Monday, September 11, 2006

I'll never forget, and I don't want to

Everyone has a September 11 story. Mine isn’t, by any stretch, as dramatic or tragic as so many others. I didn’t lose anyone dear to me or suffer physically that day. But I did witness it, some of it without the filter of a television screen.

Everyone has a September 11 story. This is mine.

That morning, I took the bus into the city. The route hugged the cliff above the Hudson River on the New Jersey side. I could watch the skyline for several blocks. The sky was a gorgeous, cloudless blue. No smoke or fear marred it yet.

I descended underground, first through the Lincoln Tunnel and then down through the bus terminal to the subway station. I overheard someone say something about a plane and the World Trade Center. Like everyone else, I figured it was a Cessna that had gotten terribly off course. I got onto the subway like it was the ordinary Tuesday it had started out to be.

Climbing up into the light at Houston and Broadway, I smelled the smoke immediately. Like so many others around me, I stood gaping at the Trade Center buildings, both now gashed and spilling smoke.

My office was on the 10th floor with huge, south-facing windows--an old cast-iron building, classic SoHo. I shared the space with just five or six co-workers; most of the rest of our group worked a floor below us. For a half-hour, maybe more, we stared out the big windows at the scene just blocks from us. Phone service was already spotty, but a few friends e-mailed to check on me. I'm fine, I said. I'm far enough away.

Suddenly the first tower started to sway, then tumbled and was gone. All of us screamed and burst into tears. One of the men fell to his knees and sobbed. I'd never seen anyone do that before. No one said anything for several minutes, as our shoulders shook and tears fell onto the industrial carpet.

Seeking the comfort of a larger group, we soon went to the ninth floor, with the rest of our department. Most of us gathered in a conference room and started watching the news. When the second tower fell, a pregnant woman fainted. I was pregnant, too; 11 weeks. No one knew yet. My morning sickness was still so bad that I crunched my way through a baggie full of dry cereal while watching CNN in that conference room--the only way I could get through a day, or even an hour, was to eat nonstop. I'm sure no one noticed, but it felt horribly disrespectful, as if I thought I was at the movies with a tub of buttered popcorn.

The rest of the day passed in a haze of confusion and phone calls. On that day and the next few, I must have spoken to almost every friend and relative I had. We all felt an urgent need to connect, to reassure each other that we were okay. I stayed in the office for several hours, because our company recommended we do so for our safety. Anyway, there was very little transportation available; the subways had been shut down, busses were packed to the gills, bridges and tunnels were closed. My only chance of getting home to New Jersey was to walk 50 blocks north to the ferry terminal and try to catch a boat.

Instead, I went to my friend Kara's apartment, in Stuyvesant Town near 14th street, 20 minutes away. I walked alongside people who had been so close to ground zero that their clothes and faces were covered with ash. I slept on Kara's couch and in the morning walked a few more blocks north to my obstetrician's office for a check-up. As I walked, dozens of garbage trucks streamed southward, ready to begin clearing the debris. There were few fire engines or ambulances. As we'd learn later, it was too late--almost no survivors, or even intact bodies, were found after the towers fell. The city was papered with photographs of the missing and pleas from their families, but they were all gone.

I didn't go to work that Wednesday or Thursday. Our offices were in the part of the city that was shut down to all but emergency traffic. We came back in on Friday, but no one did any work--and not just because all our phones and computers were dead.

In the weeks that followed, I saw and smelled the acrid smoke every time I arrived in the city in the morning. I had nightmares about terrible things happening to my dog (I believe she represented my unborn baby girl). I cried when I passed a firehouse in mourning--they all were.

To this day, I haven't been back to ground zero. It's hard for me to believe that it's a tourist destination. I know that the vast majority of those who visit do so with awe and reverence, but I don't think I could bear to see t-shirt vendors and people snapping pictures of their friends, arm in arm in front of the hole.

After the attacks, the New York Times published brief tributes to each victim. For months these profiles appeared in the paper--at first several pages of them every day, then fewer and fewer until each life lost had been somehow remembered. Five years on, the blogosphere has made a similar effort. I'm sorry that I don't have my own tribute to post (I can't explain what held me back from doing so) but I urge you to read others as you are able. It's one way to feel we've given this day the respect it deserves.

Thank you for reading.


Elizabeth said...

Thank you for sharing your story. It must still be so fresh in your mind, what you saw that day.

I participated in the 2,996 Project, and had the honor of memorializing a FDNY firefighter named Billy Johnston. He was a true hero.

TB said...

Thank you.

Jamie said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I know you feel blessed to have come out of it (both you and your unborn daughter) OK. I participated in the 2,996 Project, too. There were so many heros that day.

mothergoosemouse said...

Miss you already. Thinking of you guys even more today than usual.

Christina said...

Wow, I had no idea you were that close to everything that happened. I can't imagine how I would have reacted seeing it all in person.

lildb said...

It hurts to read it, still, and I was never any closer, in physical proximity, than I am now. (I'm on the west coast.)

I don't know how someone with your personal experience of that time hasn't been permenently marred by its tragedy, never mind those who lost family or close friends (which you may have?) as a result.

Thank you for your words. For your sharing.

Amanda said...

Thank You for posting your story.I can't imagine being in your situation. How brave you were to get through all that.

I am really glad that you and your unborn baby got safely to shelter.

mamatulip said...

Thank you for sharing this.

Binkytown said...

I'm glad you wrote that, even though it must not have been easy for you. Thanks.

Lady M said...

Thanks for sharing your firsthand experience. I feel so sad, especially reading about the children who won't know their dads or moms. Haven't been able to bring myself to write about it yet. I think I've been avoiding the topic, knowing that I had to get on a plane today.

Nancy said...


I couldn't read anything on 9-11 right around or on that day. It was way too painful.

I was pregnant that day too, and in DC.

I am torn between trying to forget and needing to remember.