As we all face another anniversary of the events on this day in 2001, I reflect on my own experience, in memory of the lives lost that day.
As any of you who know me are aware, I don’t talk much about it. And when I do, my emotions are still, 11 years later, very close to the surface. But I’ve always known at some point that it would be time to tell my story, so today I’m going to try.
Yes, we all remember where we were that day between approximately 8:45 and 9:15am. While I wasn’t working in the trade center towers, I was working in the building immediately adjacent to the New York Stock Exchange, just a few short blocks away….at that time, the lower floors of our building were in fact leased to the NYSE.
I had arrived in my office at around 8:35am. Ten minutes later, I was unaware that the first plane had just slammed into the World Trade Center building. But a short while later, I had just set my clock down after changing the batteries and adjusting it to the right time, 9:03am, when I heard a loud ka-boom and the whole building rocked. I barely had time to think about what it could have been, when the people in the next office ran into our office and said that NY was under attack and that terrorists had blown up the World Trade Center with two airplanes. (As they were securities traders, they had been tuned into CNN). Otherwise, I have no idea how long it would have been before we would have known what had happened. No one had to even say what was on our minds (that the New York Stock Exchange, including our building, could be next)….we bolted for the stairway, running down 28 flights of stairs without hesitation. On the 24th floor, someone screamed “we’ve only gone down four floors???!!!”). Knowing the sheer panic in our stairwell (although everyone was extremely civil and helping those who were not as able), I can’t imagine what the people were faced with in the World Trade Center.
When we emerged into the street, there was complete chaos and the smoke from the towers was already starting to move down through the streets. A NYSE official asked that everyone go back into their offices to clear the street; but we all looked at each other and said “no way” are we going back up to the 28th floor of a building that housed the NYSE. So we thought we just needed to get away from downtown as quickly as possible. We first walked east to get further away from the Trade Center in that direction; and then headed north. At that time, I lived in Greenwich Village, so we had decided that was where we would all go to regroup, as we were sure the transportation systems had all been suspended. And we thought it would be safer, as the Village was not located amongst any of the tall skyscrapers.
As we proceeded north, we had no idea what was going on and if further attacks were occurring. And none of our loved ones knew where we were as all of the cell towers had been on top of the WTC buildings, so were no more. We kept hearing airplanes overhead, and not knowing at the time that they were F-14’s that had been sent to protect the air space, everyone on the streets would drop to the ground and cover and protect each other. I can still remember the sheer terror of those moments…the fear of the unknown…someone near me said, “If something is going to happen to me, please make it happen fast.”
We reached a corner (I think it was at Fulton Street), and we glanced left to see the towers, they were a towering inferno…a mile high torch. [That vision was one I saw in my dreams for quite some time afterward]. Someone near me said, “Is this a movie, or is this for real?” That was how it felt…I just couldn’t process what was happening. Especially since one of my best friends was working on the 40th floor of that tower. I started to freak out, thinking that he must be dead. I prayed that he was late for work that day, as he so often was. But then, I suddenly screamed, “let’s get out of here, something really bad is about to happen, we are not safe.” We had barely turned around when we heard a loud rumble…again everyone huddled together, praying for our lives. Then we heard a big “whoosh” noise. As we disentangled ourselves, we looked around just as the tower collapsed, right before our eyes. No one could believe that a building so big, so tall, could collapse like that. But before we had too much time to ponder all of our questions, someone screamed, “Run for your Lives!!!” As a big black cloud of smoke, carrying building and airplane debris (we could see the debris rolling within the cloud) was heading down the street towards us. And so we, in fact, ran for our lives. We ran for about ½ block with the cloud seeming to be right at our heels, so we turned right, with everyone yelling, get further east! And then, ahead of us, the black cloud had wrapped around the block and was heading toward us…coming at us from both sides. There were a number of people who were in the middle of the block, in total fear and panic. But then, a parking garage attendant heard all of us screaming, and suddenly we realized that the garage door to the parking lot was opening up in front of us. We all bolted into the garage, and the attendant immediately closed the door and instructed us all to go down the steps to the lower parking deck. Someone handed us wet rags to cover our face, as the smoke started seeping into the building. I remembered seeing something on TV about smoke inhalation and that it didn’t take long to succumb. I was trying not to hyper-ventilate. Which meant that for me, it was time for action.
I started to talk about it maybe being time for us to try to get out of the area before we were overcome by the smoke. Others were reluctant to open the door. But while we were talking about it, someone opened the door and several of us bolted out. The ground was completely covered, ankle deep, with white/gray ash. (It looked like it had snowed). There was no more black smoke, but the air was still heavy with smoke. The wet rag came in handy as we ran as fast as we could, heading north, away from the smoke. After a few blocks, we reached fresh air. What a relief! But the terror did not subside, as we continued to hear planes overhead.
We trudged up The Bowery with hundreds of others, trying to get out of downtown New York. Bowery is a wide avenue, with wide sidewalks, three lanes each way and a wide median. There was not a gap anywhere. The “ocean” of people was overwhelming. (To this day, I’ve never seen that sight up Bowery captured in a photo). There was a similar “sea” of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge as we passed it.
At one point there was a man walking next to me – again, a photo in my mind—he had on a suit, his tie was askew, he was covered in ash from head to toe, he was scuffling as one of his shoes was broken—and he had a briefcase, one of those that opens up on top, he was holding onto the one handle that wasn’t broken, and the case was wide open…it was full of documents that were all covered in ash. He was in shock, in a total daze, and did not respond when I asked him if he was ok. I told him to keep walking, to get out of the area, and then someone would be able to help him…I gave him my bottle of water….a tear rolled down his face. At that point, I was grateful that I had not been as close as he had been.
When we got to the “City Hall” area, there were “Feds” everywhere, on walkie talkies, scrambling to their black sedans, peeling rubber as they took off…and they looked upset, like something else was about to happen. We decided to again pick up our pace.
When we reached Houston Street, we turned left and headed towards my home. We were still huddling in doorways as the aircraft activity continued to increase. As we approached my neighborhood, I began to feel safe. As we rounded the corner on my street, someone came out of a townhouse, and offered to let us stay at his place. When I pointed toward my building, he hugged me and started crying and said “Welcome Home, Neighbor.”
So, when asked, “Do you remember where you were on 9/11?” I just say, “oh, yes.” Down to every little detail.
And, yes, we’ll never forget!