On September 11, 2001, I woke up a little late and stumbled up the street to the van that took me to Port Authority. I could easily have asked Chantelle to bring me to the PATH train that went to the World Trade Center but I didn’t. I got in the van and started to write in my journal. Loud music filled the bus as though every other person on it was heading home from an all night party and I was the only one going to work.
As we approached the turn before the tunnel, I looked up from my journal, as I did every day, to admire the New York skyline. The Empire State Building looked so small in comparison to the World Trade Center because of the angle and location of the van. I could see lights turning on in various buildings; I could see the ferry heading into port. My city was waking up, welcoming me.
For the first time in my life, I was a morning person. I strolled through the busy streets in my business suit with my professional leather bag. I grabbed a morning coffee, and made my way up to 47th and Park. I loved stopping at Rockefeller Center to read the paper and take pictures for passing families of tourists. I loved not being a tourist anymore. I loved feeling like I belonged. I loved the smells wafting by. I loved the little green blinking light on my new cell phone. I loved the constant noise and the speed at which everything operated. The pulse synchronized with my heartbeat. I loved that I was finally getting to be an adult.
I took the elevator up to the 8th floor and began my day. Shortly after I had taken my last sip of coffee, the world – and its pulse – stopped.
The man who worked in the office across from the entry desk came over to my coworker and me and told us he just heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade center. He heard that it was a single engine plane, so we all assumed that it was an accident. It was not unusual for helicopter tours to crash, unfortunately. Since the office was usually very quiet, the three of us huddled around the computer in his office, watching the live coverage from a local news station for a few minutes. Then, we decided to switch to CNN. Just as we made the switch, the phone at my desk rang. I hurried over to my chair and answered. Suddenly, my two colleagues yelled out, “Holy shit! Another one just hit!”
The phone lines started to light up like my beloved New York skyline.
As time passed and information rolled in, it became clear to everyone that this was not an accident. Within minutes, the whole office turned into a blur of frantic executives calling emergency meetings and running into a centralized conference room to discuss how to handle the situation. The woman on the intercom told people to remain calm. The phones were ringing off the hook with people calling to find out if their loved ones who worked there were okay.
Everyone scurried around, attempting to be helpful, but not really knowing how to be or what to do. There were procedures for fire alarms and earthquakes and hostage situations, but there was no plan for this. People were making calls to find out what other companies were doing. Some offices were being evacuated and some were in lock-down. People were told to get down from any floor above 25 but not to exit the building. One woman who worked across the hall was dating a man who worked on the 101st floor of one of the World Trade Center Towers. She couldn’t get a hold of him. She sat in a chair in the hallway, crying. Waiting.
I remained oddly calm. Rather than start crying or panicking, I fielded calls, helped the executives get whatever they needed, and handled whatever was thrown at me. I took care of those who were breaking down by getting them tissues and water. At one point I stepped into a small restroom and looked myself square in the face in the mirror. “You’re going to be okay,” I told myself out loud. “Stay calm, and we’ll figure this out.”
“My boyfriend is in there… he’s on the 101st floor,” the woman kept telling anyone who came through the door, hoping they would give her an answer. She continued to frantically call him, but there was either no answer or no dial tone. Cell phones couldn’t get service. Word from the street was that there were long lines and a wait of up to an hour to use a pay phone.
News and information came in from reliable and unreliable sources. The Pentagon was hit by another plane and the news reported that there was a fourth plane hijacked “somewhere.” I took a quick lap around the floor and looked out the windows of the executive offices to try to figure out if a plane could maneuver its way into our building. I decided that it was impossible and tried to think of what the next target would be. The Empire State Building? The Statue of Liberty? I found an empty office, went to the window, and looked down. There were people running around everywhere. Taxis lined the streets as far as the eye could see. People were getting into cabs with strangers. New York City had announced that the underground pathways were closed. My company decided that everyone in the building should stay put. I managed to send a bulk email to my loved ones to let them know I was okay and that I'd contact them when I could.
Information came in that there was a bomb scare at Grand Central Station and it was being evacuated. I went back to the window and saw hundreds of people spilling out into the streets, frantically trying to find a cab with an empty seat in it. After Grand Central reopened, I knew I needed to make a decision. For so long I had yearned to be an adult. I knew that meant making rent payments, going grocery shopping, and buying a car. I didn't think it also involved making what could be a life or death decision.
Bridges and tunnels started closing and soon there were only two ways out of New York City: walk down towards the site and wait in the 4 hour line for the ferry to New Jersey or find an above-ground tunnel to Grand Central and take any train out of there. In this city that I thought I knew like the back of my hand, I didn’t even know that above ground tunnels existed, let alone where to find one. But, I had to get out.
When I finally got the okay to leave the building, I grabbed my bag and left, unsure of where I was going, but sure that I didn’t want to stay a second longer. On the street, I encountered organized panic mixed with a strange silence I never imagined New York City was capable of. People were cramming into taxicabs and telling the driver, “I don’t care where we go, just get us out of here.” There were some people who were afraid to go into buildings to get their loved ones, but asking the people inside if they could call them down. Others rushed to get down to what would soon be called “Ground Zero” to try to find their loved ones. There were some who had just come from the site; crying, bloody, and covered in what looked like ashes. They looked like they had been to war in their business suits. And they looked like they had lost.
Nobody honked their horn.
I wandered down to Park Street and followed anyone wearing a suit and holding a briefcase, which turned out to be a perfect plan. A tall man with white hair and a blue suit led me to the tunnel. As I walked through the tunnel towards the train, I kept thinking and repeating...
“Please don’t let a bomb go off in here...”
“Please don’t let a bomb go off in here...”
“Please don’t let a bomb go off in here...”
When I finally got through the tunnel and into Grand Central, I boarded a completely packed train to Connecticut. Nobody collected tickets or money. The train was silent. There were people from other countries, people visiting relatives, and people covered in that unidentifiable powdery, ashy substance. One man didn’t have any shoes on. I wondered what he had seen. I wondered what else he had lost or what other people on that train would learn they had lost in days to come. At every train stop there were FBI officials, police officers, and ambulances looking for, I assume, people who needed help or looked suspicious.
As I was getting into the office that morning, Chantelle was across the river, on a van on her way to Port Authority, heading into NYC for a job interview, which was at a building just a few blocks from what became known as Ground Zero. When the first plane hit, her van turned around and went back to Jersey City.
While I was trying to find out how to get out of the city, Chantelle chatted online with my Auntie Gayle. She saw the footage of the first plane hitting, but then we lost service. She couldn’t watch all of the horror unfold because the few tv channels we got received their feed from the antenna that was on the top of Tower 1. But she saw enough. We both did. The images are still burned in our memories. She put on my hooded sweatshirt and curled up in front of the computer. Luckily, she still had an internet connection and it stayed active all night. Unfortunately, she had to sit at home, alone.
My visibly shaken mom picked me up at the Bridgeport train stop and we drove back to Naugatuck, listening to the events and information flow in on the radio. No radio stations played music. My mom was so relieved to have her only child safe and sound, but I desperately wanted to get back to the apartment to be with Chantelle, who told me that it seemed like some people were celebrating in the street. We were both just thankful to be alive.
After just a day of being in Connecticut, my mom hesitantly brought me back to Jersey City and to Chantelle, who hadn’t moved from her computer chair.
"Well, that's over," we thought. "Tomorrow we’ll start again."
And we did, but not in the way we thought we would. Everything had changed.
When JP Morgan re-opened and people tried to get back to “business as usual,” I woke up with my alarm clock and tried to get up and dressed, but couldn’t. I was frozen with fear. The thought of going into a tunnel or over a bridge was paralyzing. Nobody knew what was going to happen, what else was planned, or what was safe. I called my boss and told her that I wasn’t ready to come back yet. When my boss’ assistant picked up, I explained that I was taking another day off and she told me that it was okay.
That night, Chantelle and I had a heart-to-heart about our future in New Jersey and New York. Every time we left the house, even to get groceries, we had to show our IDs to the authorities, who were at every intersection. They were bringing all of the items found at Ground Zero to Jersey City for investigation and were being very strict and observant about who could move where and when. It was all a little too much for our nerves. We were in a constant state of fear and anxiety.
After a few days, Chantelle and I couldn't stand being trapped in the house. Two of our friends asked if we wanted to go have a drink at our favorite bar in Hoboken. I sat down at the bar next to a guy who was about my age. He was drinking a hard drink (whiskey, bourbon, scotch) and staring into the mirror behind the bar. When I sat down, I threw my pack of cigarettes on the bar and waited for the bartender. He asked if he could bum a cigarette and I said yes. Something forced me to ask him if he was okay. He was not.
He took the PATH train into the World Trade Center that Tuesday morning. He got off the train, stepped outside, and started walking to his office building, just as he had done every day for at least the last year. But something was wrong. People were looking up, people were running, debris was falling. He looked up and saw smoke and glass was falling towards him. He turned and started to run. And then a body landed in front of him. It was someone who, we both assumed, had jumped. He would never un-see it.
Just after 9/11, there were two giant, bright lights that reached up into the sky where the towers once stood. During the night, it was breathtaking. But during the day there was just an emptiness. It was silent and gaping, as was the hole in my heart that belonged to New York City. The glass slipper was broken.
We were so scared to leave our apartment that we decided to leave Jersey City. When I called my boss to break the news, I learned that she too, was having trouble coming back to work. Her assistant told me that I was letting the terrorists win by leaving and that I would regret it for the rest of my life. Helpful.
I was thankful for the three months that I got to be a part of the pulse, but this was no longer the city I had fallen in love with. After all of the times people told me to be careful not to be mugged in NYC, they were right. Being a New Yorker was stolen from me and from millions of others.
Within two weeks of 9/11, I moved back in with my mom in Connecticut and Chantelle moved back in with her mom in Massachusetts. We forfeited our security deposit and said goodbye to the friends we had made and to our city life. Terror had stolen our dreams. Now, I had to move back to restricted life in Connecticut where I had to answer to people and play by the rules again.