Eight years ago today, I was stepping out of my Manhattan hotel room into a picture perfect morning. Walking to catch the subway and thinking about how much I love New York City. For this city girl, NYC is the ultimate and I was loving every minute I had left there.
Eight years ago today, I sat on the subway on my way to my new job’s offices a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. The train stopped, the doors didn’t open, and then…it sat there. Grumbling from the New Yorkers, what the hell is the problem, we gotta get MOVING here! The conductor’s voice comes through the speakers and says we’re not letting anyone off or on at this stop, there’s been a bomb threat. The train will continue on to it’s last stop, the Wall Street Station, and let everyone off there.
Adrenaline rushes through me, that “fight or flight” instinct that says “Get the hell out of here” but you can’t go anywhere because you’re on a locked train underground. Then I see that the New Yorkers around me are so unimpressed, I hear mutterings, “A bomb threat, what else is new?”, so jaded and unconcerned and so I calm myself. Breathe. Try to relax.
Eight years ago today, I emerged from the subway at the Wall Street Station stop. We could smell the fire before we got up to the street, and as we came out of the subway, a snowfall of paper fluttering down from the sky. Looking up we can see that one of the towers of the WTC is on fire, a gaping hole pouring smoke and billowing paper out into the sky. My heart clenches as I realize that there are people up there who went off to work just like I did this morning, marveling at the perfect day; they got to work, talked to their coworkers on the way to their desks, got some coffee, sat down at their desks…and now they’re dead. I can’t stop watching the burning tower. At this point it appears to be a tragic accident, and there’s lots of speculation about what it could be since we can’t even see that there’s a plane lodged in the building.
I start walking toward where my company’s offices are, though I’m a little lost because I’m not sure which way Broadway is. By the time I get there, the second plane has hit and suddenly people are running past me on the street, away from the World Trade Center, there is panic because now it hits us…we are under attack. From where I am on Broadway I can’t see the WTC, too many skyscrapers between us, but it is right there a couple of blocks away. My mind went blank after that second plane and the ensuing panic…I had no idea what to do. Instinctively, I knew that what I wouldn’t do was go into any tall building. So I stood out in front of the building that my company’s offices were in. Stood there, not knowing what to do, overwhelmed by the feeling of panic and shock that was palpable because we ALL felt it. Collective despair. I hope to never feel that again in my entire life.
I stood there, trying to call my boss up on the 14th floor of the building from my now useless cell phone. No phones, no transportation, no idea what was going to happen next. I wanted to tell him I was ok, I was outside, I couldn’t come in because…well, because planes were hitting tall buildings and I just couldn’t. Couldn’t get into the elevator and endure the ride up 14 floors, put myself willingly into a skyscraper that was, as they all were in our minds, a target.
There was a front entrance and a back entrance to the building. I walked through the building from the front entrance and out the back entrance, and dear God please help us, there were the twin towers. There were people jumping, unbearable to watch as people chose certain death over what was happening up there. I turned my back and wept, I felt it was disrespectful to watch them falling, a voyeur…but it was also too much for me to handle.
I’m not a New Yorker, I was supposed to fly back home that day. I knew nobody except the coworkers I’d met just the day before when I arrived, I had just started this job and was there for some training. As I stood there, I saw one of those coworkers I’d just met come outside, she was going for coffee. So surreal to me…how can people go for coffee? She saw me, asked me what I was doing down there, urged me to come inside with her. I said no, I’m fine, please just tell Dave I’m fine and I’m going to go to the airport and go home, I can’t come upstairs. Reason was not with me, there was no way to get anywhere. She finally was able to convince me that I would be safer upstairs, got me into that elevator. Thank you, Jasmine…for all the horror of that day, you saved me from being trapped on the street when the North tower fell not five minutes later.
Upstairs on the 14th floor, I am floored by the fact that everyone is working as if it’s just another day. I am not a person who falls apart, but I sat down in my boss’s office and lost it for a minute. Didn’t they know what was going on? But you couldn’t see, from inside the office because of all the buildings and being only on the 14th floor, the WTC. There were no TVs in the office. And New Yorkers are tough, the WTC had been bombed before and life went on. You don’t stop what you’re doing just because the WTC is on fire. But it kind of broke me, coming from downstairs to see the “life goes on” scene being played out.
My boss left me alone to gather my composure, you know men don’t know what the hell to do when women cry. I sat there, and suddenly I felt and heard this rumble. For a second I thought it was the building air conditioning kicking on, but then it got louder and stronger and louder and stronger…indescribable. The entire office panicked, people jumped up from their desks. I ran out of my boss’s office, I am sure I yelled something, I kept going out the door to where the elevators were. The entire time, the rumbling and shaking is going on and on and on, and we don’t know what it is. We just know we have to get out of there. People start pressing the elevator buttons and I yelled at them not to go in the elevator, opened the stairwell door and started down. Fast. Everyone followed me. I don’t think it took us five minutes to get down those 14 flights of stairs.
In the lobby. It’s plate glass, doors and walls, and it may as well have been midnight because outside it is black. Black, thick, choking smoke and dust, what is it? What happened? Building security locked the doors, front and back, and all I could think was how can they do that, how will people get in, there are people on the street, HOW CAN YOU LOCK THEM OUT?!? And lock us in, too…because that smoke and dust was pouring into the lobby through the cracks and I thought, the bomb didn’t get us but we’re all going to suffocate in this goddamn lobby. I remember seeing one of the guys from the office, a coworker…a big black guy who to me at that moment represented some sense of security, how we fool ourselves. But he reminded in some small way of my husband, my new husband, we’d been married three months by then…and I wanted to lay my head on his chest and wail. I think I asked him what we were going to do and he said “It’s going to be ok”. And you know that it’s really not but hearing the words helps somehow, helps me calm myself. Because this isn’t the time to be falling apart and weeping and wailing.
We just waited, it must have been about ten minutes. Suddenly a guy from building security told us that the building was being evacuated, we would have to leave, go out the back door. From fearing death by suffocation in that lobby to being told we have to go out there…go where? It’s faded from pitch black to gray outside, you still can’t see, and they are herding us out the back door. Surrounded by people, I have never felt so alone in my entire life.
I stepped out into the aftermath of a 100 story building collapse, it looked like nuclear winter. Dust hung in the air, debris thick on the ground. I was wearing contacts and I knew immediately that within a minute or so I wouldn’t be able to see, so I flicked them out of my eyes as I walked. I had one of those small packages of Kleenex in my purse, I put one over my nose and mouth because you could feel that dust every time you took a breath going into your nose, your mouth, your lungs. Saw other people walking without anything to cover and gave them Kleenex. We didn’t talk, what was there to say? Just walk, get away from here, and the police and firefighters on the street to tell us where to go because it was like walking in a thick, thick fog, you couldn’t see. I wish that I’d hugged one of them, said thank you, but we were too traumatized to do anything but go in the direction they told us to go. They were so brave that day. They are our true heroes.
As we get further from the WTC, the air begins to clear. We are walking and I’m looking up at the skyscrapers on all sides of us and the fear is like a living thing. Any one of them could come tumbling down at any moment, blow up, there is no safety and we know it now. We get to the waterfront, where the fishmarkets are, and the fishmarket workers are holding out their hoses to us so we can get a drink of water, they want to help. A drink of water from a dirty hose has never tasted so good. We lock eyes, say nothing…nothing needs to be said.
We come to the bridges, people are streaming across the brigdes, a wave of humanity. I am terrified for them as they walk across because what if they blow up the bridges? I want to yell at them not to go that way but they live over there, it’s the only way to get home. I follow them with my eyes instead, pray them safe though I doubt my prayers are heard.
I walk and walk and walk. I have a little map of Manhattan, I keep looking at it, asking people along the way if I’m heading in the right direction to get to the Empire State Building. My hotel is there and even though I’d checked out, I left my luggage. I was going to pick it up on my way to the airport after I went to the office. After a few hours of walking, I finally arrive at my hotel. I walk into the lobby and the manager says “We’re closed, they’re closing a five block radius around the Empire State Building”. I am spent, I don’t have the energy or will to go anywhere else, nor any idea where else to go. I tell him that I just walked from the WTC, that my luggage is here, and that unless he kicks me out, I’m sitting right here in the lobby. The hotel reopens within minutes; I go to the front desk and ask for my room back. The clerk says “The rooms haven’t been cleaned yet”, and I have no idea what to say to that. I said, please just give me back the same room I had, I don’t care if it’s clean. They do.
I close the door to my hotel room. I fall on my knees beside the bed, wailing. I call my husband, who I could see while I was walking kept trying to call me but I couldn’t answer because phones didn’t work, and he doesn’t answer. I leave a rather hysterical message because I need to talk to him, I need to get home but there is no way to get off Manhattan. I turn on the TV and watch the mayor, I am numb. I am able to get online and contact my friend Julia, who lives in NJ, who’d brought me into the city Monday morning. I’d stayed the weekend with her. She was supposed to be at the WTC this morning but thank God she was not. She pours strength and love over the instant message screen to me, we make a plan for me to get back to NJ the next day.
I get to NJ. I finally give up waiting for the airports to reopen, rent a car, and drive back to Houston. I will save the aftermath for another post…thanks for reading if you’re still here. Never forget.