Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11

Reposting my 9/11 story here so my friends can read it. Picture above is from a dinner cruise I took around the city just about a month before 9/11.

In the fall of 2001, I was living in New York, in my last semester of my first grad program. 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. I used to go down in front of the towers quite a bit while I worked there, because my favorite department store, Century 21 faced the towers.

The three years I lived in New York I was pretty crazy about shoes. I used to wear 3-4 inch high heels or strappy sandals 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 actually walked back into my place to change into a really comfortable pair of flat 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 at the Chambers St station 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 gosh, there goes 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 the reality of 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 quickly realized this wasn't an accident. People started screaming and running. I headed 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 certain 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 every day 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 from that distance we could clearly see people hanging 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 with hands over our mouths 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 you 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 desperately waving from the windows, and I would start walking south again.

I probably did this back and forth two times or so and had returned to the open area. What I heard next is something I will never forget. It was this low guttural rumbling sound. It started out really softly at first, like a whisper. It was such an unfamiliar sound that everyone was looking around trying to see where it was coming from. I then looked up to see that it was the sound of the first tower collapsing. Since we were about 6 blocks away, people really started to panic, some were screaming, and most were 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 more like "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 frantically 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 remember looking to the left and right, to see an incredible stream of 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 my walk, 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 with their cute shoes in their hands. 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 out, I hadn't really cried yet. But talking to my family, I guess I could just let it all go, and I just 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. They also wanted to make sure I was ok and that I got something to eat. 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. I remember seeing how long the list of volunteers were. Little did we know how few survivors there would be.

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 across the city, colleges all across the country ended up canceling classes that day and many the next day as well. Nope, not Columbia. I had class that Tuesday night. I remember sitting there in my Epidemiology class 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 finally 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 realized then how big this was and how much it touched everyone.

That night I lay in my bed in the dark, watching the constant TV coverage. It was difficult not to just start sobbing. 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 I needed to stop and that I should go to bed. 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 go away tomorrow!". Luckily the sirens did leave my head the next morning. About two days later I was meeting up with friends for dinner and I freaked out because I heard sirens again, even though I didn't see anything. I turned to grab my friend's arm and asked, "Oh my gosh please tell me you hear that too", then two seconds later an ambulance passed by on the street. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Starting that morning and for days afterwards, there were military fighter jets flying over the city. After seeing the first one, you knew the military jets were there. But every time I heard another one fly by, I'd tense up and remember what it was like to hear and see the second plane hit. The reaction was instinctive. Seeing the fighter jets protecting the city was quite a vision. This wasn't some air show. It was real. We were in a war zone of sorts. Also for months afterwards there were military personnel with automatic weapons all over the city, especially in the subways.

No one was allowed south of Houston Street for a while afterwards. Houston St became a spontaneous memorial of sorts.

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. People who worked downtown were then allowed south of Houston Street to gather stuff from our offices. This was when I 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.

The other thing I remember immediately after 9/11 was the thousands of flyers posted all over the city, from people looking for their loved ones. These were people holding out hope that their loved ones were one of the very few who had somehow made it out alive and were in a hospital somewhere. It was heartbreaking to see these flyers all over the city. It was difficult not to tear up.

Typically the 9/11 stories you get from the media are those who lost loved ones. I think about those who lost loved ones. I was so incredibly lucky that no one I knew died that day. Soon after 9/11 the New York times started running a new section called Portraits of Grief. It gave a face, a story, a history to the number declared dead. I read these portraits religiously, eventually buying the book when it was compiled.

When I think about the families, I think about not only how devastating it must be to first have lost someone, but how excruciatingly difficult it must be to have lost your loved one on such a public tragedy, one that gets so much media coverage. To be haunted by the constant images of the towers being hit and collapsing, knowing that you are watching your loved ones die... I can't even imagine.

I especially think a lot about seeing the 5 or 6 people who were forced to jump from the smoke and the heat and I wonder who they were. What were their stories? Where were they from? Who did they leave behind? I've also mentioned several times hearing constant sirens heading south that morning. I've wondered how many of those emergency personnel I saw made it out alive. How many of those fire fighters and police personnel I saw driving south were in the towers when they fell?

9/11 was such a historical event, that everyone has a story. Everyone remembers where they were that day. I've verbally told a condensed version of my story many times when people talk about where they were that day. Recalling all of these details and writing my story down, it's almost like I can feel again my emotions from that day and the subsequent weeks. I can hear the constant sirens from that day. I can see the billowing cloud of smoke as the first tower fell. I can remember the smell of the burning metal and how it tasted in the back of my throat. I close my eyes and I'm right there again, ten years later. I wonder if it'll still be as vivid in another 10 years.

There is no way I could ever forget. For me that day is the closest that I have been to that much death, pain, and evil. But if there's anything I take from it, and what I also remember each 9/11, is to be grateful for what you have and to try to live your life fully.

Pictures below are from Ground Zero about 3 weeks after 9/11

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