17 different women, 36 crazy children, 0 babies in utero
Adventures, Advice and Questions from a group of Mormon women who met in Queens, NY and have now scattered all over the place.

Monday, September 11, 2006

How I Experienced 9/11

There’s a line in the Bruce Springsteen song Nothing Man that gets me every time. “The sky is still the same unbelievable blue”. For me, that’s September 11th. It was one of those absolutely perfect fall days, sunny and beautiful clear blue sky that went on for miles. It was that slightly crisp air, where it’s still plenty warm out, but you can feel fall coming. It’s always been my favorite weather.

This is going to be scattered, but that’s how my memory of the day feels – scattered. Just raw and scattered.

On September 11, 2001, I kissed my husband goodbye at about 8:00am as he climbed into the car and headed on a business trip to Vermont. At 8:45am I turned off NPR and walked out of my apartment to catch the subway to work in Manhattan. As we turned the corner at Queensboro plaza (the train line is elevated in Queens), you could see smoke streaming from one of the World Trade Center towers. Someone on the train said "Oh yeah, my roommate said something about a plane hitting one of the towers as I was heading out the door." We all exchanged little "oh gee, that’s awful" kinds of remarks, thinking of a small prop plane or commuter plane, like that old picture you see of the plane embedded in the Empire State Building. The girl sitting next to me had a stricken look on her face, and said "My friend works on the top floor of the tower." I reassured her that they were probably evacuating everyone right then, that they would be able to take care of it.

It was a long commute, the train was moving really slowly and I was nervous about being late to work. Announcements kept coming over the speaker system, but anyone who’s ever tried to listen to an announcement over the subway intercom would know that they are useless, especially when there are train AND station announcements going on at the same time. When I finally got to my stop at Prince Street (SoHo) I came above ground to find people walking north up the sidewalks. I figured they were being extra cautious about evacuating the buildings around the damaged tower, and glanced down the street at the WTC (about 15 blocks away) as I headed in to my office, noticing that both towers seemed to be on fire at that point, and thinking that was strange.

And then I walked into my office, and life got very very different. People were all sitting around a TV in our conference room, alternately watching CNN and the huge view of the WTC out our floor-to-ceiling windows. My boss said to me, "I can’t believe you came into work. Planes hit the Twin Towers." "I know," I said, not really catching the plural "planes". And then she followed that with, "And one hit the Pentagon." And that’s the first time I realized that something very different was going on. I don’t think I even said anything to her, I just turned around, walked to the first desk I could find, and picked up the phone. I always consider it a miracle that my call went through, since that didn’t happen again consistently for a couple of days. I called my dad, and reassured him that I was okay, said that I was at my office, watching it happen out my window, and that I was okay, and asked him to call my mom and my husband on his cell. And then I hung up the phone, because we were being called into a staff meeting. About 15 minutes later, while we were gathered in the meeting to discuss safety procedures and what we were to do, someone screamed "The Tower is going down" and we all ran to the windows to see a huge cloud of dust go up over southern Manhattan. I was totally numb at this point. I can’t really remember parts of the morning, just snippets. I got my mom and sister on IM and was messaging with them while I watched the second tower collapse – I think I even said something like "I just watched the tower go down out my window" - I was so numb I was beyond being able to process what I was seeing. My mom finally got a hold of my husband on his cell phone (another miracle, as the circuits were totally overloaded at that point) as he was desperately trying to get back into the (totally locked-down) city to find me, and told him I was okay and to head north. I remember the wife of one of my collegues showing up at our office – she was out of her mind with worry, her husband had been scheduled to be at a meeting at the WTC that morning, and she had just walked 20 blocks, having had abdominal surgery just 2 days before, hoping to find him at his office. And he wasn’t there. He finally showed up about 2 hours later, bloody, dusty, and in complete shock from what he had seen – he hadn’t been in the building, luckily, but he had been forced to run from the dust and had seen people jumping. Another of my co-worker’s husbands was at the State Department in DC on a business trip, and there were all kinds of false reports coming through about bombings or car bombings there, so there were some frantic hours of trying to find out what was happening before we found him safe and sound. At one point someone yelled "Does anyone know CPR?" and I had that pause where you say, "Can I do this?" before yelling "I do" and going running. Turns out they didn’t need me, but for me the adrenaline of that moment, sprinting through the hallway of my office, wondering what I was going to see when I rounded the corner is a part of the fog of that day.

At first, we were being told to stay in the building, that we were safer there than on the streets. But at around midday they started saying we could go home, advising us to travel in groups and take people home with us who lived further out and couldn't walk home. I realized at a certain point that I was going to have to walk home, and I had no cash (which I figured I was going to need in the coming days of what I was sure would be complete anarchy and confusion) and no food/water for the journey. And so I grabbed a friend and headed outside to find a store and some money. I expected looting, or price gouging, or anything but the completely normal ATM and deli transactions that occurred as I stocked up on bottles of water and peanut-butter crackers. I was scared that at any moment another plane was going to fall from the sky, or bridges were about to be blown up, or anything could happen. I didn’t know whether to stay at my office, where I knew I could reach my family via IM and had access to a TV, or whether I should try to get home and away from Manhattan, southern Manhattan at that, even though I didn’t know what kind of communication options I would have once I got there. Finally, at about 3 maybe? Or 4? I have no idea what time, a few of us who lived in Astoria decided to head home together. We walked up towards Union Square to meet up with another friend of mine. As we walked north along the streets, there were hardly any cars, just an occasional pickup truck flying southward filled with men in various degrees of official fire/police wear or a fire truck or police car, sirens blaring. The sound of fighter jets flying overhead was startling, not at all reassuring. At one point, a man in khakis and a tie – your basic everyman in NYC – passed us walking the other direction. Just after he passed, I heard him say, "Sir, I don’t know where to report, where should I go?" and I turned around to find him talking to an official-looking man in camouflage, an officer of some sort I suspect – I guess he was a reservist. I was really overwhelmed by this man, someone who could have worked in the next cubicle from me, trying to find out where to go to help, when I was struggling with the enormity of coping, of putting one foot in front of the other and getting home alive.

I had good friends, a couple with two school-aged children, and both of them worked in the WTC. I was worried about them, worried about the kids, wondering if I should go try to pick them up at school, not knowing if the parents were okay, if they could get to them. I debated with myself over what to do, eventually convincing myself (as a survival mechanism more than anything else) that the parents were fine, that I didn't need to go get the kids. In the end, they were fine thank goodness - he had been on a flight than landed at Newark just after the towers were hit, and she had been laid off from her job just a couple of weeks before.

Once we met up with my friend and were ready to head back to Astoria, we started hearing reports from people on the street and watching tv in bars that one of the subways lines was running out to Queens. We walked over to the station to find out, and it indeed was running. We then spent about 10 minutes standing on the sidewalk, debating between ourselves if it was okay to get on the subway – what was the safest and smartest thing to do. We eventually convinced ourselves that they wouldn’t have started the line back up if they were worried about things going wrong, and took a deep breath and got on. It was incredibly packed, and silent. The strangest subway ride I’ve ever had. And when I got out at Queensboro plaza and came above ground (this was an underground line) I just remember emerging into crowds and crowds of people. When I looked west, over the bridge, it conjured up all the images I’ve ever seen of the NYC marathon, thousands of people filling up the entire road and surging across the bridge.

When I finally got home, I turned on CNN, curled up on my couch, and just lay there for hours. Not moving, not crying, not doing anything, just laying there. I must have gotten up occasionally to field emails and phone calls from concerned relatives and friends, but I was so numb that they were very short conversations. I didn’t want to miss anything, I didn’t want to not know what was happening. Finally Chloe called me and convinced me to come out to dinner with her, her DH and their two friends who were staying with them. We ate a very surreal meal at a diner nearby, watching TV over each other’s shoulders and attempting to talk about and process what was happening.

When I went to bed that night, I set my alarm for 5:45am so that I could get up and buy the newspapers. When my alarm went off, I rolled out of bed, threw on my sneakers, and walked to the corner newsstand. I bought a New York Times and a NY Post, carried them home, and immediately put them at the back of my closet. I knew that someday I would want that paper, that tangible reminder of what had happened. But I also knew I didn’t want to read it. I still haven’t read them to this day.

I spent the majority of Wednesday in the fetal position on my couch, watching CNN and and sobbing. But I have two other memories of the day after. One was standing on the roof of my small two-story house in Astoria, talking to my father on the phone and watching the billowing cloud of black smoke. It smelled like burning chemicals, and I could see the wind shifting the smoke. I remember being worried that it was going to come our way. The second memory was of my walk with Chloe. We had been very good, taking long and vigorous walks together at least 2 times a week, and we decided that since we weren’t going to work that day (I think most people’s offices were closed, and mine was in the “lockdown zone” where police had blocked off the roads and weren’t even letting people in) we would take one of our walks. We got about halfway through our usual routine, and then found ourselves standing at the East River, looking over the water at Manhattan, totally at a loss as to what to do. So we went to a diner, got milkshakes and french fries, and watched the names of the dead scroll by at the bottom of the tv screen. At that point it was just the passenger lists from the airplanes, they didn’t have names of people on the ground yet. We never took one of our walks again.

That night I spent a long time on the phone with my parents and my husband, debating what to do, and finally decided to get on a train and head up to VT so that I could be with them. It was an agonizing decision, I was very very scared that I would be stuck on a train and something would happen, and I wouldn’t know what was going on and wouldn’t be able to get away. But I really wanted to be with my family, so I decided to take the risk. When I got to the train station on Thursday morning, I immediately bough a battery-operated radio and batteries, and found a station where I could get the news. The train station was packed with people who were stranded by the shutdown of air travel, and I was amazed that I was able to get a ticket, as most trains were sold out. At one point in the journey, our train was stopped for a long time. I remember I had the headphones to the radio in one ear, trying to find out if something was going on, and my mom on the phone in the other ear, making her watch CNN and tell me what was happening. In reality, Amtrak trains sit still for a long time, when you’re waiting to switch tracks, let another train pass, etc. But at that point, I was convinced that any pause or irregularity meant that Penn Station had just been blown up. At one point, the train stopped at a station and I could see a middle-aged woman holding an adorable puppy, clearly waiting for someone to get off the train. I was watching the puppy, momentarily distracted from life, when a woman about my age headed over towards the woman, clearly her mom, and collapsed into her arms, both of them sobbing. I was no longer distracted.

When I eventually headed back to the city (at the last possible moment on Sunday night the 16th so that I could be at work on Monday) my drive was very emotional. I can remember driving a stretch of the NY Thruway, approaching the city, when suddenly a helicopter appeared in the sky above me, searchlight scanning over my car and others on the highway. I’m not sure how I kept the car on the road I was sobbing so hard, that nasty gulping sob that you’re glad no one can hear. Work was useless for about a week, most of us sat around staring at each other, our computer screens, and doing anything we could not to look out the windows we had spent most of 9/11 glued to. I think someone even pulled the shades.

I'm not sure how to end this story, since my 9/11 story continues to this day. I went to a therapist recently and we talked about my post-traumatic stress related to September 11th. And she asked me what my goal was in talking to her – was I concerned that my feelings were affecting my daily life, hindering me in some way – did I want to stop feeling the way that I did? And I thought about it. Yes, I’m different than I was on September 10, 2001. I didn’t used to cry when I saw fire trucks in parades. Or when people spoke about preparedness and 72 hour kits. And as much as I think that’s kind of crazy, I wouldn’t change it. That is a part of me now, a part of what I experienced, a part of who I am. I’m weaker but stronger. I’m so fiercely proud to have been a New Yorker, to have shared in the collective experience of those days, weeks, months. To have gone on in my daily life, to have lived and loved and birthed and all of it. I’m intensely sentimental regarding NYC, significantly more patriotic than I ever thought I would be, and I wouldn’t change a darn thing about it.

**all 9/11 related comments can be left at this thread

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