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Monday, September 11, 2006
My 9/11 story
Sept 11, 2001 was a surreal day.
I was standing about a block from the World Trade Center towers when they began to fall. Some people close to me don't like watching the coverage on days like today... they don't want to relive the day.
Somewhat surprisingly, over the course of the last 5 years, I've found myself wanting to watch coverage almost whenever I see it. I can't quite figure out why, but I think it's because my memories of that day are fuzzy (and always have been, even a couple days after 9/11), and I'm constantly searching to remind myself of the things I did, thought, felt, etc.
I've never before written down my experiences of the day. But I want to do it now, so I always have a record and the memories don't get fuzzier as the years go on. This is a story I imagine I'll be telling for awhile.
Here's my 9/11 story:
I spent the night of Monday, September 10th at my then-girlfriend's (now wife) apartment in Brooklyn Heights. She was starting her first day as a 3rd grade teacher at St. Ann's the next day - her first job out of college. I was about a month into my job as a technology investment banker at Lehman Brothers, based on the 17th Floor of the World Financial Center.
Becca was obviously nervous to start work, and probably left the apartment to walk the couple blocks to school around 7.45 or 8am. I was reading the first Harry Potter book, paperback edition, at the time, and I remember being so into it that I read some after Becca left and before I took a shower. After my shower I changed into the suit I had brought the night before, and was ready to leave. I normally would take the N/R subway 3 stops from Court St in Brooklyn Heights to the Cortlandt Street stop, which was in the underground mall one floor down from the lobby of the World Trade Center. I would walk up the stairs, through the lobby of the North tower (just passed the elevators), up another escalator, and over the sky-bridge to the World Financial Center.
For some reason, because JK Rowling's writing had me hooked, I decided that I didn't need to get to work so early that day, and I had time to read a little more. So I laid back down on Becca's bed, fully dressed in my suit, and read. It was probably 8.20 or 8.25. It's something I had never done before - usually after showering and changing it was time to leave. Perhaps it was because Becca's first day nervousness had woken me up earlier than I needed.
After probably 10-15 minutes of reading, I headed out, Harry Potter in hand (of course I continued reading on the subway). I probably entered the Manhattan-bound N/R at about 8.45am.
At some point on the subway, probably when we were in the tunnel under the East River approaching the Whitehall St stop, an announcement came in the subway car that there was "police activity" and a "smoke condition" at the Cortlandt St stop, so the train would not be stopping there. They repeated this many times. Passengers were confused, but there was no reason to suspect anything awful. The announcement didn't say anything about the train not going through Cortlandt St., but the stop before, Rector Street, would put me closer to where I needed to go than the stop after, City Hall, so I figured I'd get out at Rector Street.
When the subway doors opened at Rector Street, I immediately new something was terribly wrong. [And this is where I wish I could remember more details, but things get somewhat fuzzy]. There were way more people in the station than there would normally be, and a number were crying, yelling, screaming, and looking confused. I remember immediately the adrenaline kicking in. I remember looking around to make sure there wasn't a gunman or someone terrorizing people in the subway station. I then remember running up the stairs because it seemed safer... there was something happening in the station, and I needed to get out of there.
When I got out into the open air, I remember I saw paper swirling around in the air overhead. I didn't know what was happening. I was at the junction of Rector St. and Trinity Place. Looking up Trinity Place, I couldn't see the towers, but I could see smoke in the air. I walked up Trinity Place a few steps until the towers came into view, and I was looking straight at one of the gaping holes. It must have been around 9.08, about 5 minutes after the second tower had been hit.
I remember almost immediately calling my parents in California. I woke up my mom, and asked told her to "Turn on CNN and tell me what's going on with the World Trade Center". I don't think I could see that both towers were burning from my vantage point, so I remember thinking that it must have been a bomb in the building. My mom turned it on and eventually said that they suspected it was a small airplane. I remember saying that the hole looked much bigger than what would be caused by a small plane. I also remember that my mom said something like "They said it might be the IRA". Maybe my mom misheard something, or maybe they speculated about this on the TV.
The next 30-45 minutes are really fuzzy in my mind. I stayed on the phone with my parents for awhile. Then I hung up and tried to get in touch with other people - my brother, who lived uptown in Manhattan, my girlfriend at school, my roommate, etc., but the cell phone circuits were busy for every call I tried to make over the next few hours. It was very lucky that I had gotten in touch with my parents when I did, because I wasn't able to get anyone else on the phone until much later.
I walked around, continuously trying to make calls, while determining whether I should go to work, and how I would get there. I was on the exact opposite side of the World Trade Center complex (and it was a large complex, not just 2 buildings) from where I worked. But for a long time I thought that I should just wait for a little while until they got the fire out and I could safely walk around to where I worked.
The streets were very surreal. There were papers swirling in the air, and on the street. Everywhere I walked there were random papers on the street that had flown out of the towers. I remember seeing shoes on the streets - not lots, but more than 5. There were thousands of people lining the sidewalks staring up at the buildings. It seemed like everyone was doing what I was doing - just looking up amazed at what was going on. Many citizens were trying to help direct traffic to enable the many ambulances and fire trucks to get through faster - I remember being very impressed by this. New Yorkers are notoriously unhelpful, but many were doing what they could.
At some point I remember giving up on getting to work. The fire didn't seem to be going out. I figured they'd understand if I couldn't get to work that day, or at least until later that afternoon. So I slowly began to walk away from the towers, just to get away from the commotion.
I'd walked probably about a 3rd of a block east from Trinity St / Church St, on either Cortlandt or Dey St (I can't remember which), when I heard a rumbling. Immediately in my mind, I remember thinking that one of the towers was toppling, and that I needed to run as fast as I could to the east so that if it toppled my direction I would get far enough away that it wouldn't land on me. Perhaps that's a cartoonish reaction, but that's what I thought at the time. I sprinted, as did everyone around me.
I kept looking up over my shoulder to see which was the tower was falling, and remember being relieved that it looked like it was falling down on itself rather than toppling over. But as I looked I saw the enormous plume of smoke grow and grow and gain speed towards me. I was on a fairly narrow street surrounded by office buildings, and the smoke made its way very quickly toward us. I remember at one point looking back and seeing the smoke turn a corner around a building extremely fast. It looked just like something out of a movie.
I remember following a small group of people into a door in a building just as the cloud of smoke caught up to me. It must have been virtually simultaneous, or I got in a second or two before the cloud caught up, because otherwise I would not have been able to see the door. I was one of the last people that went through the door before they closed it to keep out the smoke.
I found myself in a kind of a loading dock in a big building, with a group of about 10 other people. We were relieved to be out of the smoke. No one was panicing or crying at this point. We all seemed to be in survival mode. Very quickly, smoke and dust began to seep into the loading dock under the large metal doors that opened for trucks. We all looked at it worriedly - we didn't know what was in it or how well we'd be able to breathe.
We started talking about what to do. We knew we couldn't stay in the loading dock indefinitely. We knew it would be hard or impossible to see when we left the loading dock, so we tried to describe to each other what we remembered about the area just outside the door, and which was to go to get towards clean air. It wasn't just a door in the side of a building; there was an escalator somewhere out there that we were trying to remember the location of, and steps, and we didn't want to hurt ourselves.
Eventually, when the loading dock had gotten very smoky, we got together by the door and lined up, each person's arms on the shoulders of the person in front. We decided to go out and to the right. Immediately when we got out into the debris cloud, it was practically impossible to see. I remember the air was a very dark grey, with a slightly orange hue. We turned in the direction we thought was best - the air was a lighter grey that direction, so we figured that was right.
Eventually we could kind of see so we didn't need to stay together anymore. I remember trying to open my eyes as small as possible, because the air stung. And I remember keeping my arm over my mouth and trying to breathe through my suit jacket, because otherwise your mouth would fill up with dust very quickly.
After about a minute or two of walking, I had gotten to a better area, but my eyes were stinging. I saw a door to a Hallmark shop, so I went in there. The air was fairly clean in there. I can't remember if I talked to anyone, but I tried to clean out my mouth and eyes before heading out again to continue moving away from the area.
I kept walking east and north towards the lighter gray air, continuously spitting out dust and rubbing my eyes. I remember finding myself in areas of Manhattan I had no familiarity with - over under the Brooklyn Bridge, through a section of Chinatown, parts of the Lower East Side. I kept walking east and north. I remember stopping to get a bottle of water at a deli, to wash out my eyes and mouth, and being annoyed that the man was charging for it - a selfishly small concern at the time, but I thought he wasn't doing his part to help out on this awful day.
It was at some point right around when I got the water that I saw a television in a store window showing that the second tower had fallen. I remember feeling hopeless and powerless. I didn't cry. It was so surreal that I was more stunned than anything. I was walking in a total daze.
I quickly determined that I didn't want to go to my apartment, which was on the 14th floor of an apartment building on the same block as the Empire State Building. Didn't seem like the safest place to be on that day. My brother lived on the Upper East Side, which is about as far as geographically possible from the WTC, so I figured I'd walk in that direction. It was about 6 miles north.
The farther north I got, the more looks I started to get. I was no longer surrounded by people who'd been there and were walking away. My suit was completely grey, covered with debris. I had the dust in my hair, on my hands, and in the cracks of shoes. I remember one person looked at me, dropped her jaw, and said, in accented English, "you were there?". I just nodded a bit and walked on... not wanted to explain that I hadn't actually been in the buildings, which is what she probably assumed.
One of the last things I remember is passing the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge, which goes from Manhattan to Queens. There were oceans and oceans of people just swarming across the bridge. It was all people - no cars. I remember being amazed at the amount of people trying to get off Manhattan. Certainly many of them lived there, but many must have also just wanted to get as far away as possible.
I eventually got in touch with my brother and met him a few blocks from his apartment. I walked there with him, changed out of my clothes in the hallway and put them in a plastic bag, and went into the shower. Amazingly, though I hadn’t realized it until I saw my brother, I was still holding my paperback copy of Harry Potter, despite everything that had just happened.
Becca called while I was in the shower, and I told Eoin to tell her I'd call her back, which she was a little annoyed about later. Her day had been horrible. A few minutes into her first day as a teacher, they'd gotten word of the attacks and had to take the children, that they didn't know, into the basement for safety. Down there she had to comfort children while not knowing where I was or if I'd been going through the towers when they were hit or fell. At one point during the hours she was down there waiting for parents to pick up their children, Becca's roommate came to the school. She thought I worked in the WTC, not WFC, and her mother had told her on the phone, with good reason, that I was likely dead and that she needed to go comfort Becca. Becca corrected her about where I worked, but it still must have been scary to hear something like that and not say for certain that she'd spoken to me and that I was okay.
After getting out of the shower and using the phone to finally talk to Becca and my parents again, I sat with my brother and his girlfriend watching coverage for a few hours. I don’t remember talking much. I just sat there. I didn’t want to go to my apartment.
Eventually, I decided to go to Becca’s house in Brooklyn for the night. It was impossible to get there for awhile – subways were only running outside of Manhattan, so I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I can’t remember eventually how it happened – I think they turned on a few subways and I took one to somewhere out of the way in Brooklyn and walked. I do remember going very briefly to my house to pick up some clothes. I wanted to spend as few minutes as possible in my apartment because of its proximity to the Empire State Building. I was probably in and out in 2 minutes, and made my way somehow to Brooklyn.
I stayed in Brooklyn for most of the rest of that week. Work was cancelled, and I dialed-in to the group business contingency calls where people were assembling. Work started the next week at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown – our WFC building had a corner sliced off by the falling towers, so I never set foot in that office again. A few months later, someone was sent in and each person was allowed 30 seconds of that person’s time to retrieve select items (nothing with dust on it). We worked out of hotel rooms for 4 months.
I did not have any close friends or family killed in the attacks. One person from our company died. One person I knew from college died.
Overall, my reaction to September 11th these days, looking back on it, is that I was lucky. If the timing had been just right, I could have been walking through the lobby of the World Trade Center as one of the planes hit. If I hadn’t read a little extra Harry Potter, the timing might have been fairly close.
I also feel lucky that I was not closer to the towers, or in a huge crowd of people, when the towers started to come down. If I hadn’t been able to get into that loading dock, I might have breathed in a lot more debris, or gotten stuck or run-over.
Most of all, I’m still in awe that something like this happened, and I’m terribly sorry for the thousands that died, and the hundreds of thousands that were more closely affected than I was.