Tribute, Part 4: The Rest of the 11th

When I finally left my desk, things started happening a bit more quickly. Though I was intimidated as hell by my glamorous fashionista boss, I headed to her office for its TV. We were gathered there, looking downtown from her 15th story windows (though taller buildings blocked our view of the towers, we could see the smoke), when the first tower collapsed.

There were probably 20 of us in her office, watching WNBC. The reporter was interviewing someone who’d seen the plane hit when the girl-on-the-street started screaming and the camera whipped up.

All morning, I had been carefully and cautiously putting together pieces of the puzzle, constructing a version of events that I could handle. A plane hit the WTC. Ok, fine. It must have been an amateur. An accident. There were two? Proceed to the next logical step of reasoning. Perhaps this was an attack. I was digesting this all one step at a time. Piece by piece.

Watching a 103-story building fall to the ground in a moment doesn’t allow for time to process. It just all clicked into place. With a painful thud.

My department consisted of 35 people: 32 women, two gay men, and a straight guy called Ken. When it comes to matters of personal safety and nurturing instinct in a crisis, I’ll put my money on female leaders any day. Within minutes, we had arranged the department into teams, ensuring that no one journeyed home alone. I was partnered up with Rebekkah and Maria, fellow residents of Queens. (The Queens contingent at Saks Fifth Avenue, as you may have imagined, was relatively small.)

Some of the most profound images from that day came from that walk home. As soon as we crossed onto Madison Avenue and were able to see downtown, we could see the smoke. Sensory overload: sirens piercing the ears, the acrid smoke that would hover over the city for days burning the nose. We’d only been walking for a few minutes when I saw a girl on her cell phone, looking downtown as we and everyone else walked north, screaming, crying, pleading. Who was on the other end of that call? I remember walking by a big post office, and one of my colleagues thinking it might be a target. Though I rolled my eyes at the idea in that moment, I think of it every time I walk by that post office. I walked past it just Saturday.

As Rebekkah, Maria, and I got far enough out on the bridge to see downtown, Maria asked, “Where’s the other tower? Where’s the other tower?” She was panicky; what we didn’t know at the time was that she had just found out she was pregnant. We convinced her, and ourselves, briefly, that we couldn’t see it for the smoke. But we knew. I knew.

The walk across the 59th Street bridge was eerie, the only inbound traffic construction workers, trucks coming to help with the recovery effort. None of our mobile phones worked; we were desperate for news and besought with misinformation. I remember hearing at some stage there was a plane headed for Chicago, and another for L.A. I stopped to listen to Spanish radio at one stage, pulling in as much information as my scared mind could translate.

I arrived home in Astoria by noon, hours before my roommates. I’d spoken to Rachel earlier; she was at work, waiting to leave with a colleague. I couldn’t get Aaron on the phone. I had no idea where he was until he rolled in around 3 p.m. with a couple bags of potato chips. It’s funny how we turn to junk food in times of crisis. I remember the girls from upstairs offering us a platter of pizza rolls.

What is there to say about the rest of the day? We sat and watched television nonstop. We were horrified by what we saw. You saw the same images. Except… you didn’t see the local news anchor interviewing her colleague, the network engineer, who’d gotten out of the tower alive. Nor did you see the shock on the local newscasters’ faces when the first images of people jumping out of the buildings appeared on the screen. Your news talked a lot about those images. Ours did not. Not for a couple of days. I listened to stories from back home, about how difficult the day had been for people in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska. I tried not to scream back at them as I smelled the smoke from the still-smoldering towers through my bedroom window.

September 11, 2001, ended for me around 1 a.m. We were all exhausted but unwilling to leave the television. Or one another.

I remember so vividly how my roommates and I trailed off to bed that night… all leaving our doors open, hesitant to face the dark alone in this scary new world in which we now lived.


7 Responses to “Tribute, Part 4: The Rest of the 11th”

  1. 1 Kati 10 September 2010 at 09:11

    OMG! These are so good.

  2. 3 Jackie 10 September 2010 at 11:59

    I have always known that no matter how bad it seemed to those of us who were 2500 – 3000 miles away, it had to be so much worse being there in New York City. Your heart felt description of that day brings it home with a new impact. I am certain that anyone who was not there can never really “get it”.

    One of the most gut wrenching memories of things I saw on TV … and there were so many … was the night 2 or 3 weeks later, (for some reason I cannot remember exactly how long!) when the mayor, and the group of firefighters and police officers appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was a wonderful way to tell the world that New York City would survive and thrive once again. But when the camera panned on the faces of those men, who had seen so much horror, and lost so many friends, the grief etched in their faces was almost more than I could stand to see. Yet I could not look away … I think that brought home the personal side of the 9/11 attacks to me more fully than any other single thing I saw.

    Jen, I am so glad you are sharing your memories, the day needs to be remembered always. Thank You.

  3. 4 Jill 10 September 2010 at 14:58

    At the time, I also thought that September 10, 2001 was a “terrible” day for me, Jen. I was working at the front desk at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. We had a huge convention in-house and I, the new intern, had managed to oversell the hotel. I got off work at 11:00 that night, feeling like a complete idiot, and took a cab home to my apartment at Shirlington House in Arlington, VA.

    The next morning I had a mid shift, so I wasn’t due in to work until 11:00. I woke up and received a terrified phone call from my mom telling me to turn on the news. I watched the unbelievable, horrific events unravel on the TV all day long. I was unable to go into work that day…I lived 3 miles SW of the Pentagon and after the crash, I-395 closed between my apartment and the hotel in downtown D.C. The sirens went off all day long. Later that afternoon (after I felt “safe enough” to venture out of my apartment), I went outside and saw the smoke from the Pentagon. Although I was still in shock about what had happened, this image made it a harsh reality.

    I received an e-mail from Jen in New York, telling me that she’d been trying to call, but was unable to get through since the phone lines were swamped. She hoped that I wasn’t transferring trains at the Pentagon at the time of the crash, since I got on the metro at Pentagon station every morning to go to work.

    Remembering all those who were lost on that most tragic day, 9 years ago, 9/11/01.

    • 5 travelinglightjs 10 September 2010 at 19:32

      Jill, you are a big part of my 9/11 memories. I was blown away by how many friends I had in “high profile” cities: you in DC, Aaron’s family in Chicago, Ben Golding in LA. The girl I walked across the bridge with had family in PA. I think we forget what happened at the Pentagon because the fall of the WTC was so dramatic… but what an unbelievable day on every front. It’s hard to realize that those memories are of a real event…

  4. 6 Stephanie Dahle 10 September 2010 at 15:10

    I was in Minnesota, in a high school class. It felt like the world was crumbling. But I was so far away.

    When I hear stories of people who were there, or imminently effected, it makes me feel September 11th all over again. Often, it is with the perspective of my adopted city.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • 7 travelinglightjs 10 September 2010 at 19:33

      Stephanie, I suspect that’s a fascinating perspective from Cairo. Would be very interested to hear how your 9/11 in the Middle East is, particularly given the recent (ridiculous) rash of anti-Muslim outrage over here.

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