Friday, September 11, 2009

My 9/11 story

This is my disclaimer up front for those not interested in a totally non WOW post. Come back another day for resto druid funnies and sillies.

I was going to do a rant post today, but given the date, I didn't know if I wanted to be ranting. Now while I'll often share little bits and pieces of myself in a WOW related post, I don't really ever do posts that have absolutely nothing to do with WOW. So why am I doing this today? Well, while I have told this story a number of times, I've never written it all down. I want to remember all the details, so I'd like to get it down on paper, or uh is this e-paper? This is by no means a political or ideological or religious statement whatsoever. It's just my personal 9/11 story.

In September of 2001, I was living in New York, in my last semester of Grad School Round 1. I was living in a student apartment on Columbia's Health Science campus up on 168th and Broadway where my program was located. Half of my classes that semester were during the day and the other half were at night. Thus, I was also working part time where I had interned the previous summer. This office of a public NYC agency was located downtown, about 8 blocks from the WTC towers.

The three years I lived in New York I was even crazier about shoes than I am now. I used to wear 3-4 inch high heels or strappy sandals like all the time. That Tuesday morning, I walked out of my place and headed to the elevator. While I was waiting for the elevator, I was kind of shifting my feet in place, because my feet were still a bit sore from the previous day's beautiful, but killer pair of sandals. The elevator came and the doors opened up, and I thought to myself, "You know what? I can't do this again today. I have to wear some sensible shoes today". While typically I would have just stuck with the shoes I had chosen to wear, that morning I walked back into my place to change into a really comfortable pair of sandals.

Once I changed my shoes, I got myself back out the door and onto the subway to head downtown. I got off the train and headed up the flight of stairs that I always walked out of, a flight of stairs that opened up to a clear straight on view of the WTC towers. Now as I'm heading up the stairs, I see and hear a woman wailing and crying at the top of the stairs. My typical NYC thought? "Oh, there's another crazy person". When I got to the top of the stairs, I quickly realized she wasn't just a crazy person. It was about 8:50 am and the first tower had just been hit.

I stood there confused, wondering what was going on along with everyone else near me. I asked some one else what had just happened. What? A plane? How could this have happened? The mood in the group of people I was standing with was one of confusion and shock. As we were standing there, talking to each other, trying to grasp what we were seeing 7 blocks away, we heard a very very loud sound. People ducked or whipped their heads, the sound was so loud and felt so close to us. I then saw first hand the second plane hit. The mood in the group quickly turned to fear and panic as people realized this wasn't an accident. People started screaming and running.

I then walked into my work building to touch base with my boss and the office director. I was told that because our building was a federal building, it was being immediately evacuated. My boss told me that I should probably get right back on the subway and head back uptown because she was sure that the subways would quickly be shut down. We left the building and I said goodbye to my boss and director, who both immediately got on the subways to head home.

But I couldn't leave. I'm not sure exactly why. I'm not sure if it was curiosity, wanting to know what was going on, or seeing if I could help somehow. But I just couldn't get myself to leave. Instead I got a cup of coffee from my steady coffee cart guy, and walked back south, to an open area about 6 blocks from the towers. I found myself back in a crowd of people who perhaps also couldn't get themselves to leave.

We stood there watching a scene that my eyes told me was real, but my brain told me had to be a movie. We stood there discussing how this could have happened, who could have done this. We stood there sharing information, as someone with a radio was telling us the Pentagon was just hit. We stood there feeling helpless as we could clearly see people hang out of the windows waving their hands, some piece of cloth, their clothes, anything to try to ask for help. We stood there in horror as we saw multiple people make the decision to jump.

While I was in this crowd, I struggled with the decision of whether I could do anything. At the time I had an active EMT certification, and while I hadn't practiced in a year and a half, I knew that I could perform basic functions. So I would start walking closer to the towers, thinking that perhaps I could help. But then I would look up at the magnitude of what was going on and wonder how much I could really do when I knew there were emergency personnel all across the city already responding. Since 9 am I had heard constant sirens heading south. So then, I would walk back north to the open area I was standing in before. But then I would see the people in the buildings, and start walking south again.

I probably did this back and forth two times or so and had returned to the open area with a bunch of other people. What I heard next is something I will never forget. It was this low kind of guttural rumbling sound. It started out really softly at first, like a whisper. I look up and see that it is the sound of the first tower collapsing. Since we were about 6 blocks away, people really started to panic, screaming, and running north.

Thinking back, one thing I learned about myself is that I am pretty calm in the most stressful situations. People were screaming and running around me, but my thought process was one of "Oh, maybe I should walk north now?". Or maybe I wasn't calm, maybe I was just dense? I don't know, but I stood there for a bit looking at the huge smoke cloud that was now rising from where the first tower stood, looking at a smoke cloud that was starting to expand out. It took a police officer waving his arms and yelling at us to head north for me to put some speed to my walk.

On my walk north, I stopped at Canal Street and looked to the left and right, to see thousands of people pouring into the streets and sidewalks all heading north. I also distinctly remember seeing one woman who was so distraught that she was sitting on the sidewalk, hysterically crying. It was comforting to see two strangers tell her that she had to keep walking, help her back up, and give her a bottle of water.

During this walk north, there were incredible lines at the few pay phones since all the cell phones were down. I remember seeing 30-40 people in line at some pay phones. I stood in one of the lines for a little bit, but then quickly decided it wasn't worth it and kept walking north. This was about when I marveled at the fact that I had made the unlikely decision to change my shoes that morning. There was no way I would have been able to walk so far if I had my original shoes on. There were tons of women around me who were walking barefoot. Some manicure/pedicure places along the way were giving out those foam flip flops you get when you get a pedicure and a number of women were wearing those.

I got to midtown around 12:30 pm, and headed for the place where I had interned the previous fall. My cell phone was still not working, and mainly I wanted to get hold of a land line so I could call my family. I stepped into my old office and called my dad's office. I knew that my mom and sister would gather there with my dad to wait for me to contact them. Now I mentioned before how I had been pretty calm this whole entire time. While I teared up as I saw people in the windows of the towers cry for help or jump, I hadn't really cried yet. But talking to my family, I guess I could just let it all go, and I totally broke down.

I stayed at that office for a while, as everyone I used to work with wanted to hear what I had seen. I left around 2 pm, and headed for the subway which was running again. I remember getting on the good old A train and seeing folks in my subway car who were covered in gray dust. I also realized that I still heard sirens in my head, which I had heard constantly since 9 am. I knew that I couldn't be hearing sirens down in the subway, and I was a little concerned about that, but hoped it would go away.

When I got back on campus, the word had spread that they were calling for volunteers. At this time, we all figured that there would be thousands of injured people. Because there was a medical, dental, nursing, and public health school on campus, along with the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, everyone mobilized to help out. I went to sign up and list my skills as well as my cell phone number. Little did we know how few people would be taken to the hospitals.

Now that semester, I had class every Tuesday night. I figured oh, given everything that had happened, it must be canceled right? NYU, other colleges in the city, colleges all across the country ended up canceling classes that day and many the next day. Nope, not Columbia. I had class that Tuesday night. I remember sitting there not listening to a word, replaying everything from that day in my head.

Soon after class let out, the phone calls started. That first night, my closest friends were able to get their calls through. The next day, it was friends and relatives who I didn't talk to as often who called, followed up the subsequent day by long lost friends and international relatives who I hadn't spoken to in forever. It blew my mind how many people ended up contacting me, and I think I realized then how big this was and how much it touched everyone.

That night I lay in bed watching the constant TV coverage. It was strange to see on TV what I had seen first hand, and I started to wonder what I had seen first hand vs what I had seen on TV. I finally realized around 2 am that it was late and that I should go to bed and turned off the TV. As I was trying to fall asleep, I could still hear the sirens in my head. I thought to myself, "Seriously? Am I going crazy? This better be gone tomorrow".

No one was allowed south of Houston Street for a while afterwards. My co-workers and I had to work in a temporary office in midtown. When we were allowed to go back to our offices about three weeks later, I remember tasting a metal taste at the back of my throat from the air. My eyes, which are pretty sensitive, were itchy. I also had the chance then to walk down to the site, which was still a complete disaster area. I remember looking into the storefront window of a jewelry store that faced the WTC towers and seeing a display case that was completely empty except for a thick layer of dust. Realizing what that dust was, I cried.

Its crazy to realize that it's been 8 years. Recalling a lot of the details, I can still feel a lot of the emotions of that day and the subsequent weeks. No way I could ever forget.


  1. I worked for a major hotel company reservation center at the time, and just as I arrived, a lady I worked with, Sonja, had said she got a caller who said, "that felt like an explosion." When she asked him where he was, he answered, "New York". The call was disconnected a moment later.

    That was our first clue something had happened... But although we can easily guess that man was in one of the towers or a building in the immediate vicinity, we will never know who he was or if he lived through that day. I think about him every year on this day for just that reason...

  2. Thank you for sharing that. I will never forget either.

  3. WOW...simply WOW. What a great piece of writing to. Thank you for sharing

  4. I can't imaging having been there firsthand. I can relate to the feeling of it being sureal -- I remember seeing the people jumping on television and my brain trying to get around it -- it was like watching a movie. I teared up reading your blog, and still tear up when I see the photos and read the stories of others....

  5. I am from the NY area and I was a firefighter at the time in a suburb of NY… I unfortunately was out of state headed to my college class when this happened. Our fire department sent half of our trucks to the meadowlands and we transported emergency personnel in and out of the city. Using Giant’s Stadium and the general area as a staging ground for our equipment our fire department played a role in the aid. We had our air truck constantly refilling the Scott packs from a hundred different fire departments. It had been used before when the world trades center was bombed with that van long ago.

    While this was happening I had just woken up and was walking down the stairs of my dorm when a friend who is now an Officer in the area of NY said, “Hey sit down.” He pointed to the TV in our lounge. I watched as the second plane hit the towers and my heart fell. My grandmother had worked in the towers; my friends were NYC Police Officers and Firefighters. My mother’s best friend’s husband worked right there… I felt helpless as I was unable to join my brothers and sisters to help.

    I didn’t even think to go to class and my friend and I watched, helpless…

    The ones responsible for this succeeded. And more of my friends have died after this in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone will die, that is inevitable, but to see those you know die for a cause unknown is a hard thing to rationalize.

    9/11 Remember the fallen, and honor them today for they gave all of themselves for the hope of saving others.

  6. thank you for sharing your story. i think it is really wonderful you took the time to write your story down as it is something that shouldn't be forgotten.

  7. Nice post K.

    I was in the military at the time, and little did I know I'd be in the terrorist back yard just a few weeks later before we we're actually there.

    I still feel the pain of those we lost on 9/11, as well as their family and friends, and I was on the other side of the country when it happened.

    I don't care which side of the politcal fence you sit on. What I do know is we can never forget what happened or let it ever happen again.

    an old/departed guildie

  8. Thank you everyone. And thanks for sharing your stories as well.


  9. wow - thank you for sharing that story. I can only imagine what that must have been like.

  10. I was living and working on Long Island then, too far out to see the attack but a number of my coworkers had spouses who worked on Manhattan. They were all okay, but it was hours in some cases before there was word.

    My big worry that day was food. With all of the bridges closed, there was no way feed to feed the 8 million people on LI. It was a very tense night, as my ex and I inventoried the pantry and tried to come up with a rationing plan in case the bridges stayed closed. Fortunately, they began to open again the next day.