Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2010

I rarely do non-book posts, but given today's date, I thought I might.

On September 11, 2001, I was on my way to work at St. Martin's Press in the Flatiron Building in New York City (it's the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street.) As I came out of the N subway station exactly at the foot of the building, I saw a large mob of people on the sidewalk and spilling into the street, all looking downtown. I looked where they were looking and saw an enormous hole in the side of one of the World Trade Center buildings, with smoke pouring out of it. I thought to myself, "Wow, they're never going to be able to put that out - it's too high. And we're not going to be able to see anything from here." I don't like Looky-loos who clog up streets by gaping, so I went inside and got in the elevator. When I got out on the 17th floor and walked into our suite, the Associate Publisher told me a second plane had hit the WTC. I had no idea that first hole, which I'd thought was just a really, really bad fire, was a plane, so this was quite shocking. I went to my desk and turned on my computer. Most of my department was in my boss's office and I joined them. A few months earlier I had resented being sent to Radio Shack to buy an antenna for the TV so that the AP could watch the NCAA basketball tournament but now I was very glad we had it. My boss had the very fancy pointy office. It faces North. All the action was going on south of us.

Right away my boss and I agreed it had to be Bin Laden, who was the only person with the funds and the organization to pull this off. The TV was debating if it was a terrorist attack still, but we all agreed there was no way it was anything else. Local NYC reporters who had been up on rooftops after the first place hit, saw the second plane. We in the city knew long before the rest of the country that they were passenger jets, and we knew what airline the second plane was. I was surprised to later find out from friends elsewhere that nationally that wasn't reported until it was confirmed.

My father flies A LOT (one year he hit Gold status on 3 different airlines) so I called his office. They said he wasn't flying anywhere that day so I stopped worrying about him. I then emailed my family as not all of them know that even though I was in the 20s, my office was still about 5 miles from the WTC. Not nearby. Then I went back in the boss's office and the TV.

My coworker J was very upset as her father was good friends with the owner of the WTC. We were all pretty much in shock. There wasn't a lot of crying. There was a little talking. And some criticism of the newscasters. I was sitting at my desk when I heard screaming from the street below. Yes, from 17 stories up. I ran into the office and saw the end of the first building falling. We talked about what a middle finger it would be to Bin Laden if the second tower stood. But alas, that one went too and at this point we were all in tears. When we heard about D.C., we actually thought at first that that was just an unsubstantiated rumor that would soon be dismissed, like the rumors of 20 more planes. So sad when it turned out to be accurate.

First came word that Giuliani had closed all the bridges and tunnels. That made sense. It happened from time to time in New York. But a little while after that, we saw on the news that he closed all landmark buildings. The Flatiron is definitely a landmark building. It was 99 years old, and when it was built it was the tallest building in the city. I rushed back to my desk and sent out a second email, to a larger list of family and friends that I was fine but would be unreachable for the rest of the day. We all gathered our things. The building people came by and told us to leave.

Where to go? C lived in Jersey City, E lived in Brooklyn, J lived in Westchester, and I lived in Queens. We editorial assistants were stumped at first but then J said we could go to her mother's apartment near the UN, so we walked over to 1st Avenue in the 50s. We watched TV there for a while. E left and was going to walk home. I contemplated that too, but thought it might be a very, very long walk through some not-so-hot neighborhoods. I decided to leave too, but to walk to my best friend M's apartment at 85th and Amsterdam. All told that day, not including walking to and from the subway, I walked 5.5 miles. In heels. Luckily, they were low heels and chunky heels were in fashion. But I have to give a shout out to Van Eli as considering, they were the most comfortable heels I could have walked that distance in. (Unfortunately I was wearing those exact same shoes a couple of years later during the Blackout. Luckily, my friend M had moved to Houston street so I only walked about 2 miles. I was ordered to stop wearing those shoes anymore, but since I had worn them numerous times in between without incident, I ignored that order.)

Since I had such a long walk and I knew it would take some time, I tried calling my step-mother T, who I knew was usually at her desk and is always level-headed. I had to redial about a hundred times as I kept getting the "all circuits are busy" message (not only was everyone else trying to make calls at the same time, but there was a cell tower on the top of one of the WTC towers. I eventually reached her. She told me that my then 14-year-old brother B, who is very undemonstrative, had called a little while earlier to check on me. When the announcement was made in his class about the attack, he got up and left and went straight to the office, to have them call his mother so he could hear if I was okay. That was really touching. I made sure T knew everything was perfectly fine in case anyone else contacted her asking after me. I also got an update from her about what they were saying on the news, since I'd been walking for nearly an hour, and had been away from the news all that time.

Sometimes you'd see a person covered in dust walking, and you'd know they'd been right there. They'd been at the World Trade Center when it collapsed. There were almost no cars. Everyone was walking in the streets as well as the sidewalks. Everyone was going north. Occasionally a government car would zoom by, sirens wailing, covered in dust. Everyone was very nice. They'd help people who needed help, you might chat with someone for a block or so, give walking directions to people walking places they'd never walked to before. New Yorkers have a reputation for being incredibly rude, but not on September 11th. It was a beautiful day. Sunny, clear, warm but not hot.

I got to M's apartment. M and I and her roommate watched TV. For what seemed like forever. We talked about going to give blood (this is when it was thought there would be hundreds of injured survivors) but I had passed a Red Cross center on my trek and it had a line several blocks long so we decided to do that tomorrow. When it started getting dark, one of us mentioned that we felt funny. We discussed why for a minute, and realized it was hunger. None of us had eaten all day. We went down the block to get pizza. It was a disconcertingly normal thing to do. We watched more TV. Giuliani reopened the bridges and tunnels. After a few more hours, I decided to go home. I took the 1, 9 to the N at Times Square, just like I usually did.

The next two days I just watched TV as all landmark buildings were still closed. I sat on my sofa, curled up in the fetal position. I went to a candlelight vigil. I tried to buy a newspaper or magazine on the 12th but all newsstands were sol out of pretty much everything (A few days later I managed to buy a copy of The Economist.) But we had to go back to work Friday. When I walked down my street in Astoria, Queens, I was on a small hill and I could very clearly see the plumes of smoke from lower Manhattan, several miles away. I could see it for a couple of weeks. It was a chilling start to my morning.

I found out within a couple of days that the older brother of a college friend was on the flight that went down in Pennsylvania. He was the judo expert who helped take out the hijackers. His wife back home was pregnant.

Personally, I will admit to not being much interested in where other people were on September 11th if they weren't in New York or D.C. I also don't especially like telling my story to people who weren't there and can't understand. It's shocking even now, 9 years later. And you'll notice that those of us who were in those two cities, never call it "9/11." We call it "September 11th." It was a day. Not to be reduced to a string of numbers. In fact, most of us find "9/11" a little offensive. Why does the day need to be shortened? Is saying the words "September 11th" so taxing that we can't even manage that little effort for the heroes who died that day?

But I still agree wholeheartedly with Benjamin Franklin that "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." The lessons to be learned from September 11th don't involved book burning or preventing the building of mosques. We need to understand our enemies if we ever hope to come to any terms with them. Instead of burning the Quran, all Americans should be reading it (I've read most of it, in college.)

I never went to the top of the World Trade Center. It was still on my to do list. I'd been to the subway station there a ton of times, shopped in the underground mall, and had happened upon a very cool orchid show there a few months earlier. Don't postpone the items on your To Do list. Do them now.


Booksnyc said...

great post! I was in NYC that day too (in an office building in the 40's) and it was all very surreal - even though I was not downtown I was still terrified and felt very lonely. My Dad worked in a bldg across from the WTC and I spent most of the day trying to get in touch with him and confirm he was Ok. The city had the most eerie quality to it in the days following - I will never forget it.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Caroline. I also don't like use of the term "Ground Zero." I still call it The World Trade Center site. Too bad the whole world was changed by this event.

Christy said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I had no idea some people thought that the use of 9/11 was offensive. I live in the D.C. metro area now and can't say I've noticed people making the distinction.