Standing outside my office building before my workday starts, like I do every day just to think and watch people and settle in for the day ahead. Clear blue sky, kind of cool out which is radical for this city of 90% humidity all summer long. It’s an absolutely gorgeous morning. And the thought that pops into my head unbidden is “Clear blue sky doesn’t mean nothing horrible will happen today.”. I stand there gazing at the sky a moment longer, shake it off, and head inside to grab a latte’ and get to work.
Thoughts like this pop into my head often because one day, seven years ago, I was standing on a Manhattan street after stepping out of my hotel. It was a breathtakingly beautiful morning, I was in NYC, I was taking the subway which was a big deal to me because the day before I hadn’t a clue how to get anywhere on it and now I was all “I can just hop on the subway”, but mostly I WAS IN NYC. Which if you’re a big city girl like me is just the most exciting city to be in, let alone on such an awesome day. I was heading home later that day but I still had the morning and I was making the most of it. I was also a newlywed of just a few months, and so I had that happy newlywed glow thing going on, too…the world was mine.
So I sat on the subway train with this excitement bubbling in me just to be where I was. The train stopped. Nobody got off or on. It sat there. The conductor came on and said that they weren’t letting anyone on or off the train at this stop because there had been a bomb threat, and my heart leapt into my throat, instant adrenaline. But then all the New Yorkers sitting around me on the subway started complaining and rolling their eyes, “Ah, another bomb threat!”, as if that happens every day, so I relaxed a little. I said to myself, “Freaking out will not do you any good, you’re on the train and you’re not getting off until you get off so JUST STOP IT.”. And I stopped it as much as I was able but I was still really tense, not wanting to be in a tunnel underground when a bomb might go off.
We got to the next stop, which was the Wall Street Station and my stop, and they let everyone off the train. As we emerged up into the light of day, you could smell the fire. Paper fluttered down from high above…one of the towers of the World Trade Center was on fire, smoke was pouring from a gaping hole near the top, and papers from the offices in the building were drifting down onto the street. It was surreal, it was horrifying, it was incredibly sad because those papers…someone just like me had gone to work that morning, in their office high above the street, and now they were dead. I knew, looking at that hole pouring smoke and fire, that people had died up there a few moments before.
Fire trucks were racing down Broadway to the WTC, people were talking, I could hear the speculation around me that a plane had hit the building, that it was an explosion, etc. Nobody was panicking but people were shocked. Nobody thought it was an attack, we all thought it was a horrible accident. You couldn’t SEE an airplane, whatever had hit the building was completely inside the building so it was impossible to know then what it was. I began walking down Broadway toward the offices of the company I worked for. I had only started this job on Sept. 1st, I was just there for training at the corporate office which was a couple of blocks from the WTC.
By the time I got to the building our office was in, people were running past me up the street. Now there was panic…the plane had hit the second tower and now we knew that it was a deliberate attack. I went into a kind of shock, standing there on the street in a city not my own, where I really didn’t know anyone (I’d just met my coworkers the day before), with people panicking all around me. I couldn’t make myself go into the skyscraper that the company’s office was in. I couldn’t. Planes were hitting skyscrapers and I wasn’t going into one. I thought that I’d just go back to the hotel and get my bags and go to the airport to go home, not realizing that all routes into and out of the city were being shut down and there was no way for me to get anywhere. I just stood there for a while, feeling very alone and afraid, not having a clue what I should do.
The office building that our offices were in had a front entrance on Broadway, and a back entrance on another street. On the Broadway side where I was standing, you couldn’t see the World Trade Center. I walked through the building and out the other side and God help us, there were the two towers of the World Trade Center looming a couple of blocks away, black smoke pouring out of them where the planes had hit. I cannot describe the feeling of utter despair that gripped me as I watched them burn. I cannot describe the grief and horror that washed over me as I stood there and saw people jumping to escape the living hell that life had become in one split second. That jumping to certain death was preferable to what was happening up there was too sad. Tears sprang to my eyes and I turned my back on the sight. I wish I had been strong enough to watch the jumpers, to do that much…watch them down, pray them down, be a witness to the last desperate moments of their lives.
I looked around me at the other people on the street. People were weeping, people were stunned and silent, some people didn’t seem too fazed by it. As I was standing there, one of my coworkers that I’d met the day before saw me and asked what I was doing. Her name was Jasmine, in my whole life I’ll never forget that woman. I told her that I wasn’t going inside the building (our office was on the 14th floor), asked her to please tell our boss that I was fine, I was just going to go back to the hotel and get my bags and go home. She urged me to come inside with her, and I declined. She assured me that I’d be fine, nothing would happen, that I would be safer inside than on the street, and finally I went with her. Into the lobby, waiting for the elevator, not knowing how I’d endure the ride…my anxiety level was off the charts about getting into that elevator. We got off, went into the offices, and I was floored to see everyone going on with their workday like nothing had happened. I couldn’t comprehend how this was possible, didn’t they know? But these were New Yorkers, the WTC had been bombed before, and there were also no televisions in there, and no view of the towers. I think at that moment they really DIDN’T know how severe the damage was, or the carnage that was going on down at street level. But it was very hard for me to be so wrecked and see everyone just…getting on with it.
My new boss took me into his office to sit down, left me alone to gather my wits about me. I sat in his office trying to get my emotions under control, not wanting to talk to anyone. As I sat there, this rumbling started. For a second I thought it was the air conditioning kicking on. Then it got louder, and you could feel it. OHMYGOD, what the hell was it?!? I jumped up and ran out into the common area, everyone was freaking out now, people were screaming and heading for the door. I saw people heading for the elevator and yelled “Don’t go on the elevator!”, and ran for the stairwell. People followed me, we raced down the stairwell, I don’t remember how long it took to go down 14 floors, probably about five minutes at the rate we were going.
When we got to the lobby level it was full of other people who worked in the building. The lobby was all clear plate glass including the doors. All we could see outside was black, black smoke and dust, and it was seeping into the lobby through the door cracks. We had no idea what had happened. Did another plane hit another building? Had a bomb gone off? I walked back and forth, I couldn’t stand still, “fight or flight” adrenaline pumping through my veins. And nothing to do, no way to flee. I remember running into another new coworker, he held onto my arms to calm me and said everything will be fine. I looked up at him; big, strong guy, GOD I wanted to believe him, wanted to collapse into his arms and cry my heart out. But this wasn’t the time to dissolve into a sobbing mass, and no guy, no matter how big and strong, could fix this or “save” me. The world was tilting, crazy incomprehensible shit was happening, and I needed to keep my wits about me. I remember thinking to myself that we had survived whatever was happening outside, and now we were going to be suffocated to death by the smoke and dust that was filling the lobby from outside because security had locked the doors, nobody could get in or out. I have no idea what the hell they were thinking when they did that, people on the street needed to get in out of that hell. Then I reasoned that with all the big strong guys in that lobby, one of them would use a chair or whatever was at hand to break the plate glass windows if necessary for us to get out. But get out to what? Who wanted to walk out into what resembled the after-effects of a nuclear war?
Suddenly, security announced that the building was being evacuated and we all needed to leave. Huh? Where were we supposed to go? I went from wanting to get out to being terrified of what awaited us out there. They directed us to the doors at the back of the building. I was so scared, and so alone…I don’t know where the people I worked with who’d run down the stairs with me were. I stepped out of the building into a gray landscape of debris so thick in the air that you could barely breathe. Everything was covered in it. I was wearing contacts and I realized that if I didn’t get rid of them, I’d soon be unable to see at all so I flicked them out of my eyes onto the ground as I walked. Every breath I took I could feel whatever was in the air coating the inside of my nose, and I grabbed a tissue out of my bag and held it over my nose and mouth to try to filter that stuff out. As we walked (I was not alone, there were a lot of us walking that walk that morning), NY firefighters and police on the street directed us where to go because otherwise we’d have just wandered blindly…the city landscape was unrecognizable under the covering of the ruins of the first tower to fall. Those guys were out there the whole time, doing their job…protect and serve. I don’t know why they do it, I don’t know how they do it, but I will be eternally grateful that they do.
We walked. And walked and walked and walked. People helped each other along, the people who had been outside when the building came crashing down were covered from head to foot in the debris, some of them were badly hurt. I looked up at the skyscrapers surrounding us as we walked, and wondered if another plane was coming, if one of them would fall on us as we walked. We got down to the riverfront, where the fishmarkets are, and the fishmarket workers were outside with hoses offering us water to drink. I took a drink from that dirty fishmarket hose and I swear no water ever tasted so good.
I walked back to my hotel using a little map of Manhattan to guide me, asking people along the way if I was headed in the right direction. Took me about three hours to get there on foot. My hotel was very close to the Empire State Building, and when I walked in the lobby, shell-shocked from the horror of the day, the manager told me that the hotel was closing, that the entire area in a five block radius of the Empire State Building was being evacuated in case of another attack. I just stared at him for a minute. I told him I’d just walked from the WTC, that I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I asked if I could get to my bags so that I could change my shirt. Then I went and sat in the lobby, deciding that I wasn’t moving unless they kicked me out. While I sat there, they decided to reopen the hotel. I asked for my room back and they said it hadn’t been cleaned yet. I wanted to scream at them I DON’T CARE IF IT’S CLEAN OR NOT JUST GIVE ME BACK MY DAMN ROOM! It’s funny how on a day where everything is crumbling around you, people still try to act like everything’s normal and things like whether or not a room is clean are actually important.
They gave me my room back. I closed the door behind me, fell down on my knees and wailed to God. It was hours before I was able to get in touch with my husband, who had no idea if I was dead or alive or what.
So. Clear blue sky doesn’t mean nothing horrible will happen today. I’m hopeful, though.