It’d be easy to add up all the pain
And all the dreams you sat and watched go up in flames
Dwell on the wreckage as it smolders in the rain
But not me, I’m alive
And today you know that’s good enough for me
Breathing in and out’s a blessing, can’t you see?
Today’s the first day of the rest of my life
And I’m alive and well
“Alive and Well” – Kenny Chesney
A few years back I had written an account of my experiences on September 11, 2001. Like many New Yorkers who were there that day, it’s not an event one can easily forget. Some friends of mine asked me to repost my 9/11 story on this blog. So here it is, with a bit of an update.
Today is the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. My experiences on that day more than likely are very similar to that of many who worked in the area at the time. I am pretty certain that no one will forget the day that planes were flown into buildings, the world shook and a city was terrorized, but not beaten.
Back in 2001 I lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and worked three blocks away from the World Trade Center. My train stop coming into Manhattan was across the street from Tower One.
My plan to catch an earlier train than usual was thwarted by my more immediate desire to look good for our monthly board meeting. I remember running in my three inch platform heels and cursing my vanity as I watched the train leave the station. I didn’t realize at that moment how lucky I was. You see the train I took back then left the station every twelve minutes. Had I made the train I ended up missing, I would have literally been walking up the stairs to street level as the first plane hit Tower One. Instead, I caught the next train, which had me arriving in Manhattan shortly after the first Tower had been hit. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know any of this.
During the ride in to the city, we were stuck between Brooklyn and Manhattan for a few minutes. There was no announcement until we actually got to Manhattan and all they said was: “Due to a Smoke condition we will be bypassing the Courtland street station. For the Wall Street area, please use the Rector Street or City Hall Stations”. Everyone looked irritated. It seemed back then that every week there was a “Smoke Condition” at the Courtland Street Station. Usually, it meant a garbage can was on fire or some stupid kid was pulling some stupid prank effectively delaying the trains for what amounted to nothing, leaving harried employees irritated, and late for work – But not this time.
I got out at Rector Street because it was closer to where I worked than City Hall.
When I got out of the station I could smell the smoke. I walked up to street level and saw smoke and fire coming from the first tower and paper wafting down to the ground from the building as well. All I could think was, “oh no, not again”. I apparently said this out loud because a lady passing me by stopped to say, “oh no, it was just a freak accident – a small jet or something flew into the tower – it’s very weird – they think maybe the pilot had a heart attack.”
Now mind you, I was suspicious – Hey, I was there in 1993 too. But, I decided to just go on to work so I started making my way in the direction of the WTC. Downtown can be a bit difficult to navigate because it’s not the nice little neat grid that the rest of Manhattan is so I was trying to use the most familiar path I knew. I got to this park across the street from the second tower, which was full of people staring – some were crying – and made a right to head towards my job all the while hearing many folks talking in disbelief about the ‘freak accident’. I walked three steps (my back was towards the second tower) and suddenly heard three very loud crashing sounds. I, along with countless people, started to run. At this point I was thinking that maybe the plane that had flown in to the first tower exploded (later, I learned that, in fact that noise was the sound of the second tower being hit). I was also, at that moment, thinking “don’t fall”… (I was wearing 3 inch platform shoes, had I fallen, I would have been trampled).
Once I made it to my building on William Street, I could see my co-workers staring up in disbelief in the direction of Tower One. We had a very good view of that tower from the corner of our building. One of my friends, having noticed me, out of breath, and I’m sure disheveled, asked me if I was okay. As I began to nod my head “yes,” I put a hand through my hair to push it out of my face, and noticed there was glass in it. I also at that moment felt glass down my back. As one friend handed me her orange juice, another started to pick the glass out of my hair. I was a little freaked out at that moment, but not nearly as panicky as, should I ever have imagined myself in that situation, thought I’d be. I looked up towards the tower to see why folks had started gasping and noticed fairly large figures falling from the area above the smoke. It took a while for it to register that those were people throwing themselves out of the tower.
I realized at that moment, that whatever the situation was, my parents needed to know that I was fine. No one’s cell phones were working, so I went upstairs to try the landlines. I managed to reach my father’s answering machine. One of my friends had offered to let me come to her apartment in the Village but I declined her offer, saying: “No offense, but I’m getting off this Island even if I have to swim.” Another one of my co-workers was in her office crying and I looked in to see if she was okay. She said that the Pentagon had been hit too. Clearly these were no freak accidents.
And then we started hearing rumors of other planes.
I had decided I was going to cross the Brooklyn Bridge with three of my co-workers. We all agreed to meet in the lobby by the elevators. I got downstairs and met up with two of the three ladies I was going to walk home with. I told them I wanted to let the girl who had offered me to stay with her in the village know I was going with them. She and another co-worker were out in front of our building next to the revolving doors. As I walked towards them, the building began to shake and the lights began to flicker on and off. We heard a huge rumble and lots of crashing noises. The folks outside ran into the building and we all ran towards the side door. I linked hands with the two women who had been waiting for me and we ran outside. I was the last in our human chain and looked behind me. I saw a huge cloud of smoke heading our way. I tried to yell to them that we’re better off inside the building. They didn’t hear me. I broke off the chain and ran back into the building. I found out later that another co-worker HAD heard me and followed me inside. She said that had she been caught up in that cloud of smoke she most likely wouldn’t have made it as she was asthmatic.
Once the initial brunt of the cloud of smoke that once was Tower 2 passed, all those inside the building walked out to the street. It was eerie. You couldn’t see or hear anyone. The smoke/dust was so thick that you could be right next to a person and they would sound as if they were far away. I could vaguely hear crying and I swear I heard my own heart beating – for the first time, I was truly scared. I thought I was never getting home. I tried to keep myself in check though, as I tried to make my way to the South Street Seaport.
I turned left on Pearl Street. The smoke/dust on that block seemed to have lifted a bit and I recognized a familiar face from work. He took one look at me and said “are you okay?” and suddenly I couldn’t control the tears anymore and whimpered, “I want to go home.” He asked me where home was and I said “Brooklyn”. He was from Brooklyn too and told me that he was looking for another one of our co-workers and that once we found him, we’d all go home together.
The third person found us pretty quickly (they had told each other where to meet), and we headed for the Seaport. At that time I worked for the New York City Economic Development Corporation and we were working on moving the Fulton Fish market to the Bronx. The guys I was walking with were working on that deal so the folks at the fish market let us go into their offices for a quick rest before we started out to the bridge.
The folks in that office were very nice to us and kept trying to clean off my bag, my skirt, my shoes – giving me wet paper towels to wipe off my dust covered face. All I wanted was a working phone line. I HAD to get in touch with one of my parents to let them know I was STILL okay. While we were there, the news was on and they were talking about rumors of other planes and were trying to confirm a plane crashing in PA.
At that moment I felt a sudden urgency to just get going. I wanted off the Island of Manhattan. We decided that since the Brooklyn Bridge is the most famous bridge in New York City, and would be the first target if they wanted to cut us off from the rest of the boroughs, we weren’t taking chances. We walked to the Manhattan Bridge (which also goes into Brooklyn) instead.
As we got to the foot of the bridge on the Manhattan side, we saw a throng of people running in our direction. We found out later that the Tower One had fallen as well.
The Twin Towers were gone.
As we crossed the bridge I kept looking back at the smoke coming from the spot where the towers used to be in disbelief. Again, my thoughts were spoken aloud and I said to one of the guys “Wow, not to get all biblical or anything, but this reminds me of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” My friend responded “well, we don’t want you to turn into a pillar of salt, so stop looking back. Let’s go home.”
When we got to the other side of the bridge, we all breathed a sigh of relief and just sat there on the grass watching as more people poured into Brooklyn. The folks in Brooklyn were passing out water. I bumped in to the lady me and my other two friends had been waiting for inside our building. I was relieved she had made it out. She took one look at my feet and said “go into the store behind me and get yourself a pair of flip flops NOW.” So I did. My shoes had given me a couple of very large blisters at the bottom of my feet. I was in pain, but relieved to be out of the city.
Bay Ridge was clear on the other side of Brooklyn and it would have taken me all day to get home if I had walked. Luckily a nice gentleman was picking up folks and driving them as far as his daughter’s school, which was about fifty blocks away from where I lived. I took the ride. Then I got myself a cab.
I had managed thus far to keep myself together but as I turned the corner of my house (the cab had to let me off about five blocks away because there was traffic backed up to the Verazzano bridge which had been closed because of the day’s events, so I walked/ran the last five blocks), I started shaking. Once I was inside, I just slid down to the floor and let it all out. My roommate at the time came out of her bedroom and said “Thank God you’re okay. We’ve all been trying to reach you. Call your sister. She’s in a panic.” Luckily, outgoing calls from landlines were working, so I was able to call my sister and let her know I was fine. With the exception of the message I’d left on my father’s home phone (which I later found out he hadn’t heard, having not been able to leave his office for two days), I still hadn’t reached either of my parents.
After taking the longest shower ever, I still felt as though I had glass in my hair and down my back, and no matter how many times I bathed, I could still smell the contents of the big ball of smoke I had walked through. It took days for me to feel physically normal again.
For the next few days I slept in the living room with the TV on. By day two I had it on PBS because that was the only station NOT airing continuous images of the Twin Towers. I had to take sleeping pills to be able to sleep. Loud noises scared me. I’m a pretty tough person, but for the first week or so after 9/11 I wasn’t me at all.
I went back to work the following week. We were working out of offices in downtown Brooklyn. Like I said, I worked for the Economic Development Corporation and we were clearly going to be busy for a very long time to come. They told everyone to take their time, come back when we were ready. But I had to be around people who understood how I felt. No one in my personal life did because they hadn’t actually been there.
A week later we were back downtown and I can’t describe to you the odor or the sights. There were national guardsmen walking the streets asking for ID to prove you had a reason to be below Canal Street. I took to wearing my Work ID around my neck.
I was lucky, really. I truly feel like I was blessed that day. I have a sense that maybe my grandfather, who had passed a couple of months earlier, was watching over me on that day, making sure I got home alright.
I was also lucky in that while I knew a few of the people who perished (three firefighters), all my family and close friends managed to escape physically unscathed. Because of this, I was able to concentrate on the folks who did lose those close to them and on the work we had ahead of us.
I still wear the outfit I wore that day. I consider it my lucky outfit actually. And those 3 inch platform shoes were repaired over and over again, until, sadly, I had to retire them permanently in the summer of 2008. But for the seven years after 9/11/01, every time I’d wear them, I’d remember how they got me across the bridge on the scariest day of my life.
It’s been nine years and my heart still races and I still tear up when I think of the devastation of that day. Like I said, I know I was lucky; I’m here to tell you all the story. I know of way too many people not as lucky as I was.
Needless to say it’s a day I know I can never forget. And even though time has healed the fear, it’s still a shock to me to look at the skyline and see the empty space where the towers once stood. It amazes me that bureaucracy, greed, insensitivity and bullshit have essentially prevented the rebuilding of that area. But I still have hope, we will rebuild.
I know that so much has happened in the years since the towers fell. In my own life, I met and married a wonderful man and then he passed away. Other friends and family members have gotten married, had babies, and still others passed away. I’ve had, and lost, two jobs since the one I had been working on back in 2001. And yet, with all that passing of time, whenever the anniversary of the date rolls around, I still feel as though I can remember every sound, every smell, every emotion I felt on that day.
There are so many different stories folks who managed to escape that day, physically unscathed, will tell. I can pretty much guarantee each one will contain two elements:
- Gratitude at having been lucky enough to get out of there alive and unhurt.
- The need to never forget the ones who weren’t as lucky as we were.
Update – 9/11/2011:
Ten years later, Ground Zero is finally starting to come to life again. Buildings are going up, memorials are opening. Some the infighting seems to be dying down and folks seem to be healing, much like the city itself. There is still work to be done. The manner in which the real heroes of that day, the first responders, are still being treated, is appauling. And while I’d like to go off on a rant here, I think, today, I just want to focus on the good and not on how badly I still want to bitch-slap every politician that refuses to give these heroic men and women the healthcare, and the respect they are due.
While there is no way that anything could replace all that was lost ten years ago, it is reassuring to see the sky line filling up again. That gaping hole in it was painful to look at. It will never be the same. No one, least of all those who went through that day, who lost loved ones, who lost the sense of security they felt walking the streets of downtown Manhattan, will ever forget what happened. To me, recalling that day never really changes. It’s been ten years, but it could have happened yesterday, the memory is that vivid. But the city is doing better. Life goes on, as it should. Remember those lost. Rejoice in being alive. Never forget.