10 Years On: 9/11
I’ve edited the story at points, but I’ve noted such edits in text with brackets.
9/11 stories are probably universally difficult to tell. I’ve always had trouble conveying to my friends and family what it was like in New York City on 9/11 and for the months afterwards. Some memories will always and only be my own, impossible to express fully. They are usually little details that don’t get through the media filter. The massive amount of dust covering sidewalks and cars when I returned to my office downtown a week later. The lingering stench of ground zero. The strangeness of Manhattan streets empty except for emergency vehicles. Thousands upon thousands of fliers in the subway stations posted by families begging for any information about missing persons–describing the height, weight, hair color, or tattoos of the lost–even the tower and floor of their office. Wondering, on the way to work, if any of those people got home safely. The eyes of dust-covered people staggering northward through the East Village on 9/11.
My story from 9/11 itself is rather mundane. Thousands like it (and, of course, thousands worse) occurred all across Manhattan five [now ten] years ago.
I was working as a paralegal in downtown Manhattan in the fall of 2001. Two friends and I–recent college graduates–had rented a preposterously small apartment at the corner First Avenue and 12th Street.
On my way to work on September 11, just as I reached the subway entrance two blocks from my apartment, I noticed that all pedestrians had stopped their morning routines and were looking south by the hundreds, toward what looked like an enormous fire in one of the World Trade Center towers. Smoke was already drifting east toward Brooklyn, and I remember being struck by how large the fire seemed to be.
From the pavement, I called my supervisor Jim, who [I believed] was probably already at work just five blocks east of the towers. I got his voice mail: “Hey Jim, it looks like there’s a fire in the World Trade Center. I’m not even going to try to get down there with the subway, so I’ll find a cab and I’ll be a bit late.” I then called my mom in Moraga. She knew I worked near the World Trade Center, and she worries a lot. So I woke her just after 06:00 Pacific Coast time, and told her that there was a fire in the World Trade Center but that I was okay. I don’t think she was awake enough for the conversation to register, but in retrospect I’m glad I called. The cell phone system soon crashed.
My curiosity got the better of me, and instead of taking a cab directly downtown, I walked the two blocks back to my apartment to turn on the news. My roommate’s sister was visiting that week, and she was still asleep when I turned on the television. We didn’t have cable, which meant that our rabbit-eared TV usually got its reception from the antenna on top of the north tower [of the WTC]. But this morning, only one station came through: CBS, which had another antenna in Brooklyn.
Despite the chaos in Dan Rather’s studio, the general outline of the morning’s events came through clear. A terrorist attack. Both towers had been hit. The Pentagon and possibly the State Department had been hit. We wanted more news and an Internet connection, so L. and I decided to walk over two blocks and across Union Square to an Internet café [the News Cafe] that usually had multiple televisions tuned to news stations.
As we walked, I started calling my friends in Manhattan, but I could reach no one. The phone lines were jammed or destroyed, and if I did get a connection, it went to straight to voicemail. Two of my friends lived one block south of the World Trade Center, but I could not reach them. I was miraculously lucky that day: of all my [probably dozens of] friends working in finance downtown, none died.
The café was, unsurprisingly, packed with people, shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-back, all watching the images on the televisions. [Perhaps 100 people jammed in the place.] As I moved to the front, and bought L. water and myself a coffee, I overheard a newscaster say the word “collapsed.” I looked up to the television and saw only one tower standing in the picture. I asked the man next to me, “One of them collapsed?” The south tower had crumbled at 09:59, as we walked to the café.
I repositioned L. and myself near the door. We watched newscasters try to keep up with the information spilling across their desks, into their earphones, and onto their monitors.
Around 10:28 the north tower began collapsing on the television screens. Several of us raced outside, where we could see straight down 5th Avenue to the area soon named ground zero.
The tower had already finished collapsing and gigantic billows of dust and soot pushed outwards and then upwards like a mushroom cloud turned on its head. The streets were empty of cars. Several women were screaming and crying hysterically on the sidewalks. Some men stood dazed, or on phones.
I walked back into the café. And watched more news. A short time later–how long I can’t remember–as the patrons in the crowded café stood silent and awed in front of the televisions, a piercing alarm went off far in the back of the café, near the computers. The alarm was shrill like a fire alarm in a school–the kind where you put your hands over your ears. In this café, packed wall to wall with people, with only a single door as an exit, in the initial hysteria on September 11, 2001, someone in the back yelled:
“IT’S A BOMB!”
The crowd surged in panic toward the door, near where L. and I stood. The press of the crowd instantly pinned our arms to our chests, shuffled us involuntarily toward the door, momentarily pinned us in the doorway, and then wrenched us to the street. I remember looking at L. next to me and hoping she was okay. We were some of the first people to get pushed out of the door since we had been standing near it.
Finally free, L. swung right, away from the crowd that was now rapidly popping, person-by-person, out of the doorway like rubber balls from a tube. I stood about 5 to 10 feet from the door, in the middle of the crowd, as people burst forth and fanned out. Instinctively foolish, I stood there and grabbed those people who emerged, stumbled, and fell. I put people back on their feet, and then they started running again.
But then the alarm itself seemed to burst from the café and run down the street. A businesswoman dressed in a blue-grey suit ran down the street, with the alarm screaming from her purse. As she turned a corner and the alarm dissipated, some of us guessed that she was carrying a panic alarm to protect her from muggers. Or she had an anti-theft devise on her laptop. Or perhaps she was trying to steal computer equipment from the café. In any event, for all I know, she may still be running.
L. was now standing in tears on the sidewalk, as were many others. I comforted her, told her that everything was okay and that it was a false alarm. Unfortunately, the events earlier that day were not.