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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Gunn grad witnesses Trade Center attacks Gunn grad witnesses Trade Center attacks (September 26, 2001)

Chunk of debris the size of a car bumper fell near him

by Sarah Andrews

Matthew Riggs, a 31-year-old Gunn High School graduate, exited the New York City subway to get coffee at the corner of Broadway and Nassau on the morning of Sept. 11.

Glancing up at the sky, he saw a jetliner fly directly into the World Trade Center, one block from where he was standing.

The first noise he heard was "more of a sharp bang, the second more like a real explosion," he said.

"It was a typical quarter-to-nine minute in the financial district, people racing to work thinking about money. I was near a church I had admired previously, thinking it would make a great photograph with the World Trade Center juxtaposed behind it, but I thought, 'Whatever, I will have forever to do that," he said in a telephone interview.

Riggs, who is currently finishing a master's degree in international relations at San Francisco State University, described the crash as "strange" and added that most people didn't run immediately, but rather stood and watched.

"The sound wasn't all that loud and there wasn't that much debris from my view. There were hardly any flames and most of us walked closer, and just stood there like some collective insanity. The fires took a while to start -- the plane flew in, the smoke cleared and that was it. It didn't seem that bad."

When asked about his initial reaction, and the reaction of those around him, Riggs said, "The first thing I did was kneel down and pray, and I'm not even particularly religious. I just knew a lot of people got murdered for no reason right there. People started falling (from the building). I wound up covering the eyes of some woman and some guy was yelling at everyone not to look because they'd never forget it. It takes a long time to fall that far."

Riggs said this was the point where people "started freaking out," even though most stayed where they were. "Some people were going into shock, just crying and babbling. Some people were laughing. People react to trauma in the strangest ways."

Riggs said workers then began exiting the first tower, yet none seemed panicked and the damage seemed minimal.

"Then that 'incoming' sound was heard, and some guy yelled that there was another plane. I caught a glimpse between buildings. I heard the blast and looked up; we were north of Tower II; everything you see on tape blowing out the other side -- we looked up and saw that falling directly on us."

The crowd began running and Riggs ducked into two phone booths underneath some nearby scaffolding, at the same moment that "something the size of a front bumper" crashed down on the spot where he had previously been standing.

While Riggs will never forget the devastating images he saw that morning, he said that what sticks out most prominently was, "More than anything, the feeling that there was going to be more and trying to calculate the path to safety in the wake of that."

He followed his instinct to leave Manhattan, and cross the Hudson River to his apartment in Brooklyn.

The people that shared his subway train soon became his friends. "I was trying to get them to come away with me back to Brooklyn," he said. They all got back to Brooklyn by walking over the bridge, which he said was very crowded and hectic.

"I got home thinking it would be some kind of sanctuary. But it wasn't the same place I'd left a few hours before. This isn't the same world it was, and it never will be."


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