I write this in honor of the precious lives lost in the September 11th attacks.
My heart goes out to the families, the survivors.
This is my story of that day – September 11, 2001
Around 8am. My boyfriend René was about to go on his morning run, and I decided at the last minute that I would go with him on my bike. We headed south on the West Side Highway bike path, and it was the most spectacular morning. I remember the sun gleaming on the Hudson River in a way that made me think, “I can’t believe THIS is our life. We live in the most beautiful, special place. A spectacular day…” As we approached the boat basin, I started to think that we shouldn’t go our usual route around the base of the World Trade Center and back up Broadway to our 14th Street apartment. René had been sick and I didn’t want him to push himself too much with a long run. As we turned around and headed north, I remember seeing a bunch of commuters getting off the ferry. They all looked chipper and refreshed – briefcases in hand from their boat ride commute on such a pretty morning. What a lovely way to get to work! As we passed Stuyvesant High School, the city noise seemed to get louder. Planes over Manhattan were a common occurrence, but it was especially loud above us. I remember thinking, “Lord, how close are they flying planes to the city these days? I can’t even hear myself speak!” Then we looked up.
8:46am. We watched American Airlines Flight 11 crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. An enormous fireball shot out towards us and the sound of the deep BOOM shook my insides. It seemed like many seconds passed before I took my next breath. A woman nearby crumbled to her knees on the pavement. Traffic stopped. For a moment, the city around us was in stunned silence with only the sound that of cracking embers falling from high above and the low roar of the flames. Finally, sirens rang faintly in the distance. René and I looked at one another in disbelief. The paper and debris that streamed from the building after the explosion went with the southeast wind and we were luckily standing two blocks northwest of the World Trade Center. We just stood there watching, unable to believe our eyes.
This is our view of the building right after the fireball died down into smoke. Something you can’t believe you’re looking at. Something that might happen in a Die Hard movie, not in real life in front of you…
At the time, we both thought it was air traffic control gone awry. I didn’t have my cell phone and I knew mom would want to contact me, so we finally turned away from the now smoking building and headed north up the West Side Highway sidewalk. I remember crying as I rode my bike – looking back over and over. I also remember the fire trucks racing by, headed for the scene of the incident. I’ll never forget those handsome young firemen, hanging their heads out of the fire truck windows. They saw the black smoke billowing out of the giant tower and they charged forward towards the scene that we were fleeing. One guy in particular caught my eye, no more than 30 years old, handsome with brown eyes and light brown hair. He looked scared. As a first responder to the incident, it’s possible that brave, young man didn’t survive that day. When we got to the intersection of 14th Street and the West Side Highway, René headed across the street and I waited with my bike for a chance to cross. As I stood there waiting, I looked back at the building, still in disbelief. Just then, another fireball. I yelled, “RENÉ! LOOK!”
9:03am United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of World Trade Center. I couldn’t tell what caused it. I didn’t see that plane because it had hit the tower from the south. It looked like an giant explosion had come out of the building from our angle. I was so confused and in shock as we hurried home. As we arrived at our building at 237 West 14th Street, we heard intense screams coming from the apartment across the hall. Screams like nothing I had ever heard. We knocked on the door and discovered that my neighbor’s sister worked at Cantor Fitzgerald which was located at the top of the tower that was hit first. She was hysterical as she watched The Today Show. I tried to comfort her, but there is so little you can do in that circumstance. We went into our apartment and gathered a few things, talked to René’s brother Hector on the phone, and then called my mom and told her we were heading up to her place. At this time (less than 5 minutes after the 2nd plane had hit) people were just discovering what had happened. We walked outside and were able to hail an empty cab. (With all the subways stopped and bridges and tunnels closed, empty cabs were non-existent that day. We were lucky.) Once inside the cab, the driver told us that a plane had hit the Pentagon. It was surreal. I thought, “Do things like this REALLY happen to me? Right here in the U.S.A.? This is a war zone. What’s next?” We didn’t know what else was coming and so we just held each other close and tried to remain calm. I remember the cab driver (a Middle Eastern guy with a very heavy accent) was telling us, “It’s the governments who hate each other. The regular people in the Middle East can get along. Palestinians can live and work beside Israelis and have no problem. It’s the politics! People are just people!” We got to mom and my step-dad Steve’s apartment at West 102nd Street and were still in shock. The television was on the Today Show and we all sat on the couch watching the events unfold. It showed doctors and nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital (right by our apartment) waiting outside with stretchers to treat the injured but very few injured ever arrived. So many who worked in World Trade Center that day would not make it to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Suddenly, right on television, at 9:59am the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. When the cloud of dust settled, the building was gone. It was hard to fathom. We were shaken. It was scary to be on this island, bridges and tunnels shut down. Not knowing what might happen next. At 10:28am the North Tower collapsed. Two skyscrapers. 110 floors each. Gone.
Throughout that day, we hung out at my mom’s apartment. Dazed. Trying not to let panic set in. We were constantly reminded of the day’s seriousness by F-16 Fighter Jets roaring overhead. We watched comedy. Any funny tv show or film we could find. We even put on my childhood home videos to lighten the mood. The city was covered in a thick cloud of smoke and dust… It was very strange to think that human life was somewhere in that dust.
Finally, by afternoon we realized we hadn’t eaten all day and decided to get some food at the corner diner. Walking outside, we saw the strangest sight. Hoards of people, dressed in office attire, walking north. With all the subways stopped, taxis non-existent, and tunnels and bridges closed to cars – people were walking home to upper Manhattan, New Jersey, the Bronx… Some had briefcases; many were covered in white soot. They all looked tired and dazed. I wish I’d taken a photo but I was still in too much shock to think to do it. When we got in Metro Diner, we were shocked to discover that it was packed. New Yorkers were sharing a meal together, some sitting quietly, some talking about what they saw and how they felt. There was a sense of goodwill among the citizens. We would pull together to get through no matter what.
After that day, the city was still in a tailspin. The air down on 14th Street had a unique smell that I suppose can only come from more than 2,000 people and 2 skyscrapers cremated in the blink of an eye. It was strange to breathe it in. Our neighbor let us know that her sister who worked in the South Tower, had been late for work that morning and her life was miraculously spared. She had worked on a team with 30 people and only 3 had survived. She was late for work, one person was at a funeral that morning, and one was home sick. She spent the next month going to funeral after funeral for all her lost friends and the PTSD and guilt she experienced was severe. I wonder if she ever recovered…
The most heartbreaking sights in days that followed Sept. 11th were the flyers. Faces of mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, cousins, boyfriends… All ages and races. MISSING.
Families held on to hope that their loved ones somehow got out of the buildings and were in a hospital or wandering the streets somewhere. I would stand and look at those fliers – so many faces. Good hard working people who were loved. Week by week, the fliers were slowly taken down. Life went on for New York City. The goodwill and warmth shared by our citizens on that day slowly shifted back to the harder edged city ways. I had PTSD with an intense sensitivity to sounds. I would wake in the night and think I heard an explosion far away (perhaps the Empire State Building?) only to discover it was a truck driving over a man-hole cover. The sound of the North Tower exploding in a fireball was stuck in my ears – a low, loud boom. René comforted me when I cried in the night. The first “normal” thing we did after 9/11 was to see the movie “Zoolander” on that following Saturday night. It was packed with other New Yorkers trying to feel normal. Everyone in the theater laughed out loud. My friends on Broadway went back to performing their shows. We all tried to go on with life… holding our loved ones a little tighter than before.
And that’s my 9/11 story. I know I’m just one of millions of lives changed by that beautiful blue sky morning of September 11, 2001.
“Life is short, we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind and may the Divine Mystery, who is beyond our ability to know but who made us, and who loves us, and who travels with us, Bless us and keep us in peace.”
Love, Love, Love, and Peace.
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