on September 9, 2011
Sunday will be the tenth anniversary of 9/11. For those of you who don’t know, my husband (also known as He Who Shall Not Be Named In This Blog) was working in an office building across the street from the Twin Towers, and was sitting at his desk when the first plane hit.
I’m going to re-post an entry I wrote a while ago about the experience my husband and I shared on 9/11, not because I think it’s so well-written or anything, but because I think the memories from that day shouldn’t be forgotten.
But I also know that some people come to this blog looking for an escape from bad memories, not to relive them (hey, that’s why I come here, too). So for all of you, I’m also posting a link to this Back To School quiz. May the Force be with you.
For the rest of you, here is this:
On 9/11 I got woken up in my Greenwich Village apartment by a phone call from my friend Jen. I was still asleep when the first plane hit. 9/11/2001 was one of those rare days where sloth was rewarded. I know several people who are still alive today because they were late to work that morning, or stopped to get coffee to help them feel a little less groggy.
“Look out your window,” Jen said.
That is when I saw the smoke.
I called my husband’s office first thing. I couldn’t see his building from our apartment, but I could see the building ACROSS from his, which was the Trade Center, and black smoke was billowing out of it.
What was happening? I wondered. Jen didn’t know. No one knew.
Was he all right? I knew he worked on a really high floor, and it looked as if whatever had happened to that tower across from his, it had to be happening right in front of his office window.
I couldn’t get through to him. I couldn’t make any outgoing calls from my phone that day. For some reason, people could call me, but I couldn’t call anyone else.
It turned out this was due to the massive volume of calls going on in my part of the city that day.
But I didn’t know that then.
Sirens started up. It was the engine from the firehouse across the street from my apartment building. It was a very small firehouse. All the guys used to sit outside it on folding chairs on nice days, joshing with the neighbors who were walking their dogs, and with my doormen. The old ladies on my street always brought them cookies.
9/11/01 was a very, very nice day. The sky was a very pure blue, not a single cloud, and it was warm outside.
Now all the firemen from the station across from my apartment building were rushing out to the fire downtown.
Every last one of them would be dead in an hour. But none of us knew that then.
I turned on New York 1, the local news channel for New York City. Pat Kiernan, my favorite newscaster, was saying that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
Weird, I thought. Was the pilot drunk? How could someone not see a building that big, and run into it with a plane?
It was right then that Luz, my housekeeper, showed up. I’d forgotten it was Tuesday, the day she comes to clean. When she saw what I was watching, she looked worried.
“I just dropped my son off at his college,” she said. “It’s right next to the World Trade Center.”
“My husband works across the street from the World Trade Center,” I said.
“Is he all right?” Luz wanted to know. “What’s happening down there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t reach him.”
Luz tried to call her son on his cell phone. She, too, could not get through.
We didn’t know that our cell servers used towers that were located on top of the World Trade Center, and they all had stopped working.
We both stood there staring at the TV, not really knowing what to do. It was as we were watching that something weird happened on the TV, right before our eyes: a part of the OTHER tower—the one that hadn’t been hit—suddenly exploded.
I thought maybe one of the helicopters that was filming the disaster had gotten too close and hit the tower.
But Luz said, “No. A plane hit it. I saw it. That was a plane.”
I hadn’t seen a plane. I said, “No. No, how could that be? There can’t be TWO drunk pilots.”
“You don’t understand,” Luz said. “They’re doing this on purpose.”
“No,” I said. “Of course they aren’t. Who would do that?”
That’s when Pat Kiernan, on the TV, said, “Oh, my God.”
It’s weird to hear a newscaster say, “Oh, my God.” Especially Pat. He is always very professional.
Also, Pat’s voice cracked when he said it. Like he was about to cry.
But newscasters don’t cry.
“Another plane has hit the World Trade Center,” Pat said. “It looks as if another plane—a commercial jet—has hit the World Trade Center. And we are getting reports that a plane has just hit the Pentagon.”
That’s when I grabbed Luz. And Luz grabbed me. And we both started to cry. We sat on the couch in my living room, hugging each other, and crying as we watched what was happening on TV . . . which was what was happening a few dozen blocks from where we sat, where both the people we loved were.
We could see things flying out of the burning buildings. Pat said that those things were people.
That’s when my phone rang. I grabbed it, but it wasn’t my husband. It was his mother. Where was he? she wanted to know. Was he all right?
I said I didn’t know. I said I was trying to keep the line clear, in case he called. She said she understood but to call her as soon as I heard anything, and hung up.
Then the phone rang again. It was my husband’s sister-in-law. Then it rang again. It was MY mother.
The phone rang all morning. It was never my husband. It was always family or friends, wondering if he was all right.
“I don’t know,” I kept telling them. “I don’t know–”
Luz went up to the roof of my building to see if she could see anything more from there than what they were showing on New York 1. While she was gone, I went into my bedroom to get dressed (I was still wearing my pajamas).
All I could think, as I looked into my closet, trying to figure out what to wear, was that my husband was probably dead. I didn’t see how anybody could be down in that part of Manhattan and still be alive. All I could see were things falling—and people jumping—out of those buildings. Anyone on the streets down below would have to be killed by all of that.
I remember exactly what I put on that day: olive green capris and a black T-shirt, with my black Steve Madden slides. I remember thinking, “This will be my Identifying My Dead Husband’s Body outfit. I will never, ever wear it again after this day.”
I knew this because when I worked at the dorm at NYU, we had quite a few students kill themselves, in various ways. Every time a body was discovered, it was so horrible. All the people involved in the discovery could never wear the same clothes we wore that day again, because those clothes would be forever associated with that student’s death.
Luz came back down from the roof, very excited. No, she hadn’t seen if the buildings in which my husband and her son were in were all right. But she’d seen thousands—THOUSANDS—of people coming down 4th Avenue, the busy street I lived off of at the time.
4th Avenue is always crazy crowded with honking cars, buses, taxis, bike messengers, you name it.
Not today. Today all the cars and buses were gone, and the entire avenue was crowded with people.
“Walking,” Luz said. “They’re WALKING DOWN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET.”
I ran to look out the window. Luz was right. Instead of the constant stream of cars I’d gotten used to seeing outside our living room, I saw wall to wall people. They had taken over the street. They were coming from the Battery, where the Trade Center is located, shoulder to shoulder, ten deep in the middle of the road, like a parade or a rally. There were tens of thousands of them.
There were men in business suits, and some in khakis. There were women in skirts and dresses, walking barefoot or in shredded pantyhose, holding their shoes because their high heels hurt too much and they hadn’t had time to grab their commuter running shoes.
I saw the ladies who worked in the manicure shop across the street from my building running outside with the flip flops they put on their customers’ feet when they’ve had a pedicure (the flip flops the staff always make sure they get back before you leave).
But today, the staff was giving the flip flops to the women who were barefoot. They were giving away the flip flops.
That’s when I got REALLY freaked out.
The manicurists weren’t the only ones trying to help. The men who worked in the deli on the corner were running outside with bottles of water to give to the hot, thirsty marchers. New York City deli owners, GIVING water away. Usually they charged $2.
It was like the world had turned upside down.
“They have to be in there,” Luz said, about her son and my husband, pointing to the crowd. “They’re walking with them, and that’s what’s taking so long.”
Then Luz ran downstairs to see if anyone in the crowd was coming from the same college her son went to, anyone who might have seen him.
I was afraid to leave my apartment, though, because I thought my husband might try to call. Not knowing what else to do, I logged onto the computer. The Internet was still working, even if the phones weren’t. I emailed my husband:
WHERE ARE YOU?
A friend from Indiana had emailed to ask if there was anything she could do. At the time, the only thing I could think of was:
My friend, and everyone she knew, gave blood that day. So many people gave blood that there were lines around the corner to give it.
And after a month, a lot of that surplus blood had to be destroyed, because they didn’t have room to store it all. And there turned out to be no use for it, anyway. There were few survivors.
My friend Jen, the one who’d woken me up, e’d me from her job at NYU. Fred (out of respect for this person’s desire for anonymity, I have changed his name here), one of Jen’s employees, and also a volunteer EMT, had jumped on his bike and headed downtown to see if there was anything he could do to help.
Jen herself was organizing a massive effort to set up shelter for students who didn’t live on campus, since the subway and trains had stopped running, and the kids who commuted to school would have no way of getting home that night. Jen was trying to arrange for cots to be set up in the gym for them.
She ended up sleeping on cots right alongside them that night, and for the next three nights after that, because she herself lived in Connecticut, and had no way home either.
Another co-worker from NYU, my friend Jack, did manage to reach his spouse, who worked in the Trade Center, that day.
Jack’s wife had just walked eighty floors to reach the ground safely, only to realize the guys in her IT department were still up there, backing up data for the company (oh, you sweet IT guys). Once she reached the ground, and saw how bad things really were, she tried calling them to tell them to forget backing up.
JUST COME DOWN, she wanted to tell them.
But she couldn’t get hold of them.
So she went back up to MAKE THEM come down, because who doesn’t love their IT guys?
“Why did you go back up?” Jack asked her, when he finally reached her. By that time she, along with the IT guys, had become trapped in the fire and smoke.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.
Of course it did. She was married to Jack. Jack would have done the same thing. She told Jack to say goodbye to their twins toddlers for her. That was the last he ever heard from her.
I can never think of this, or of Jack’s happy, cheerful greeting every time I saw him, without wanting to cry.
Another friend, a pilot who had access to air traffic control radar, e’d me to say all the planes in the U.S. were being grounded . . . that what had happened had been the result of highjackings. That it was a commercial jet that had hit the Pentagon, where my friend’s father-in-law worked (they eventually found him, safe and sound. He’d been stuck in traffic on his way to the Pentagon when the plane hit).
But another friend–-a girl I’d worked with when I’d been a receptionist in my husband’s office, a girl whom I’d helped pick out a wedding dress, and who, since the big day, had quit her job to raise the four kids she’d had–-wasn’t so lucky. She never saw her husband, who worked at the Trade Center, again after he left for work that day.
Then, behind me, I heard Pat Kiernan on the TV say, “Oh, my God,” again.
And this time he really WAS crying. Because one of the towers was collapsing.
I watched, not believing my eyes. Since having moved to New York City in 1989, I had become accustomed to using the Twin Towers as my own personal compass point for the direction “South,” since the Towers are on the southern tip of the island, and visible from dozens of blocks away.
Wherever you were in the maze of streets that made up the Village, all you had to do to orient yourself was find the Twin Towers, and you knew which direction to go in. If you ever watched closely during the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” you can see the towers beneath the Washington Square arch in the scene where Sally drops Harry off when they first arrive in New York.
I have seen that view thousands of times since arriving in the city myself, since I worked at NYU, which is on Washington Square. And now one of those towers was coming down.
I don’t remember anything else about that moment except that the front door to my apartment opened, and, assuming it was Luz back from the street, I turned to tell her, “It’s falling down! It’s FALLING DOWN!”
Only it wasn’t Luz. It was my husband.
He said, “What’s falling down? Why are you crying?”
Because he had no idea. HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON.
Because my husband, being my husband, had picked up his briefcase after the first plane hit and said, “Let’s go,” to everyone in his department, took the elevators downstairs, and insisted everyone start walking for ourapartment, because it was the closest place to where they were that seemed unlikely to be hit by an airplane.
(He told me later he’d worried the terrorists were going to try for the Stock Exchange, or the federal buildings you always see on Law and Order, and so had made everyone take the long way home around those buildings, which is why it had taken them forever to our place.)
They had to dodge the bodies of the people who jumped from the burning towers because they couldn’t stand the heat anymore. They saw the desk chairs and PCs that had been blown out of the offices so high above littering the street like tickertape from a parade.
They saw the second plane hit while they were on the street, and ducked into a cell phone store until the rubble from the explosion settled. A piece of plane, nearly twenty feet long, flew past them, and landed harmlessly in a parking lot, just missing Trinity Church, one of the oldest churches in this country.
And they kept walking.
I don’t know what people normally do when someone they love, who they were convinced was dead, suddenly walks through the door. All I know is how I reacted:
I flung my arms around him. And then I started yelling, “WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL ME?”
“I tried, I couldn’t get through,” he said. “What’s falling down?”
Because they had no idea. All they knew was that the city was under attack (which they had surmised by all the airplanes).
So my husband and his colleagues gathered in our living room—hot, thirsty, but alive, and the ones who lived in New Jersey wondering how (and if) they were going to get home.
(Eventually, that night, they caught special emergency ferries . . . and when they arrived on the Jersey side, they were hosed down by people in Haz-Mat suits, in case they were carrying “chemicals” on their clothes. At that time, there was some belief the planes might have been carrying nuclear weapons or something. No one realized the collapsed buildings themselves might have given off toxic chemicals. They were each given a single paper towel with which to dry off.)
Luz, not wanting to go home until she’d heard from her son, who was supposed to meet her after class in my building, cleaned. I told her not to, but she said it helped keep her mind off what was happening.
So she vacuumed, while eleven people sat in my two room apartment and watched the Twin Towers fall.
It wasn’t long after the second tower came down that our friends David and Susan from Indiana, who lived in a beautiful condo in the shadow of the Twin Towers with their two children, showed up at our door, their kids and half the employees from their office (which was in our neighborhood) behind them.
They had been some of the people shown on the news escaping from the massive dust cloud that erupted when the towers fell. They’d abandoned their daughter Shai’s stroller and run for it, while shop owners tossed water on their backs as they passed by, to keep their clothes from catching on fire.
In their typical way, however, they had stopped on their way to our place to pick up some bagels.
(For all they knew, their apartment was burning down, or being buried under ten feet of rubble. But they’d stopped for bagels, because they’d been worried people might be hungry. Or maybe people just do things in times like that to try to be normal. I don’t know. They didn’t forget the cream cheese, either.)
I took the kids into my bedroom, where there was a second TV, because I didn’t think they should see what everyone was watching in the living room, which was footage of what they had just escaped from.
I set up my Playstation for Jake, who was seven or so at the time, while Shai, who’d be turning 4 the very next day, and I did a puzzle on my floor. Both kids were worried about Mr. Fluff, their pet rabbit, whom they’d been forced to leave behind in their apartment, because there’d been no time to get him (their parents had run from work and grabbed both kids from school).
“Do you think Mr. Fluff is all right?” Jake wanted to know.
At the time, I didn’t see how anything south of Canal Street could be alive, but I told Jake I was sure Mr. Fluff was fine.
This was when Shai and I had the following conversation:
“Are planes going to fly into THIS building?” Shai wanted to know. She was crying as she looked out the windows of my thirteenth floor apartment.
Me: “No. No planes are going to fly into this building.”
Shai (still crying): “How do you know?”
Me: “Because all the planes are grounded. No more planes are allowed in the air.”
Me: “No. Just until the bad guys who did this get caught.”
Shai: “Who’s going to catch the bad guys?”
Me: “The police will catch them.”
Shai: “No, they won’t. All the police are dead. I saw them going into the building that just fell down.”
Me (trying not to cry): “Shai. Not all the police are dead.”
Shai (crying harder): “Yes, they ARE. I SAW THEM.”
Me (showing Shai a picture from my family photo album of a policeman in his uniform): “Shai, this is my brother, Matt. He’s a policeman. And he’s not dead, I promise. And he, and other policemen like him, and probably even the Army, will catch the bad guys.”
Shai (no longer crying): “Okay.”
And she went back to her puzzle.
Watching from my living room window, we saw the crowds of people streaming out from what was soon to be called, forever after, Ground Zero, thin to a trickle, then stop altogether. That was when 4th Avenue became crowded with vehicular traffic again. But not taxis or bike messengers.
Soon, our building was shaking from the wheels of hundreds of Humvees and Army trucks, as the National Guard moved in. The Village was blockaded from 14th Street down. You couldn’t come in or out without showing proof (a piece of mail with your name and address on it, along with a photo ID) that you lived there.
The next day, after having spent the night on our fold-out couch in the living room, Shai’s parents snuck back to their apartment. They had to sneak, because the National Guard wasn’t letting anyone at all, even with proof that they lived there, into the area within a block of Ground Zero. For weeks afterwards, on every corner from 14th Street down, stood a National Guardsman, armed with an assault rifle. For days, you couldn’t get milk, bread, or a newspaper below Union Square because they weren’t allowing any delivery trucks—or any vehicles at all, except Army vehicles—into the area.
There, they found Mr. Fluff alive and well.
They snuck him back out, so that later that day, we were able to put the entire family on a bus to the Hamptons—where they celebrated Shai’s birthday, and lived for the rest of the year, until their apartment got cleaned and cleared for human habitation again.
As my husband and I were walking back to our apartment from the bus stop where we’d seen off our friends, we saw a familiar face standing on the corner of 4th Avenue and 12th Street, where we lived:
Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea Clinton, asking people in our neighborhood if we were all right, and if there was anything they could do to help.
I didn’t go up to shake the ex-President’s hand, because I was too shy.
But I stood there watching him and Chelsea, and something about seeing them, so genuinely concerned and kind (and not there for press or publicity, because there WAS no press, there was never any mention of their visit AT ALL in any newspaper or on any news broadcast I saw that day), made me burst into tears, after having held them in the whole time Shai had been in my apartment, since no one wanted to upset her by crying in front of her.
Both ex-President Clinton and Chelsea had been crying. Rudy Giuliani, our mayor, who had not been very popular in NYC at the time for numerous reasons, including cheating on his very nice wife, Donna Hanover, who used to be on the Food Network, kept showing up on New York 1, no matter what time you turned it on, even at two in the morning, there he was, like he never slept, always telling us it was going to be all right, which was BRILLIANT. Except that he, just like the rest of us, was also crying.
Because you couldn’t NOT cry. It was impossible. Everyone was doing it . . . so much so that the deli across the street put a sign in its window: “No Crying, Please.” Our doormen were crying. People in our building had not come home on 9/11. No one from the fire station across the street had come back. I felt so, so lucky to have my husband when other wives and husbands weren’t so fortunate.
The same day we put Shai and her family on a bus to the Hamptons, September 12,companies—even RIVAL companies–all over Manhattan offered up their conference rooms and spare offices to my husband’s company, so that it would be able to remain in business, since all its windows had been blown out, and asbestos had fallen all over everything. In fact, from that office my husband was able to save only one thing: a picture of our beloved cat, Jenny, whom we’d had to put to put to sleep the year before, at age 20, from kidney disease.
On his way in to gather sensitive data that needed removing from his office, a few days after 9/11–he was the only person in the company who lived in Manhattan, so he was elected the man for this duty–my husband had to pass through the Brooks Brothers in his building’s foyer, from which he had bought so many of his business shirts and ties. The Brooks Brothers was now serving as Ground Zero’s morgue.
While under escort of the National Guard retrieving his company’s data, he and the National Guardsmen–the first to enter his floor since the event–found a body in an emergency stairwell. It was determined to be the body of someone from another office, who had probably suffered a heart attack while trying to evacuate. The body was removed and taken to the morgue while my husband watched. He threw away the clothes he wore that day.
For the next week in Lower Manhattan, even if you wanted to forget, for a minute, what had happened on that cloudless Tuesday morning, you couldn’t. The front window of my apartment building filled with Missing Person posters of loved ones that had been lost in the Trade Center. The front doors of my local fire station filled with flowers and black bunting. The old ladies who used to bring cookies to the fire station stood in front of it and cried.
You couldn’t go outside during that week without smelling the acrid smoke from Ground Zero…and, in fact, you were encouraged to wear surgical masks outdoors. An eerie grey fog covered everything. Some of us tried to brave it by not wearing masks—like Londoners in the Blitz—meeting for lunch like nothing had happened, but the smoke burned your eyes.
It wasn’t until workers from a barbecue restaurant drove all the way to Manhattan from Memphis, and stationed their tanker-sized smokers right next to Ground Zero, and then started giving away free barbecue to all the rescue workers there for weeks on end, that the smell changed to something other than death.
Everyone loved those guys. It was just barbecue. But it wasn’t just barbecue. It was life.
It’s been ten years since 9/11, but it’s still a day I cannot write about without crying. It’s a day I can’t even THINK about without crying.
Strangely enough, the thing that makes me cry most of all when I think about 9/11 was what happened to Fred, the volunteer paramedic, and to my housekeeper Luz’s son.
While I was wondering if I’d ever see my husband again, Fred, Jen’s employee, the EMT who had ridden his bike downtown to see if there was anything he could do to help, had locked up his bike, and was looking for the EMT crew with which he normally volunteered. They were inside one of the towers. This was before the buildings fell, before anyone had any idea those buildings COULD fall, when the police and firemen and EMTs were still streaming into them.
Fred couldn’t locate his crew (because no one’s cell phones were working). Someone told him to make himself useful and drive this bus they’d found, to help transport civilians away from the scene.
Fred didn’t want to drive the bus. He wanted to be inside with his crew, saving lives. But he did as he was told.
While Fred was driving the bus, his entire unit was crushed to death when the tower they were in collapsed.
Like many rescue workers who lost coworkers in the attack, Fred seemed to feel guilty about having survived, while his friends had not. Even when we all pitched in and bought him a new bike afterwards (his old one got buried in the rubble at Ground Zero), Fred couldn’t seem to shake his sadness. It was like he didn’t believe he’d done any good that day.
“All I did,” he said, “was drive a bus.”
That’s true. But remember Luz’s son?
He showed up at my apartment not long after Jake and Shai and their parents did. Luz kissed him and shook him and cried, and when she finally let go of him, he explained where he’d been:
He had been heading towards—not away from–the towers, because he’d wanted to help, he said. A lot like Fred.
But suddenly, from out of nowhere, someone grabbed him from behind, and pulled him onto a bus.
“But I want to stay and help!” Luz’s son yelled at the guy who’d grabbed him.
“Not today,” Fred said.
Then he drove Luz’s son, and all the other students from that community college, to safety, just before the towers fell.
Ten years later, Fred is still a volunteer EMT, and a father of two. Luz’s son is doing fine. Jake is a sophomore in college, and Shai will turn fourteen. Mr. Fluff did eventually die (but years later, and of natural causes), and now there’s a dog to take his place.
It’s still hard, though, a decade later, to make sense of what happened that day. But how can something like thatever make sense?
I like this thing that our yoga instructor reads sometimes at the end class. It doesn’t actually explain why things like 9/11 happen, but it does give advice on how to behave when they do:
“In daily life we see people around us who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.”
My mind isn’t tranquil yet, but I’m working on it. Thank you for reading this blog.