ASHTABULA — Bicycle messenger Eliseo Cabrera, formerly of New York City, had a delivery only a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Thankfully, he was running a little late.
Cabrera, now 46, and living in Ashtabula, becomes emotional as he recalls the terror of that day, starting with crossing the Williamsburg Bridge on his bicycle at 8:45 a.m.
“I saw the explosion, a plume of thick black smoke in the sky,” he said. “Everyone [on the bridge] stopped. You knew something bad was happening, but you didn’t know what.”
At the time, Cabrera didn’t know it was an American Airlines Boeing 767 loaded with jet fuel that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Fire engines passed him as he headed toward the Financial District. Finally, he heard some news — and it was hard to understand what he was hearing about planes slamming into the Twin Towers.
“The city was under attack?” he rode onward confused.
Cabrera didn’t see the second Boeing 767 hit the South Tower 18 minutes after the first plane, but he did see and hear the huge explosion that showered burning debris and papers over surrounding buildings and onto the streets below.
“Everyone was asking why helicopters weren’t rescuing those people [trapped in the towers],” he said. “I saw things falling from the towers. I thought it was furniture — that they were breaking windows with chairs to escape the smoke and throwing the furniture out. Then I realized it wasn’t furniture. It was people. They were jumping.”
Cabrera stopped to talk to a police officer only two blocks away from the towers. As they spoke, Cabrera noticed an airplane engine on the ground nearby, amidst the cinders and smoke.
“It seemed unreal ... then the ground started rumbling; it looked like the building was going to topple, it slipped and then came straight down,” he said. “It was like a grayish, black tidal wave that enveloped everything and I was in it.”
Cabrera turned around and rode his bicycle in the opposite direction. Once he cleared that plume, he looked back and all he could see through the gray haze was one tower shining in the sun.
He stopped to call his family to tell them he was unharmed because they knew he delivered messages to the Twin Towers nearly every day.
“I told my cousin, ‘The building just fell! The building just fell!’” Cabrera said. “He said to me, ‘I saw it! The building just fell! Are you OK?’”
As he reached 17th Street and 7th Avenue, only two miles from the World Trade Center, he stopped for a minute to mentally absorb what had just happened. Again, he looked back — in time to watch as the North Tower collapsed.
In addition to the sights and sounds of the planes hitting the towers, the explosions, the buildings falling and people jumping, Cabrera said he can’t forget the smell.
“It stunk so bad for days, the bodies, the asbestos, everything smelled bad; [Ground Zero] was burning for weeks,” he said. “I will never forget any of it. I still get goosebumps talking about it. It was crazy.”
Being so close to the World Trade Center and watching it all unfold that morning was horrible — but Cabrera said he knows he was lucky to have been running late and on a bicycle that day.
“It was the fastest way to get out of the city because everything in Manhattan got shut down,” he said. “There were no cabs, no train, nothing. I know people who had to walk miles out of the city to catch a train home.”
Today Cabrera still thinks about the firetrucks on the highway and the brave firefighters and others who didn’t make it home.
“It’s something we can’t ever forget,” he said. “Never, ever.”