As we try to get out of the building, the stairs are covered with smoke, we can’t breathe, it stinks, the air is heavy. In one of the floors we meet other office workers who give us wet paper towels to put around our mouth and nose, to avoid breathing the air directly.
We make our way down the stairs.
The lobby is packed with people “The police doesn’t let us leave. They say we can’t get out, no one can leave the building” We freak out. We DON’T WANT to stay here! Are they nuts? We want to run away! Are they crazy?? But the smoke outside was too dense, and the debris too dangerous to let us leave.
There was (conveniently enough) an Irish Pub attached to our building’s lobby. We open the door and go into the bar.
Cable TV is working there. The bar is packed, we see the news on TV. It’s early morning and people are drinking heavily already. Trisha, Mike and Paul all order some beers. I decide not to drink “if I have to run as fast as I can, I want to be able to do so.”
We sit down on the steps inside the bar leading to their private room. Everyone looks gloomy. Eyes are glued to the TV.
Then on the TV we see the second building collapsing. Instantly, all eyes move to the windows. People are running away faster than I have ever seen people running before. You know when you put a movie on fast forward? THAT fast. Within seconds, the windows get covered with smoke, we can’t see anything out, as if someone had blocked the windows with a huge piece of cardboard. People around me are sobbing and crying. So am I. The waiters come out and put down the night gates and they cover the seams of the windows with paper towels to prevent more smoke from coming in.
Paul desperately tries to call his brother who worked at building 5. “I hope he’s ok, what if something happened to him??” Cellphones still don’t work, and the payphone barely gets a call through, but everyone keeps trying to get in touch with their loved ones. “Thank god I talked to my mom, she knows I’m ok.” I think.
There were other news on TV. The Pentagon was attacked. A plane crashed in PA. There were reports of another half a dozen plane crashes (am I the only one who remembers this?) that later came out to be untrue.
By then we are too scared to leave. Our “little” 14-story building downtown was tiny by NY standards, definitely not at risk. Who knows what might happen if we walk out there?
I talk to other people in the bar. The woman who worked at the post office across the street. Remember how I saw people falling off the building? She was across the street, she saw them hitting the ground. Another one was in tears “how am I going to get back home? I left my office because they told us to evacuate now the building is gone, it’s gone! I have no ID, no money, no cellphone, I left my purse in the office. We were supposed to come back, but it’s gone.”
At around 1pm that day we finally decide to brave it and leave.
We leave the building and the ground is covered in powder. A whitish powder, at least an inch or two deep. There are papers all over the street. A lot of it half burned. One I remember to this day… It was an online printout from Yahoo Vacations about the Bahamas. My first thought was “will that person ever get to go on their vacation? Did the person who printed this survived?” I still wonder about that sometimes. I don’t remember a single one of the papers that I stepped over that day. But I never forgot the yahoo travel one.
The city was empty. We saw uniformed people with riffles at every corner. But New Yorkers? There weren’t a lot of them. I lived in the NYC area for almost 7 years. Even at 3 in the morning I never saw the city that quiet, that empty. I hope to never see it like that again.
Passing the Brooklyn Bridge, there were tons of people crossing over. Trisha said “maybe I should cross there” but Paul and I convinced her it was not worth it. What if there’s a bomb? Another attack? A bridge with hundreds of people would surely be a good target.
So we kept on walking up. Every few minutes or so, a jet would fly overheard. We’d freeze, heart pounding in our chests and slowly look up. It was one of us, one of the good guys. Nothing to worry about. So we would continue our walk uptown.
We walked more. And more. And more. All the while noticing people’s shoes. When we saw others with white dust covering their feet we would look at each other “they were there too.” As we reached uptown we started seeing more people, but the city, the city I loved, was still dead. As we passed by my school we all finally took a break to use the restroom, then kept on walking up. Aside from our pee break, we didn’t stop to eat or drink. At some point the subway reopened, but it was so crowded, we couldn’t even make it down the stairs.
We walked about 5 hours crossing the Queensboro Bridge, the bridge had re-opened to outbound traffic, so hopping over the lane divider, Trisha was able to get into a cab and went home. I hadn’t been tired until then, despite walking with 2″ heels and carrying my school backpack around (even my sunburned skin hadn’t bothered me), but by the time we reached the other side of the bridge, my legs start to give out. I can’t stand up straight anymore. Paul and I spent about 10 minutes trying to hail a cab then finally grabbed one to his grandparents place in Astoria, where we finally ate (none of us had eaten since breakfast, and since I usually ate breakfast in my office, I hadn’t eaten at all that day) then later got picked up by his parents. I talked to my parents. Paul heard from his brother (who had left as soon as the first building got hit and was home safe).
Our clothes stunk and the first thing we did was throw it into the wash. I stayed the night at Paul’s parents (there was no way for me to get back to NJ the day of the attack since Port Authority, where I got my bus, and the Lincoln Tunnel, my way out, were both closed). I couldn’t sleep. Next morning all I wanted to do was go home. Wanted to feel safe, be in my space. So I took the subway back, then grabbed a ferry across the river (still no buses). Got to the other side, and though my car was in Weehawken, it was in nowhere walking distance from the Weehawken ferry. Found some strangers to drop me off by my car. (On a side note, if you’re ever by the Lincoln Tunnel, a stop at Weehawken, which has one of the best views of the NYC skyline, is definitely worth it.)
Later I heard there were hundreds of cars at the Ferry parking lot that never got picked up. How can hearing something like that not break your heart?
I didn’t sleep that night either. I was still in shock. I had never been afraid to die before, and for a while, I really didn’t think I would make it past that morning. For the whole day my emotions went from scared shitless to disbelief “this can’t be happening” – it felt like I was participating in a movie, but someone had forgotten to inform me of the plot. It was very surreal. But every time it hit me once more that it was true, fear would creep up again.
I had class that Thursday, and I remember in my shock state not being able to pay attention. “How can these people be here and act normal after all that happened?” That night my Corporate Finance professor for the first time ever took attendance “I know I promised you guys I didn’t care about attendance, but we already have a report that someone on this class is missing, and we need to find out if we have more students missing.”
The Salvation Army building was a couple of blocks from my school. That day it was already covered with thousands of fliers with pictures of missing people. I’m sure everyone saw those images on TV, of the brick wall covered in pictures and posters. I passed by it daily.
Nassau St, where I worked, reopened the following Monday and we went back to work. I used to get paid by the hour then, but my boss informed all of us that we would get our full salary as if we had worked, even though none of us had worked since Tuesday (how can something like this not warm up your heart?). Since we had left, our phones and internet had lost connection, apparently, once the Towers collapsed, the whole system went down. The first thing I did that morning was go to Verizon and get a cellphone for the office, where all are calls were being transferred to. It took a month and a half before phone and internet services were restored to that area. Because we were providers for a lot of our clients, our servers had to be moved outside of NYC during that time.
My usual subway stop did not reopen until many months later, and every morning arriving downtown in the subway I could smell the stench. Every.single.morning. I’m sure I’m one of those people that years later will suffer from inhaling that smoke at least 8 hours a day. I can’t even describe the smell, it is not something I had smelled before, and not something I likely will ever smell again, but it’s a smell that all of us who were downtown that day, and worked downtown during those months became very familiar with. For the first couple of weeks, I could smell it coming out of the subway on 23rd street on my way to school as well, even though my school was miles away. We got used to it during the day, and we didn’t notice it until the next morning, coming out of the subway. It was right before Christmas the first time I got off the train and noticed that the air no longer smelled. From what we later heard, that was when all the last fires were finally put out.
For a couple of weeks after the attacks (probably longer) I was depressed. I was afraid. I could think of a thousand different ways for other attacks in NYC. Traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel was horrible checking every truck and van that passed by (never cars, who said cars couldn’t carry bombs?? The thought would freak me out).
Then I decided that if I let the attacks scare my life and make me live depressed and in fear the terrorists will have won. So I “snapped out of it” and decided that, in name of all the people that died that day, those of us who survived should make the best of it. Since they won’t have a chance to live, well, isn’t it our job to live a happy life in their name?
My birthday was a mere 7 days later, and it was awful. My boyfriend had gotten depressed, and months later he was still like that “how can you be happy when so many people died?” Explaining to him that I was defeating the terrorists, not letting them win, went into deaf ears. His office was transferred to White Plains. One Liberty Plaza, or more exactly the Brooks Brother store in the lobby of his building was made into the morgue. For a while they were afraid his building might also fall, I remember receiving emails online with the picture of the building, and it looked like it was slanted.
In the following January, One Liberty Plaza reopened, and his company moved back. He quit his job then, he couldn’t work in what once had been a morgue. We broke up a year after the attacks, and he was still not over it, he still couldn’t go back to who he was before the attacks, he refused to allow himself to be happy, as if he didn’t deserve it.
Had the attacks happened at lunch time, I would have been at the mall downstairs in the lower level, in Banana Republic to be exact. That was our lunch plan for that day. The mall always filled with people from nearby offices – the death toll would have been even greater if the attacks had been during midday, and it was likely I would have been one of them.
Luckily I didn’t know anyone who died. But I knew too many stories, I knew too many people who knew people who died. These are some of the stories I remember:
One of my friends from school lost a cousin. They never found his body.
The school crossing guard by my bus stop pointed a house to me and said “he was running late that day, I remember he was talking about it while waiting for the bus. If he had arrived in time, he would been dead today, he worked right on the floor where the first plane hit.”
One of my friends from school had the day off, and her husband decided to call in “sick” so they could spend the day together. He worked on one of the floors above the plane crash. They turned the phones off and slept late until past 11am. She woke up and his pager had tons of messages asking “are you ok?” She turned on the TV and couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She ran to the window and both towers were long gone, and smoke took their place.
One of my friends brother worked in the 75th floor of the first building that got hit. He then started running down the stairs. By the time he got out, the first Tower had already collapsed (if you remember, the second Tower to get hit, was the first one to fall). Within 5 minutes his building fell. He didn’t even have an injury. It wasn’t his day to go. (This is one of my favorite stories, by the way.)
One of my classmate’s sister worked at the Verizon building nearby and was running away with her coworker. She tripped and fell. Her coworker stopped to wait for her, and while she was getting up a piece of concrete fell on her coworkers head, killing her on the spot. The girl couldn’t get over the fact that it was her fault that her coworker got killed, if only she hadn’t tripped, she’d be alive today.
I heard tons of other stories like this. Some with a happy ending, others not as much.
Today when I tell the story, even while typing this, I’m completely detached from it. My heart always breaks a little when 9/11 rolls around, but I don’t let myself get back to that place, get to that dark place again. I remember how hard it was to keep on living after going through that, and I refuse to let myself go back there, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to come out again and move on. So I tell the story without emotions, as if it was a movie I’ve seen. I’m not being cold about it, I’m just trying to keep on living and be happy, the same way I promised myself I would, in name of all that died that day.
Sometimes emotion overcomes me, but I don’t let it get to me too much and I refuse to let it stick around. The first time I went shopping at Century 21, months after the attack, and I came out from the wrong door facing the boards around Ground Zero, tears started rolling down. When I saw the movie “World Trade Center” a couple of years ago I cried the whole time.
U2 went on tour in 2001, and in October they came back to NYC, I saw them at Continental Airlines Arena. They came back to NYC because of the attacks. That day, they had visited Ground Zero. Bono went to the front of the stage and kneeled and cried. The names of everyone who died showed up on the screen behind them. I cried, so did most people at that concert.
Remember that documentary that came out from French guys (I think) that were filming while the Towers were on fire? I taped it, and 8 years later I still don’t have the courage to watch it. The tape is here in my apartment somewhere. I don’t think I’ll ever watch it.
I’ve taken friends around NYC many times. (I claim to be the best NYC tour guide ever — really!) They always stop at Ground Zero. I still refuse to look, I don’t take pictures, I just can’t bear it. That’s how I cope.
When I received my t-shirt from the 9/11 Race in 2007 and saw the Pentagon symbol with the drawing of the Towers, I shed some tears too. But they were quick. And I force myself to push those memories to the back of my mind. Today, I’m still keeping those memories at the back of my mind. As if it was a movie I saw, or someone else’s story.
It took me 6 years to first write all the details down, but people always ask me to tell the story. But there’s no way I let myself go back to that place. Momentary relapses? Those are inevitable. But that’s as much as I allow myself to do. Because at the end of the day life goes on, and if you stop, then the terrorists will have won. But they won’t win because of me. They definitely won’t win because of me.