Empty Downtown offers day of silence for victims
As the sun finally sets on a day America will never forget, downtown Pittsburgh – its skyline intact and unbloodied by terror – is quieter than a Sunday.
From Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington, the city’s usual loud evening hum of noise and traffic is glaringly absent.
Far below in the shadows, a few cars cross the Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt bridges. The fountain at the tip of Point State Park is off. PNC Park is dark. The sky – usually buzzing with the nonstop traffic of airplanes gliding toward Pittsburgh International Airport – is eerily empty.
It’s a gorgeous night, the end of a perfect blue day, but no pleasure boats cut the placid waters of the Three Rivers. It’s so quiet, you can hear distant crows cawing and the sound of a towboat pushing a pair of empty coal barges up the Ohio toward the Point.
On Sept. 11, 2001, downtown Pittsburgh was emptied of life, its office workers and shoppers chased home early by horrible events in New York and Washington, D.C.
Except for a few straggling commuters waiting at bus stops and the pigeons and street people of Market Square, Downtown’s streets and sidewalks were already virtually abandoned at 4 p.m.
‘Evening’ rush hour started at noon, when Downtown was thrown into severe gridlock by the voluntary evacuations of its buildings. Kaufmann’s closed. So did Lord & Taylor. So did all of the city’s McDonald’s restaurants.
At 4:15, nothing seemed open. The T had shut down. So had Amtrak. The only traffic of note on Smithfield Street was a train of empty Port Authority buses like the 63A to Edgewood that Michele McEvoy was waiting for.
Normally, there’d be hordes of bus patrons at her stop, the 29-year-old accountant said as she stood by herself in front of Barnes & Noble. ‘I’ve never seen it like this, except maybe at 9 at night.’
Grant Street was equally vacant. But outside the Omni William Penn Hotel’s bustling Tap Room bar, where most everyone was staring intently at CNN news reports, Betsy Bernhardy, 30, and her husband Don, 34, were taking full advantage of the unpeopled sidewalks.
Residents of the Washington Plaza apartments, they each were in their wheelchairs. Betsy, with 6-month-old Cameron sleeping on her lap, said they had come ‘to see what the city’s like when it’s empty. It’s like Sunday. It’s really a strange sight.’
Across the street stood the rusty USX Tower, the city’s tallest building and, therefore, the presumed target of any suicidal terrorists in control of a hijacked airliner.
At 4:45, the fountains in the plaza at its base were still spurting and its escalators were still running. But its only inhabitants were a few security guards like Jim Perez of Castle Shannon.
The only place open for business on Grant Street was First Lutheran Church. Normally, it closed at 4 p.m., said building operator John Lanyon, 71, of Lincoln Place. But today at 4:30 p.m., as the handmade sign on the side door said, the church was being kept ‘open for prayer.’ No one was inside.
Hotel bartenders were busy at the Tap Room and at the Pub in the Pittsburgh Hilton & Towers. But the only shopkeeper working late yesterday seemed to be Gabriel Fontana, the cigar-chewing owner of Gabriel Shoe Repair on Forbes Avenue.
At about 5:30, his door was locked, but his lights were on and he was still putting soles on the heels of men’s shoes.