My experiences in New York City on September 11, 2001
I wrote this on 5/9/02 in response to a series of prompts I found online relating to September 11, 2001. They were meant to preserve the memory of the day for future generations.
1. Where were you and what were you doing when you first heard the news of the attack on America, Sept 11, 2001? I was on an express bus just coming out of the Battery Tunnel, when the entire bus was in a little commotion and everyone began to go to the right side to look up out of the windows. We were a few blocks from the towers and we could see thick black smoke consuming the top of one of the towers. everyone was confused, but I just thought it was a fire, nothing to be alarmed about, they would just put it out and that would be it. I was on the bus because I was on my way to a temp agency to act as a stand-by temp who comes in the morning for last minute assignments.
2. What were your first thoughts and feelings upon hearing the news? What were the first things you commented on? The bus turned on to the expressway by the water and everyone had learned from listening to headphones/radio that a second plane had hit, and we had just learned about the first- which everyone assumed had just been an accident. There was a woman on the bus with a radio and everyone watched her and waited for news to clear up their confusion. She said that a second plane had hit the second tower, and it was now confirmed that was a deliberate act. Everyone stared out the left side windows now, horrified, trying to use their cell phones and assure loved ones that they were all right. I would get peeks at the World Trade Center between the buildings as the bus moved along swiftly, each time it was a more horrific sight.
I remember first seeing what looked like paper- millions of papers flying through the air, shooting out from a burning hole in one of the towers. You could see the force of the wind, or the suction or something in the shining sunlight, it looked as if the top of the tower was spewing papers right at the expressway and river on our right. I looked at the water and it was littered with what looked like white paper, but which we later learned was pieces of shrapnel from the actual buildings.
By this time the top of both towers were in flames. I was sitting next to a young blonde girl who was trying to reach her boyfriend on his cell phone because he worked as a janitor at the World Trade Center. luckily though, his shift began around 4:00 that day, so he hadn’t been there or arrived. She kept saying ‘oh shit’ as she dialed, telling me that all their friends work in the towers as well.
I tried to call my mother but the cell phone did not work. When I looked back out at the towers, I got a full clear view and gasped, covering my mouth with my free hand as my eyes grew large trying to capture and grasp what I saw. Trying to understand and process. The entire length of both towers was covered with black smoke, like two glowing matchsticks, and I could only think.. ‘I thought they were going to stop it- put the fires out, WHY IS THIS HAPPENING??’ Patches of dark black smoke covered almost every recognizable silver piece of the towers and I could see small red flames shooting out to the sky from some of the center windows and upper windows of one tower. I turned back to face the front of the bus and thought to myself, ‘My God, there are people burning in there right now. How are they going to get out?’
My mom called my cell phone and finally it went through and she asked me where I was, I told her I was on the bus and I would try to get to her job. She works in midtown. the bus driver was confused about being told to divert through Brooklyn and leave all the passengers there (which worried me and my mom) but then he got different instructions to continue on his route but only up until the stop after mine, which was 42nd street. I told my mom he was going to stop at 34th st and that I’d be there soon. The bus driver also spoke on a cell phone, asking the person on the other end if his son was all right.
By this time, everyone was weary, panicky, and one woman started to cry. I remember hearing another console her saying, ‘don’t cry.’ Everyone was very confused and I just wanted to see my mother and tell her what I had seen. as I entered her building, they told me to go downstairs where she was and I went and saw her and hugged her hard. I was afraid and just glad to see she was OK. I told her what I had seen- both towers completely enveloped in smoke, from way down by the ground. I couldn’t believe it-it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
My mother had a portable radio and she heard as the Spanish DJs described what was happening. We went out to the sidewalk and looked up at the tops of the towers and they were still aflame, there were crowds of people standing around and just staring up, or trying to use their cell phones. Oddly though, there were other people just strolling by casually as if nothing was out of the ordinary. There was an electronics store near us that turned the news on their TVs and a small group of people, including us, crowded in front of it, everyone just looked on in shock. One man, with cell phone in hand, told the people standing close to him that he was supposed to be at the towers that morning for a breakfast meeting, but he’d been running late. He spoke somberly as if he didn’t believe his own words. Everyone felt the same confusion.
On the TV screen we all watched in the store, they showed footage of the pentagon in Washington DC, which has also been hit by a plane and now appeared to lie in ruins. They also announced that a number of planes were still circling the air, their targets unknown. A shot of the New York skyline appeared then on the screen, but you couldn’t see any of the buildings. The entire city was hidden by thick, black, billowing smoke. It was just smoke on the island of Manhattan, smoke on top of water, and below that unbelievable scene flashed these words “NYC ON FULL TERRORIST ALERT.” The words flashed again and again, like an emergency signal, and the last place I wanted to be, was where I was standing- midtown Manhattan.
I walked around the block to try to call my sister and tell her we were all right. But there was a short line to use the pay phones because all cell phones had gone dead. as I waited behind a girl using the pay phone I heard her say, ‘The building just fell. I saw it,’ and I was shocked, there was no way it could be real, there was no way a tower had collapsed. At that moment I saw my mom leave her building again and walk around the corner where she could see the towers. I tried to call my sister, but I didn’t get through, they told me she was teaching.
When I crossed back to join my mother where we could see the towers- she turned around and looked at me with tears gathering in her voice as she said “The towers fell, there must be people dead”- she had heard it on the radio as the DJ said in Spanish “The World Trade Center towers no longer exist.” seeing her tell me, my stomach felt as if it had fallen out from under me. I looked up at where we had just seen the towers on fire, but now there was only pale smoke and blue sky.
At some point before, I went to one of the upper floors in my mother’s building to try to use a phone and felt myself having a minor panic attack in the elevator. It was just unexpected and so strange. I felt very closed in all of a sudden, and like I could barely breathe. When we finally got back down to the lobby, people were fleeing the building in waves and for a moment I thought they were all dead, that we were all dead, like souls just waiting to be released by another imminent blast, I felt it coming in my bones. We were so close to the Empire State Building.
My mother and I were stuck in Manhattan until around 7pm, sitting on benches in a small park, flinching at the sounds of planes flying overhead, trying to call and call until we could get through to our family and friends. The trains and ferries started to run again and the tunnels reopened. We found a bus to Staten Island. I was 22 years old at the time.
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