The terrorist attack on New York City had a personal side for former Fort Scott, Kans., resident John VanSickle — he was there.
Still settling into his second week at a law firm in lower Manhattan, VanSickle decided to go to work early on Sept. 11. He wanted to have time to visit a health center in the World Trade Center complex near the office building where he worked.
At about 8:55 a.m., he made his way through an unusually crowded exit as he left the Manhattan subway. VanSickle said that as he maneuvered through a crowd standing outside of the subway exit he saw people staring up at the twin towers of the World Trade Center. When the towers came into view, VanSickle saw that one tower had thick black smoke pouring out of it nearly three-fourths of the way up the tower. He said he stared in disbelief as he saw human bodies falling from the tower.
After seeing several people fall from the tower, VanSickle turned and saw firetrucks coming down the street. As he yelled to try and clear the dense crowd so the fire trucks could get through, a second explosion ripped through lower Manhattan. As with the first tower, a hijacked commercial jetliner had plowed into the building and exploded in a dramatic fireball that was televised to the world by news reporters covering what turned out to be America’s first terrorism attack of the 21st century.
VanSickle said people were stunned as the shock waves of the explosion shook the buildings around them.
“I didn’t know what happened. I turned around and saw this huge explosion coming out of the tower,” he said.
Thinking back to the events of that morning, VanSickle said people had suggested a bomb had exploded in the first tower, but the unthinkable was confirmed by the impact of the second airplane.
“Until the second one, I thought this might turn out to be a normal day,” VanSickle said. “No one really suspected a terrorist attack until the second one. It. was clear then to everybody that it was a terrorist attack.”
Despite the horrific scene being played out before his eyes, VanSickle said the 150 yards of space that separated him from the towers themselves gave him a sense of safety — until he saw the cloud of dust, debris and smoke come boiling down the street as one of the damaged towers collapsed. He said it was then that the events of the day became scary.
VanSickle said he started to run but soon realized that the hundreds of people who were also running were clogging the street so he ducked into a building for safety from the cloud. He said the cloud was scary because he did not know what was in the cloud. He said he could see large pieces of the debris in the cloud along with a mixture of pulverized cement and smoke.
After watching news footage of the clouds billowing up the streets, VanSickle said the pictures do not show how frightening the cloud actually was.
As he searched for a phone to call his wife and make contact with his parents, VanSickle found that phones were busy with others. It wasn’t until later that morning that he was able to make contact with his wife, Markhabat, and leave a message for his parents, Gary and Linda VanSickle, in Fort Scott.
Linda VanSickle said she was at work at Mercy’s Newman-Young clinic that morning when she found out about the attack in Manhattan. After several calls from concerned family members, she tried to call John but was unable to get through. As her concern increased she decided to return home to wait for a call from John. There she found a message.
It was John, speaking over the wail of sirens, to reassure his parents that he was safe. The message brought a rush of relief, Linda said.
Linda VanSickle said she was again relieved when she was able to contact John’s wife, Merkhabat, and later received a call from John as he was walking out of the lower Manhattan district.
Reflecting on the affects of the attack in New York, John VanSickle said New York turned silent as workers went to their homes and the businesses of lower Manhattan including the New York Stock Exchange closed.
“The town was totally quiet on Wednesday,” VanSickle said. “It was very quiet, very ghostly in New York.”
He said his own law firm — Cleary, Gottlieh, Steen and Hamilton — no longer has access to their building because of the limited access of lower Manhattan. Early during the rescue efforts the building where he normally works was established as a triage center until the structural safety of the building was brought into question. He said the building has been determined to be structurally safe, but he doesn’t expect to get back to the building for several weeks.
As the shock of the attack began to wear off, VanSickle and other coworkers began working out of makeshift office space using the Internet to access files. He said that even making contact with his coworkers took several days because of the tragedy and not having access to the office.
VanSickle said that being new to New York he did not know anyone who worked in the World Trade Center, but he knows of others who have lost friends or loved ones. VanSickle said he has not lost any friends or coworkers as a result of the attack, but that is unusual.
“I think I’m an exception in that regards.”.
While rescue and clean up efforts continue at the site, VanSickle said fellow New Yorkers are attempting to get back to a sense of normalcy but things will never be the same.
VanSickle said he feels the biggest psychological effect for the average New Yorker will be caused by looking up and not seeing the twin towers on the skyline.
“It doesn’t feel like New York any more,” he said. “It is really disturbing to look up and not see them anymore.”
He said he has heard some people talk of leaving New York City but he doesn’t think they will. As for the prevailing attitude that he has observed in New York, VanSickle said he does not see fear but anger.
“I think they want revenge,” he said “I think people expect that sooner or later.”
As investigations into who the hijacker terrorists were and who conspired with them continue, VanSickle said some people have started unjust reactions against people of Middle Eastern descent. VanSickle said his wife witnessed an incident where an Arab was berated by other people. Despite this incident, VanSickle said most people realize that race does not make one responsible for the acts of another.
“Arabs are as much New York as anyone else,” he said.
For VanSickle personally, the events of Sept. 11 are easily remembered.
“I’m going through a mild case of shell shock,” he said.
VanSickle said that when he hears a crash or a loud noise he thinks of buildings falling down, but he said he is not letting the things he saw happen in Manhattan last week change his plans for the immediate future. He is willing and planning to go back to work in lower Manhattan when officials open the area.
“I’m not afraid to go back.” he said.
Note from the author:
After leaving my reporting position at The Fort Scott Tribune for graduate school, the attacks stunned our nation and contacts I had let me know about a local connection to the New York story. I submitted this article and it was published in the Tribune in September, 2001.