9/11/2001 was one of those rare days where sloth was rewarded. I know several people who are still alive today because they were late to work that morning, or stopped to get coffee to help them feel a little less groggy.
I got woken up in my apartment on 12th Street and 4th Avenue by a phone call from my friend Jen. “Look out your window,” Jen said. That is when I saw the smoke from the first plane.
I called my husband’s office first thing. I couldn’t see his building from our apartment, but I could see the building ACROSS from his, which was the Trade Center, and black smoke was billowing out of it.
“What was happening?” I wondered. Jen didn’t know. No one knew. Was he all right? I knew he worked on a really high floor, and it looked as if whatever had happened to that tower across from his, it had to be happening right in front of his office window.
I couldn’t get through to him. I couldn’t make any outgoing calls from my phone that day. For some reason, people could call me, but I couldn’t call anyone else. It turned out this was due to the massive volume of calls going on in my part of the city that day.
But I didn’t know that then.
Sirens started up. It was the engine from the firehouse across the street from my apartment building. It was a very small firehouse. All the guys used to sit outside it on folding chairs on nice days, joshing with the neighbors who were walking their dogs, and with my doormen. The old ladies on my street always brought them cookies.
9/11/01 was a very, very nice day. The sky was a very pure blue and it was warm outside.
Now all the firemen from the station across from my apartment building were rushing out to the fire downtown.
Every last one of them would be dead in an hour. But none of us knew that then.
I turned on New York 1, the local news channel for New York City. Pat Kiernan, my favorite newscaster, was saying that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Weird, I thought. Was the pilot drunk? How could someone not see a building that big, and run into it with a plane?
It was right then that Luz, my housekeeper, showed up. I’d forgotten it was Tuesday, the day she comes to clean. When she saw what I was watching, she looked worried.
“I just dropped my son off at his college,” she said. “It’s right next to the World Trade Center.”
“My husband works across the street from the World Trade Center,” I said.
“Is he all right?” Luz wanted to know. “What’s happening down there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t reach him.”
Luz tried to call her son on his cell phone. She, too, could not get through.
We didn’t know that our cell servers used towers that were located on top of the World Trade Center, and they all had stopped working.
We both stood there staring at the TV, not really knowing what to do. It was as we were watching that something weird happened on the TV, right before our eyes: the OTHER tower — the one that hadn’t been hit — suddenly exploded. I thought maybe one of the helicopters that was filming the disaster had gotten too close.
But Luz said, “No. A plane hit it. I saw it. That was a plane.”
I hadn’t seen a plane. I said, “No. No, how could that be? There can’t be TWO drunk pilots.”
“You don’t understand,” Luz said. “They’re doing this on purpose.”
“No,” I said. “Of course they aren’t. Who would do that?”
That’s when Pat Kiernan, on the TV, said, “Oh, my God.”
It’s weird to hear a newscaster say, “Oh, my God.” Especially Pat. He is always very professional.
Also, Pat’s voice cracked when he said it. Like he was about to cry.But newscasters don’t cry.
“Another plane has hit the World Trade Center,” Pat said. “It looks as if another plane — a commercial jet — has hit the World Trade Center. And we are getting reports that a plane has just hit the Pentagon.”
That’s when I grabbed Luz. And Luz grabbed me. We both started to cry. We sat on the couch in my living room, hugging each other, and crying as we watched what was happening on TV, which was what was happening a dozen blocks from where we sat, where both the people we loved were. We could see things flying out of the burning buildings. Pat said that those things were people.
That’s when my phone rang. I grabbed it, but it wasn’t my husband. It was his mother. Where was he? she wanted to know. Was he all right? I said I didn’t know. I said I was trying to keep the line clear, in case he called. She said she understood but to call her as soon as I heard anything, and hung up. Then the phone rang again. It was my husband’s sister-in-law. Then it rang again. It was MY mother.
The phone rang all morning. It was never my husband. It was always family or friends, wondering if he was all right. “I don’t know,” I kept telling them. “I don’t know.”
Luz went up to the roof of my building to see if she could see anything more from there than what they were showing on New York 1. While she was gone, I went into my bedroom to get dressed (I was still wearing my pajamas).
All I could think, as I looked into my closet, trying to figure out what to wear, was that my husband was probably dead. I didn’t see how anybody could be down in that part of Manhattan and still be alive. All I could see were things falling —and people jumping — out of those buildings. Anyone on the streets down below would have to be killed by all of that.
I remember exactly what I put on that day: olive green capris and a black T-shirt, with my black Steve Madden slides. I remember thinking, “This will be my Identifying My Dead Husband’s Body outfit. I will never, ever wear it again after this day.”
Luz came back down from the roof, very excited. No, she hadn’t seen if the buildings in which my husband and her son were in were all right. But she’d seen thousands — THOUSANDS — of people coming down 4th Avenue, the busy street I lived off of at the time. 4th Avenue is always crazy crowded with honking cars, buses, taxis, bike messengers, you name it.
Not today. Today all the cars and buses were gone, and the entire avenue was crowded with people.
“Walking,” Luz said. “They’re WALKING DOWN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET.”
I ran to look out the window. Luz was right. Instead of the constant stream of cars I’d gotten used to seeing outside our living room, I saw wall to wall people. They had taken over the street. They were coming from the Battery, where the Trade Center is located, shoulder to shoulder, ten deep in the middle of the road, like a parade or a rally. There were tens of thousands of them.
There were men in business suits, and some in khakis. There were women in skirts and dresses, walking barefoot or in shredded pantyhose, holding their shoes because their high heels hurt too much and they hadn’t had time to grab their commuter running shoes. I saw the ladies who worked in the manicure shop across the street from my building running outside with the flip flops they put on their customers’ feet when they’ve had a pedicure (the flip flops the staff always make sure they get back before you leave). But today, the staff was giving the flip flops to the women who were barefoot. They were giving away the flip flops. That’s when I got REALLY freaked out.
The manicurists weren’t the only ones trying to help. The men who worked in the deli on the corner were running outside with bottles of water to give to the hot, thirsty marchers. New York City deli owners, GIVING water away. Usually they charged $2.
It was like the world had turned upside down.
“They have to be in there,” Luz said, about her son and my husband, pointing to the crowd. “They’re walking with them, and that’s what’s taking so long.”
Then Luz ran downstairs to see if anyone in the crowd was coming from the same college her son went to, anyone who might have seen him. I was afraid to leave my apartment, though, because I thought my husband might try to call. Not knowing what else to do, I logged onto the computer. My email was still working, even if the phones weren’t. I emailed my husband: WHERE ARE YOU?
A friend from Indiana had emailed to ask if there was anything she could do. At the time, the only thing I could think of was, “Give blood.” My friend, and everyone she knew, gave blood that day. So many people gave blood that there were lines around the corner to give it.
After a month, a lot of that surplus blood had to be destroyed, because they didn’t have room to store it all. And there turned out to be no use for it, anyway. There were few survivors to give blood to.
My friend Jen, the one who’d woken me up, emailed me from her job at NYU. Fred, one of Jen’s employees and also a volunteer EMT, had jumped on his bike and headed downtown to see if there was anything he could do to help. Jen herself was organizing a massive effort to set up shelter for students who didn’t live on campus, since the subways and commuter trains had stopped running, and the kids who commuted to school would have no way of getting home that night. Jen was trying to arrange for cots to be set up in the gym for them. She ended up staying in the city too that night. She had no way to get back to her house in Connecticut.
Another co-worker from NYU, my friend Jack, did manage to reach his spouse, who worked in the Trade Center, that day. Jack’s wife had just walked eighty floors down one of the Towers to reach the ground safely, only to realize the guys in her IT department were still up there, backing up data for the company. Once she reached the ground, and saw how bad things really were, she tried calling them to tell them to forget backing up and just COME DOWN, but couldn’t get hold of them. So she went back up to MAKE THEM come down, because who doesn’t love their IT guys?
“Why did you go back up?” Jack asked her, when he finally reached her. By that time she, along with the IT guys, had become trapped in the fire and smoke.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. Of course it did. She was married to Jack. Jack would have done the same thing. She told Jack to say good bye to their twins toddlers for her. That was the last time they spoke.
I can never think of this, or of Jack’s happy, cheerful greeting every time I saw him, without wanting to cry. It seems so unfair.
Another friend, a pilot who had access to air traffic control radar, emailed me to say all the planes in the U.S. were being grounded — that what had happened had been the result of highjackings. That it was a commercial jet that had hit the Pentagon, where my friend’s father-in-law worked (they eventually found him, safe and sound. He’d been stuck in traffic on his way to the Pentagon when the plane hit).
But another friend – a girl I’d worked with when I’d been a receptionist in my husband’s office, a girl whom I’d helped pick out a wedding dress, and who, since the big day, had quit her job to raise the four kids she’d had – wasn’t so lucky. She never saw her husband, who worked at the Trade Center, again after he left for work that morning.
Then, behind me, I heard Pat Kiernan on the TV say, “Oh, my God,” again.
And this time he really WAS crying. Because one of the towers was collapsing.
I watched, not believing my eyes. Since having moved to New York City in 1989, I had become accustomed to using the Twin Towers as my own personal compass point for the direction “South,” since they’re on the southern tip of the island, and visible from dozens of blocks away. Wherever you were in the maze of streets that made up the Village, all you had to do to orient yourself was find the Twin Towers, and you knew which direction to go in.
And now one of those towers was coming down.
I don’t remember anything else about that moment except that, as I watched the TV in horror, the front door to my apartment opened, and, assuming it was Luz back from the street, I turned to tell her, “It’s falling down! It’s FALLING DOWN!”
Only it wasn’t Luz. It was my husband.
He said, “What’s falling down? Why are you crying?”
Because HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON.
Because my husband, being my husband, had picked up his briefcase after the first plane hit and said, “Let’s go,” to everyone in his department, took the elevators downstairs, and insisted everyone start walking for our apartment, because it was the closest place to where they were that seemed unlikely to be hit by an airplane.
(He told me later he’d worried they were going to try for the Stock Exchange, or the federal buildings you always see on Law and Order, and so had made everyone take the long way home around those buildings, which is why it took so long to get there).
They had to dodge the bodies of the people who jumped from the burning towers because they couldn’t stand the heat anymore. They saw the desk chairs and PCs that had been blown out of the offices so high above littering the street like tickertape from a parade. They saw the second plane hit while they were on the street, and ducked into a cell phone store until the rubble from the explosion settled. A piece of plane, nearly twenty feet long, flew past them, and landed in a parking lot, just missing Trinity Church, one of the oldest churches in this country.
And they kept walking.
I don’t know what people normally do when someone they love, who they were convinced was dead, suddenly walks through the door. All I know is how I reacted: I flung my arms around him. And then I started yelling, “WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL ME?”
“I tried, I couldn’t get through,” he said. “What’s falling down?”
Because they had no idea. All they knew was that the city was under attack (which they had surmised by all the airplanes).
So my husband and his colleagues gathered in our living room—hot, thirsty, but alive, and the ones who lived in New Jersey wondering how (and if) they were going to get home.
Luz, not wanting to go home until she’d heard from her son, who was supposed to meet her after class in my building, cleaned. I told her not to, but she said it helped keep her mind off what was happening. So she vacuumed, while eleven people sat in my two room apartment and watched the Twin Towers fall.
It wasn’t long after the second tower came down that our friends David and Susan from Indiana, who lived in a beautiful condo in the shadow of the Twin Towers with their two children, showed up at our door, their kids and half the employees from their office (which was in our neighborhood) behind them. They had been some of the people shown on the news escaping from the massive dust cloud that erupted when the towers fell. They’d abandoned their daughter’s stroller and run for it, while shop owners tossed water on their backs as they passed by, to keep their clothes from catching on fire.
In their typical way, however, they had stopped on their way to our place to pick up some bagels.
For all they knew, their apartment was burning down, or being buried under ten feet of rubble. But they’d stopped for bagels, because they’d been worried people might be hungry. Or maybe people just do things in times like that to try to be normal. I don’t know. They didn’t forget the cream cheese, either.
I took the kids into my bedroom, where there was a second TV, because I didn’t think they should see what everyone was watching in the living room, which was footage of what they had just escaped from. I set up my Playstation for Jake, who was seven or so at the time, to use, while Shai, just turning 4, and I did a puzzle on my floor. Both kids were worried about Mr. Fluff, their pet rabbit, whom they’d been forced to leave behind in their apartment, because there’d been no time to get him (their parents had run from work and grabbed both kids from school).
“Do you think he’s all right?” Jake wanted to know.
At the time, I didn’t see how anything south of Canal Street could be alive, but I told Jake I was sure Mr. Fluff was fine.
This was when Shai and I had the following conversation:
“Are planes going to fly into THIS building?” Shai wanted to know. She was crying as she looked out the windows of my thirteenth floor apartment.
Me: “No. No planes are going to fly into this building.”
Shai (still crying): “How do you know?”
Me: “Because all the planes are grounded. No more planes are allowed in the air.”
Me: “No. Just until the bad guys who did this get caught.”
Shai: “Who’s going to catch the bad guys?”
Me: “The police will catch them.”
Shai: “No, they won’t. All the police are dead. I saw them going into the building that just fell down.”
Me (trying not to cry): “Shai. Not all the police are dead.”
Shai (crying harder): “Yes, they ARE. I SAW THEM.”
Me (showing Shai a picture from my family photo album of a policeman in his uniform): “Shai, this is my brother, Matt. He’s a policeman. And he’s not dead, I promise. And he, and other policemen like him, and probably even the Army, will catch the bad guys.”
Shai (no longer crying): “Okay.”
And she went back to her puzzle.
Watching from my living room window, we saw the crowds of people streaming out from what was soon to be called Ground Zero, thin to a trickle, then stop altogether. That was when 4th Avenue became crowded with vehicular traffic again. But not taxis or bike messengers.
Soon, our building was shaking from the wheels of hundreds of Humvees and Army trucks, as the National Guard moved in. The Village was blockaded from 14th Street down. You couldn’t come in or out without showing proof that you lived there (a piece of mail with your name and address on it, along with a photo ID).
The next day, after having spent the night on our fold-out couch in the living room, Shai’s parents snuck back to their apartment (they had to sneak, because the National Guard wasn’t letting anyone at all, even with proof that they lived there, into the area. For weeks afterwards, on every corner from 14th Street down, stood a National Guardsman, armed with an assault rifle. For days, you couldn’t get milk, bread, or a newspaper below Union Square because they weren’t allowing any delivery trucks — or any vehicles at all, except Army vehicles — into the area), and found Mr. Fluff alive and well. They snuck him back out, so that later that day, we were able to put the entire family on a bus to the Hamptons, where they lived for the rest of the year.
As my husband and I were walking back to our apartment from the bus stop where we’d seen off our friends, we saw a familiar face standing on the corner of 4th Avenue and 12th Street, where we lived: Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea Clinton, asking people in our neighborhood if we were all right, and if there was anything they could do to help. I didn’t go up to shake the ex-President’s hand, because I was too shy.
But I stood there watching him and Chelsea, and something about seeing them, so genuinely concerned and kind (and not there for press or publicity, because there WAS no press, there was never any mention of their visit AT ALL in any newspaper or on any news broadcast I saw that day), made me burst into tears, after having held them in the whole time Shai had been in my apartment, since I didn’t want to upset her.
But you couldn’t NOT cry. It was impossible. Everyone was doing it …so much so that the deli across the street put a sign in its window: “No Crying, Please.” Our doormen were crying. Even Rudy Giuliani, New York City’s mayor (whom I will admit up until this crisis I had not particularly liked), kept crying. But he also kept showing up on New York 1, no matter what time you turned it on, even at two in the morning, there he was, like he never slept, always crying but also telling us It’s going to be all right, which was BRILLIANT.
The same day we put Shai and her family on a bus to the Hamptons, September 12 — which also happened to be poor Shai’s birthday — companies (even RIVAL companies) all over Manhattan offered up their conference rooms and spare offices to my husband’s company, so that it would be able to remain in business, since all its windows had been blown out, and asbestos had fallen all over everything.
Since he was the only person in the company who lived downtown, my husband was elected for the duty of removing all the sensitive data from the now mostly destroyed office, which meant he had to pass through the Brooks Brothers in his building’s foyer, from which he had bought so many of his business shirts and ties. The Brooks Brothers was now serving as Ground Zero’s morgue. While under escort of the National Guard, he and guardsmen–the first to enter his floor since the event–found a body in an emergency stairwell. It was determined to be the body of someone from another office, who had probably suffered a heart attack while trying to evacuate. The body was removed and taken to the morgue while my husband watched. (He threw away the clothes he wore that day.)
For the next week in Lower Manhattan, even if you wanted to forget, for a minute, what had happened on that cloudless Tuesday morning, you couldn’t. The front window of my apartment building filled with Missing Person posters of loved ones that had been lost in the Trade Center. The outside walls of St. Vincent’s Hospital were papered with them as well, and Union Square, at 14th Street, became an impromptu memorial to the dead, filled with candles and flowers. So did the front doors of every local fire station, including the one across the street from my building. The old ladies who used to bring cookies there stood in front of it and cried.
You couldn’t go outside during that week — until it finally rained Friday night, four days later – without smelling the acrid smoke from Ground Zero … and, in fact, you were encouraged to wear surgical masks outdoors. An eerie grey fog covered everything. Some of us tried to brave it by not wearing masks, meeting for lunch like nothing had happened, but it made your eyes burn. I have no idea how the rescue workers at Ground Zero could bear it.
It wasn’t until employees from a barbecue restaurant drove all the way to Manhattan from Memphis, and stationed their tanker-sized smokers right next to Ground Zero, and then started giving away free barbecue to all the rescue workers there for weeks on end, that the smell changed to something other than death. Everyone loved those guys. It was just barbecue. Except it wasn’t just barbecue. It was a sign that things were going to be all right.
But of course, for a lot of New Yorkers that day, things were never going to be all right again. While I was celebrating the fact that my husband had come home, Fred – Jen’s employee, the EMT who had ridden his bike downtown to see if there was anything he could do – couldn’t find his crew. This was before the buildings fell, before anyone had any idea those buildings COULD fall, when the police and firemen were still streaming into them, thinking they could get people out. The crew that Fred normally volunteered with were inside one of those buildings, helping people down the stairs. Fred couldn’t find them, because all the cell towers were down, and communication was so sketchy. Someone told Fred to drive a bus they’d found, and help evacuate people out of the World Trade Center area.
Fred didn’t want to be outside driving a bus. He wanted to be inside with his crew, saving people. But since he couldn’t find his crew, he agreed to drive the bus. Then the buildings came down. Later, Fred found out that the crew he normally volunteered with had been one of the many rescue squads buried under the rubble.
Like a lot of the rescue workers who lost coworkers in the attack, Fred seemed to feel guilty about having survived, while his friends had not. Even when all his NYU co-workers pitched in and bought him a new bike (after his old one got crushed at Ground Zero), Fred couldn’t seem to shake his sadness. It was like he didn’t believe he’d done any good that day.
“All I did,” he said, “was drive a stupid bus.”
But that’s not all he did. Because remember Luz’s son?
Well, he showed up at my apartment not long after Jake and Shai and their parents did. Luz grabbed him and kissed him and shook him and cried, and when she finally let go of him, he told his story: He had been heading towards — not away from – the towers, because he’d wanted to help, he said. A lot like Fred. But suddenly, from out of nowhere, someone grabbed him from behind, and threw him onto a stupid bus.
“But I want to stay and help!” Luz’s son yelled at the guy who’d grabbed him.
“Not today,” Fred said.
And he drove Luz’s son, and all the other students from that community college to safety, just before the towers fell.
Now more than a decade has passed since 9/11. A year or two after finding that body, after the company he worked for got back on its feet, my husband decided financial writing wasn’t for him, and he decided to follow a lifelong dream: he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. He got to work with chefs like Jacques Pepin. At his graduation, Michael Lamonaco–who ran Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers. Michael is another person who happened to be late to work on 9/11–offered him a job in his new restaurant. My husband declined, however, because we were moving to Key West, where the pace of life is a little bit slower. Michael said he completely understood.
Luz and her son are doing fine. Fred is now married with two children, and head of his own division at NYU. Mr. Fluff did eventually die, but of natural causes. Jake is now in college, and Shai is a skilled snowboarder. Shai’s mother says her daughter has no memory whatsoever of that day, or of the conversation she and I had, or of the promise I made her — that we’d catch the bad guys. Shai, however, says she does remember our conversation, and that I was right: we did catch the bad guys. There might still be some out there, because you can never catch of all them. But we’re trying.
Not long ago, someone asked an interesting question at a dinner party. If you could take a pill that would make you forget your worst memories, would you do it?
I don’t think I would. Though some pretty terrible things have happened to me in my life (that I prefer not to write about because in my opinion, books are for fun, therapy is for the bad stuff), the memories of those things have helped shape who am I.
Of course I would prefer it if one of those memories wasn’t that 3,000 people were murdered across the street from my husband’s place of work.
But though I’d prefer it 9/11 had never happened, I think it’s important that we always remember it. Because by forgetting history, we are dooming others – and ourselves – to repeat it. I never want it to happen again, in my or anyone else’s lifetime.