When I rolled over and looked at the clock it was 6:45 a.m. I didn’t need to be up for two more hours. I adjusted the pillows, pulled the blanket over my head and willed myself back to sleep. After another 45 minutes of this I gave up. Jet lag is a bitch. I’d flown home from Barcelona two days earlier and in spite of my trying I was not going back to sleep. I was wide awake and I didn’t need to be at work till at least 9:00. I crawled to the end of the bed, switched on the computer and checked the weather. It was going to be a perfect day, and since it was clear that I was not going back to sleep I might as well get it started.
At 8:15 a.m. I locked the door of my apartment and headed out into the day. My commute to work was insane. It required me to walk one city block to the south, and one half block to the east. Even after stopping at the grocery store for milk, cereal, and cream for my coffee, I was at work by 8:30. I unlocked the door, turned on the lights, started my computer and then performed the most important task of the day, making coffee. While the coffee was brewing I sorted through the mail that had collected over the three weeks I’d been in Europe on a “business” trip. Finally the coffee pot was full and I poured myself a bowl of Kellogg’s Raisen Bran (it’s funny the things you remember), filled my coffee cup and planted myself at my desk. The time was 8:45 a.m.
I took a sip of my coffee. I dipped my spoon into the bowl and as I took my first bite of cereal my desk moved about six inches. I had no idea what had happened. I sat there. I rolled my chair to the window, opened the window and looked out to my right. The North Tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. Think Towering Inferno on fire. There were flames shooting into the air. I was stunned. I ran down the hall to office next to ours and shouted, the World Trade Tower is on fire. The women from the office ran down to my office and we all stared out the windows. By now it looked as if there were a ticker tape parade occurring. The air was filled with 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper blowing through the air.
I immediately picked up the phone and called home. My mother is a worrier. Even though NYC is a huge place, if it happens here, it happens on my block. In this particular instance she was right. She and my father had visited in May and she was VERY aware of my location. She picked up the phone on the second ring. This was a habit from years of working as a bookkeeper. NEVER answer the phone on the first ring. She was cheery, I suspect because she thought I was calling to wish her a happy birthday. Instead I said, “I have no idea what’s going on, but the World Trade Center is on fire. I’m fine, but I wanted to let you know that before you saw the news and got scared. I’ll keep you posted on what’s going on.” I had barely dropped the receiver when the phone rang. It was my boss. He was calling to check on me. He told me that a small plane had crashed into the WTC and reports were differing on what had happened. I assured him that I was fine. He told me he would see me later in the morning and we hung up. I turned, stuck my head out the window and looked back up the street just in time to see the top of the South Tower explode.
It is 9:03 a.m.
I had no idea what had happened. I did not have a TV or radio in my office and the online sources couldn’t tell me any more than I knew first hand. My boss called back and says that it is now being reported that it was two passenger jets that crashed into the buildings and that from all accounts it’s a terrorist attack. I assure him once again that I’m fine. He tells me that he’ll see me later. I’m staring out the window at the fires when a voice comes over the PA system telling me that my office building is being evacuated. I immediately call him back and tell him what is happening. I also tell him that since I have to leave the building I might try and work my way closer to see what’s really happening. He tells me to be careful and we hang up once again. By this time the announcement has been made several more times that there is a mandatory evacuation in effect for my office building.
I grab my cell phone, lock the door behind me and head downstairs. My cereal and coffee are still on my desk. My computer is still on. The lights are still on. There was no doubt that I would be back in the office in just a short while.
The scene on the street is utter chaos. There are people everywhere. All the office buildings are evacuating. No one knows what’s going on. People are pushing to get closer. People are pushing to get out of the mess. I start down the street toward the World Trade Center, fully wanting to get closer to see what was happening. By the time I get to the corner of my street, I give up and go home. There are too many people and it’s clear that I’m not getting anywhere near the action.
I get to my apartment, unlock the door, turn on the TV and FINALLY start piecing together the puzzle. Two passenger jets have crashed into the buildings. The idea that this was a freak accident has passed and now there are reports that it was a terrorist attack. I sit on my couch watching the TV in utter disbelief. My phone rings. It’s my mom wanting to know if I’m okay. I tell her that my building has been evacuated and that I’ve gone home. I assure her that I’m fine.
My phone rings again. It’s my best friend Michelle. She wants to know if I’m okay. I assure her that I am. I’m sitting on my couch talking to Michelle as the first tower begins to fall. The entire thing is surreal. I am chatting with a good friend, while watching this horrible event happen on TV, all of this being accompanied by a tremor of around 2.3 on the Richter scale. My entire apartment was shaking. And just as soon as it started it was over. I was still sitting on my couch, on the phone. Neither of us was speaking. The awe of the devastation we’d just witnessed was overwhelming.
Then I realize the air is filled with debris. I run to the window just in time to see the huge billowing smoke that is so often shown in the footage. My apartment had three 10 foot tall windows facing the street. As I stood watching, the beautiful day was obliterated and replaced with the blackness of night created by the smoke and debris. I hear loud shouting in the hallway. I open the door to find 10 or 12 people there covered in soot. They had been chased down the street by the cloud of smoke and run into my building. The doorman is letting them use the vacant apartment across the hall to clean themselves. I gather up several towels and wash cloths for them to use.
Looking back, I’m amazed that I still had phone service. Both my cell and land lines continued to function.
My phone continues to ring and ring. My boss. My parents. Michelle. Friends from around the country. I’m talking to Michelle again when the second tower falls.
The apartment shakes harder this time. Things falls. What little light that is left of the day is gone.
The sirens have stopped.
It is quiet.
Within minutes Mayor Giuliani issued a full evacuation of lower Manhattan.
I call my mom and tell her that I’m evacuating and that I will call her when I can. I call my boss and tell him that I am fine and that I’m evacuating. I call Michelle and assure her that I’m fine.
I grab a backpack and without much thought I fill it, not realizing that I wouldn’t return to my apartment for several days.
As I leave my building the sky is blue again. I cross the street and pass someone from the hospital handing out face masks. I take one and put it on. I continue to walk, east toward city hall and the Brooklyn Bridge.
My walk out of lower Manhattan still gives me goose bumps. There are 1000’s upon 1000’s of people moving in mass out of the area. No one is talking. There are no conversations. There are no cell phones. There are no sirens. There are no helicopters. Just the silent movement of people in shock moving toward what they hope will be sanity.
I was walked north with the sea of people not knowing where I was going. I had no plan. I walked. Once I passed canal street it occurred to me that with the mass destruction that had just occurred that surely there would be a need for volunteers. Although I really didn’t care for the Salvation Army’s politics I thought that would be a place to start, so I kept heading north, finally getting to the Salvation Army building on 14th street. There were 50 or 60 people there and we were all told the same thing. You have to go through training to volunteer for them. I exited the building, lost again. I was on 14th street and remembered that St. Vincent hospital was just up the street. I could go there and see if they needed any help. I got within a block and a half of the hospital and found myself in a sea of people all looking to do the same. They were there to give blood and volunteer. While I was standing there I heard my phone ring. It was my friend Stacy, who was in town on business. She told me that she was at her hotel and that I could spend the night there if I needed to.
I didn’t return home for three days. When I finally did return it was an adventure to say the least.
I got to my first military checkpoint at Canal Street. I explained that I lived in the financial district and that I needed to get home to get more clothes etc. They wanted to see ID. Unfortunately my drivers license did not have my current address on it. Luckily I had a prescription bottle in my back pack and they allowed me to pass. I passed through seven or eight more checkpoints before I got to my apartment building. It was dark. There was no electricity. No phone. No water. The entire apartment smelled as though it had been on fire for days. There was a fine dust over everything. The windows were covered in soot. I did not want to stay there long.
As I exited my building I asked one of the guards on my corner if there was any place in the area to volunteer. He told me that there was a place about six blocks from where I lived. I made my way there. People were everywhere. Volunteers preparing food. Rescue crews on break. I asked about ten people what I could do to help before someone said to me, “You want to help. Go find bread. It doesn’t matter if it’s fucking hot dog buns. Find some bread.” So that’s what I did. I walked about ten blocks north to a “real” grocery store and bought all the bread they had. When I got back, the guy that had told me to get bread was in awe. I spent the rest of the afternoon there, making food, cleaning tables, etc. Around 10:00 p.m. they asked if I wanted to go to the site and help at St. Paul’s Chapel. I said that I would.
For those not in NYC, St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest church in the city. The rear of the church faced the east side of the World Trade Center. It survived without even a broken window. It is believed that the large sycamore tree in the graveyard behind the church shielded it from destruction.
I got to the church around midnight. The next eight hours were long and grueling. It was an endless parade of rescue workers coming in to rest, sleep, pray. Watching these people come in and spend sometimes as little as fifteen minutes resting before they went back to work was moving. It easy to understand why so many of them face post traumatic stress disorder even today. They worked tirelessly at a job that proved to be futile.
Around 10:00 the next morning, I was shuttled back. I said goodbye to everyone, and started my trek back up town.
It was almost three weeks before I returned home for good.