Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11, 2001

I'm not sure I can do this story justice. I'm not sure I can capture the essence of this day, 8 years ago. This photograph -- with New York City's skyline (no towers) gracing the horizon -- was taken recently from Long Island's Levy Preserve in Merrick. I live closer to NYC than this. And, I was working just one mile north of Ground Zero, in the heart of NYC, on September 11, 2001.

This day of remembering has come around 7 times since living through the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Each time it does, my emotional response catches me by surprise. No, my life is not the same as it was before September 11, 2001. Dare I say that no American's life is the same before that fateful day. I'm sure my life is less changed than the lives of the family members of the 2,752 victims -- innocent people -- that lost theirs that day. I'm sure my life is less changed than those that were there at Ground Zero, running down the stairs of the 2nd tower as the first collapsed. "Survivors!" Less changed than the police officers and firemen that responded and lived to tell about it -- some for only a short time, ultimately dying painfully of exposure-inflicted illnesses. But, my life is significantly changed too. Significantly.

I was a corporate marketing technology executive working in lower mid-town Manhattan in a beautiful old NYC building across the park from the landmark Flat Iron Building on 23rd and Broadway. My office windows faced downtown. I loved the view of the gold domed clock tower on 14th street and the triangular Flat Iron building just outside my windows. I was 8 1/2 months pregnant on September 11, 2001, excitedly expecting my first child.

I'd woken up early as the result of a disturbing dream -- there was a huge forest fire and the animals had all climbed up into the trees to escape the spreading fire. They were screeching and screaming for help because they were now trapped in the tree tops with no way down. But, the fire and heat were too fierce and I could not help them. I could only watch and listen to their woeful screams as the fire engulfed them. I woke upset. On my daily commute into NYC -- which I shared with my sister -- I was retelling the nightmare during our usual fast-paced trek down and across town. As we made our right onto Broadway every one fell silent... a HUGE jet airplane flew overhead, engines roaring, as though it were about to set down right there in front of us. Using Broadway as its runway. I don't know if I ever realized that planes do not fly over Manhattan until that moment when I -- along with every other New Yorker on the street -- stopped and stared in disbelief. My sister said quietly, "that's going to hit something." In the few seconds it took to disappear from sight -- behind the myriad of tall buildings, the trademark of NYC -- everything and every one was frozen in time. Then, life in the Big Apple continued. We reached my building and I bid my sister goodbye. I showed my identification to building security and made my way up to our corporate offices. There in our lobby, a large crowd was gathered around each of several television monitors mounted throughout the waiting area. I listened. I saw. I heard. That plane -- the plane my sister and I had seen flying down Broadway -- had flown right into the World Trade Center. Some of my colleagues were speculating that it was a small sized plane and I corrected them, quickly asserting that we'd just seen that very jet plane fly down Broadway not 5 minutes earlier.

I wandered to my desk listening to people voicing more and more absurd theories. Among them, "a terrorist attack." I did not, would not, could not think it true. And then the second plane crashed into the second tower. A colleague postulated that the pilot must have accidentally veered into the second tower while watching the commotion in the first... as if flying a plane was like changing lanes in an automobile. No. That couldn't be it! What was happening? A terrorist act quickly becoming the only plausible answer. My mind went blank. BLANK. I could not think. What was going on and why? The monitors showed the lower Manhattan skyline shrouded in smoke, both towers ablaze.

I can see the two pillars of smoke rising up above the roof top of the building next to mine. I can smell the smoke. I can hear the sirens to the north of me, to the east of me, to the west of me and overwhelmingly to the south... all moving to the south. I am one short mile from Ground Zero. New York City, the city that never sleeps, is eerily silent except for the wail of sirens. I am overcome with a quiet sinking, sick sort of feeling in the pit of my stomach (it is there again even as I type this). A low grade anxiety. It's not the panic I know the people in the towers must be experiencing, en masse. No flight response kicks in here, a mile north. I cannot make sense of it. I know what I see, what I hear, what I smell. But, I don't understand. My mind is blank!

This goes on for I don't know how long. Too long. The televisions blare their hypothesis, finally settling on terrorist attacks. The Pentagon has been hit. Another plane is down in Pennsylvania. There are still other planes in the air unaccounted for. No one can say for sure whether any more planes are aimed at another NYC landmark. I am surrounded by NYC landmarks. But, oddly, I feel safe here... I am in my cocoon. Out there. Outside the windows, it is not safe. I KNOW this!

The President of my company is in town from Dallas. I am the senior executive running the NY office. He finds me. He looks more worried, more confused about what's going on than me. Maybe it's because I'm a New Yorker... as though this sort of thing happens every day. "Welcome to our fair city" I say, making light of the situation. Honestly, it's all we have to keep things together. No one is breaking down. People are doing. Moving. Making decisions. I give instructions to all of my employees to leave immediately... Get off the island of Manhattan as quickly as possible before anything else happens. Before every one else in NYC has the same idea. I'm sure I'm not the first. But, the work ethic here dictates that many will wait and see if this is real. To see if they can get something done before.... Before what? I don't know. Two of my employees are from "Jersey". One is 3 months pregnant. She's barely showing. I send them together, encouraging them to use the pregnancy as an excuse to get themselves on the ferry more quickly. "Push your stomach out, Kerrie, and get going." I later find out that worked. They were home quickly. Safely.

Time is passing slowly. It feels like I've barely just arrived. The phone is ringing. It's my sister who is adamant that I should not leave, not go anywhere without her. I explain that we're staying here. The head of our parent company has ordered in food for those few of us who have no where to go. No way to leave. The Long Island Rail Road has already shut down. And, at 8 1/2 months pregnant, I'm not prepared to head downtown towards the chaos to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge like thousands of others fleeing the city. It wouldn't be good for me, for the baby, to be jostled about in a large and panicked crowd. Not good to inhale the questionable air down town. I decide... we decide together, my sister and I... that we'll wait it out. Stay put for now. She walks back over to my office where she left me not long ago, so we can be together. Whatever happens, we're together. That's a good thing. Finally, we get in touch with family members, but just barely before all the phone lines go dead. The cell phones are mostly not working -- too much network traffic, people trying to reach their loved ones -- but my phone connects and I'm able to assure my husband and another of my sisters that we are ok. We are together and safe! Safe? Who knows, for sure?

Initially we mingled with my coworkers but the mood and comments were... weird... uncomfortable. So my sister, my boss and I, took to a private conference room, south facing so we could watch. Watch the smoke rise from the damaged towers. And we knew, we could tell, when the first tower collapsed, by the sudden mushroom cloud of billowing smoke. Then the second. This was real life happening right before our very eyes. Not at all like watching it on television.

The day dragged on -- the smoke rose up into the sky, the news reports continued, I tried to do some work to no avail -- until it was nearly 5:00 pm when things seemed to have... not calmed down exactly. There was no lull. Or, maybe that's all it was all day... a lull. Nothing had returned to "normal". It never would. It just seemed like the right time to go. I guess it felt as close to normal as it could. Nearly the time we would have left work... before 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. We heard that the LIRR was running hourly trains again to help straggling commuters get out. Perhaps that was why we ventured out finally.

The people of New York City were gone... No one! Except for my sister and I. And, one lone photographer, his back to us, kneeling in the middle of Broadway where just hours before a jet plane roared too closely overhead. He had a huge lens on his camera and was shooting straight down the street into lower Manhattan where the building tops were clouded in thick grey smoke. Down a street that would have "normally" been congested with cars, buses, taxi cabs and people. People all over the place. But not today. Not September 11, 2001.

We walked -- like the Simon & Garfunkel song says -- amidst the sounds of silence in an otherwise noisy city. (Apropos lyrics.) We kept our New York City pace though there was no real reason for it. Maybe again, shooting for something close to "normal". In Penn Station, there were almost no people, very few riders. A handful, maybe. Most every one had run for their lives earlier in the day. I honestly do not remember the train ride home. Uneventful, I guess, which is a strange way to describe any part of that day. It was wholly the most eventful day of my life!

When I got home, I shed my first tears. Quietly... amidst the sounds of silence. I have shed many since remembering this day over the past 8 years. Remembering and crying... always quietly.
It was fortunate that the wind blew from North to South that day 8 years ago. I guess that's why we never actually HEARD the plane hit the Tower. The noise traveled south with the wind. The same way the smoke travelled. I had two cousins working in the Towers that day. Both survived. One, already late for a meeting, walked into the lobby but at the last minute decided to go back out for coffee. All of her colleagues perished. The other descended the fiery stairwell with hundreds of others. He survived the day and then moved away from New York. It was the second time he'd survived an attack on the Towers... He was there for the '93 bombing and after September 11, 2001, he decided not to tempt fate again. He now resides happily in Connecticut. He ventures no where near the big city or important landmark buildings that could be targeted by senseless acts of terrorism.

By Friday I was back to work. We all were. Just 3 days after the attacks acting as if... as if things were back to normal. 42 days after that fateful day, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. We named her Olivia... after the olive branch representing peace. We thought it appropriate. She is my peace. An old soul. I worked in NYC another year before I left to be a stay-at-home-Mom. I also have identical twin boys now who happen to have been blessed with an extra 21st chromosome (aka Down syndrome). They fill my days with love and laughter. I am truly blessed. I laugh and smile all day long, every day... Except for this day each year, as vivid memories come flooding back. The forest animals are screaming -- the sirens are wailing -- and I cannot help them. Each year, they perish again.
I still live a mere 25 miles outside of the Midtown Tunnel. I love New York City and visit it frequently. I assume that when I return to the work force after my stint as a stay-at-home-mom that I will do so in the greatest city in the world. New York! Mostly, I feel safe there. And, safe here (living so close). But, there is an underlying sense of unease that it could happen again. That I might not be so lucky next time. It's sort of always there with me, in the pit of my stomach. I guess that's why my cousin left.

So, what has changed? Me! My world! My thoughts about what's possible. I cannot look at a plane flying overhead without remembering that plane. I cannot look at the beautiful Manhattan skyline without seeing what is no longer there. My heart is full of respect for all New Yorkers. For the NYPD, FDNY, Mayor Giuliani, my supervisors and colleagues, fellow commuters, and City-dwellers who all calmly held down the fort while we were under attack. Who all did what had to be done. Helping eachother get through the worst day in the history of New York. My husband joined NYPD after the September 11th attacks in New York City. He knew full well what he was getting into when he took his oath. He knew what the worst case scenario could be and accepted the responsibility. We are all New Yorkers. We are tough. We can survive absolutely anything... can't we? Surely, we have proven that!

As a people, we are forever changed. We will never forget! I will never forget a single moment of that day... Like it was yesterday. Not a single second that passed as my new baby kicked inside me. Every breath I took, every emotion that seared my heart, every blink of my eye... Because I know things can change that quickly. In our post-9/11 world, I recognize this and take nothing for granted. I am thankful for what I have. That I and all my loved ones survived. I'm sorry, devastatingly sorry, for all those who lost so much that day.

We all lost something that day! We lost what it feels like to be safe. To see a plane as just a plane... not a potential weapon. A building as just a building... not a potential target. A person as just a person not a potential terrorist -- someone who would hijack a plane and kill thousands of innocent people. Or a potential victim -- a name on a wall to be called out by their loved ones years later. To be remembered as part of one of the worst days in American history. No, I will never forget. And, yes, I am changed! Significantly changed.


  1. This is the post I have been waiting all day for. I didnt even know I was waiting for it until I read it.

    Does that make sense? I hope it does

  2. also, are you still in NYC? Silly question, but I was looking for your location on your blog and I don't see it.

    I'm a New Yorker too

  3. Very poignant, Mag. Really humanized that day for people who were not in NYC that day.

  4. It is said, words are mightier than a sword, more powerful than a train. As humans we are not fictional super-heros but your words, Maggie, ring with gentle power, every day reality and are heartfelt to the core of humainity. I love the way you write.

  5. Superb job telling that story- Incredible. You write about the essence of trauma- the rupture of our core belief that we are invincible.