The healing that can grow out of the simple act of telling our stories is quite remarkable.
- Susan Witting Albert
It always happens the same way.
Towards the end of August, a quiet awareness starts to creep towards me. The end of the summer and its reminders inevitably pull me back towards the memories I promise myself I won’t buy into each year. But then, September arrives and with that, so does the media frenzy. I spend a large part of my time avoiding all “Remembering 9/11” segments at all costs and feeling a mixture of anger and guilt. The anger is because I want to forget and I wish the world would let me. The guilt, well that too comes from the fact that I want to forget and as the day gets closer and the buzz gets louder, I feel a mounting pressure to immerse myself in the pain and sadness along with everyone else.
Instead, I flip into creative mode because that’s what I do when I feel out of control. I walk around conjuring up ideas of what I’ll write about in relationship to my experiences; maybe there’s a lesson in it somewhere. And if I can find it and share, somehow, it will help myself and others heal. But, I never find the lesson and the day comes and goes and I’m sad because yet again, I was unable to make sense of such a tragic moment in my life and our history.
It’s been ten years and I’m still searching for answers. As usual, I’ve got something I’m working on, but I’m not sure I’ll be ready to share it. In the meantime, I’ve decided to post an account of my experience ten years ago. I wrote it a few years after and have never shared it in this space. It feels like the right thing to do and I encourage you all to share your stories here as well. Maybe there is no lesson; but the least we could do is honor the day that tore so many people apart and brought just as many together all at once.
In honor of that, I wish you all love, light and a peaceful heart as we all remember September 11th in our own way.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
I woke up around my usual time, 8am. Mondays and Tuesdays are my days off from working with Thomas. I did my usual thing - got out of bed, turned off the A/C in both the living room and bedroom. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. The kind of morning that makes you realize the Summer is over and Fall is on its way. I opened all the windows in the apartment to let the fresh air inside. I had to move my car by 9am, so I put some clothes on nylon breakaway pants, a white tank top and sneakers. It was too cold to wear flip-flops.
I came back upstairs from walking the dog and began to check my email with one eye on the clock because I had to move the car at 9am today for street cleaning. In the midst of this, I heard or felt on odd thing, that later would be described as a sonic blast. It was on odd feeling; the building felt like it shook for a second and I immediately felt a change in energy on the street below. I could actually hear exclamations of “oh my god” outside. Something had happened.
I’m not one to look out my window to see what’s going on if I hear sirens or screaming. It’s just not a very New York thing to do. Not because it’s uncool, but more because until that day, as a New Yorker, I’d pretty much seen it all so not much surprised me.
In spite of this, I felt compelled to get and look out the window and onto the street. There was a group of people standing outside looking up to the north at what I thought, was the building next to mine. The energy was so intense that my immediate thought was, “oh my god, someone must have jumped from the building next door.” I’m not a TV person, so the TV wasn’t on and I was winding down my daily computer log-on, so I had no clue what was going on. I just knew I had to go and move my car.
I went to grab coffee at the deli. Inside, people were talking about there being a fire at the World Trade Center. That’s all they said. From our side, nobody could see the plane flying into the tower as it came from the north. I got my coffee and ran into a neighbor. He was in the “alternate side of the street parking club”; one of those people that is out of work and able to sit in the car while the street is being cleaned. He told me about the fire and I said I’d run and get my car and park near him and we could see what’s going on.
Walking to my car, I had to pass the group of people that I’d seen gathered below on the street earlier from my window. I asked casually what was happening and someone said just as casually, “the Trade Center’s on fire”. I turned to look expecting to see what I always see when there’s a fire in a building in Manhattan smoke coming out of a couple of windows. Instead I saw a giant, gaping whole with flames coming out from the higher floors of the tower. I was momentarily shocked as I’d never really seen a fire up that close. But, again, at that moment, all it was to me was a fire. I spent a few minutes standing there and then was on my way.
I got into my car and wondered if street cleaning would be cancelled. Nonetheless, I wanted a spot closer to my building. I started the car and opened the sunroof. Just as I was putting the car into gear, I heard a loud noise that sounded like a plane coming in for a landing. It was loud and getting louder. I did the natural thing and looked up and there it was, the second plane above my head, so low that I swear I saw numbers on the belly of the plane. I followed that plane with my mouth open and eyes wide and watched it fly right into the second tower. All the while, I was thinking, “Holy shit, what the hell is going on with the radar?” I never once thought about terrorism. Until that day, I lived in a bubble. I liked it that way. It kept me innocent.
From that point on, all hell broke loose. I didn’t even bother moving my car. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. People were running all over my neighborhood toward the buildings. I parked it and got out and made my way back to my building. I remember seeing someone from the neighborhood running towards the World Trade Center. He looked terrified.
I’ve lived in Battery Park City, 2 blocks south of the World Trade Center since 1996. Over the years, I’d see people; ones that I’d never talk to you, but I still felt like I knew them. This one guy in particular that was running was one of those people that I’d never spoken to, but I knew him. I remembered the first time I saw him a few years back, walking a dog; then came the girlfriend; then came the stroller. On that day, as was he running towards the Trade Center, I was sickened by the thought that his wife might be in that building and how I was sure he was desperately trying to get to her. All I remember is the sick feeling I had watching him.
On my way back to the building, I saw my friend and neighbor, Renee. She had her dog, Prince, a rather large Golden Retriever whose been known to have a temper. She was hysterical and running with one shoe, a flip-flop. She was going on and on about how she saw the plane and how we were getting attacked. She asked me to run upstairs to get her some sneakers, just in case we had to run. I obliged thinking that she was totally overreacting. It was just the radars, how could we be getting attacked?
On my way upstairs, I ran into another friend from my floor. Stephanie was the mother of an 18 month old, Melissa. Her husband worked for the Electrician’s Union and was working way up in the Bronx in the Subway near Dykman Street. She was beside herself packing a diaper bag and getting stuff together for fear that we were going to have to run. Again, I was calm and perhaps in denial, but I was telling her it would all be fine. There was no reason to worry about running. What would we have to run from??
I went back downstairs to give Renee her shoes. We stood outside our building and watched the burning towers. And it was then, for the first time, I found out what people were saying had happened. I had my cell phone and I called my sister uptown at her office. She and her colleagues were watching it on TV. It was at that moment, I heard the name, “Osama Bin Laden” for the very first time. My sister was saying he was the guy Clinton okayed a bombing attack against in Afghanistan. All of it was news to me as I stood there watching the fire.
At some point during my conversation with my sister, I began to see things dropping out of the building. There were papers and small confetti-like items that had been coming down from the get-go, but these items were much larger in size and they were dropping as if they had some weight to them. At first, I thought it was furniture. I was telling my sister this and at the same time, I realized it was not furniture falling from the buildings. It was people jumping out of the windows.
There are so many things that I will never forget about that day. This is probably the deepest and most cutting memory of all. I remember cursing aloud to my sister that, “Oh fuck, there are people jumping from the building. I have to go.” I hung up abruptly and watched. I couldn’t tear myself from the painful sight of these people sailing through the air with their ties flapping in the wind. I just kept thinking, “My god, how horrible it must be up there to force them to jump from the 100th floor.”
I went upstairs to my apartment to see if my mother had called. I kept trying to call her, but I couldn’t get through on my cell phone. I got upstairs and still couldn’t reach her. There was a message from a friend of mine who lives in Atlanta wanting to know “what the hell was going on down there”. I remembered being annoyed because it sounded to me like she was trying to bank in on the sensationalistic vibe of the morning.
My phone rang and it was Tino. He and I had just broken up the week before. He worked in Rockefeller Center and wanted to know what was going on. I remember crying and telling him about seeing people jump out of the buildings. He told me to turn on the TV. That was when the Pentagon got hit. He was watching TV and saying, “OH my GOD, they hit the Pentagon. What the hell is going on?? I should get out of here (Rockefeller Center). What if they hit this next??” He hung up abruptly. I went back downstairs still trying to reach my mother.
I remembered Thomas, my friend and boss, who also lived in my building, at some point and I think I even tried to call him. I didn’t’ even think he’d be back from dropping his son off at school on the Upper East Side. I couldn’t’ get through to him either.
When I got downstairs, I found Renee and later Thomas and we all just stood there watching, in awe. It was bizarre at how difficult it was to tear ourselves away from it. There was still so much chaos on the street. The sirens, the running, it was so surreal.
The first tower fell while we were standing on the street. This is the second thing I will never forget. The sound of the building beginning to fall was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Like the sound the ocean waves make when they hit the shoreline, but louder and more powerful. A rumbling and then a crash. I felt the rumbling move up from my toes to my stomach. And then it was like slow motion, the tower fell, just like that. And for maybe a split second, there was total silence. The silence felt like death.
Within seconds, a huge cloud of what I thought was fire, came around the corner just 2 blocks south of us. It was moving in our direction at a rapid pace. People began to run toward us away from the “fire” and all I remember is seeing Thomas put up his hands to say, “Don’t run. Stay calm.” But then we realized we had to run too.
Renee and I grabbed one another’s hand and ran like hell. I remember running and thinking, “This is like a movie.” I kept waiting for the fire and the heat to touch the back of my neck. And for the first time that day, I truly thought I was going to die. I kept thinking about my poor dog, Rufus up in my apartment all alone and how nobody should have to die alone.
As we ran south, it became clear that it was not fire. It was smoke and debris from the tower. However, it was so thick that it was impossible to see in front of us. Renee was running right next to me, no more than a foot away, and I couldn’t even see her. I dropped her hand at some point and tried to turn around and run back to get Rufus. I was afraid he would suffocate from all of the stuff in the air. I couldn’t even see, though, and some random security guy wouldn’t’ let me go back. I remember thinking I would go to my car and get in there to get out of the smoke, but I couldn’t even see which direction to go towards.
The further South we ran, the better the air quality became. By this time, it had passed us by and we were still running, but we could see in front of us. At one point, I was able to take in the whole scene for a moment and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening. This doesn’t happen here. It happens in the movies or in other countries.” People were covered in gray dust. They looked like ghosts.
EMS was all over the place and the sirens were deafening. It was total chaos. We slowed down to a walk and a man walked up to me and told me I should keep my face covered as most people were doing so as not to breathe in the debris in the air. I looked at him and pointed to my tank top and said, “I can’t really take off my shirt to cover my mouth. What am I going to do, walk around in my bra??” And there it was: the first of many random acts of kindness that day. He removed his shirt and gave it to me to cover my mouth.
At the same time, I saw Stephanie running and struggling with Melissa and her stroller. I ran from the guy to Stephanie and she was saying how she couldn’t get Melissa to cover her mouth. I saw an EMS van that appeared to be taking people into an ambulance for shelter. I ran over to the guy and told him about Stephanie. He motioned for her to get into the van. He gave me four wet towels to cover my mouth. I didn’t’ even say good-bye to Stephanie.
Next, the most bizarre thing happened. We had settled down by the water near where people get on the boats to see the Statue of Liberty. The vendors were already out there as they get an early start. Apparently, one of the vendors tried to sell someone a bottle of water. One guy was outraged by this. He began yelling at the guy and I think he tried to push him into the Hudson River. The vendor was Muslim and had people known more about what was happening, this guy would have been killed. I’m sure of it. But we were all so in it; there was no time to put it all together. A cop broke it up and announced that nobody would pay for water.
From that point on, Thomas, Renee and I just stood there, waiting. There was speculation milling around us about the second tower falling and sure enough, it fell shortly after. We were told to get on the ground to avoid the thick smoke and debris from which we ran from earlier. We were coughing and covering our mouths. At the same time, the fighter jets began circling the city. Every other minute, one would fly by. It was eerie and definitely not a comfort.
We began to make our way back towards the neighborhood at some point. And, I swear every time I thought I’d seen the worst of the worst that day, it just kept getting worse. We ran into our friend Anthony who gave us those masks that painters wear to protect themselves from the fumes. And as we reached the edge of the neighborhood, there was a cop telling everyone to get on the boats for evacuation.
It turned out that there was a gas leak and my neighborhood was going to blow up. No one was allowed back into the neighborhood. I made my way up to the front of the crowd and told the cop that I had to go and get my dog. He wasn’t having it. He said, “Ma’am you CAN NOT get your dog. “ To which I replied, “But I have to get my dog.” To which he replied, “Ma’am. THE NEIGHBORHOOD IS GOING TO BLOW UP, YOU CAN NOT GO BACK AND GET YOUR DOG. NOW, GET ON THE BOAT.” To which I replied, “Fuck you.” I threw down my mask and water and ran probably the fastest I’d ever run in my entire life.
He, of course didn’t follow me. He had much bigger fish to fry. I heard Renee behind me telling me to wait. (Her dog was in the building as well) I yelled back at her to hurry up. When we reached our building, the outside doors were locked. We began pounding on the doors and Hector; our maintenance man wouldn’t open the door. He was motioning and yelling something that made me think he was ordered not to let anyone back in the building. At that point, I was starting to think about breaking the glass, when some woman, whom to this day, I still can’t recall, opened the door and let us inside.
The building was being evacuated as people were coming down the stairwell and exiting through the back door. Our Super, Luis, was standing at the bottom of the stairs with a flashlight since all electricity was out. We ran up the stairs against the others coming down and I vaguely remember Luis yelling up that he had to go. Suddenly, the light was gone and we were in the stairwell in complete darkness.
I’d forgotten to pay attention to which floor we were on and there was no way of knowing how much further up the stairs we had to go. I told Renee, who was behind me to stand by the door and keep it open while I looked to see what floor we were one. Of course, the only emergency light that was working was way down at the end of the hallway. I felt like I was racing against time as I ran down the hall to look at one of the apartment doors to see what floor we were on. 4H. Two more floors to go.
Back in the stairwell, Renee started to unravel. She was behind me saying that she just couldn’t go on any further. I stopped and began to coax her calmly to come closer to me and grab my waist and we would take the stairs together, one at a time. Of course in my head I was screaming, “Hurry up bitch, we are going to die!!” While I was saying aloud, “it’s okay. Good girl, we’re almost there.”
That was the second time that day I was sure I would die.
We got upstairs and agreed to get our dogs and meet right back at the stairs. I ran down the hall and opened the door expecting to find Rufus, lying there, dead. I don’t know why, but that’s what I expected. Of course, he was there wagging his tail. I didn’t really take in the whole scene inside my apartment. There wasn’t enough time. All I knew is that the place was covered with dust. I ran into my room and got my baseball hat, which oddly enough happened to be an “FDNY” hat.
I grabbed a flashlight from the closet, mentally thanking my parents for insisting that I always have one. I grabbed my cash out of the closet, the dog’s leash, the dog and that was it. I was leaving the apartment when I’d heard a distinct voice in my head say the following words, “Take your journal. You’re going to have a lot to write about”. I turned around and grabbed it along with my purse and ran down the hallway and back to the stairs.
I had my period that day. First day – heavy flow. I didn’t even think to take a tampon.
Renee was not at the stairs yet. I yelled for her to hurry and she came soon after. With my flashlight in hand, I began to run down the stairs with the dog as fast as I could. Renee was calling out to me and I stopped. Her dog, Prince wouldn’t go down the stairs.
Another moment I will never won’t forget.
It was as if there was an angel on one of my shoulders and a devil on the other. The angel, of course, was telling me to go back and help her, while the devil was telling me to save myself and forget her. I went back. That was the third time that day I thought I would die.
I gave her the flashlight and Rufus and told her to “GO!” and I would take care of Prince. I ended up giving him a big push down the first flight of stairs which thankfully, got him going. We reached the end of the stairs and switched dogs and ran out the back door to the boats to evacuate. It was like what I’d always imagined nuclear fallout to look like. The neighborhood was practically deserted. There was about 4 inches of ash on the street, burnt up papers and who knows what else everywhere, and the silence mixed with the constant scream of sirens.
We got to the water and were directed to get on a Police tugboat. The deck was extremely narrow and I had to carry Rufus, who weighs about 40 pounds. I was sure he would get freaked out and wriggle out of my arms and into the water, making me the reason we didn’t’ get out of there alive. Thankfully, he was still and we got onto the boat. Renee had to stay outside because Prince was too big to be inside the boat.
The cabin was small and people kept piling in. I wondered if the boat would sink and we’d all die anyway. But I made my way as far into the boat as I could. I sat on a bench that surrounded a table, with Rufus on my lap. It was total madness. People were screaming and crying. One couple was going on and on about how they had no insurance on their stuff. Their dog was barking and pissing people off. A heated argument ensued between the couple and another guy. A toddler was screaming and crying for her mother and I remember wondering if her mother had been in the World Trade Center.
I had Rufus on my lap and I just put my head down on him and tuned it all out. I went completely inside myself and began rocking back and forth and saying to him as well as to myself, “We’re okay. We’re okay.” I said this over and over again until we got across the river to New Jersey. As we left my neighborhood, I think the reality had begun to settle into my mind and I started to realize what I’d just been through. It was really all that I could do from losing it right then and there. The adrenaline rush was over and all I had left was the realization of my experience leading up to that moment.
As we reached Liberty State Park, I let everyone get off the boat. I was never one to push my way to the front and today was no different. As I was trying to get off the boat, a fireman reached out and asked if I’d needed help. This gesture of kindness did it for me. I began to shake and cry and just basically, lose it. He and some others helped me off the boat and I think they thought I was injured at first. Renee was there and thankfully strong enough o take care of me. We found a spot on the grass under a tree that, on any other day, would provide a peaceful and glorious view of lower Manhattan. But today, it was front seat to the burning remains of the World Trade Center and our homes.
We just sat there under that tree for a good two hours. Both of our phones had no cell service, so we couldn’t get in contact with anyone from our families. I went to see if I could find a pay phone at one point. I saw a guy whose boat was docked in the Marina and he was outside talking on a cordless landline. I was so desperate to talk to my parents that I walked over to him and basically begged him to let make a call. He obliged and I called my Dad’s office.
There was so much confusion that we really hadn’t even thought of what to do next. It was so sad. There must have been thousands of ambulances that had come from ALL over lined up and waiting to transport victims for treatment. But no one came. We watched the boats come and everyone anxiously stood there and waited as each boat came and went. It was truly heartbreaking.
Renee and I also looked for people from the building and our neighborhood.
We saw a few familiar faces, but no one that we really knew. It was eerie to sit there and wonder about our friends and neighbors and not know where they had ended up. I had gotten split up from Thomas earlier when I’d decided to run back for the dog, I remember looking back at him, meeting his eyes, each of us knowing that we may never see one another again. Later I had found out that he’d gotten up to the GW Bridge somehow and walked back into Manhattan to go and get his son at school.
At some point, our cell phone service returned and Renee and I started thinking about a plan. I spoke with my mother finally and found out that all main roads had been closed. A couple of firemen told us that people were being shuttled to Bayonne, NJ to stay overnight at a school that had been set up as a shelter. The thought of that made me sick. All I wanted was my mother and the reality that I couldn’t get to her was devastating.
Renee and I began to weigh our options. I knew nobody in New Jersey, although friends of my friends had all put out offers for us to stay with them. I really needed something familiar. The only option was Renee’s brother. He lived in Weehawken and had been trying for hours to get to us to pick us up, but all roads leading to where we were had been closed. Renee suggested walking. It was pretty far but I was more worried about finding the way than how long it would take.
We began to walk. Liberty Island is in Jersey City, so we had to walk through Jersey City to Hoboken to Weehawken. We had stopped to get a sandwich and water at some World Foods place on the way. I think that was my loneliest moment. I was sitting there while Renee was inside and I began to think about the harsh reality of my having no place to go. I was so tired and I felt so lost. My world had been completely shattered and I was sitting outside of some random store in New Jersey with nothing but my dog and the clothes on my back. I couldn’t get to my parents’ house. I had no idea what had become of my own home. It was too overwhelming to think about all at once.
We’d gotten the road towards Renee’s brother’s house around 2pm. We finally arrived at his place around 8:30pm. It never felt like 6.5 hours. We stopped a few times to give the dogs water. Our cell phone batteries were almost dead, so contact became limited. The plan was that I would call my parents when I got to Renee’s brother’s house and we’d see if the roads would be open by then. Of course, they weren’t, so I stayed the night.
I remember walking into his apartment and asking if we could turn on the television to see what had happened to us that day. We couldn’t leave the apartment complex, so we ended up making white rice for the dogs to eat. None of us were hungry, so we just sat there. Andy washed our clothes which I had no idea were so filthy. I had a slight rash from the stuff that had been all over me. I was able to recharge my phone with his charger and I spent a lot of time on the phone talking with friends and returning phone calls.
I didn’t sleep that night. I was exhausted, but I still I couldn’t sleep. The bed was unfamiliar, Rufus was antsy. There was just way too much to process and I think it was all milling around in my head.
The next morning, Renee and I took Rufus and Prince for their walks. I remember standing there on the Promenade, with Renee, just looking over at the cloud of smoke emanating from the place where the World Trade Center once stood. It’s hard to explain and understand unless you actually lived in that neighborhood. The World Trade Center had its own meaning to just about everyone in the World. For me and for Renee, it wasn’t a landmark or a pair of buildings that stood tall in the sky.
For us and our neighbors, it was home. It was my subway stop. It was the place I walked through at least 4 times a day. I did my banking there. It was the place I’d constantly complain about because it was always so damn cold with the A/C and all. It was where Christmas decorations would go up WAY too early, in my opinion. And finally, it was the thing I looked for to make sure I was traveling in the right direction towards home. I couldn’t believe it was gone.
Renee and I talked about what we were going to do. She thought about staying on with her brother or going upstate to her parents’ summer place. I was going to go and stay with my parents. We had arranged to meet somewhere in New Jersey later on that day. My mother and sister were going to meet us at Andy’s office to pick me up and take me back home. I have never in my life wanted my mother so much as I did on September 11th and the day to follow.
We stopped at Target to get some things. It’s funny how we had absolutely nothing. Putting my clothes back on after they were washed felt odd. At the time, I was sure that once I got some other clothes, I’d never wear that stuff again. Renee needed stuff to wear. I needed toiletries.
We arrived first to Andy’s office parking lot. I think my mom had gotten lost and he was on the phone trying to direct her. The anticipation was killing me. I just kept thinking that once I saw her I could let it all go completely. I could just cry and cry and I’d feel better. It wasn’t like I didn’t know Andy and of course, Renee. It was just the need to be in a place that was familiar and comfortable after so much struggle and discomfort.
They pulled into the parking lot and my heart leapt into my throat. The next moments are a complete blur to me. My sister and mother getting out of the car, I can recall. But, after that - nothing. The next thing I remember is sitting in the back of the car with the dog on my way back to my parents’ house. My sister was telling me that she’d packed a bag with some stuff for me to wear. My mom was saying something about food and me needing to eat. We established that Rufus needed dog food. I found out that my friend from college was coming over with clothes and stuff for me, later on.
I guess I was in shock. I don’t’ really know what being “in shock” is. I always thought that if you were in shock, you froze up and didn’t move. I was obviously moving, so in my mind I wasn’t in shock. Looking back, I’m sure that’s what it was coupled with exhaustion and an overwhelming need for silence. Though, silence in the months to follow, was the thing that kept bringing me back to that day.