Saturday, September 10, 2011

REPOST: My 9/11 Story

Memorial in Union Square, 9/14/01

"It is hoped that an 'optimism' for our future
may flow
from the lesson learned from our 'tragic' past."

-- Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

For several reasons, I’ve never been able to sit down and write about my own experiences on 9/11 - partly because it was such a painful day, but moreso because I just felt that it wasn’t necessary. Everyone has written about 9/11. I just reviewed four volumes of 9/11-inspired comics and not a day goes by where some television channel or newspaper doesn't mention 9/11. Still five years later, terrorism dominates the political discussion in this country. So when I decided to finally sit down and write about my own experiences, I kept asking myself: do I really have anything new to offer? I didn’t lose anyone close to me, nor had I suffered other than the shock of simply being so close to the actual events.

I also felt like anything I would have written back then would have come off as an angry rant, rather than a coherent and thoughtful piece. For a long time, perhaps several years, I was furious. Furious at the utter senselessness of the act itself, and the terrorists who believed so strongly they were making a difference that they sacrificed their own lives for it. Furious at the hopelessness (not to mention cluelessness) of our government and it’s ill-conceived retaliations against Afghanistan and Iraq. Furious at the bloodthirsty bigots in this country who ignorantly targeted anybody they labeled as a foreigner, as if all immigrants were radical Muslim extremists. Furious at the mindless, knee-jerk patriotism that ran rampant throughout this country. Furious at the sensationalistic, opportunistic media who recycled footage of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing about every five minutes, ensuring that we remain in a permanent state of shock and horror. And I was furious because I knew that, on some level, the terrorists had succeeded in scaring us, and “filling our country with fear.”

But now, five years later, it feels like the right time to finally chronicle not only what happened to Rachel and I that day, and the week that followed, but also to try to make sense of it all, to understand what it all meant. I don’t know that I’ll be able to offer any new and astounding revelations that haven’t already been written by far better writers than me, but I will, at the very least, preserve the memories of my experiences.

The morning of 9/11, Rachel and I were on our way to meet a real estate agent about an apartment in the Lower East Side. We had only arrived in New York City two days before (from London, where we had lived for the last three years), and recently engaged, we were excited to start a new chapter in our lives together.
When the first plane hit, we were on the downtown 6 train, between Union Square and Astor Place. The subway trains stopped for a long time, and having only been in New York City for two days, I grew very impatient, cursing under my breath. The only announcement that was made was “due to an incident at the World Trade Center all trains are being held momentarily. We apologize for the unavoidable delay.” Finally, after about 10 minutes, the train pulled out of the tunnel and into the Astor Place station. The conductor announced that all train service was suspended, and we figured, since it was a nice day, we would just walk the rest of the way.

The second we got up to street level, we could sense something was wrong. Even without any knowledge of the City (I had only been in NYC one other time) there was an uneasy feeling, a strange sort of quiet that you never see in NY. The first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a lot of people walking uptown, and literally nobody, except us, walking downtown. the city was also eerily quiet. I remember even commenting to Rachel that there were no cars or taxis on the road. The usual chorus of car horns, sirens and motors was silenced. There were several city buses and taxis pulled over on the side of the road. Still, we didn’t really think much of it until I looked up and saw the huge plume of smoke streaked across the morning skyline.

For a second we stopped. Frozen and silent, we just stared at the charcoal cloud streaked across the blue canvas. Because of the other buildings, we couldn't tell which building was on fire.
At this point, we were about 3-4 blocks from our appointment, though it was already a half hour past the time we were supposed to meet. As we rounded the corner on 1st Street, near the Bowery, I noticed a pay phone with a line of about 15-20 people queued up to use it. Again I thought to myself how unusual that was in the age of cell phones, but had not yet processed the events that were literally happening right before my eyes.

Finally, as we came to the intersection of Great Jones St. and Broadway, we got our first glimpse of the Towers, at this point still standing. Being unfamiliar with New York, we still didn't immediately realize this was the World Trade Center, though it was clear that the building we could see (which turned out to be the South Tower), was on fire. For the first time we both became aware of the sirens swirling all around us from all directions.

Finally, anxious, but still relatively calm, I stopped a woman on the street. She was perhaps in her late thirties, white, carrying a pair of high-heeled shoes in her hand and walking barefoot uptown. She was frantically punching at her cell phone keypad, trying to get it to work. “What’s going on?” I asked, and her panicked, hurried voice was unnerving. “Planes crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I looked at Rachel, and didn’t say anything. I honestly didn't believe her, but I was too stunned to know how to respond. There was, and still is, a Tower Records on the corner and so we decided to try to find a TV and see what was really going on, but before we could move, the tower collapsed.

I will never forget the collective gasp of horror, uttered in unison by the thousands of terrified New Yorkers who shared that particular intersection with us. It was a sound like the first breath after being punched in the stomach, amplified through stadium speakers. It was as deafening and terrifying a sound as I’ve ever heard. Stunned disbelief and silence followed as we watched the famous antenna on the roof tilt to the left, and, as we have all seen thousands of time in the now infamous footage, the tower disappeared behind the skyline.

I felt numb, tiny, insignificant, scared, angry, confused and disgusted all at once. I was overwhelmed with emotions I couldn’t even put into words. Rachel was visibly upset, on the verge of tears, and I wasn’t sure what to say. Holding hands, we went into the Tower Records and watched the television screen in the entrance, huddled with dozens of other frightened New Yorkers.

Several images linger from that store. I remember a woman, an employee I think, was so overcome with grief she was shrieking on the second floor balcony looking down at us, and might have fallen over if not for her co-worker who pulled her back.
The footage, even as we watched it, seemed unbelievable. Had we really just witnessed, with our own eyes, the deaths of thousands of people? How do you even begin to process something like that? I shivered, and pulled Rachel close to me. I wanted to cry but, as always, tears seemed trapped behind my eyes. I whispered "I love you" and we hugged for what seemed like ten minutes, scared, but grateful to be together. I remember Rachel saying “this is going to change everything.” We stayed in the store until we could no longer take it, overcome with a emotions that ranged from anger to shock to grief to confusion to disbelief to nausea. Finally, we realized we had to get home. We were about 70 blocks (3.5 miles) from our hotel, and there was no way to get back but to walk, so we joined the miserable parade uptown.

The walk was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Everywhere, people were crying, or staring in disbelief. Every time we passed a payphone, we overheard snippets of panicked conversations. Rachel had brought with her one of those cheap, disposable cameras (we had planned to see a site, perhaps even the WTC later that day) and was taking pictures as we went.
We walked up Broadway, and at one point, we stopped in a Radio Shack to see if we could catch a news update. The three employees were huddled in the corner near a tiny, handheld black and white TV. Nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to the store. As I stood there, still in shock, I saw a man, black, about 30, possibly homeless, dressed in a long black trenchcoat, walk in and steal several packs of batteries. I remember feeling an overwhelming and very physical disgust at the complete lack of sensitivity for the magnitude of what was going on, but I was too shocked to mention it to the employees. What’s worse is that the man knew I saw him, and as he walked out, he made eye contact almost daring me to do anything about it.

We walked a little further until we got Macy’s on 34th Street and decided to stop and use the bathrooms. This was also a surreal experience. I was horrified to see that people (albeit very few) were still shopping, as if nothing had happened. Didn’t they know? How could they go about their mundane consuming in the face of such shocking tragedy? After ten or fifteen very frustrating minutes of trying to find the bathrooms in that maze of departments, we finally found them in the basement and, of course, there was a long line. While we were standing there, a young, black teenager, with a handheld radio, came running out of the bathroom and announced that not only had another plane crashed into the White House, but that there were 3 more planes missing. Whether he had actually received this information from somewhere, or just made it up, I’ll never know, but he set off a whole new panic among the people waiting in line. It wasn’t until several hours later that we learned that this wasn’t true, and that such rumors were rampant all over the city, but it still freaked us out. I was grateful to finally get out of there and back on the street.

Walking through Times Square was also a surreal experience. Thousands of people stood in the streets mesmerized by the ceaseless news wires wrapping around the buildings with the latest updates. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but until that moment, I hadn’t thought to try to call my family. I had only purchased my cell phone the day before, so no one had my number and I didn’t have any phone numbers programmed in yet, but I figured if I could get in touch with my parents, they would tell everyone we were OK. Of course, I tried about thirty or forty times with no luck. There was a signal, but the calls just weren’t going through. We kept walking and after about an hour of trying continually, I got through to my mom just long enough to have this conversation:


“Hi mom, it’s me.”

“Are you ok?”

“We’re fine, we just…” and then the line dropped. But it was enough for her. She called Rachel’s parents and let them know we were ok.

We finally made it back to the hotel around 2:00, and when we walked into the lobby, there were hotel security guards everywhere. Apparently as soon as the attacks happened, there was a rush on the hotel and people stranded in the city bought up all the rooms. The hotel lobby was completely overrun and the guards were only letting people in with a room key. Thankfully we had the room reserved for three more nights, or I’m not sure where we would have stayed. We went up to the room and like the rest of the world, watched the news. We didn’t know what else to do.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about staying in New York after that. I started thinking about moving to other, safer cities, but in the end, we knew that this kind of thing could happen anywhere (remember Oklahoma City?) and that we couldn’t let the terrorists scare us into living our lives in fear. Besides, I had a job I was excited about.

That night, we walked up to visit one of my best friends who lives on the Upper West Side. He worked in the building literally right across the street from the World Trade Center and we were really worried about him. When we got there, his roommate was there, and let us in, but he was not back yet. We decided to hang out and wait and finally, he showed up, as visibly shaken and upset as I've ever seen him. He had arrived at work just after the planes hit, only to discover that his building was being evacuated, and he had to turn right around and walk home. He showed us a scorched business card of a woman who worked at American Express – 99th Floor of the North Tower, which had literally fallen from the sky onto his head. Though we all felt strange about it, we decided we had to eat, so we went out to dinner at a local restaurant, which strangely was packed. Of course, everyone was talking about the attacks, and there was a large screen TV which was playing the news. There was a lot of emotion in that restaurant and I remember feeling very uncomfortable there, though after such a long walk, we were all starving.

The rest of the week was a whirlwind. I remember the stench of smoke and decay that enveloped the island for days. I remember thinking what a great leader Mayor Guiliani was. I remember attending a very moving candlelight vigil in Union Square that was literally packed with thousands of people, many screaming for retaliation, other praying and singing for peace. I remember the thousands upon thousands of missing person flyers that blanketed the city for weeks, and how painful it was to see them and think of the poor people waiting on the other end of the phone for a call that would never come. I remember Rachel and I going to the Red Cross blood center the following morning only to find a crowd of thousands waiting in line. Most were turned away as the Red Cross simply couldn’t process that many people. I remember getting e-mails of concern from people I had not spoken to since high school, asking if I was ok, and wondering how they even knew we were in New York.

It’s incredible to me that it’s been five years already since all of this happened. These memories are still so powerfully vivid. I still have dreams about that antenna falling over and still to this day, I wake up wondering where such hatred comes from.

I wonder a lot of other things, too. I wonder if there will be another terrorist attack in New York, and if the City could recover from a major attack in its subway system. I wonder if the Towers will, or should, ever be rebuilt. I wonder if the terrorists who organized the 9/11 attacks feel like they accomplished anything. I wonder if the world is a better, safer place now, or if we’re simply more scared and isolated than ever. I wonder if our government could have done something to prevent this, or if the cost of freedom is that we’ll always be vulnerable. I wonder if all our heightened security measures and amber alerts really do any good, or if they just remind people that our lives could end at any second. I wonder if people outside New York really get what happened, and how it transformed this city, or if it was just some really good TV show to them. I wonder if the families who lost loved ones have been able to come to terms at all, or if grief like that never heals.

Still today, five years later, I have no answers.

I wonder if I ever will.

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