I had lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for almost a year and a half on Sept. 11, 2001, but still marveled every day that my dream of owning an apartment in the greatest city in the world had come true. Growing up in Brooklyn, "the city" seemed so close and yet so far; I didn’t even take my first subway ride until I was 16.
I caught the subway downtown that morning to my office on Maiden Lane. At the Chambers Street station, the train was delayed and the conductor announced that there was a "police action" at the Word Trade Center station -- a euphemism that would hardly cause most New York subway veterans to raise an eyebrow. A moment later, when he announced that there had been an explosion, he had our full attention. I could tell many passengers' were remembering the 1993 terrorist bombing.
It never occurred to me to get off the train and head back home. When I got off two stops further south, at the corner of Fulton and John Street, a crowd was staring up in the direction of the towers. The top floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center were engulfed in flames. I shouted, "Oh my God!" and began to cry. Mesmerized, I knew there had been a terrible loss of life. I asked a bystander if he had any idea what had happened, and he told me that a plane had hit the tower.
My first thought was to call my parents on my cell phone. They would be worried about my safety. I tried not to sound too upset, but I began to cry again. As we were speaking, I heard a loud boom, like an explosion, and I screamed. My view down John Street was obstructed. I didn't know a second plane had just hit the south tower.
Thinking I should get off the street because it might not be safe, I headed to my third floor office across from the Federal Reserve. I made a mental note that I was on a low floor and could easily get out of the building.
Upstairs, most of my colleagues were crowded together in front of windows that faced the World Trade Center, just two short blocks away. I briefly looked on as well, but after a moment I couldn't watch any more. I later learned that my co-workers were able to see people jumping from the high floors of the towers. Many of my friends saw the same horrifying site. I am deeply grateful that I did not see that; I don't think I could ever get such images out of my head.
I would find out later that a woman from my church choir was a crewmember aboard United Flight 93, which was brought down over Pennsylvania by its brave passengers.
It was all a bit too much to take. Why was this happening? Who was responsible? And worse yet, what else was yet to come? Then, someone began to scream, "Get down, get under your desks!" I dove under my desk and waited to hear the sound of breaking glass -- I was sure that a bomb had gone off. Instead, the unthinkable had happened: The south tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed.
That was the first time that morning that I felt truly afraid, that I thought, "I may not make it home today." It was the first time in my 36 years that I ever considered my own mortality. I waited for a few moments, and slowly came out from under my desk. Outside, the beautiful September morning was now pitch dark. Our building was enveloped in smoke and debris. I found my friend Tim and didn't leave his side for the next three or four hours. To this day I think of him as my guardian angel.
It was obvious that we needed to get out of lower Manhattan. Once the cloud of dust from the south tower's collapse finally dispersed, Tim and I decided to try to leave the building and walk north. I went into the ladies room to get some wet paper towels to cover our mouths with, and saw the floor was covered in soot and ash. "Is it coming in through the vents?" I asked the women inside. "No," one of them replied, "it's from our clothes; we were outside when the tower fell." They were dazed and crying, and had come back inside the building to escape the dust cloud.
Outside, the streets were a moonscape; gray ash covered everything and was several inches thick on the ground. We turned left and began to head north, but had only gotten about a half a block when we heard a huge rumble. The north tower was starting to collapse.
"Run, Cathy, run!" Tim yelled, grabbing me by my arm. We ran as fast as we could into a nearby office building. As we did, a second huge dust cloud raced up the streets. We desperately wanted to head north, but it hardly seemed safe to be outside. We found a group of people gathered around a TV in a back corridor off the lobby. News reporters were saying that the entire United States airspace was being shut down, and that there may be still more hijacked planes in the air. In fact, they surmised that there could be as many as eight in total; for all we knew, there were other targets in New York City that had yet to be hit.
We did not know if we were safer staying where we were, or if we were still in harm's way. In the end we decided to follow our first instinct and try to get out of there. The street was now buried under even more gray dust. The sky was filled with ash and looked more like night than day, but after a few blocks, we left the darkness behind and were amazed to find ourselves in brilliant sunshine. Thousands of New Yorkers were in the streets, making their way north on foot, some crying, others being comforted by total strangers. In Chinatown, merchants were handing out bottles of water; a restaurant on Sixth Avenue had set up a table of free sandwiches and coffee. I'd never been prouder of being a New Yorker.
As we walked, I tried time after time to reach my sister in New Jersey on my cell phone, but it was impossible to get a connection. Later, when I finally did get through to her, she began to sob when she heard the sound of my voice.
Passing by a hospital, we saw scores of people already lined up to donate blood and help out. Doctors and nurses were preparing for the victims that never arrived. There were no vehicles on the road except for those filled with emergency workers.
Our journey home took about three hours. We tried to avoid all New York City landmarks, fearing that they may be targets. We saw hundreds of displaced commuters, unable to get home. Every bridge, tunnel, subway, and commuter train was now off-limits. The only way off the island was on foot.
Arriving home around 2 p.m., I immediately began calling family, friends and co-workers. I had been very concerned about my friend Lisa, who worked at the World Financial Center, directly across the street from the Twin Towers. I got no answer when I called her apartment, but tried not to worry; it was possible that she, too, was still making her way uptown. When she did call me back, the tears began flowing again. I grabbed two bottles of wine and arrived at Lisa's place within 20 minutes. We spent the next couple of hours talking, crying, answering many phone calls, and sharing our stories of what we had been through.
Lisa's brother-in-law had tried to sail his boat down from his suburb north of New York City to "rescue" her, but had been turned back by the Coast Guard at the George Washington Bridge. No one was being allowed into the waterways that surrounded Manhattan. Lisa's sister soon called back to say that a family friend had a boat docked at the nearby 79th Street Boat Basin, and was waiting there to take her out of town. "They want to rescue me," Lisa cried in her West Virginia accent, "and doggone it if I'm not going to let them!"
Lisa tried to convince me to join her, but I couldn't bring myself to leave Manhattan. I needed to stay among my fellow New Yorkers and just feel whatever it was that I needed to feel. However, I knew I didn't want to be alone. Like many single New Yorkers, I have an urban family of close friends. "Hey Tim, I'm coming over and I'm bringing wine," I said when Tim answered his phone. "What do you like on your pizza?"
I woke up on Tim's couch the next morning to a glorious September morning eerily similar to the one from the day before. As I wiped the sleep from my eyes, I knew that neither I, nor the city I loved more than ever, would ever be the same.
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