Twenty years ago today, my morning started out much the same as previous workdays. It was a beautiful September morning, sunny and warm, with a strong breeze and the beginning of an Autumn crispness. I was wearing a dark gray T-shirt, black cotton pants, and flat black walking shoes: a typical ‘business casual’ outfit of mine at the time. A button down gray cotton cardigan was draped around my shoulders, a necessary clothing item for a chilly air conditioned office building.
As I was walking from our apartment in Battery Park City to work on Water Street in Lower Manhattan, a strange sight caught my attention: there was a gaping black hole in one of the Twin Towers. My first thought was that a bomb had exploded. A woman nearby walking her dog exclaimed in shock:
There’s PEOPLE in there!
I stopped walking for a moment, feeling a sense of unease. Eventually, I continued to work.
As I kept walking, I looked up and saw another strange sight: what looked like hundreds of tiny lights glistening in the morning sun. I realized later they were shards of glass, suspended in the air, reflecting the sunlight. Then there were the papers and memos floating high up in the air, dozens and dozens of them. I’d never seen anything like it.
I took the elevator to our floor; if I recall correctly, it was the 28th floor. There was a spectacular view of the city from the tall windows in every corner. As I walked to my cubicle, I heard my colleagues talking about the hole in the side of the World Trade Center. The general consensus, informed by initial news reports, was that a small airplane had probably smashed into the building.
I sat down at my desk, turned on the PC, and started reviewing the projects I thought I would be working on that day, making a mental note of deadlines. All of a sudden, a powerful scream pierced the muted morning office soundscape:
RUN!!! The airplane hit the building!!!
I heard the panicked sounds of several people scrambling around the floor, rushing to get out of the building. I was very confused until I heard them talking about the size of the plane. I felt a panic rise inside me too, as we all rushed to the elevator.
Confusion only increased by the time we got to the lobby. We were told to walk outside the building but then to stay put by building security. No one knew if there would be more airplanes, or more attacks. We didn’t know what to do or where to go. What if our building was next? What if we ended up walking towards the next attack?
We stood outside, soon startled by the eerie sound of U.S. fighter planes above, piercing the silence, scouring the skies. After a time, building security informed us a decision had been made by city officials and the police that the area had to be evacuated. My coworkers and I started walking uptown. I lived the closest, so they were going to drop me off first, then keep walking to the East Village, where Brian lived, then the rest would go on to Penn Station and Grand Central, so Linda, Sue and two more colleagues could get to their respective homes.
As we were walking towards my apartment, I glanced up, catching the most frightening and saddest sight I’d ever seen: the North Tower dissolving and sinking to the ground like sand. Then we were surrounded by gray, increasingly dark particulate matter in the air that obliterated the sunlight and made us cough and gag. I covered my nose and mouth with my cardigan as we decided we had to walk back to our office building. We got back in and waited in the lobby. I sank to the ground at one point, feeling exhausted from the hypervigilance that had hijacked my nervous system. As I was sitting there, I heard ongoing discussions about whether we should go back upstairs, but security did not yet have clearance to let us take the elevators. More and more people started milling about in the lobby, and the air was getting darker and darker from the dense particulate matter swirling around outside, making its way in. Then I felt the ground shake. The South tower had fallen. It now looked black outside, on the morning of what had previously been a beautiful sunny day. As more and more people filled the lobby, we were finally told to go back upstairs, where CNN was on in all the conference rooms.
We took turns trying to reach family and loved ones. Circuits were completely overloaded, so cell phone lines were spotty at best, working for a time, then dropping out seconds later. I was able to reach my father, who sobbed hysterically with relief when he heard my voice on the phone. He had been glued to the television, as most of the nation had been by then. I couldn’t reach my husband, who was working in Midtown at the time, but a friend was able to relay messages to both of us so we knew the other was OK. My husband started walking downtown. By the time he reached me, my colleagues and I, evacuated from Lower Manhattan for a second time, had made it to Brian’s place in the East Village.
Battery Park City was closed off, so we initially stayed with my cousin, who had a tiny apartment in Chelsea. We bought clothes and toiletries to tide us over for a few days. My husband’s employer put us up in a hotel in Midtown, where we lived for a couple of months until we were allowed to return home. In the meantime, our apartment had to be professionally cleaned by a team of people in hazmat suits. We bought HEPA air purifiers, which definitely helped, but the acrid smell of the incinerated contents of the torched buildings lingered for months. Weeks and months later, the gnawing sense of dread in my gut did not abate, as I learned more and more about the terrorists and why they attacked us.
Years later a graphic design project I worked on was criticized by an instructor for failing to show how we had overcome the attack. Everyone else’s projects had been designed around the concept of prevailing over difficulties. I will always be grateful to a classmate who spoke up for me and called out the instructor on his failure to address that the feelings expressed in my project were valid and merited discussion. At the time, she didn’t even know I had worked and lived so close to the attacks, but she understood I saw the destruction and slow rebuilding from a different perspective. Her kindness and gentleness helped me deal with a painful lesson about the difference between creative expression and palatable commercial output. The instructor’s academic dissection of my design ‘failure’ felt devastating at the time, but she is still a good friend.
Categories: Culture, Our Times