close overhead. Like an ant about to be crushed on a countertop, I moved erratically, looking for cover. I put both hands over my head and ducked, waiting for the crash. Then as the sound subsided I saw a fighter, flying incredibly low. But the cavalry was simply too late, and Manhattan was becoming obscured by an immense and rapidly expanding bank of yellow dust. The detritus of the collapsed Tower was already rolling across the East River, obliterating everything from sight. I turned and ran, rather than be enveloped in it. Not long after that, the second Tower fell. I feared the worst for my father.

Back home, I sat in a state of shock on my couch. Sometime later, the doorbell rang, I went out to see who it was and there was my dad, stripped down to his undershirt, his jacket and shirt thrown over his shoulder. With tears in our eyes, we embraced. He described how he had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of others, and watched the Towers fall while crossing. The faraway sirens of emergency vehicles were endless, and he remarked how the incredibly brave responders were still racing towards this hellish scene while everyone else was trying to escape.

We decided to take my car and head to Long Island, where my parents live.

Before we left, we looked at the skyline of NYC. The dust had settled, and the Towers were just….gone. There was just a hole in the sky where they had been.

On the drive home, the roads were deserted. After a tearful family reunion, and several hours numbly watching the TV, I fell into a deep sleep. The next morning, was like some horror film cliche, for a brief moment I thought it all had been a dream. Then I recalled that I was supposed to trailer my RC45 out to Ohio for the Ducati trade. The roads around the city were blocked except for emergency vehicles, and I certainly wasn’t feeling up to a road trip. So I rang the guy, and put the trade on hold for a bit. He was incredibly kind and understanding, and said of course he’d wait.

The next few weeks were a surreal blur of fear and sadness. The city felt empty and haunted when I came back. Thousands of missing person flyers were tacked up downtown, smiling photos of those who would never be seen again. People were subdued and respectful in their interactions, as you’d behave at a funeral, quite a contrast to what NYC life was usually like. We all knew someone who died that day. The music, laughter and chatter that usually filled the streets of New York were silent. It felt wrong to do anything enjoyable with so much and so many lost. I didn’t ride a motorcycle for a month, didn’t even think about it. Like many New Yorkers, I sat around and waited for the next bad thing to happen, even while hoping for the good to come.

In early October, the guy with the 851 eventually reached out again, and we agreed to ship the bikes to each other instead of meeting. I had it sent to a Ducati shop on Long Island. It sat in the crate for two weeks, until they finally called and said, “Can you come get your bike, please?” I went to pick it up feeling more obligation than enthusiasm, but when I walked in the shop and saw the SP3 sitting there, I couldn’t help but smile. The bike was perfect, with an undeniable presence that made the 30 or so other Ducatis parked in that showroom look average. I’d dreamed of owning this motorcycle for a decade, and now here it was in front of me. It was time to bring it home, back to the city. So I got on and rode.

Ducati 851

…And in with the messenger of hope.

Even keeping the revs down, the 851 SP3 was obscenely loud, stainless exhausts booming like a 1960’s Ferrari racing car. The dry clutch skimmed and rattled, the airbox eager to suck winged creatures into its depths. A lovely old-world stink of petrol and oil surrounded the Ducati. The sensory input it provided was rapturous, overwhelming. I hadn’t experienced feelings this rich on a bike in a long time, perhaps since my first days learning to ride. I recalled the childlike enthusiasm I had during my first 100 miles as a motorcyclist. I laughed in my helmet as I ran through the gears. It was the best ride I’d had in years, possibly the best in my life.

As I rode, dormant feelings came back to life. The rush of speed, the oneness with the bike, being in the moment – I began to recall the gifts that motorcycling had given me. Exhaling a breath I had been holding since September 11th, I peeled the SP3 off the Long Island Expressway and onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.  As I approached the Kosciuszko Bridge, which spans Newtown Creek between Queens and Brooklyn, I saw the hole in the sky where the Twin Towers had been. High behind them, the late afternoon sun cast an auburn shadow which spilled between the bridge spans. It was a beautiful fall day. I twisted the SP3’s throttle to the stop, the Ducati roared, and we soared through that hole in the sky. I felt alive. I was a motorcyclist again.

  • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

    Thank you Mr. McDermott.

  • Rob Lore

    Brings back so many memories from that day…Thank you for sharing.

  • luckyguy1098

    Wow, everyone had to find their own way to get back to normal.

  • Ammo_1

    Wonderfully written article. I was working in Garden City on 9/11 and can remember how real it became when I could see the smoke pouring out of Manhattan as I drove from the Meadowbrook onto the NSP when we were let out early.