My Sept. 11, 2001 experience is not uncommon. I was one of many Manhattan residents who were there that fateful morning.
At the time, I was 25 years old and had lived in New York for almost two years. Shortly before the events of that strange, terrible day, I’d lost my job working for a tech company as the dot com bubble had burst wide open and the industry was in freefall. My net job would be my first within a month of 9/11. But, at the time, it was all about enjoying the big city.
I didn’t have a job and slept on Monday morning. The weather was perfect that day–a bluebird day without a cloud in the sky. This magical moment in the northeast occurred just before fall after the summer heat had subsided. My only agenda that day was to vote for the next mayor of New York.
That’s one of the details that get lost about that day. It was an election in the Big Apple. Just a few hours before the first plane touched down at the World Trade Center, the polls were open.
Like many others, I heard the news first through a call.
My mother called me and woke me up. She said, “Can you believe this?”At 44, it was at that moment that I heard the sirens outside of my apartment near Second Avenue.
Normally, sirens in New York are hard to hear, but I heard them and it sounded like there were a lot.
“Believe what?”As I walked out of my bedroom, I asked. “Turn on your TV,” She replied. I turned on the TV from our living room. It was on channel four of WNBC’s Today Show. Everyone who can remember that image of a person staying still saw it on the screen. Two smoke-filled towers. It was just after nine o’clock in the morning and the South Tower, the second tower, had just been struck by United flight 175.
At A Loss For Words
I told my mom I’d call her back and hung up the phone. My T.V. was all I could see. In disbelief, I began to think about the people I knew who worked downtown and those who worked in the WTC.
After graduating from college, I was offered a temporary job at the World Trade Center holiday marketplace. I distributed newspapers each year on the bridge that crossed the streets between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center. Of course, I’d also been to the observation deck at the top of the South Tower, so I knew a little about the complex.
The first person I thought of, however, didn’t work in the WTC. My roommate was from Soho, which is not far from the WTC buildings. I tried calling his cellphone, but I couldn’t get through. That would become a reoccurring theme that day–telephone communication, even landlines, so overwhelmed by call traffic.
Over the next few hours, I received a lot more operator messages as I tried reaching friends.
Early Internet Technology Worked, Phones Didn’t
I turned on my computer and opened AOL Instant Messenger.
My internet connection seemed to be fine, though my roommate wasn’t on. His girlfriend was, so I sent a message asking if she’d heard from him. She hadn’t. Despite the AIM’s sterile nature, I could tell that she was panicking.
My roommate worked in advertising and started work later than the rest. I said to his girlfriend that he was likely underground, on a 4 Train somewhere north of downtown. It turned out that I was correct. He was stuck.
The 4 Train, if you don’t know the New York subway system, runs right next to the World Trade Center site, with a stop just a block or so away on Fulton Street. It stopped immediately, as with all downtown trains.
My roommate was on one of the trains that stopped at two stations. After about an hour, commuters were taken out of the train’s back and forced to walk back on the tracks to their station.
The City and The World have Changed Before Our Observers
The South Tower fell just at that time, and everyone knew instinctively how terrible this would be. Shortly after the South Tower collapsed, there were rumors of planes flying towards Washington DC.
The Pentagon was said to have been hit, and more reports were coming out about planes pointing towards the Capitol or the White House. I stepped outside onto my balcony to hear the sound of ambulances pulling down Second Ave. and saw smoke rising from downtown. The contrast of that black smoke and the blue sky is something I’ll never forget.
I don’t remember when exactly, I think around lunchtime, I got a call from a good friend, who was at work on the Upper East Side. She wasn’t sure how she was going to get home. She lived close to Union Square and was forced to walk a lot. There were no subways in the area. Worse though, most people north of Union Square weren’t even sure what downtown looked like. Did there have to be fired? It was smoked out.
I told my friend that I would walk uptown to meet her at the 50s located on Third Avenue. I hadn’t left my apartment yet, so I got out my Walkman and put on shoes. I then tuned into 1010 WINS, a 24-hour news radio station in New York.
I immediately felt tension and fear as I walked outside my building. That’s something else that often gets overlooked. Over the next few days, this fear transformed into dread and then into complete sadness.
It was scary to walk on the streets
As I walked up on Third Avenue, I saw something else I’d never, ever forget.
There were thousands of people walking uptown. The sidewalks in Midtown are always crowded on weekdays, but on 9/11 they were absolutely packed and everyone was walking in one direction–north.
Next, I saw a man wearing a suit and covered in gray and white dust from head to foot. The man was clearly in a state of coma, coughing and spitting. He seemed to be just walking, with no plans. His only concern was to get out of downtown. It’s impossible to know what was going on in his head, but of course, I knew he must have been right there when the towers came down.
Another man looked at me the same way a moment later. These two men are people that I think about often on the anniversary, wondering what happened to them.
My friend met me and we walked back together to my apartment. Eventually, her roommate at the time, joined us there, as did my roommate, his girlfriend, and yet another friend that couldn’t get back to his place in Queens. It was so important, I later realized, that we were all there together.
Like the rest, we spent the rest of the day watching the news and bouncing from one station to the next.
My two friends eventually decided to walk down Union Square. The rest of us ate dinner and watched the news until late at night.
Be awake to a new reality
The next day was almost as surreal. The next morning, we woke up in a completely different New York City.
The city was shut down for several days and most people stayed at home with loved ones. To get snacks and drinks, we only went to the nearby bodega. We spent the rest of the day in front of the television.
Sometimes, the wind would blow just right, and we would catch a whiff from the huge fire in the center of town, which took several weeks to put out. It is the only thing I can think of as a burned clutch.
It’s the smell that always brings it back
For weeks, the City smelt like burned metal.
Two weeks later, I went to a concert on the Upper West Side–the first time I’d done anything remotely fun for two weeks. During The Black Crowes’ show, I completely forgot about the outside world for a few hours. After the show had ended, I felt the stench of reality as we stepped out from the Beacon Theatre. This was the reality that we all lived with for many months. It was our baseline. Everything was contextualized to it.
From President George W. Bush’s speech on the rubble to seemingly endless coverage about the thousands of missing persons, the news was blurred. For a long time we hoped that some would be saved by miracles.
But it was always the smell.
Even today, two decades later, when I smell a burnt clutch or burnt metal, I’m transported back to New York in the fall of 2001. It’s because of that smell that I’ll never forget those we lost, and why none of us should ever forget.
We’ve ended the war in Afghanistan, but the wounds from 9/11 will never heal for millions of people. You should think about those people, the relatives of the victims and the family members of the emergency workers. Not only those who died on that fateful day, but also the people who now face serious health risks from working in that horrible, burning pile.
It’s a day we can never forget. It’s too important for too many people.