September 11- Ten Years? Still feels like yesterday

September 4, 2011

Next Sunday is what is now called “Patriot Day”. It’s not a federal or state holiday. Much like Pearl Harbor Day, it is a day to remember a horrific chapter in history.  Before I tell my story, I need to mention an article in today’s New York Times’ Business section. It’s an interview with the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. That company lost almost all of the New York staff on that day.  You can read it here.

So, where was I on September 11, 2001?

As everyone remembers, it was a clear, warm day. Summer not quite over yet. I lived in Jersey City NJ at the time, working in the Union Square area of Manhattan.

At 8:30, I was at my desk, proofing some orders, checking email–the usual stuff. I had a small radio on my desk, listening to the morning banter on WBLS. Suddenly, the banter stopped. The DJ announced a plane crash in Manhattan. At the World Trade Center. I stopped what I was doing, looked at the radio and thought,

“That pilot must’ve been drunk.”

I heard the sirens passing our building, headed downtown. Since we were just over a mile away, I didn’t panic. Went back to work, but kept an ear to the radio. PATH trains pass through the World Trade Center, so I knew getting home would be a bitch.

Little did I realize how much of a bitch it would be.

A few minutes later, the DJ’s made a frantic announcement. A second plane, into the second building. Both were now on fire. Everyone stopped what they were doing and headed to the reception area to watch CNN. And there it was.

Both towers on fire.

The sirens increased. Later on I realized some of those firemen that passed our building didn’t go home that day.

Our company president said we should stay put until more information came out. He told us to call loved ones, let them know we were okay.

Easier said than done. At this point, all the phone lines were either jammed or out of service. I kept dialing, knowing that my mom was most likely freaking out. Then I heard a yell from the reception area. Simultaneously, the dj yelled too.

The first tower fell.

I ran back to the reception desk, just in time to see the smoke rise. This time I stayed at the desk and silently willed the second tower to stay standing.

“Come on girl, don’t fall. Hang on, don’t fall, you got people in there, don’t fall.”

The second tower continued to burn. I dashed back to my desk and tried my mother’s number again. By sheer miracle, the call went through.

“You alright? Where are you?”

“I’m at the office, I’m fine. We’re going to evacuate soon, so I’ll call when I get home.”

“Okay, you’re not near there are you?”

“No, we’re about a mile or so away.”

“Okay. We can’t reach your cousin M.” (I’m only using her initial to respect my aunt’s privacy.)

I knew my cousin worked downtown, but that’s all. Mom’s neighbor had cable tv, so she went to Mom’s house and told her what happened. Mom’s tv was analog, so when the tower fell, the signal went out.

Then the dj started crying.

“The second tower just fell. Ladies and gentlemen we are under attack.”

My co-workers, watching on television started freaking out. I got back to the desk in time to see the other tower complete the collapse.

The collapse in itself was a final engineering feat–if the towers, one or both, fell forward instead folding downward, the people running away would have been killed, and all of the financial district destroyed.

On air reporters were crying, the radio deejay was crying. My co-workers were silent, some crying. Our company president said everyone should pack up and be ready to leave as soon as the evacuation route was announced. I give the man full credit, he was as calm as James Bond.

I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Then other news started coming out.

The Pentagon

The plane in Pennsylvania. Word started leaking that passengers made last calls from air phones saying they were hijacked.

No one knew where the President was.

Finally, I realized there was only one way off Manhattan. I said out loud, “We’re going to have to take the ferry to Jersey.”

Sure enough, the announcement was, no bus, no subway, no PATH. To get to NJ, only the 39th street ferry was running to Hoboken, after that on your own.

A group of us hiked from Union Square (which is 14th street) to 39th Street and 12th Avenue.  1 mile and change north, then 5 blocks west.  As we left the building, I turned and looked down Fifth Avenue.

It was a clear view of the smoke rising. On any other day you would see the Washington Square Arch, then the WTC in the background.

The ferry ride–all I could think was:

If I turn around and look, will I turn into a pillar of salt?

This was something that could only be thought of as a biblical proportion. How do two of the most solid buildings, (buildings that withstood storms, wind, snow) in the United States crumple to the ground? The smoke–there is no word for it. The best I can say is acrid. It was a mix of fire, oil, metal, hair, (yes I picked up a burning hair smell–who knows what it really was) and lord knows what else.

Well, I and everyone on that ferry knew what else.

People.

The people who didn’t make it out of the towers. The passengers and crew on the planes. The people on the ground that didn’t run fast enough and got hit with debris.

I turned around and looked. My stomach hurt.

Arriving in Hoboken, the ferry captain announced,

“If anyone on this boat was less than 1 mile from the WTC, please exit to your right.” The exit was monitored by men in hazmat gear.

I gladly exited left, hiked to the Newport Center Mall, found a jitney and headed home.

The next few days were a blur. The smoke stayed for months. The skyline didn’t exist. Rumors, facts and more rumors flew about as birds looking for worms.

My cousin was still missing. Television news had stories of families looking for loved ones, hospital triage units waiting for patients who never came.

There were no patients.

I spoke to my Uncle who finally informed me that M. worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 101st Floor.  I told my friends who were searching for news with me to stop.

M.was 28 years old, and was 2 weeks away from completing culinary training. She planned on starting a catering company. Her memorial service was one  of the largest services for any victim other than a firefighter.

That’s the only time I cried, just a little.  Every time I’m in Manhattan I keep looking for those towers. For years, I felt a twinge in my chest seeing nothing there but a hole. Every September 11, I listen to the reading of the names, waiting, making sure M’s name is announced.  I have to be certain she is not forgotten, just as the other 3000 people are not forgotten.

I will visit the new memorial, maybe in a few weeks. Not next week.

Next Sunday I will be at home, thinking of what happened, and how far we were able to come.

The best remembrance is to live our lives as best we can.

 

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