9/11 at Appellate Court, by David B. Saxe

The two-week period ending with Labor Day was one that my family and I usually spent at our place on North Haven, enjoying what was left of our summer vacation before a return to work and school. On the Tuesday after Labor Day, I was back at court, immersed in the mix of cases awaiting all of us. On that day in 2001, Sept. 11 was a week away. Now, it is the ordinariness of that week that was so striking.

My memory of Sept. 11 is not of the horrendous pictures of planes flying into the Twin Towers or of the fog of smoke that quickly engulfed Lower Manhattan. Our court, the Appellate Division, First Department, at 25th Street and Madison Avenue, was not in the immediate area of the attack, as was the Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street and the other courts downtown, but I — and, I am sure, many of my colleagues — have deeply etched recollections of that day.

What first comes to mind about that absolutely gorgeous late-summer day is the disconcerting quiet inside and even outside the courthouse after the attack was known.

Some of us sought solace in the chambers of colleagues; the conversation, if there was any, was short, and whatever words were exchanged were spoken quietly. Perhaps the enormity of what we had seen on the one television at the court foreclosed the ability to speak in detail.

Toward the later part of the morning, I left the courthouse and walked aimlessly around the neighborhood. There was virtually no automobile traffic, and hoards of pedestrians were beginning to trek northward on Park Avenue South, apparently a favored route. There was a stunned silence to these throngs as they maneuvered northward, maybe with thoughts of making it home or of removing themselves from further danger. The sky was quiet, air traffic having come to an enforced halt, except for the occasional supersonic fighter jet that crisscrossed the sky, ready to intercept some later terrorist attack.

When I returned to the courthouse, I received a call from a young lawyer I knew who had arrived at his firm’s office at the top of the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center, early that day to prepare some exhibits for trial. From his office window, he had seen the horror of people jumping from the buildings in an attempt to escape. He was very agitated and asked me if he could stop off at the courthouse to chat on his route north toward Grand Central. Of course I agreed, and we talked for almost an hour. I hope I helped him cope.

I was surprised that no one in authority called off the scheduled arguments at the court that afternoon, or for that matter the rest of the week. I know we often make determined efforts to enforce normalcy — the show must go on, and that sort of thing — but this day was so extraordinary that I could not understand acting as if it were not.

Most of all, I remember that for days and weeks afterward, hundreds of photographs of missing workers and first responders were plastered on the outer walls of the large armory on Park Avenue South between 25th and 26th Streets, a block or so from the court. For me, more than anything else, the printed-out photos of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and other loved ones that gently weathered on the armory wall told the story of that day. On my way to and from court every day, I made it my business to walk past their faces. I wondered then if we realized that we were officially ensnared in a conflict unlike any previous one.

Fifteen years is almost a lifetime for a court. Only five of us from that era (Justices Peter Tom, Angela Mazzarelli, Richard Andrias, David Friedman, and me) still preside on the Appellate Division, First Department. On that Tuesday afternoon, Justices Milton Williams, Richard Andrias, Richard Wallach, Alfred Lerner, and George Marlowe sat on the bench in order of seniority. 

For me, the gathering of our judges in our communal lunchroom that day served as a source of sustaining comfort.

David B. Saxe is an associate justice of the Appellate Division, Supreme Court, First Department. He divides his time between New York City and North Haven.