My 9/11 story. An eyewitness account of that beautiful blue sky morning that changed our nation and our world.

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.

This is a bus stop right by my apartment.

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.

Sarah Jane

P.S. – You can subscribe to my blog by entering your e-mail address in the box at the top right of this page. I never sell your info or spam you. Just occasional ramblings, pictures, and thoughts…

27 Comments

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  1. Dearest Sarah Jane,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your deepest self with us. Your experience is a timeless piece of reflection and a very personal reminder of how precious our lives together and entertwined are.

    You are a gifted writer! Please keep sharing,
    Your Jude

  2. Thanks for sharing Sarah Jane – it’s hard for me to imagine how intense that was for you and the rest of the folks in NYC. It was intense was over here in Ashland, but nothing like…

  3. Sarah Jane, I know you talked about it one time when we scrap booked, but not as detailed. Glad to see you put it down on “paper”. Great piece!
    Always a sad event to remember, being a home town girl. Even though I moved in ’82 it was still “home”. I remember visiting Ground Zero in ’05 and being overcome by the whole ambiance. I remembered when I was young and I would go pick up checks at one of the towers from one of the Transit Authority’s offices; I could have been one of those victims………..
    Always sad for me.

  4. Hi Sarah Jane. First of all we are so grateful that you and Rene lived to tell this story.
    We never know what will show up that shapes and reshapes our lives. As a witness to this event in real time it no doubt etched into your consciousness the preciousness of
    life, which you now carry forward into all of your relationships. Marcello read your account and he too was moved by it. Thank you for sharing your story, it gives me another insight into who you and Rene are. Peace and Blessings to you both. Joe

  5. Beautiful account SJ. Please contact me at this at address – I’d like to talk to you about your piece. Go well and LOVE LIFE!

  6. SJ-

    I like most remember this moment frozen in time and seared into my mind as one of the most horrific events of my life. I remember exactly what I ate for breakfast and every specific detail about what I was wearing to work that day.

    After the initial shock set in and my mind shifted to the people of NYC, I remembered that you and your Mom were both living there. Would you believe I called Philip right then and actually was able to get him without it going to Voice Mail?

    I cannot express to you how happy I am you survived, but it I still cannot watch images of the events of 9/11 without getting nauseated and emotional over the people who died that day.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Love-
    Josh

  7. Thanks so much for posting SJ! Never knew you witnessed and remembered everything so vividly. I shared this with all my FB and Twitter friends. Thank God you and Rene were unharmed! We’ll never forget. X

  8. Sarah Jane, I also thank you for sharing this. I was sorry to have to realize this morning that this is 9/11, such a sad and frightening day of memory–I’d like to reclaim this day as something else somehow– but then I was very moved to read your post and get your firsthand account. I particularly find that a) you wanted to turn around early b) you found a taxi when most were unavailable c) you got a taxi driver who was middle-eastern, who wanted to express the desire for peace that most people have. You are blessed, indeed, and continue to bless others with sharing all of your gifts. This is one. Thanks again. Suzanne

  9. Thank you for sharing!! This day everyone will rember what they were doing when the terrorists hit. We were actually on a plane headed to Washington DC to visit friends. Needless to say we did not make it there!

  10. I found this today, on the eleventh anniversary of the tragedy. Your account was moving and very well-written and it gave me goose bumps. Thank you for writing this.

  11. Hi there_ I knew you and Rene were in NYC, but I had no idea you were there THEN! I just can’t believe it! That September was life changing. A family living locally in Ashland died in a plane crash and then 9/11 happened. I’ll never forget my Mom calling Tod and I from Michigan and telling us to drive home, NOW!

    Thanks for sharing your account.

    • I just looked up that plane crash. Wow. That must have been a challenging time for Ashland… Thanks for reading my post and I wish you so much love on this day of remembering. Love, SJ

  12. I was deeply touched by your account of what happened that day. Over in the UK, we also watched from our TV screens, unable to fathom the enormity of that catastrophe. Eleven years on and I am now a teacher, teaching pupils who were only 3 when the events happened.

    It is sad to say they had no grasp of it. No real understanding. But accounts like the one you have written have really helped them visualise it.

    If it is okay with you, can I use a section of your writing in my lesson? It would be great to get these kids to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

    Again, thank you for sharing what you went through that day.

    • Thank you for reading my 9/11 story. It’s still very strange to believe that I really saw that happen with my own eyes, but writing it out was very healing for me. I’d be happy for you to share it with your students, and I hope it helps them better understand the events of that day. Sincerely, Sarah Jane

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