I arrived at my job at a midtown Manhattan law firm about 7:30 that brilliant Fall morning. With the first reports of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, I tracked down the firm’s technology manager with the key to the big screen television in the largest of the firm’s conference rooms. The screen flickered on just moments after the second plane had hit. We ran out and into the offices of others that worked early that morning and soon the few of us that first stood in shock in that conference room swelled to virtually the entire staff by mid-morning.
I called my husband at his suburban office across the Hudson River when the radio in my office reported the first plane hitting. Being a retired Naval aviator, he said perhaps the pilot of the small plane (as initial reports indicated) had suffered a heart attack or other health crisis since it was easy enough to miss the massive towers and go for the water beyond. When the second plane hit, he knew immediately -- as we all did -- that it was not a small plane and that it was no accident.
I had telephoned my twin sister after the first plane hit the Towers, waking her with the two-hour time difference. She, like my husband, assumed it was a small plane and had drifted back to sleep -- until our youngest sister had called her just minutes later tearfully asking if she had heard from me and describing the second plane hitting the second Tower. While Manhattan telephone service was overwhelmed at the instant the second plane hit, I did have internet access and couldn’t have possibly known when I responded to an email inquiry from a high school friend and Navy vet, “Life as we know it will never be the same. It has forever changed.”
A number of the stores and banks that had initially opened in the early hours to serve the “arriving for work” crowd had closed, but before they left staffs had wheeled television sets into the windows of their establishments and turned the volume high so that those on the street could follow the unfolding story. People in my office told stories of being on buses traversing the Manhattan streets and gazing out and wondering about the clutches of people gathered around shop windows, and not believing the unfolding story after alighting from their buses.
Gary, a legal assistant, was a runner and ran to work every day over the Brooklyn Bridge. When he arrived breathless that morning, he told us how he was half way across the span adjacent to the Towers when he became aware of the sound of an airplane in the vicinity -- planes could not approach any of the area airports via the airspace over Manhattan -- and pulled off his Walkman headset to locate the source of the sound. A number of other people walking over the bridge had also stopped to watch the plane coming across the sky, all believing that the pilot would divert to the water at the last minute, and the screaming that followed when it did not, and the sense of panic that enveloped the crowd as police ran onto the bridge yelling for everyone to “Get off the Bridge!!”
By mid-morning those in the firm that had made it into Manhattan before it was locked down crowded into the conference room; tears were abundant as the images of people falling or jumping from the buildings flickered across the screen and estimates of ten thousand dead filled the airwaves. All of us knew people in the Towers: family, friends, former co‑workers, adversaries. There were small screams and loud gasps when the Pentagon was hit as the reality that the United States was under attack rudely pummeled us. Standing on the inside window ledges of our 28th floor offices we could see the smoke rising from what would later become known as “Ground Zero”. Cries of “No! No!” echoed through the room and many simply stared in utter disbelief when first one, then the other, of the Towers collapsed. To the man (and woman), there was not a New Yorker that ever believed the Towers could or would collapse no matter the disaster. Except that we were attacked, it is still the most incomputable part of that day for me.
Someone called the local hospitals at everyone’s insistence that we should go give blood, only to be told that we should check back in two days, as they couldn’t accommodate the line of people that already stretched around the blocks.
Shortly after the attacks, entry to and exit from Manhattan by vehicle was stopped and we were, effectively, “locked in”. Hotels in Manhattan quickly filled and those of us that lived in the suburbs made arrangements to sleep that evening under desks, on office couches, in office chairs if necessary. Those staff members that lived in other boroughs of New York City began the long journey home on foot. Later that week, they told stories of how people set up impromptu transport spots -- where people with vans and cars would shuttle people from corners in Manhattan to various river crossings and drop them to continue their walks. How people on the other sides of the various bridges would then fill their cars with weary walkers and move them to other spots along their journeys. Other people told stories of how strangers had invited walkers to stop and sit and rest on front stoops of buildings while passing out water and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the tired travelers.
We had no idea how long we would have to remain in Manhattan, so I ventured out of the office late in the morning to stockpile some food from the delicatessens that remained open for those of us that might have to remain. Upon exiting the office building that sat adjacent to Grand Central Station, the first thing I noticed was the unnatural quiet in the city. There were few buses and even fewer cars on the streets that normally harbor bumper-to-bumper traffic virtually 24 hours a day. The few stores that had opened and remained so had radios or televisions blasting so that the sounds of the news coverage carried to the street and radios blasted from passing cabs that had the windows open on the warm day. There were people on the streets, but so few that it might have been late at night rather than midday on a workday in the largest American city.
As I stood in front of the Fox News studios, I managed to get a cell phone call through to my husband. He was anxious that I was out on the streets of Manhattan and no longer ensconced in the relative safety of an office building. As we talked, I watched two fighter jets roar over just above the tops of the skyscrapers, followed moments later by the deafening sound of their engines as it ricocheted between and off the many buildings.
“Hold on a minute,” I said, “there are fighter jets passing overhead and I can’t hear you.”
When the sound had passed he asked tentatively, “Are they ours?”
“Well, yes, they’re ours.” Thinking what an odd question that was.
“How do you know they’re ours?” he asked.
“Well, I can see the insignia on them.”
After we ended our conversation, it settled on me that at that moment we still did not have any idea who was attacking us, or why or when the next attack might come. I also managed to speak with three of our four children, including the sailor who had returned to the United States on a temporary duty assignment from his overseas post just two days before and who would insist a few weeks later on traveling to New York from Norfolk, VA to witness the devastation for himself and for those with whom he served.
I wandered for a while up 6th (the signs say Avenue of the Americas...), through Rockefeller Center, and eventually made my way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue to stand with the mobs that sought solace in their God that day even if they weren’t Catholic.
I returned to the office to find it mostly deserted except for those of us who lived in the northern suburbs further up or across the Hudson River. Early in the afternoon, Grand Central Station had opened, only to be quickly closed again after a number of bomb threats. Late in the afternoon, we received a report that GCS was again open, and a few us decided to attempt to get home -- or at least closer to our homes.
Although our office building was adjacent to the great Grand Central Station complex, it was a two-block walk to the train terminal portion of the underground complex by cutting through the lobbies of the buildings that lay between the terminal entrance and us. That day, the walk was many blocks longer as buildings that sat above GCS had closed their lobbies as a security precaution; we were forced to wind our way with many others around the maze of buildings that comprise the Park Avenue area. While there are many transportation hubs in -- and many entrance/exit points to -- Manhattan, that day, GCS was the only one re-opened. And while there are many entrances to the terminal, there was only one open.
As we turned the corner onto 42nd Street from Park Avenue, we involuntarily stopped and held our breaths as we were greeted with a view of multiple emergency service units, National Guardsmen with automatic weapons and canine units that filled the street. The voice of a policeman standing next to the building urged us on and assured us that all was safe. The throng of people shuffled forward shoulder to shoulder through the doors.
Again I was struck by the utter silence that greeted us inside this massive and grand structure as we slowly advanced on the famous Information Booth. Because it was the only open exodus from Manhattan, the terminal was filled with people as far as the eye could see, and the most prevalent sound was that of shuffling feet. The eerie silence was broken only by people calling out the names of their desired train stop and the faceless voice that called back the track number of the train. Another voice occasionally called out that no tickets were needed and advising travelers to proceed directly to the tracks. There was no idle chatter. No laughing. No crying. I remember the conflict I felt between the sadness and the sense of safety upon seeing the armed National Guardsmen and their canines posted at each of the tunnel entrances and dotting the terminal and gate areas.
The trains had twice as many cars as usual and were standing room only by the time they left the station -- three people sitting willingly wherever possible in seats designed for two. Once again, absent was the usual noise and chatter that accompanied a trip out of Manhattan at the end of a day. No idle talk. No cell phone conversations. Quiet. Reflective. Thankful. There were a number of passengers painted in the thick cake flour dust of the World Trade Center. Faces that had been hastily wiped of the dust still bore the tracks of tears from eyes that wept from dust and that wept for humanity lost that day.
As my train exited the underground portion of the terminal, all eyes were drawn to the break in the landscape that permitted a brief but horrific view of the flames and smoke that rose from the site of the attack. We rode in silence to the first stop. As people rose to exit the train, other passengers called out to their departing brethren who had been complete strangers moments ago, “Safe journey.” “God speed.” It was a ritual that was repeated at each of the many stops made that evening. It would be the only sounds that would invade the silence of the train ride beside the squeak and squeals of the train’s wheels that sounded more like the wails of the grieving.
After exiting the train at the Tarrytown, New York station, those of us that had to cross the Hudson River for Rockland County boarded buses for the trek across the Tappan Zee Bridge. The bus approached the bridge just as the sun was dipping below the horizon and we could see the southbound lanes of the bridge had become a parking lot of vehicles trying to enter New York City, which remained closed to inbound traffic. I could see people perched on the hoods and roofs of their cars as we passed on the northbound side; some were talking on phones, some were apparently napping.
As we approached center span, I and everyone else on that bus gasped as we caught an unobstructed view down the Hudson River to the smoke that glowed a fierce crimson red at its base and the upper reaches of which were brilliantly backlit by klieg lights that now lit the search for survivors at Ground Zero. I would recall that sight each of the too many nights that others and I turned in our bus seats to look back at Ground Zero as we exited the Hudson River tunnels into New Jersey... all the nights through the winter months that the ground glowed and the smoke billowed at Ground Zero
Our bus dropped us off at the commuters’ parking lot and I was dismayed at the number of cars that were still there at the late hour. I am still haunted by the memory of the cars that remained unmoved through the remainder of that week and through that first weekend until they were towed or removed by family -- windshields covered in sympathy cards and notes from people saying that they were praying or that they hoped the people were ok.
On that October morning, we walked around a number of blocks of rubble at Ground Zero. Again, although there were multitudes of people walking around the site, the relative quiet of the scene was noticeable and sticks in my memory. There was little talking and there were quite a few people weeping quietly. My only reaction -- having been at the Towers so many times before -- was a whispered, “Oh, my God,” at each turn. The only real sound that day was the sound of the heavy equipment working the mountains of debris and the occasional direction from the New York National Guard members who guarded the site and blocked access to, “Move along.” As we had walked along blocks adjacent to World Trade Center, it was impossible not to notice the caked dust on all the facades of the buildings and caked in the rungs of the fire escapes that are fixtures on the outsides of the older buildings... the dust making the gargoyles on the buildings more garish and menacing as we passed. The dust was not "dust" as you and I might find in our homes or offices -- but a thick grey residue that had the consistency of cake flour... compact, moist, thick.
It was nearly impossible not to stop every block to turn and stand with our mouths agape. The sheer magnitude of the devastation could never be captured in film or on the little screen of the television. I compare it to seeing the Sphinx or the Great Pyramids or the Grand Canyon: no picture can ever capture the depth and breadth of the scene that unfolded. After having witnessed that scene, it became -- and remains -- my opinion that had we not had the need to recover the remains of the murdered, Ground Zero should have been left as it was on 9-11 until every person in the U.S. and everywhere else in the world that cherished freedom and representative government had witnessed and experienced the horror that was Ground Zero. I took many people to Ground Zero over the years we remained in New York. It's impact on me did not diminish with time or the stages of debris removal. I have never been to GZ without tears.
The other image that has stayed with me from the period of time immediately following 9-11, was the NYC Columbus Day Parade that year. I know there was great debate about whether to hold the parade, as had Major League Baseball and the National Football League… seeking the balance between grieving the dead and celebrating that the attacks on our country had not dimmed the American spirit. Many businesses in Manhattan are closed on Columbus Day, but not the law firm for which I worked. The Columbus Day Parade is a boisterous celebration of Italian Americans and is one of the premier parades during the year along with the more famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
As I walked that day from 6th Avenue and 42nd Street through the city to 45th and Park Avenue, my path crossed the staging area of the parade floats which were parked along both curbs. As it was just past 7:30 in the morning, and given the holiday, the streets were mostly deserted. I remember it was a particularly brisk morning for that early in the Fall and I could see my breath as I walked. As I turned down one street, I noticed that the empty floats were each guarded by either a National Guardsman or a New York City policeman. As I walked, I closed upon the only other pedestrian on the entire block -- an extremely well dressed gentleman in his 50’s with a smart hat and cashmere coat. In one hand, he held the handle of a stylish attaché and balanced on his left arm and held with a glove-clad hand was the lid of a box that held 10-12 cups of steaming coffee from the local bakery. I stopped briefly to watch as he made his way to each soldier and policeman on this cold morning dispensing coffee and creamers and offering his thanks to each one. To this day, I regret not having my camera to snap the picture of this solitary man and these guardians on that lonely street. It captured for me just one of many ways in which we all changed on “that day”.
After 9-11, like others that traveled there every day, I became used to entering the tunnels under the Hudson River being guarded by police officers with side arms, but exiting in the evening guarded by Guardsmen with automatic weapons in response to some threat or other. We learned to take it in stride when our path on the city streets was blocked by armor-vested patrolmen responding to a threat ‑‑ simply detouring around a corner without a second thought. It was not unusual after 9-11 to have people look up to track the path of a low-flying police helicopter to determine whether we needed to change direction or move in the direction opposite whatever trouble the helicopter might be navigating towards. But New Yorkers went to shows and concerts. Traveled. Conducted business. Reveled on New Year’s Eve. New Yorkers, like most Americans, were on guard -- became more vigilant -- but could not be stopped from the American way of life. And while we remain on guard -- and at war -- we will not be deterred from the mission. We will not be defeated nor subjugated nor deterred.