"I saw the first plane," said Nelly Davoren Wednesday morning. "The noise was loud. It was flying very low. That's why I looked up. I thought, 'What the hell is this plane doing?' "
She would soon find out. The Orient Point resident was at ground zero in the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil.
Tuesday is farmers' market day beside the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And for 10 years, the Terry Farm truck has been there with produce from Orient Point.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, was no exception. Manning the stand bright and early were Billy Halsey of Westhampton and Nelly Davoren. They were there when the jets crashed into the towers. They survived the hail of burning debris. And they escaped with their lives.
"They were the last people in the market," said Ethel Terry Wednesday morning. "By the grace of God, they survived."
After the too-low plane flew by, Ms. Davoren heard a "big bang" and metal started cascading around them. "Billy told us to get in the truck." Once there, a young Asian woman ran past and "popped a baby into my arms," shouting that she was going into the Trade Center to look for her husband. The woman was gone for five or 10 minutes, but "it felt like an hour," said Ms. Davoren in her Irish brogue. "I was afraid she'd never come back." During those minutes, the 47-year-old mother of two grown sons was able to quiet the crying baby.
Suddenly, all the other vendors were gone except the Terry team and their neighbor, Linda Coughlin, a flower-seller from upstate. "We tried to pack up and we were helping Linda. Her helper had taken off. But the fire was coming down pretty quick." Their awnings were ablaze, lit by falling sparks. She noticed pies left behind in the booth on the other side. They were burning.
"Then there were only the three of us and cops and firemen," said Ms. Davoren. "A fireman told us to get out." They were told to run to the nearby Brooks Brothers building. "I ran halfway and there was a big bang. Really big. I looked back to find Billy, but I lost him in a big white smoke."
Someone told her to go into the basement, but smoke and dust soon filled it. "It was like a white wall," said Ms. Davoren. "We couldn't see and couldn't breathe. Whatever it was was burning our eyes. We were lost in the building. Then there were flashing lights. We followed some guys. They said go straight until you see water." And there, miraculously, was Billy Halsey.
"He was in pretty bad shape," said Ms. Davoren. "I wasn't too bad, but Billy looked like Santa Claus. I couldn't see his face, just red eyes. He couldn't breathe. He got the full blast. The blast took him. He'd gone with a fireman to try to help." The fireman "must have saved his life," she said. Ms. Terry said "a cop threw Billy under a stairwell. It saved his life."
They joined the tide of dust-coated survivors leaving lower Manhattan on foot. As Ms. Davoren told it: "Then we were walking. You never saw so many thousands, walking over bridges, walking by the water."
They came upon a hospital with cluster of policeman outside. One glimpse of Mr. Halsey and they urged him to go inside for treatment. "But he said he was fine," said Ms. Davoren. He wasn't. "He was coughing and coughing. He got the black smoke. We got the white smoke. We were lucky." After an hour of treatment, he was released.
They caught a bus headed east, "but it couldn't go up certain streets, so we were walking again." They found a train station and rode to Babylon. No fares were collected. Mr. Halsey's daughter picked them up in Babylon and drove them to Westhampton. "We met them there," said Ms. Terry. "You wouldn't believe what he looked like. Just hugging him I got covered with dust. He must've had an inch of dust and debris all over him. It was unbelievable. And this was, what, 12 hours after the attack."
Mr. Halsey ended up at Central Suffolk Hospital for more treatment, and the Terrys brought Ms. Davoren back to Orient Point. But not before a stop at a pub (Skippers in Greenport). "They played Irish music for me," said Ms. Davoren. Did she tell her story? "Yeah, some of it. I was kind of tired."
More than that, said Ms. Terry. "They're shell-shocked," she said. "We were watching on TV. They were at ground zero." Amid the chaos, Ms. Davoren didn't fully know what she'd been through. "She saw the first plane go in, but she never knew about the second plane," said Ms. Terry. "They were just running for their lives."
Ms. Terry added this: "Last week the FBI was all over the Trade Center. They were parked in our spot. They knew something was up."
Wednesday morning, Fred and Ethel Terry, both volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians, were among the many North Fork vamps on call to provide relief to emergency crews helping at the scene of the Twin Towers collapse.
And it turns out that insurance won't cover the Terrys and the other farmers for the destruction of their trucks and booths because it was an act of terrorism. "We lost everything," said Ms. Terry, putting the value at $60,000. "It's not important. It could have been their lives."
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