I remember thinking, when I came up out of the subway station and saw the brilliant blue sky, that September was truly the best month in NYC. It was a gorgeous day. I walked one block west from the subway to my office, at the corner of West Houston and Hudson. I had just dropped my 3 ½ year old off at his preschool 2 stops away. Later, I realized if I had looked to my left when crossing Hudson, I probably would have seen the first plane just as it hit.
I went up to my office and settled in. I had just started at this job in downtown NYC in July. (Weirdly, I had also been offered a job at the WTC. I didn’t take it because, at the interview, the building swayed like crazy. The interviewer said it was normal, and was really only noticeable when it was windy. Still, it freaked me out and I said no. I worried I was being foolish. I needed the job, being a single mom and all.)
A co-worker appeared in the door to say her friend had called; a plane had hit the WTC. The first thing we all thought of was that little plane that crashed into the Empire State Building years ago. I figured we’d look out the window and see the back end of a twin-engine dangling out of one of the higher floors. (I didn’t hear the plane hit at all. We joked that our building was like a fortress; it was the Carpenter’s Union building so we all said it had to be the best built building in Manhattan.)
Minutes later we heard about the 2nd plane, and suddenly realized this was no accident. The phone began ringing off the hook as family and friends called in. People outside the city seemed so much more freaked out than we were; we just thought it was another day of craziness in NYC. Then rumors started flying. We heard the Pentagon, the White House, the Empire State Building and others were all gone (they were actually reporting rumors on the radio!).
We all ran to the far southwest corner office to be able to look for ourselves. The billowing smoke made it too difficult to see one tower. Rumors again flooded the room that it had fallen over on its side “and was now a bridge to New Jersey”.
I watched, stunned, not really present. I remember thinking, I need to get back to work, I don’t want my new boss to be mad…but she was behind me in the room watching, too. Then, we saw things begin to drop off the one tower that was not yet enveloped in smoke. “Is that pieces of the building?” someone asked. We all leaned forward at the same time, trying to see. I think it hit us all at once. Those weren’t pieces of the building coming down. There was a dress; there was hair. They were people. I staggered out of the room, feeling nauseous. I found out later that the colleague standing next to me lost a son in the towers that day. I can’t even imagine…
My boss tapped me on the shoulder and said “Go get your son. NOW.” He was at his new preschool, on 13th Street. A safe area, I hoped. But who knew? The feeling was: what was next? A few people said they would wait in the building for us.
I ran the entire way up Hudson Street. It was still so soon after, though, that there weren’t masses of people, yet. What was the most bizarre was that there were people sitting at the outdoor cafés, nonchalant, eating, drinking their morning coffee. I looked at them frantically, wondering if they didn’t know, but the city was in chaos – ambulance sirens, smoke, people crying. Was this how they were going out? It felt like a Fellini movie.
Luckily, when I got there, the inside of the school was pure calm. The only craziness was the dumb parents who were running in and freaking the kids out. I thanked his teachers, grabbed him and ran. Then: now what? We couldn’t leave the city, and we lived in Brooklyn. Cell service was on and off and within Manhattan only, so I was able to reach my ex-husband, who worked in midtown. (We had just separated earlier that year, but I knew he needed to be wherever our son was.) We agreed to meet up back at my office building.
We walked back downtown. Now the masses of dust-covered people were flooding past us. No cars were in the streets anymore; just throngs of people, some screaming, some dazed, some furious, some bloody and wounded. I tried to shield my little boy as best I could. Lines were snaking around ATMs and bodegas as people stocked up on water and essentials. It felt like the end of the world. And also like we were fighting against the tide, salmon swimming against the flow. We made it back to my office, finally, and it was empty. So much for people waiting there for us. It still felt very secure, though, and my little boy was tired from the long walk. He rested while I looked out the window, watching the buildings, scanning the skies, waiting.
Eventually his dad arrived, and we went down to meet him. Just then, we heard a tremendous rumbling sound as the ground shook (again), and we looked southward. The great black dust cloud roared towards us, billowing out and upward, and then suddenly stopped – right at Houston Street. Maybe 20 feet away from where we stood. It was like a great gray wall, completely solid, and at least 5 stories tall. I couldn’t imagine anyone being inside that thing. We stood there and stared for what felt like forever.
We discussed our options. People were talking about walking over the bridges, but what if they were hit next? There was so much panic. Still, we were calm, in denial almost. I suggested we look for a store to buy a stroller, since our little guy would never make the long walk to Brooklyn, and we’d have trouble carrying him. What was I thinking? After walking east for a bit, we realized that was crazy. Stores didn’t exist. We were just passing the West 4th Street station when we heard the subway was running again. We ran down, jumping on the train, relief flooding over us. Then they announced that we were the very first train out of the city. My elation quickly turned to fear – again – as they then said that they would stop every 20 or 30 feet or so to check the tracks for bombs. Oh God.
We finally, safely, after what felt like an eternally long ride – arrived at our stop. The great billowing cloud was almost upon us, and we ran for my apartment. Up, up, up the 5 flights of stairs, I had to run to shut the windows (so odd to think I had opened them just that morning to take in the beautiful September air) just as the cloud slammed against the glass. Bits of debris railed against the windows and daytime turned to night. But we made it.
I volunteered downtown during the rescue efforts that followed. And for months afterwards I had ‘the cough’ every New Yorker had. But the freakiest, scariest thing of all was the handwritten notes all over the city afterwards of people searching for their loved ones. The wall near St. Vincent’s especially got to me whenever I walked past. And I always scanned to see if there was anyone I knew. Unfortunately, there were a few.
I hug my son a little closer every 9/11. And I think of everyone who was not as lucky as we were, who did not make it out, in NY, in DC and in PA.