English: United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center complex in New York City during the September 11 attacks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The more time passes, the fuzzier my memory gets. A linear storyline dissolves into fragments composed of disjointed images, sounds, smells and feelings burned into my psyche. Living through it I thought I would never forget every little detail of the disaster, but as I struggle to write this piece I find those indelible marks have become weathered and worn down.
My fiancée and I had just moved to Brooklyn five months before the worst terrorist attack on US soil. We moved from Chicago with all of our worldly possessions in a rented truck. As soon as we settled into our humble over-priced one bedroom apartment, we both started working full-time jobs. Like many other hard-working young couples, we paid our bills with little left over, but we were surviving.
Then one crisp September morning I woke up to the smell of something burning. It was like no other smell I had ever encountered. a mixture of burnt rubber mixed with gasoline and ash. Instinctively I turned on our television. The first channel was static, and the next, and the next, until finally only one displayed the twin towers of the World Trade Center already smoking. The picture barely came in and the news anchors desperately tried to hide the panic in their voices. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Like so many others watching the horrible scene, I couldn’t acknowledge what was right before my eyes.
My fiancé was at a meeting at the restaurant where he worked near the South end of Central Park. I knew he was some distance from the disaster and should be fine. I didn’t know anyone in the towers, I hardly knew anyone in New York City.
Our phone rang – an old school landline, not a cell phone. I had no way of knowing that most cell phones had stopped working due to overwhelming stress to the system. Soon even traditional phones would also become useless due to the volume of calls on the lines. I heard her voice….an old friend from high school had managed to get through.
“Julie, are you OK? Are you watching television? Do you know what is happening?”
I knew it was an old friend since I’ve used my legal name of Juliet for most of my life. Only friends from my childhood called me Juliet. It was my old friend Corrina from high school calling from St. Louis.
“This feels like a movie”
We both kept saying it over and over. The same phrase repeated by millions, as none of us could comprehend it. Then the first tower collapsed.
“Maybe that is just dust, that didn’t just happen…Oh my God…I hope they got the people out, how did that just happen?”
It felt like I was on the phone for just a few minutes, but it had to have been longer because while still talking to her the second tower collapsed. We both kept just repeating the same questions to each other and to ourselves.
“What the hell is happening? That couldn’t have just happened…how many people were still in those buildings? They had to have gotten them out, they had to have gotten them out”
We decided to end the phone call, there wasn’t much she could do for me and I just wanted to sit down and try to calm myself. And I sat staring at the scene in front of me, the horrible burning stench still lingered in the air. If I went to my bathroom I could see the black plume of smoke pouring out of Manhattan.
One more phone call got through before all the phones shut down. It was my fiancé reassuring me that he was fine, but he wasn’t sure when he was going to make it home. He ended up going home with millions of others mostly on foot walking over bridges meant for cars, in massive numbers. The subway system was completely out of service , the city was in chaos. My fiancé saw a co-worker crumble into tears while watching the footage. She worked part-time in the towers and had no idea who she might have just lost. When he finally left his job, he witnessed countless people collapsing to weep openly on the street, while others stopped to help them..
Meanwhile I sat by myself, in our apartment in a building of strangers, glued to the images on the screen. The pictures that didn’t change for hours, which turned into days. The burning pile of rubble, ash, smoke and misery that would not extinguish itself for months.
We lived about three miles away from ground zero, yet we found dust of pulverized concrete, steel and glass inside our window sills. The streets in our Brooklyn neighborhood had a blanket of a light mist of the same gritty powder. As I rubbed the deadly sand-like dust between my fingers I found myself shocked that it had traveled so far. We would later find out that friends who were also in Brooklyn found faxes and paperwork with the World Trade Center address in the backyard of their apartment building.
The sickening smell of the smoldering towers lingered for days. In the months that followed we could see in the horizon two large black plumes of smoke, they became a daily reminder of the horror the city had just gone through.
Worse than the chaos was the silence in the nights that followed. Brooklyn is never without some noise and yet for those first few days the complete lack of sound was unnerving. When noise returned instead of the familiar clamor of trucks, cars, buses and police sirens we heard military aircraft, and helicopters overhead. The jagged whipping of helicopter blades and the unmistakable whoosh of jet engines that seemed too close to the ground. I knew the aircraft were there to protect us, but the bellow of their engines was hardly reassuring. About a week after the incident, a young Ukrainian boy about 9 years old asked me a simple question as I was coming back from the Laundromat.
“What’s going to happen if one of the military planes gets shot down? Where is it going to land?”
I had no idea what to tell him. I wanted to say that something like that could never happen, but considering what we had all just lived through I was at a loss for words.
My fiancée got a gig out-of-town almost immediately after the attack. We debated if he should go and decided that he had to go since we had already lost work and needed any income we could get. So he left. I sat in our tiny apartment all by myself and tried to keep myself sane with phone calls. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the television. Just like that first day I viewed it as the source of all my hope. Surely today they would find a survivor I kept telling myself. Surely today something will happen that will bring light to this horrific darkness. Then a few days after the horrible wreckage the area was hit with a violent rain storm that lasted most of the day. The heavy rain meant less hope of finding anyone alive. I knew the chances of a survivor were low but I couldn’t tear myself away from the constant rescue mission played out in front of me. It took about two weeks before everyone conceded that there was no hope, no survivors.
I went to prayer vigils with neighbors, who were complete strangers to me, and sobbed my eyes out. They became more worried for me because it was obvious I was completely alone. I memorized the lyrics to “God Bless America” I watched as some people couldn’t hold their anger in and began to lash out to anyone who would listen ranting like lunatics.
“We have to kill those bastards, we have to nuke them to dust, they murdered people just trying to go to work, just trying to go to work, they didn’t deserve to die like that…they didn’t deserve to die”
In trying to ease my isolation I bought some supplies and donated needed items for the first responders at Chelsea Piers. The entire Westside highway was overcome with people, some extremely wealthy dropping off carloads of brand new boots, and others like myself with a small bag of first aid supplies, paper towels and toothpaste. The volunteers had circulated lists of needed items all over the city: long underwear, saline solution, gloves, boots, soap, shampoo, tampons, deodorant, it went on and on. Local restaurants were donating in shifts feeding hundreds at a time, so although they needed just about everything else they didn’t need food.
As I walked away from Chelsea Piers I saw enormous military vehicles lined up on the edge of the city, helicopters, service men, and trucks covered in camouflage. Firemen engulfed from head to toe in dust walking around with a dazed look in their eyes. Huge blood drives were held in every hospital, volunteers rushed to donate yet discovered the blood banks filled to capacity.
For months as I took the F train into Manhattan I would see the Statue of Liberty and the never-ending plumes of black smoke. It was a daily reminder that the city had not yet healed from this gaping wound. One morning I noticed a child across from me on the train who was straining in his seat to blankly stare at the constant black cloud that was the twin towers. The kid was a total stranger to me yet I could help but think.
“Give that little boy a chance, don’t let him die.”
The thought of death and another tragedy happening any day was ever-present in my mind. It felt like it was just a matter of time when the next horror would visit this city so packed with humanity.
In Grand Central Station and Port Authority makeshift memorials of Xeroxed photos of loved ones with the words “Missing” spontaneously formed on walls and pillars. Some brightly colored and others pastel or white, these desperate attempts at finding lost loved ones filled entire walls. They remained for months after anyone had any hope of finding remains much less survivors. News reports spoke of DNA testing on fragments of blackened bone fragments found scattered on the rooftops of surrounding buildings, or remains shifted out of tons of twisted metal and glass in the landfills of Staten Island. Some families never found DNA or any remains. Most had to create some type of narrative in their head, about what happened to their missing person. Did they die instantly? Die they suffer? Did they accept their death? Were they in pain? Did they witness terror?
That Christmas our first in New York, I had to work a day shift waiting tables while my fiancée had to work at night. Broke and desperate we had no choice as so much work had dried up. To snap myself out of the spiral of self-pity I took the subway as close as I could get to ground zero. I stood there with a small crowd and stared at the destruction. No formal viewing platforms existed yet and there was no organized effort to allow the public to see the disaster site. Small groups of us would huddle at one vantage point then to another getting as close as the police would let us. As I stood there staring at this hell on earth I reminded myself that as bad as we had it, things could have been so much worse.
Then there was the night of the first bombs falling on Afghanistan. A lifelong pacifist for the first time I thought–let them burn as I watched bombs and rockets light up their night sky. My blood lust wore off quickly and I soon began to question the war and our motives but for that brief moment I had absolutely no sympathy in my heart for its victims.
I didn’t lose family members or friends. My fiancée and I were strangers in a strange land, lost in an island of our minuscule apartment, forced to take jobs we would have normally avoided just to pay our rent. Our debt exploded as we tried to make ends meet but we were extremely lucky. We knew so many others that were somehow connected to a friend or a relative that had perished. The sorrow lingered over the city for months, every milestone memorialized. The first human remains found, the casualties officially confirmed, the day they finally got the fires out. Over those months I worked at several benefits for the families of the victims. People would try their best to stay in good spirits but then tears would start and then cascade across the event like a never-ending wave of grief. Surviving wives and husbands looked blank and children seemed confused and lost.
Every time I meet a New Yorker that lived here during this horrific time, if the subject of 9-11 gets brought up, the stories pour out like an emotional avalanche. We all start talking, our memories weaving in and out of our shared experience with none of us the same for having lived through it. A couple of years after the attack we had a city-wide blackout. Instead of rioting or looting the bars filled up and street corners became crowded with people laughing and sharing in the absurdity. New Yorkers wouldn’t let anything like a little blackout dampen our spirits or cause us to turn on each other. After living through the horrors of 9-11 and the months that followed, living without power for a couple of days seemed like a minor inconvenience. New York City changed for better and for worse. We’ll never get back the many we lost, but through the tragedy we gained back some of our humanity. We learned that we really were there for each other, and that we’d ultimately rebuild and come back stronger than ever.