My office, a block south of Grand Central, is empty except for one person when I arrive at a few minutes past nine on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I greet him as I go towards my desk and ask where everyone is.
Without taking his eyes from his monitor, he says casually, “Oh, they’re in the lunch room. Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center. If you look out the window, you can see the smoke.”
Walking the few feet to the window, I think how unlucky people in the WTC are. I remember the 1993 bombing and news footage of employees emerging from the building covered by something whitish. I remember the look of terror on some of their faces.
With many of its employees traumatized by the experience, my company made the bold decision to move from the thirteenth floor at One World Trade Center to the fifth floor of a building almost a world away on Park Avenue.
When I get to the window, I notice an unimpressive plume of smoke curling its way towards the sky. This had to be a small private plane or tour helicopter, I think. Several companies take tourists on helicopter tours of New York City everyday. One must have crashed.
I push the door to the lunchroom and that’s where everyone is, necks craned towards the television that’s anchored at about a 15-degree angle just below the ceiling.
A second plane has hit the Twin Towers and the footage is being shown over and over in a loop. Because of the way the television is positioned, when I look up, the plane seems to be heading straight towards us.
I’m almost paralyzed, transfixed by what I see. It’s beginning to dawn on me that something’s terribly wrong.
“Why fly two planes into the Twin Towers?” someone asks in bewilderment.
My colleagues, a mix of every ethnicity and religion, are rushing to the phones trying frantically to reach loved ones. The room buzzes with hysterical voices. Suddenly, it hits me: I don’t have anyone to call. Earlier this year, a significant relationship fell apart. And while I was figuring out how to move forward, I got news that my mother had died suddenly. I feel overwhelmed and utterly alone.
I return to my desk to try and occupy my mind with work when someone screams, “The Pentagon’s been hit! The Pentagon’s been hit!”
Who would fly a plane into the Pentagon of all places?
We rush back to the television to find out. One of our team leaders comes to the lunchroom and announces that management wants everyone at the main office a few blocks away. We gather up our things and assemble in front of the building. People spilling out of office buildings join hundreds more heading towards Grand Central Station to catch subways and trains.
As we wait for the rest of our group to arrive, I notice the cloudless sky was painted a brilliant blue. Towering all around us are skyscrapers full of glass. If a plane were to hit any of them, I think, we’d be dead.
Several people are reporting that Grand Central station is closed. I feel trapped and helpless and can’t control my tears. A team leader from another group puts his arm around me and I sob uncontrollably.
“I think you should go home,” he says.
I begin walking down 39th Street towards Lexington Avenue but have no idea how I’ll walk nearly 90 blocks wearing 3” high heels.
At St. Agnes Church, I stop. Most of the pews are filled but I find a place and sit quietly. It feels safe and as I listen to the priest intoning a homily, I felt at peace. I thank God that my mother isn’t alive to watch people jumping to their deaths to escape the inferno.
Forty-Fourth Street: Exiting the church, I head towards Third Avenue and make it on to a northbound bus that’s already overflowing with people. It moves less than a block and the lights change.
Above, helicopters buzz, cars honk their horns impatiently. The lights change four or five times. The bus doesn’t move. It can’t.
What if the helicopters decide to attack? Snarled in traffic, this articulated bus of maybe 130 people is a sitting duck. I have to get out!
Sixty-Ninth Street: The further I go, the less crowded and chaotic the streets are and the calmer I feel. Every few blocks, I look back to see what I left behind and if a bus is approaching. Several pass without stopping.
Eighty-Sixth Street: I envy the people in running shoes but I feel better when I see someone in bed slippers. My feet hurt but I don’t want to stop, not even for water. Each excruciating step brings me closer to home.
More than two hours later, I arrive at One Hundred Twenty Fifth Street: Except for taxis and a few emergency vehicles, the normally busy street is almost empty. The Harlem station on the Metro North commuter train line bound for Connecticut and points north of the city is abuzz with people.
I pass a group of men just as one, quoting Malcolm X, says emphatically, “Chickens come home to roost!” Another younger looking one spits back, “Shut the fuck up! You don’t know what the hell you talkin ‘bout.”
A young woman in business clothes walks towards me still covered in dust. I pass a few more in dusty clothes. They must have just been dropped off, I think.
I kick my shoes off as soon as I enter my apartment. I have no blisters. Several messages from family and friends fill my answering machine. I return the calls and offer friends and colleagues a place to stay.
All bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the boroughs (Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island and Queens), Westchester County, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut are now closed. One friend tries to get to her family in the Bronx but is let off the bus at its last stop – 125th Street.
I get wine and comfort food and we hunker down in front of the television. We switch from channel to channel, repeating whatever updates we hear, as if by saying them out loud we’ll be able to make sense of it all.
The next morning, I follow my routine. I get ready and head to the subway station and an almost empty train. Only a handful of people are at work and my boss says to go home, they’d let us know when to return.
The City That Never Sleeps is paralyzed. There’s an eerie calm to New York, like someone pulled the plug to its heart. I return home and wander aimlessly around my neighborhood trying to dispel the images of the day before, trying to will a sense of normalcy to return.
The attacks show me how dependent I’ve become on the subways. (Many people were trapped in subway cars that stopped at or were entering the WTC station the moment the buildings imploded.) I decide to find alternate ways to get home. I leave a pair of running shoes at work so that if I have to walk home again, I’ll be comfortable.
Our world changed forever on 9/11. We lost our innocence but not our resilience. My heart goes out to all the families who now live without their loves ones.