Sixteen years ago today, I came home from a morning walk. It was a beautiful late summer morning and I’d been out for about two hours. The first thing I did upon returning home was to turn on the TV. It was about ten to nine and I was settling down for breakfast when Katie Couric, sitting next to Matt Lauer in their NBC studio, announced that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. They cut to a video that showed a smoking and gaping hole in one of the Twin Towers that turned my stomach. My first thought was that it was a bomb. How could it be a plane? It was an explosion. From inside the Tower, I thought. It was an attack. New York, my beloved city, was under attack. I rushed to call my husband, who worked in Midtown but who was going to his company’s offices across the street from the World Trade Center that day. He rarely answers his phone when he’s at work and I doubted that I would get him on the phone. But he answered and I sputtered the words, “A bomb exploded in the World Trade Center. Or a plane. They’re not sure. Get down. Get down.” He was aware of the news. His entire office was glued to a TV. We vowed to keep in touch throughout the day but, shortly after our conversation, phone service was impossible. I did manage to call my brother who lives in NYC and my mom on LI. No one knew what to make of what was happening. My heart ached for my city as I watched the bedlam unfold on TV.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. New York City was under attack. All I could do was cry and shake. Telephone contact with my husband was impossible but I heard from him through email. He was fine.
I’m a native New Yorker and was at the World Trade Center, with a friend who had press passes to view it, before it opened. A few years later, one of my closest friends got married at Windows on the World, a complex of venues on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower that included the restaurant Windows on the World and several private banquet rooms. Several years after her wedding, my brother got married there. He would have dinner there with his wife every year to celebrate their anniversary.
I’m a New York transplant living in Pennsylvania, with a husband who commutes two hours to New York every morning and then back home again. My family and many friends are in New York. My phone didn’t stop ringing that day. The first question on everyone’s lips was, “Is your husband ok?” He was. He was checking in. But one of his partners son’s worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a company located at One World Trade Center, a few floors from where the first plane hit. The company lost 658 employees that day, including my husband’s partner’s son, a young man who was engaged to be married later that month.
I was on the phone with a friend from Queens when the first tower collapsed. She saw it from her office window and, to this day, I still can hear her screaming.
I remember feeling cold. It was so cold. I couldn’t get warm. I was shaking and crying and not understanding what was happening. The horrific footage on TV showed people falling – or jumping – from the Twin Towers. The images were incomprehensible. People were dying. I remember thinking that the entire city was under attack, that they were going to bomb or somehow hit all the tall buildings in the city. That was why I implored my husband to “get down” from the tall skyscraper where his office is located. In my mind, the buildings were going to topple like dominoes.
A friend whose daughter lives in New York called. We cried together and she said that she was terrified that her middle school-age daughter would hear about the news and not understand. She wanted to pick up her child and comfort her, tell her herself what had happened and not to worry, instead of letting someone else tell her. I called the high school where my oldest daughter was in 11th grade. The kids had already been told by their teacher who had been told by the office staff who was watching it on TV. The school notified my daughter of my call and she called me right back. She said she quietly went up to her teacher and asked him to show her a map of New York City and to point out the distance between the World Trade Center and her father’s office. She said she was ok and preferred to spend the day in school with her friends than to come home. I wanted to hug her and hold her, but I resisted the urge to tell her that. There would be time later in the day and, because I couldn’t tear myself away from the news coverage, I knew she’d be better off in school where she wouldn’t be bombarded with terrible images and news reports I never want to hear again. I called the Middle School where my youngest daughter was in 7th grade. The secretary who answered the phone told me that the kids hadn’t been told anything. They were waiting for the parents to explain it to their own children when they got home later that day. They said they were listening to the radio and that kids were walking in and out of the office but no child had asked. My daughter was one of very few whose dad worked in New York City. I knew that if she heard, she’d be frantic. I asked the secretary to tell my daughter that her dad and family were fine – but ONLY if she came to the office to ask. They said that was a wise decision. Ten minutes later, my daughter called. She was crying and could barely speak. She was with my friend’s child, the one whose older daughter lives in New York. “Mom, the office pulled me out of class and told me there had been a major accident in New York City. Is Daddy ok?” My heart ached. I didn’t want to explain it to her this way. I didn’t want to tell her over the phone. I told her I was going to come and get her over the phone. She wanted to know what had happened. I told her that her father was fine and then briefly told her what happened, saying that they’re still not certain and that we’d discuss when we were all home together. She asked about every single person in my family by name. “How is Grandma? How is Papa? How is Uncle Michael? How is Aunt Debbie?” and on and on until everyone she knew had been accounted for. I had seen someone, I can’t remember who, perhaps it was Laura Bush on TV earlier who said that children would react that way, naming everyone they knew and demanding to know that they were ok, so I wasn’t alarmed by my daughter’s reaction. I asked her if she wanted to come home and, like her sister, she said she preferred to stay in school. I knew that was best for them because I was paralyzed. I could do nothing but watch TV, cry and shake.
I hadn’t heard from my husband in hours. Phone service was down or spotty at best but I was able to keep in touch with my mom throughout the day. I spent the afternoon fielding phone calls from concerned friends, from PA and NY, and waiting for my husband to contact me. I don’t recall the time of day it was when he finally did. He and the partner whose son worked for Cantor Fitzgerald spent the afternoon calling and visiting hospitals to try to locate his partner’s son. He was never found. Later in the evening, my husband and brother went to hospitals trying to donate blood to help survivors. They were turned away at every one.
New York was effectively closed. The bridges and tunnels were closed. I don’t remember how my husband got home. I don’t remember a lot of that type of detail from that day. I remember a friend telling me that she left her midtown office building earlier in the day and walked into a crowd of people who were running uptown, away from the World Trade Center. She stopped in a doorway and cried as she watched the smoke rise from the place the Towers had been. Another friend told me about a cousin that she feared was lost. She later learned that she was. My oldest childhood friend was living in Northern Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. Many of the parents in her children’s school never made it home that night.
When my children came home they were full of questions and worry. After I again reassured them that their father and friends and family in New York were fine, I talked to them about what had happened. I never talked down to my girls, not even when they were little. I explained the facts as they were presented on TV but I didn’t discuss the ramifications of this day. I didn’t tell them that the world – and the way they lived in it – had changed forever. I didn’t even realize that fact on that day.
My husband came home at some point in the evening. The details are fuzzy. The whole day is fuzzy and when I try to remember it, I become overwhelmed with sadness. I think I watched television for 24 hours straight, trying to find some sense in what happened. To this day, I haven’t succeeded.
Two years after 9/11, my husband and I drove my oldest daughter to college. She was attending NYU. Some friends from Pennsylvania thought that was a bad decision, that what happened could happen again and how could I endanger my child? The world had changed. My perspective had changed. My life had changed, in small and large ways. I never again took my safety for granted. My beloved city of New York is changed forever. But, New York, like the people who live in it, is resilient and strong. In the succeeding days of 9/11, New Yorkers pulled together, helped one another and kept going, even in the face of violence and horror.
I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t lose family or friends that disastrous day. But I did lose something valuable, as did we all. I lost my sense of security. And I don’t know that I will ever be able to regain it. It’s been 16 years and, while the events of 9/11 are not constantly on my mind, they are never far from it, especially when I look downtown and see the place in the sky where the Twin Towers once stood. Those buildings, that now symbolize both the worst of human nature and surely the best in the victims who lost their lives, can never be erased from my memory.Tweet