Note: This was originally posted on 9/11/11
My memories of that Tuesday in the city
It’s interesting what you remember. When I think about that Tuesday morning on 9/11/01, the first thing that pops into my head is my morning commute that day. I was standing on the #9 train heading to mid-town and a young guy, in a somewhat defensive tone said, “It’s rude to hold your bag on your shoulder on a crowded subway.” I apologized (I had no idea that was true) and placed my bag on the floor. I’ve had many innocuous exchanges on the train and subway but I remember that one, ten years later, word for word.
I remember so much about 9/11. Having experienced the amazing chaos in NYC first-hand, it remains as vivid today as it was ten years ago.
It was a typical Tuesday morning and I had an 8:30 AM meeting in my office with a couple of outside people. About 15 minutes after we’d started, I began to see people in groups pass by my office on the way to the corner conference room. Some looked amused and I thought that something fun was happening. I realize now that it was disbelief that I was seeing on those faces. After all, what would you think if someone told you a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center?
We resumed our meeting until a work colleague popped his head in and asked “Do you know what’s going on?” He told us what had happened and we rushed to the conference room just as United flight 175 crashed into the second tower. We then knew that the first plane was not a tragic, random accident. People had thought it was a small private plane but the news was now reporting that both of these planes were commercial airliners.
You’d think that everyone would have gone into a panic: “The city is under siege! Get out, get out!”, but the reaction was simply calm confusion. Unfortunately we’d seen this a few years before, on a smaller scale, in the parking garage of those same buildings. We also knew that we were 60 blocks north of the scene. If you live or work in Manhattan, you tend to think differently about space. I lived in the city, 1st Avenue on the upper east side, and remember being shocked after being told of a murder that had happened nearby. When I learned it occurred west of Park Avenue (less than half a mile away) I said, “Oh, way over there? Now I feel better.”
Everyone went back to work. I finished my meeting and headed up to a higher floor to meet with some of the company lawyers about a contract. When I got there everyone was in their board room watching the TV. They’d just announced that American flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington DC. I started to get the impact of all that was happening and ran to a phone to call my wife. I couldn’t reach her but I didn’t panic because I knew she was probably out with our two young children.
A little after 10:00 they announced that American Flight 93 had crashed in Shanksville, PA. One of the women in the conference room blurted out: “Oh my God, it’s the Apocalypse!” I didn’t know what to think but I wondered what was coming next. A dirty bomb in Time Square? More plane attacks? They soon announced that all flights were grounded indefinitely.
As we watched the coverage on television I looked at the windows that showed the skyline north of the city. Along the top you could see the reflection of smoke off the windows of the building across the street. That’s when it felt real.
I went back down to my floor that was still fairly high (38th) and went to see a friend whose office was at the eastern corner, facing south. We could see all the way to the towers, but we couldn’t see anything but large clouds of smoke and helicopters.
I gathered my staff and told them they could leave if they were concerned about getting home. I wondered about my own situation. The news was reporting that New Jersey Rail, Metro North and the LIRR had suspended train service. I finally heard from my wife, who had taken our kids to the park, and wasn’t aware of everything that was happening. She assured me that she was fine and I told her I’d stay safe and get home as soon as I could.
Knowing I couldn’t get to Long Island by train, I began to explore other options. I couldn’t get a hotel room anywhere so my friend and co-worker (AKA, Sedentary Man) invited me to stay with him in New Jersey. Our plan was to catch a water taxi on 11th Avenue to meet his wife on the other side of the George Washington bridge. Me, SM and another colleague set off to see what was possible.
There were many people on the street looking confused. Most of them were facing the same situation as us, just trying to escape the city. There were helicopters flying overhead and along the Hudson River and I saw a good number of military aircraft including low flying F-15’s. Every bus was filled with uniformed soldiers and I thought about the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime.”
We passed by the Port Authority building where we saw at least a thousand people hanging out in hopes of getting a bus home. We continued west to where water taxis launched, only to be told that those boats were being used to ferry victims to area hospitals. We knew the only option was to walk north to the GW Bridge (about 100 blocks) and we set out to do that.
I wasn’t happy to be away from my family at a time like that but it was the only practical thing to do. I tried to reach my wife on my cell phone to update her on my progress but I couldn’t get a signal. Cell phone service in 2001 was, at best, marginal and AT&T was as bad a carrier then as it is today. I was sure the events of the day were also affecting service. But I knew my wife and kids were safe and that was good enough for now.
We walked a bit longer when suddenly my phone began to ring. I couldn’t believe that my wife got through and I really couldn’t believe what she told me. There was a news report that Penn Station was running limited train service to Long Island and New Jersey. We figured it was worth a shot so we headed downtown in hopes that it was true. I figured I could sleep in the waiting room at Penn if it turned out that the trains weren’t running.
When we arrived at the station, I was surprised to see smaller crowds than I saw at the Port Authority. I looked up at the departure board and saw that a 3:30 Huntington train was listed with a track number. I’ll admit I felt fear being at Penn, a place that might also be targeted for a terrorist attack. Still, this was my only way of getting home to my family and I was going for it.
It was an eerie scene as I made my way down to the track and boarded the relatively uncrowded train. People were sitting quietly in their seats. No one was talking. It was almost as if people were afraid to say anything, lest this opportunity to leave the city would disappear. At 3:30 PM the bell to signal the closing doors sounded and a moment later I felt the train lurch forward. We were on our way.
I was really nervous as we made our way through the tunnel under the city and East River. If they could fly planes into buildings they could also plant bombs in train tunnels. I felt great relief when I saw daylight as we exited on the Queens side of the river. I couldn’t wait to get to my home station.
The train made every stop and picked up many people along the way. Yet the train remained almost completely silent. At the Jamaica and Mineola stations, police came on board and walked the train, obviously looking for suspicious characters. It was a surreal experience. I wondered if the world would ever be the same.
The train finally reached my station and I made my way home as quickly as I could. There were police and fire trucks on the roads and I was worried that something had happened locally. I soon realized it was a reaction to the event. There was a need to show that things were under control.
I was glad to be home and my wife was happy to have me there. My son was too young to understand what was happening but my daughter, when she saw the burning towers on TV, called it “sad smoke.”
I stayed home the next day and we took our daughter to pre-school that morning. I think we wanted it to be like a normal day. I remember walking on the lawn of the school towards the entrance, holding my daughter’s hand, and seeing two F-16’s streaking across the sky. We weren’t going to experience normal days for a long time.
When I returned to work that Thursday I began to see the after-effects of the event. I saw cars in the train parking lot that, from their location, clearly hadn’t moved from the prior day. My heart sank thinking that these cars were waiting for owners who would never come home. I began to look for the regular people at my train stop. Who was missing, and why? There was a young guy who didn’t return and I was sure that he wouldn’t. When I saw him again two years later it made my day. My wife told me about some of our own neighbors who were victims of the 9/11 attack.
There were hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures displayed in Penn Station placed by families who were looking for relatives unheard from since that Tuesday. Those displays remained in Penn for at least a year. We began to see what has now become a familiar sight, commandos in flak jackets, camouflaged guardsman holding M-16’s and police bag checkpoints at the entrance to the subway tracks.
I remember driving through my town that weekend and seeing yellow ribbons tied to trees everywhere and American flags in front of almost every home. I was sad for many months and scared at the idea that it could happen again. I knew that things would eventually get back to normal and they did, though the definition of normal has changed.
The news of a credible, but undefined, threat on Friday reminded me again of my experiences from a decade ago. I thought about the possibility of another attack and not being able to get home, not feeling safe again. Friday came and went without incident and Saturday did as well. Today is September 11, 2011 and the city is again on high alert. But this time people are fully aware and much more ready. I’ll return to work tomorrow hoping that all stays well. I’ll never forget my experiences of that day. None who experienced it will.