It is the kind of day a southern girl like me dreams of a bright blue sky with cool temperatures in the morning and warm sunshine in the afternoon. You know the kind of day I am talking about – a soft fluffy sweater for your bare arms to warm you in the morning but something you can take off when the cover has done it’s job. A few white clouds dot the sky above the city’s magnificent skyline. The World Trade Center is gleaming in the morning sun; the panels glinting with the sun’s ascent into the sky. As the ferry approaches Whitehall Terminal, my eyes are drawn to the architectural wonder New Yorkers affectionately call the “Twin Towers.” As a newcomer to the city – I’ve only been here for 10 months- my breath is always taken away when I unexpectedly catch a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. So I catch myself several times staring at the approaching skyline surely marking myself as “newbie” or worse a tourist. I push my way to the 1/9 train debating whether I want to get off at the WTC stop or go on up to the office on the corner of Houston and Varick. I decide I need to make some copies of some papers to take to my 10 o’clock meeting and then head back down to the subterranean tunnels that will take me back down to the Financial District so I pass by the opportunity to hop off the train at the Cortland Street-WTC stop and ride on uptown.
At Chambers, the train empties and continues on. Franklin Street…Canal Street, I close my book and contemplate the day’s work ahead. Houston…out of the turnstile and take the right exit passage up to the street because it puts me right in front of my building on Varick. Out on Houston, then right at the corner….the twin Towers to my left. I cross, and turn into the Federal building at 201. I have to unclip my badge from the inside of my bag and flash it at the security guard at the desk. I recognize the men on duty there but don’t know their names; I smile at them and give them a soft “good morning, gentlemen” in proper Southern fashion and walk to the elevator bank that will take me to the 7th floor. As usual the elevator is waiting for me and I hurry into the wood-grained box and punch my floor number. I can barely feel the lift move. I am concentrating on the work day ahead and mentally counting the items I need to copy to take to the meeting with me-I know I have to organize it in my head so I can hurry to get to there on time.
But the copier isn’t cooperating with me this morning…it is jamming and I have to throw away my copies 3 times in a row. Frustrated, I am just about to kick it into submission when Keisha walks by with several other co-workers. “Hey, what’s going on?” I ask as the copier flashes “Discard this set of copies and reorder the originals.” I decide to give it up for a moment…and go back to my question. “What’s happening?”
Keisha tells me, “My mother-in-law just called me. She lives in the apartments across from the World Trade Center and she said that a plane just hit the building!” “Whaaattt?” I exclaim.
“She said that a plane has hit the World Trade Center! We’re going up to the 12th floor to see if we can see it.” I ‘m not having any luck with the copier, so I decide to go with the group up to the snack bar to see if the story is really true.
We all ride up in the elevator talking about what kind of malfunction could possibly have caused such a horrific accident. We laugh and hurry down the hallway to catch a glimpse before the “emergency” is over. “This is historic,” we say. “People will ask, ‘where were you when….?'” As we round the corner, it is clear, the emergency is much more serious than just a twin engine plane hitting one of the towers. Other employees from DOL as well as other agencies are gathered around the huge picture windows that surround the 12th floor snack bar. The towers are clearly visible and the hole in the top of the North tower is gaping! Black smoke pours out as flames leap out of the center of the mangled offices.
Any laughter that has been in our throats has died as we realize the enormity of the situation. Paul Newman, our IT guy, is standing beside me; “Go get the digital camera,” I say to him without taking my eyes from the burning tower. backs away from the window and practically runs back down the hallway. While Paul is on his way with the camera, we stand there and talk about the mechanics of what could have happened to cause this. We talk about how the authorities will attempt to rescue all those people above the burning floors. As I stand there, I watch bits of debris fall from the hole, sometimes it looks like dolls pinwheeling to the ground 80 stories down. We are all stunned at the amount of damage to the tower and talk about how long it will take to repair it. Paul returns to the window and starts snapping shots as we all notice the helicopter flying close to the “towering inferno.” Just beyond the copter is a plane that appears to be mesmerized by the flames and smoke. It seems to be going faster and faster as it banks, turns straight and directly on a collision course with the South Tower.
“Oh my God! What is he doing?” I hear my voice but don’t realize I have spoken out loud. It sounds shrill to me and barely on this side of hysteria. Am I really going to see what I think I will see? No, he’ll realize how close he is and pull up just in time-I know he will.
“Oh … my …god…Oh my god…ohmygod!” it is almost like a mantra to all of us. It is echoed all across the room. The plane accelerates until it blasts all the way through the south tower. Not dead on like the other one, but at an angle, with flames and black smoke thundering through the mangled floors and out the other side with the force of bomb. The newly burning hole is lower than the burning massive hole in the north tower, but more precarious because it looks like the plane has taken out the superstructure on the side facing us. Black smoke rolls out then fireballs shoot out of the tower on both sides. Debris falls, again looking amazingly like dolls, some catch the sunlight and look like twinkling lights. At first I think it is some kind warning system, then I realize it is windows, office debris, maybe even plane parts… What could have possibly gone so wrong that 2 planes hit 2 buildings? (Terrorist attack) My mind rebels…I can’t.. will not accept what I have seen… (Terrorist Attack)
I turn around and run back to the elevator and go down to my floor. I wander back to my cube and I pick up the phone and dial Tim’s number. What do I say to him? What do I tell him? Not knowing I hang up. Next I am in my boss’s office where I stare at the Empire State Building. “Will I watch it blow up?” I cry. I am unaware of the tears that run down my face. “All those people…all those people!” I moan. I go into the conference room where the news is on…there is talk of terrorists flying the planes into the World Trade Center. The Pentagon…has been hit . Pennsylvania…the state or the avenue? What’s happening? Has the world gone mad?
“Go back to your workstations, this building is safe!” booms through the room from the PA system. “Are they kidding?” I babble. There are those of us who hug; we need human contact. My RA tells me, “Go outside, get some air. You don’t look so good…”
I am in the lobby..how did I get here? And I wander through the security check-point past the guard’s desk, where I meet my co-worker, Megan, coming in the door “It’s down,” she says. I thought she was upstairs. What’s down? The tower? Which one? The South Tower? Okay, my mind reasons, that makes sense…the tower must have broken off at the impact point. I don’t let myself think about who did or didn’t get out. As I go outside, the smell is overpowering and sickening. My eyes start to burn and my throat tightens. As I walk to the corner I see firetruck after firetruck scream down the street in front of me. The drivers have to slow down and blow their horns to make people move out of the way. All kinds of people have wandered out into the street with their eyes riveted south. I am not struck so much by our differences right now, but our similarities. Everyone is pointing and staring; their mouths are open and disbelief covers their faces like Halloween masks. I walk down the block trying to find a vantage point so I can see where the tower has broken off. The smoke is far too thick to see anything ; in fact the smoke looks like a mud pie being poured into the sky from somewhere above. Finally I start to see patches of blue where the building should still be standing. “Where’s the building? Where’s the building?” I keep repeating to no one in particular, but hoping to get an answer I like . “It’s gone,” someone says In response. “It’s just gone.” I shake my head trying to clear it.
Suddenly the antenna on the North Tower wobbles in a new cloud of the viscous “mud pie” cloud and starts to fall over to the right. Our arms shoot into air pointing as the building collapses floor by floor, one hand in the sky and the other covers our mouths to stifle the screams. I feel the sound in the back of my throat rising but don’t realize it is actually coming out until it stops…choked off by the tears that streak my face and the sobs that shake my chest. Like a QuickTime slow-motion movie, the building is swallowed up by the rising gunmetal cloud as it pancakes down floor by floor, staircase by staircase. It is almost as if one tower can’t live without the other and chooses to die, too. The whole street is screaming and we don’t know if we should run or if we are at a “minimum safe distance.” Like an earthquake we feel the ground shift and rumble under our feet, but I don’t connect the shock wave with the collapse of the North Tower, though; I think it is my own shock, disorientation, and disbelief that makes me stumble through the street back to my office. But there is no sound….We see it and feel it but it is like a silent movie…we are making the only sounds on the street. Some turn and run the other way the rest of us just wander aimlessly with no sense of purpose. A woman puts her hand on my shoulder and asks, “hey…are you alright?” Incredulously, I look at her ! Our world has been turned upside down and she asks if I am alright??? “No, I am not alright…I don’t know if I will ever be alright again.” She pats my shoulder as if I am a wayward child. Is she blind? Did she just come out of a cave? She walks away and I stumble off.
Suddenly I find myself back at my desk. ” Please evacuate the building immediately. Follow your Fire Drill procedures and proceed in an orderly fashion.” The disembodied voice drones on and on. I have the presence of mind to gather my belongings very methodically because I am sure I will not be back for while and I need to get what I want from my desk. People are running down the stairways and to the elevator. Not thinking, I decide to take the elevator down because there is no fire in this building, there is no emergency here. As soon as the doors close, I panic thinking this building could explode or collapse around me. Just when I think I am going to have a full-blown anxiety attack, the doors open to pure pandemonium. I join the panicking crowd and enter the street once again. I run into a co-worker who says he thinks he will go up and turn off his computer, I just shake my head and laugh. “You have got to be kidding…just get out of here!” I advise.
What do I do? Where do I go? I see Megan across the street waving her arms to get my attention so I walk across to join her and my supervisor, Howard. “All public transportation is shut down, we’ll have to walk to the bridges. “Sharon, I want you to come with us until I can figure out how to get you home.” I look down at my shoes…I had dressed for my meeting this morning and had my heels on; I had not anticipated walking miles back to my apartment today. Howard gathers us up and starts walking us toward the East Village with our backs to the roaring beast of smoke, concrete dust, and twisted steel.
We walked for hours through the winding streets of Greenwich Village, SoHo, and the Lower East Side slowly making our way toward the Williamsburg Bridge. We wanted to cross it on foot into Brooklyn to get out of Manhattan. But by the time we got to the bridge, the police had closed it to all pedestrian traffic and we had to turn around and go back the way we came. Howard finally guided us to the Grand Street Settlement House where we could rest and get some water before we set out again for the Manhattan Bridge.
Several times my phone rang, but as I picked it up, the line went dead. My caller ID showed it was Tim and I tried to dial back but always got “All circuits are busy. Please try your call again later.” Finally Tim got through to me and all I could do was to let him know that physically I was okay. I don’t remember much of those conversations; I know I asked him to call mom and dad and tell them I was allright and to go to the school and let Rhiannon know I was okay. He called every now and then, whenever he could get through on his cellphone, to check on my progress toward the apartment.
I was so relieved to finally reach a place where we could sit down, rest, and get a drink of water. I went into the restroom and wet my face with a paper towel and washed the tear streaks away. I also took a towel and wet it down to put on the back of my neck because I felt I was going to pass out. I went back out and sat down; I had to rest my feet, they ached with the exertions of the morning. The balls of my feet throbbed with pain; in fact it was the only thing that actually penetrated the haze of shock and disbelief. As I sat there, I could hear people talking around me as well as the radio news reports, but it seemed to be much like the buzz of insects: white noise with nothing intelligible (“…Williamsburg Bridge is closed, Staten Island Ferry is open for a limited amount of time…”). There was a pay phone on the wall and I watched people come and go using it to call loved ones. When it was idle, I floated over to it and called my mother collect. I had not been able to get out on my cellphone so I thought I might be able to reach her on the pay phone. All I could think was that she would mad with me for calling collect. (“…The Staten Island Ferry will run for a limited time…”) “Momma?” I questioned when she finally accepted the charges. “I’m okay…” I was determined not to cry, but I sounded like a little girl who needed her mother to soothe her after a bad dream. “Momma, I’m going to try to get back to the apartment. I think the ferry is open, I’m going to walk down to see.” She said, “Okay, baby.” When she called me “baby” I knew she wasn’t angry with me for the collect call. I walked back to Howard and Megan and told them I was going to try to get to Staten Island on the ferry.
“What are you going to do if it isn’t running?” Howard asked me. “I don’t know, but I think I heard on the radio that it is.” I hadn’t really formulated a back-up plan, I just knew I had to get back to the apartment. “Here,” Howard took my address book from me and wrote. “Take my home number and call me if you need me. If you can’t get back, let me know and I’ll get to you.” We parted ways in front of the Grand Street Settlement House. Howard and Megan started off towards the Manhattan Bridge about 12 blocks away and I turned the other way – headed straight into the mouth of the beast!
As I wound my way through the streets, I could see the smoke and pieces of debris raining down on Lower Manhattan. My throat constricted with the realization that I was watching a funeral pyre and instead of getting as far away as I could, I was going in closer. I kept thinking I could skirt the site by getting on the other side of the towers, but couldn’t quite decide how to do it. My sense of direction was badly skewed at this point in time and I wasn’t sure what streets I needed to get on to get there. I only knew that if I walked toward the smoke I would walk straight into the site and that wasn’t something I wanted to do because I wasn’t prepared to see those scenes (dolls pinwheeling out of the windows). As I stood on the corner trying to decide which street to take, a jet screamed over the city. There were only a few of us on this particular side-street and we all ran for cover as soon as we heard the sound thinking we were about to be bombed. I looked up and scrutinized the aircraft as best I could and said, “It’s okay, it’s one of ours.” The young man crouched beside me looked at me and said, “How can you be sure.”
Essex Street…then over several streets. I don’t know how long I walked seemingly mesmerized by the sight of “towers that weren’t there”, but I found myself in the heart of Chinatown. I was stunned to see Asian people shuttling around doing their regular marketing from the streetside vendors. The customers wore face masks over their nose and mouths and reminded me of the Chinese people Tim and I saw in Bejing, Xian, and Shanghai who routinely wore such garb due to the heavy pollution in their cities. Vendors kept wiping the dust off their fruit and wares; I had trouble understanding how these people could go on with their lives in the shadow of the horror just beyond their sidewalks. I wandered the streets until I found a street name I recognized and I walked towards where I thought the East River was located. As I walked closer to the water and away from the populated area, the collapse site was off to my right. If I could keep it on my right then I knew I was going in the right direction.
Finally I reached the South Seaport and I knew from the bus tour Tim and I took on Sunday that all I had to do was walk along the water down FDR Drive until I reached the Ferry. It was simple from here on out…or at least that’s what I thought. It seemed I had crossed some sort of dividing line-the air became thicker. My eyes started running and burning; I could feel the glass in them but knew I couldn’t rub them or I would have really damaged them. My throat was coated with the heavy air and almost closed all together. Then I remembered the wet towel in my hand, so I covered my nose and mouth. I had to stop every few steps and cough out the thick viscous noxious cloud from my lungs. I thought I would throw up a few times; partly from the burning atmosphere and partly because I was covered with dust, smoke, ashe, and soot. It lay heavy all over me and I could smell the sharp acrid stench. All I could think was that I had the ashes of thousands of dead people all over me. My eyes watered heavily trying to clean the debris out with tears. I kept my head down and watched my feet so I wouldn’t trip and I started seeing empty shoes, most of them pointing uptown. I saw a plastic bag closed tightly around some very pricey looking men’s dress shoes, abandoned on the street. Many papers littered the ground and I stopped to look at some. As I stood there, I drew the edge of my shoe through the dust drawing shapes in the mounting ashe. It was coming down like a light snow and reminded me of a snowfall except the air around me was warm and the fallout stuck to me like humidity. Silver dollops dotted the street as if someone had melted solder and let it fall on the sidewalk to see what kinds of patterns it would make. I walked faster as I realized I walking through what was left of people’s lives; my eyes were blurred and burned. Just when I felt I was on the edge of hysteria I saw the ferry terminal ahead of me. I walked faster and faster until I could see the gates; the deck hands were closing them! I ran, crying, and screaming ! “Wait for me! Don’t close the gate….Wait! Wait!” The deckman looked at me and started to swing the door closed then he stopped. I don’t know if he saw my desperation or my exhaustion or maybe just the absolute shell-shock look on my face, but held the door and called out, “Hurry…” I pulled out an extra burst and ran through the gate. I don’t remember if I actually said thank you or if I just thought it, but I think he felt my gratitude.
I did what I had done for almost a year when I came home from work; I crossed the bridge onto the lower deck of the ferry. It was a passenger ferry instead of a car ferry because they carry more people. A passenger ferry only carries people and there is no place to pull cars onto the lower deck; a car ferry is open on the lower level to accommodate the parked cars. As I headed up to the 2nd level I stopped on the fantail of the boat. There were about 15 or 20 other people standing there and we were silent. As the boat pulled away from Manhattan, we looked at the smoke and the flames and pretended the towers were still there. Jets, F-16s I learned later, shrieked over the city periodically. Several of us had tears streaming down our faces and we couldn’t imagine the city without the World Trade Center on the skyline.
I couldn’t watch anymore and went back into main cabin where I walked to the front of the boat. As I passed each row of seats, there were life preservers stacked on the floor next to each one. I shivered…I had never seen them out; they were always hidden away in their cubby-holes underneath the seats. What did that mean? Were they expecting something catastrophic to happen? I found a seat near the end pointing toward St. George and sank down onto the hard yellow bench. A girl was sitting across from me with tears in her eyes. Our eyes met in shared pain and shock. I reached into my bag and fished out a tissue and handed it to her. Our hands met and locked for just a moment…one stranger reaching out to another in this awful, awful time.