Every Friday I join other bloggers and do “Friday Introductions” on Instagram. We introduce ourselves and answer a ‘getting to know you’ question. One Friday in early June the prompt was: something you might not know about me… My answer: (Brace yourself, it’s going to get deep) I was 2 blocks away from the WTC when the planes hit & the towers fell.
So this year, 13 years later, I’m finally telling my story. I was lucky: living in Manhattan at the time and growing up so close to the city, I only directly knew one person whose life was lost in the tragic events of that day (a high school friend’s father). But, what many people don’t know is that I was there. I was just blocks away when towers fell that day.
Please be advised that what comes next is a detailed account of September 11th, including photos.
On September 11, 2001 I was a senior at NYU and I was living a few blocks away from the World Trade Center at 200 Water Street, the most luxurious high rise building (and also an NYU dorm) that you can imagine. That morning I got dressed in a long black skirt, a brand new slate grey shirt from Banana Republic and black leather Steve Madden slides. I gathered my teaching materials and walked to Murry Bergtraum High School on Pearl Street, where I was student teaching.
I met my cooperating teacher, Wayne, in the faculty room and we discussed the day’s activities. It was the 3rd or 4th day of school and I wasn’t doing much more than observe and pass out papers. The faculty room had no windows and, about 40 minutes after my arrival, we heard a loud noise. Moments later we heard a multitude of sirens. (Later we’d realize that we heard the first plane hit and then the sound of the first responders heading to the towers.)
A minute or two after the sirens began the bell rang to signal the end of period 1 and we headed to our classroom, which also had no windows. As we made our way down the crowded hall we heard students and teachers discussing the plane that had hit the tower. Wayne and I put our stuff down in our classroom and said hello to the students who were already there. I distinctly remember telling one girl not to worry–that it was likely some rich guy who accidentally flew his plane into the WTC. At that point we went to a classroom across the hall–one with a few very small outside windows–and we were able to see that both towers were now on fire.
I remember we started to teach that day, only to be interrupted minutes later by security guards screaming that we should evacuate and go home. It was chaos. I grabbed my bag and hurried out as fast as I could. I remember crowded stairwells and rising panic. Downstairs in the lobby of the school I saw one of the other teachers sobbing hysterically and shaking. She’d been walking to school that morning when the second plane hit and she watched it happen. I remember hearing the security guards yelling at us to keep moving and “go north. Go home.” Home for me was south. I didn’t know what to do, so I went home. I’ll never forget walking into the crowd of business people trying to get away. I was going closer.
My apartment was on the 25th floor and faced the World Trade Center. I rode the elevator up, up, up, and headed to my apartment. Once there I turned on my tiny 12 inch tv and watched the news coverage. But I could actually see better from my window. I literally had a front row view of the burning towers.
I had an old disposable camera laying around–no doubt leftover from the summer–and for some reason I took pictures as everything was happening. At the time, it was pure instinct. On some level I knew the world was changing forever right before my very eyes and I wanted to document it. So the pictures you see here are mine from that day.
I immediately called my mom and we chatted for a few minutes, and I assured her I was fine. I remember her telling me to change my clothes and pack a bag just in case. I changed into capri pants, a DKNY t-shirt and white sneakers, and I emptied my school bag as we talked. I put a pair of underwear in the bag and then sat down on my bed. A moment later I felt the building start to shake. It took me a second to figure out the towers were falling and when I realized it, I screamed “MOM!” at the top of my lungs. And then “Oh my god they’re falling!” But it was no use. The phone was dead and my mom couldn’t hear me anymore.
The new few minutes are a blur. I couldn’t see a thing out the windows. It was a huge cloud of grey. I know the second tower fell and the building shook some more. I know the RA came around banging on doors, telling everyone we had to evacuate and to bring a wet towel with us for our face and eyes. I grabbed a hand towel and hastily threw it in the bathroom sink and turned the water on full throttle. The power must have gone out because I remember doing this in the dark. I also remember that my towel was taking forever to absorb water and I was panicking. I wanted a few seconds and then grabbed it and ran. Without my phone and without my bag of 1 pair of underwear.
The elevators weren’t working at this point and I ran down 25 flights of stairs. In the lobby of our building security guards were telling us to head to campus. The streets were full of people walking north, just like I was. I must have met someone on the way down the stairs because I remember walking to the Village with someone. On the way people were so kind. A convenience store owner was handing out Naked smoothies to those of us who were walking. And as we neared the village, a book store owner was just putting out a handmade poster board sign saying that his land line phone worked and anyone was welcome to use it. My walking friend and I both went in and took the man up on his offer. I called my mom and told her I was ok and that I’d forgotten my cell phone. (Not that it was a big deal because the cell lines were a mess that day.) We made a tentative plan for me to try to get home to New Jersey. Without a way to communicate we knew it would be tough, but I told her to stay by the phone and that I’d call her any chance I could.
Once we arrived on campus we were directed to the gym. Tons of other displaced students were there and I met up with my roommate Karen. We hugged each other and sat down on plastic blue gym mats they’d put out for us. There were radios everywhere and we listened to talk of Osama bin Laden and terrorism–both of which were largely unfamiliar to me at that point in my life.
Eventually I found another friend (I don’t remember how) and he took me and my roommate to his dorm on 14th street. By this time it was late afternoon and the streets of Manhattan were eerily empty. I remember walking down the middle of 5th Ave marveling at how creepy Manhattan is when there is literally not a single soul on the street. Eventually we made contact with my mom again and figured out that the PATH trains were running to NJ. My roommate and I walked (again) from 14th all the way up to the 33rd St PATH station because that was the only one that was open. We were able to get to Hoboken and my father pushed his way through police barricades and by the grace of God, we randomly found each other on a side street in Hoboken. He drove me and my roommate to my mom’s apartment and we stayed with her for the next 5 days.
We were not allowed back in our dorm for weeks because they had to check that the building’s foundation hadn’t been compromised by the towers falling and they had to clean up the dust. I think we were displaced for about 3 weeks altogether and NYU put us up in a hotel in midtown and gave us a small stipend so we could buy clothes and toiletries to get us through. Classes were cancelled for nearly a week. We went shopping at Old Navy and bought as much as we could just a a little bit of money. I remember trying to buy clothes that I liked but that were also appropriate for student teaching.
I’m sure there is so much more that I’m forgetting. Shortly after we were allowed back to our dorm and I sat down at my computer and typed every single thing I could remember about that day. Right now that file is locked away on a computer that won’t turn on. One of these days I’ll have the files extracted and I’ll read it. 13 years later and I’m not sure I’m ready to though.
To say that day changed me would be an understatement. For months after, every plane seemed like it was flying too low. I’d look at it and imagine it bursting into flames in the middle of the sky. I wouldn’t go anywhere without my cell phone. Even though it likely wouldn’t have worked that day, it took me a long time to stop beating myself up for forgetting it as I ran out of my apartment. And I will never ever forget the smell that lingered in the air in downtown Manhattan for weeks after.
The following year, September 11, 2002 I was living with in my own apartment in New Jersey and had just started my first teaching job at a great high school. I was nervous about the anniversary and all the feelings that I knew would come rushing back. What I was not prepared for, though, was the media coverage. I remember turning on the tv that morning and every single news channel was replaying footage of the second plane crashing into the south tower. The flames. The fire. The towers falling. It was on repeat all morning on every channel and I couldn’t handle seeing it all over again.
That day was easily the scariest day of my life. Time has a way of erasing much of the sting of those memories though. And now, as I look back, I remember moments of panic and moments of relief. But the tension of the day, the horror, the pain, the uncertainty…much of it is gone now and is replaced by a general feeling of dread when I think back to all that I went through. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. I’ll never forget what we endured and all the lives that were lost and how that day changed the world forever. But I’ll also never forget that, for weeks after, people were kinder. Flags were everywhere. There was a feeling of solidarity amongst Americans and especially amongst New Yorkers. And it’s that feeling that I choose to hold on to thirteen years later.