It happened ten years ago, but it feels like it happened yesterday.
As I sat this morning, watching the 9/11 memorial ceremony on TV, I tried to decide what I wanted to write today. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say…or if I wanted to say anything at all. I couldn’t ignore it and pretend it was just another day…but I couldn’t seem to find the words.
I finally chose to post an edited version of what I wrote last year.
I met J when we were both working at the World Financial Center…right across the street from the World Trade Center. I left that job shortly after we started dating, but we always spent a lot of time downtown. I would often meet J at his office after work and as we’d go out for the evening, we’d often walk across the plaza at World Trade.
I loved the plaza…I thought it was beautiful. Usually, on our way back to J’s office to pick up our things, we would stop in the plaza and sit by the fountain. It would be empty that time of night and we would just sit there and hang out for a while. We would hold hands while we were walking through and every few minutes J would say “spin” and he would spin me while we kept walking. The security guards thought we were crazy, I’m sure, but it just seemed like a really good place to spin. I don’t remember the last time I was there, but it was probably sometime in early September 2001.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had no idea that anything was wrong. I went to work, as usual, and I was just sitting down at my desk when my friend Allison came over. The first thing she said was “Is J alright?” and I about died. Allison lived near J at the time and I was panicked that there had been some kind of accident that she’d heard about. She saw the confusion on my face and said “Two planes just flew into the World Trade Center…is he at work yet?”. I grabbed the phone before she could even finish the sentence.
The phones were completely nuts and all we were getting at first was busy signals. Luckily, after a few minutes I was able to get through to J on his cell phone. He was still on the bus (he lived in Staten Island then) and they hadn’t made it into the city yet…they were stuck on the Verrazano Bridge. They were turning all the traffic around on the other side of the bridge and sending them back to Staten Island. He was ok. I was so relieved. Then J said something that made the panic come right back…”Shan, no one can reach my father…he went in early for a meeting…can you please keep trying his cell phone?” J’s dad’s office was on the 86th floor of the south tower of the WTC…right where the 2nd plane had hit. I must have called his cell phone a thousand times that day.
My first thought when I heard that two planes hit the buildings was “What kind of fucking idiot doesn’t see a building in front of them and flies right into it?” I was thinking that it was some kind of prop planes with student pilots or something. I thought it was an accident. Someone doing this on purpose never entered my mind until someone said that there was a terrorist group claiming responsiblity.
No one in my family was in the city…thank God. My mom was on her way in and got turned around on the highway. She was panicked and trying to come and get me and my friends from work, but Manhattan was under lockdown. She had no choice but to go home and wait.
My office was chaotic. No one wanted to leave their desks in case they got a phone call, but at the same time, we all wanted to watch the coverage on the TV in the conference room. No one knew whether to leave or stay or go home or what. We were all gathered around the TV when the towers fell. People were in absolute shock…some were crying…others were yelling. Nothing was making any sense. I mean…how could this happen here? Thing like this were supposed to happen elsewhere…not in NY.
Eventually, the decision was made to close the office. At that moment, we got word that there was a bomb threat and Grand Central Station was closing. There were no buses either…since the city was locked down. I had no way to get home and no idea what to do. Allison…who is always calm and rational…came up with the plan that we would go to her apartment in Brooklyn, pick up her boyfriend’s car and drive to Staten Island, where her boyfriend lived. They would drop me off at J’s house. Great plan.
We walked over to the subway station that would take us to Brooklyn and were told that it was closed. The subways were running on the other side of the river, but the only way to get there was to walk. By a strange stroke of luck, I happened to have sneakers with me, or I wouldn’t have made it in my open-toed, kitten-heeled mules. Allison was not so lucky and was wearing pretty high heels.
We walked over the 59th Street Bridge into Queens…along with hundreds of other people. Halfway over the bridge we were able to see the smoke clouds over downtown and to smell the smoke. It was surreal…it was a total gorgeous day and the sky was unbelievably blue and then there was this huge gray cloud blocking downtown and no Twin Towers rising above the other buildings.
Allison got really hot from all the walking and wanted to take off her sweater, but was afraid that people would be able to see her bra under her tank top. After she said it we just laughed…because, did it really matter??? It seemed like the funniest thing she ever said.
Eventually, we got to Queens and onto a waiting subway. The whole time I was trying to reach J’s dad, with no luck. I hadn’t heard any news from J either, but I refused to believe anything other than that he was fine. On the subway, we talked to a woman who had been downtown when the buildings started to fall and she was holding a piece of charred paper that she picked up from the street. I still couldn’t believe any of this was real. We met up with some friends along the way and by the time we got in the car, there were 8 of us. It was a tight squeeze back to Staten Island, but we were just happy to be out of Manhattan.
I got to J’s and I saw the best sight ever…his dad standing in the kitchen. What J told me was that he was sneaking in a quick smoke before going to the office and was just about to head in when the first plane hit. Someone standing next to him got hit with debris and he went to help out. He was heading back to the office when the second plane hit. He hung around the area, trying reach the people in his office and was still there when the buildings fell. He made a run for it, ran into a friend of his and they jumped on the last ferry back to Staten Island before the service was shut down. No one had been able to reach him so no one knew if he was even alive…until he came walking down the street. Funny to think a cigarette saved his life.
I stayed at J’s until the next day…I really had no choice…Staten Island was also locked down, so I couldn’t leave. We spent the day and the night glued to the TV. They kept showing the buildings falling over and over and eventually they got a hold of the video of the impact. They kept interviewing people who were looking for their loved ones and it was all just heartbreaking. Also, the phone kept ringing with more and more bad news. A lot of J’s dad’s co-workers didn’t make it out of the building.
About a year later, J decided that he wanted to move to Battery Park City. Things were contained and streets were re-opened and rents were dirt cheap. I wasn’t completely on board with that plan at first, but I did love the neighborhood. He lived there for 6 years and in those years, we both walked by Ground Zero a million times. It was a construction site then…but it was also a daily reminder of that horrible day.
The sculpture on the plaza was called “Sphere for Plaza Fountain”. The artist, Fritz Koenig, designed it to be a symbol of world peace. It was damaged on 9/11, but it managed to stay somewhat intact. They moved it to Battery Park as a memorial. This is what it looks like now…
The city is different now…at least for me. I miss the old way…when people didn’t wince at every noise and panic at every siren. I wish I could still walk across the plaza and spin. Now the area is a memorial. A park and a museum and two reflecting pools that stand in the footprints of the original towers. I think it’s beautiful. (I also think it’s about nine years overdue…but that’s a whole different story.) There has also been significant work done to build the first of the new towers. To me, it’s becoming more of a place of hope and promise, than a place of constant sadness. We will never forget what happened there, but moving forward and making that area a place of happiness and beauty is the best tribute we could give to those that lost their lives ten years ago.