Remembering 9/11 as a college student living under the towers.
Every year, this day sneaks up on me, like a wedding or Christmas. That underlying stress I can't put my finger on until it arrives and I'm forced to either feel or act like nothing happened.
The need to write this story, to really get it down on paper, came to me finally in the very early hours of September 10, 2013. It's not a funny story, there are hijinks and a few anecdotes, but overall I have felt my story is just like anyone else's that day:
I woke up. I lived.
It seemed like there was no story to tell since I was never rescued from under rubble or even punctured with debris. I didn't shed a single drop of blood that day. There is no story, I have convinced myself over the years.
Comedian Colin Quinn had a great joke at the time about how everyone wanted to feel a connection as though they would have been one of the thousands of victims, "You don't understand, if I had decided to be an investment banker instead of running the Go-Karts in Utica," putting into perspective how desperate we were all feeling.
But the fact is I woke up that Tuesday. And I lived.
There are few feelings that stay with you as strongly as the rattling and overwhelming knowledge that today is my last day. If you've ever left a job or come to the close of the school year, then you know there's that nervous excitement of what's to come. Fear paired with adrenaline. And I guess adrenaline is what fueled most people who shared that experience with me.
But the crux of it all is that this is a story about luck. And this is my Lucky Story:
I felt like the last person my age to get a cell phone. I was nineteen and in my junior year at Pace University in the downtown campus. I lived in off-campus dorms with three roommates: two close friends and one other girl. Two were born and bred New Yorkers, my friend Danielle from Mill Basin at the southern end of Brooklyn and her longtime roommate Liz from Yonkers just north of the city. The fourth was my other friend Inga from Kaliningrad, a Soviet city I'd never heard of or seen on a map until we met a few semesters earlier.
We lived in an unbearably large apartment at 75 West St. #3A New York, New York 10006. Pace University had rented out one floor of a luxury residential co-op building due to its overwhelming dorm student population. Because it was a residential building, it wasn't outfitted with those standard-issue office phones found in dorm rooms or even internet connection jacks; we were responsible for any kind of telecomm installation and we'd only moved in about five days beforehand. The space had unusually high ceilings, which only made it feel emptier. Sure, the four of us had moved in our stuff; bedding for each of our university-provided twin beds, kitchen items, miscellaneous crap, but it felt like we were living in a racquetball court.
I'm almost positive class scheduling is designed to fit the lazy vs. the motivated. I was a Communications major so none of my classes were earlier than 11am. Inga and Liz were accounting majors and out the door to school no later than 8:00am each morning. That Tuesday was no exception and Danielle slept late while I slowly got myself together for the day. She studied psychology.
As I blow-dried my hair, the floor vibrated for a moment under my feet. Given the extensive network of subway lines below, I gave it no consideration. What caught my eye minutes later, however, was a terrible car accident just outside our window facing the West Side Highway. We were only on the third floor, so it wasn't difficult to see; a woman in a small car had veered off the street into a commercial truck. She was visibly panicked, her car covered in blood and flesh. Yet, no one looked injured and I made the esteemed observation that, of course, that truck must have been delivering meat! As a voyeur, I watched for another few minutes until I began to notice an outpouring of people all over the street. Given this was a major vehicular thoroughfare, not generally occupied by pedestrians, it finally dawned on me something was awry.
Waking Danielle was impossible. After gently cooing her and lightly shaking to no avail I finally I yelled, "Something is happening outside; I need you to get out of bed!" She opened her eyes and we watched out the window together before deciding to further investigate.
(A note on Danielle: Tough but naturally beautiful, an Italian-American raised in Brooklyn with one of the heaviest regional accents I'd ever heard. Her father is a retired NYPD cop. In short, she's not scared of nothin'.)
Not having cable or internet, we wandered down the hall to find the "cool" girls' apartment (read: spoiled rich girls) where they had cable and a T1 line installed within 48 hours of moving day. But despite what was broadcast on the local news, no one could make sense of what was happening outside.
The elevators had shut down, lights flickered a bit, but no solid information had come our way. A group of us took the fire stairwell down to the ground level to get a better look. Over our heads was the majestic North Tower in all its glory with a jet jutting from its side. But given our point of view and the sheer size of the tower, the plane looked small and like the news had suggested, it was merely a prop plane accident.
Nevertheless, Danielle and I and the others dashed back upstairs to prepare for... we didn't know what. I wore jeans and a black tank top - the same uniform I wear now thirteen years later - and thankfully, sneakers. I grabbed my brand new cell phone trying to reach my mother, which was futile - the lines were jammed. In that moment, I remember worrying more about her in Boston than what in the world was going on just two short blocks from me. That's when the second plane hit the South Tower, this time shaking again more pronounced than before. By now my heart was pounding, yet it would be hours, days before anyone had any idea.
I've never looked closely at the timeline of that day until now, but I realize we didn't leave our floor for nearly an hour in a dispute of trying to make a decision and getting new and confusing information from other friends down the hall every minute. Danielle was hell-bent on staying put, but I couldn't leave fast enough, yet neither of us wanted to separate from the other. She lived next door to me in the freshman dorms and was one of the first friends I made on move-in day years back.
It was a span of 54 minutes between the second crash and the first tower collapse. It felt like five.
The sunlight over our giant windows vanished and despite them being closed, dust began pouring into our apartment and the common hallways. I grabbed my purse, a cheap $9 H&M thing that held my wallet, a film camera, Chapstick, and the new cell phone. That's it. Seeing what was filling the air outside, I went back for sunglasses (brilliant protective eyewear) and an ivory cardigan to cover my nose and mouth. Only the dim emergency lighting was working now as dozens of us on the floor, all teenagers really, frantically felt around in the darkness for fire exits. I feared getting trampled.
When Danielle and I reached the lobby, many others were already there having sought shelter from outside. More and more people filed in from outdoors covered in dust; some bleeding, injured from the falling debris. Residents brandished makeshift bandages and alcohol to care for anyone in need. Everyone was a ghost covered in white dust as it completely covered, no, adhered to skin dampened by sweat from the warmth and panic of the day. Despite at least fifty, maybe sixty people seeking asylum in this small lobby, the room was completely silent save for a few whispers and whimpers.
We were all together, but all completely lost. A resident in the building, a painter, began passing out facemasks to whomever wanted one. He began with the children and then us, the stranded, parentless college kids.
At that moment, a uniformed woman came forth. The NYPD was now in charge of this lobby. The policewoman who took the helm now owned all of us: our fate, our panic, our calm. No one would exit the building, we would all sit tight, and above all we would stay calm. I realize based on the timeline, we sat together on the floor of the 75 West Street lobby for no longer than 29 minutes; the space between each tower collapse and a space of time I remember feeling like eternity. Soon a firefighter, a large and powerful, yet defeated-looking man in full gear entered completely enveloped in dust. Folks rushed over with water and towels so he could clear off his face. We all gazed upon him, our source to the outside.
"Okay, everyone," he spoke with confidence, "this is what's going to happen. Each one of you is going to calmly and orderly exit left and head south to Battery Park to the Hudson River. There will be boats there to evacuate you off Manhattan. Under no circumstances are you to turn right. Do not even look right. You do not want to look right. Does everyone understand?"
We all believed him. We trusted him. But this instruction was exactly like asking someone, "Don't think about elephants."
Nevertheless, we filed out of the building trying to keep some kind of calm order, some kind of understanding that we would see another day. This was not going to be a big deal. This was in essence simply a directive we could all follow and complete. Adults, children, and college kids; we all obeyed for the most part in silence. And in thinking about elephants, I looked to the right and saw the monstrosity looming overhead and took a few very poor photos.
What happened instead of the calm order as dozens of us exited our shelter from the storm, was a crack of thunder that broke above. I took each careful step with my ivory-colored cardigan over my head; Danielle held her forearms over her brow. We faced the ground, the West Side Highway, as we carefully sidestepped debris and worse. That short walk made it clear people had perished. Bits of undeserving victims scattered at our feet.
And then another crack of thunder sounded, a rolling roar, a bass grumble only Hell could produce: the North Tower was beginning to fall over us. We were exposed with no place to hide and there was no turning back to our 75 West Street. We heard the noise and felt bits of pebbles and rock pelting at our shoulders. The crowd broke into a sprint knowing imminent danger threatened uncomfortably close. Danielle and I and many others spotted an open loading dock that presented itself as if by fate for those nearby to seek shelter if nothing but for a few moments to catch our breath and reassess strategy. But, there was no strategy. It was simply, "head to the river." Dozens took cover with us as we ducked behind any kind of shield we could find. There wasn't much, a single truck and some kind of equipment. This safe haven gave me a moment to consider my own mortality and understand this was it. This was really it. We hadn't run that far and I envisioned the Tower crushing and suffocating us with its mass (not imploding upon itself like it was designed to do). We cowered there for a moment listening to the low growl of it falling before agreeing to flee again.
We resumed running and I remember being out of breath and thinking, If I survive this day, I'll get in better shape. If I'm allowed to live, I promise I'll run a mile without breaking a sweat or gasping for air. I'm still working on that.
As Danielle and I ran towards Battery Park, I looked up at the woman retreating next to me. Our friend Erin; the three of us had all met on that first day of freshman year in 1999. Our spirits lifted at the sight of each other shocked that amid the hundreds if not thousands of people escaping around us, we had found each other.
The three of us were some of the first to reach Battery Park and no boats had arrived yet for evacuation. There's no documented timeline to easily tell how long we stayed there, but within minutes hundreds of people had gathered, bewildered, confused, and conflicted.
We stood at the water's edge under the perfectly blue-skied day as the U.S. Air Force and their fighter jets flew low overhead. Given the last two hours, we viewed them with fear not knowing they were there to protect us. We were terrified of anything looming above and the masses cowered at their presence.
Soon, a sign of salvation floated into the dock. Statue of Liberty ferry boats had arrived to evacuate us. With the help of the ship's crew and police officers, each evacuee scaled over the locked barrier to board. Danielle, Erin, and I waited patiently although I'm sure they were also thinking me, me, me, me, me!!! in that moment.
To this day I have no idea exactly where we were let off, but we were delivered to a makeshift triage center somewhere in Jersey City, New Jersey. Someone with medical credentials checked over each person carefully to ensure debris hadn't permeated their eyes. The three of us were cleared and free to go.
By then, the panic had subsided and we were in good spirits because we were either in shock or young idiots. Probably a bit of both. Again, timelines don't signify our movements after a certain point, but the three of us spent what felt like hours aimlessly wandering around Jersey City in hopes of finding Hoboken because we had heard it was "cute." The popular song at the time was Destiny's Child's, "I'm A Survivor," which still having no concept of the breadth of this attack, we wandered the streets of Jersey City singing this together. In retrospect, I look back at this moment shamefully, but we were young and unaware and alone with no place to go and it was that bit of levity that kept us moving.
We never found Hoboken (for what, shopping?!), and instead we met others who were out to seek shelter for the night at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. The trains, buses, and subways were all shut down. We would likely spend the night there, too.
When we arrived to the Science Center, the three of us were finally able to make outgoing calls. I phoned my mother's office in Boston only to find the city had been shut down and evacuated hours before. I finally reached her and learned the PATH trains, some subways, and parts of the Metro North train system would be running again soon. My mom and I made a plan to meet in New Haven, Connecticut, the most northern stop on that Metro North train line.
Erin, from Pennsylvania, had a friend in the West Village with a spare bed and she would stay there in the coming days. Danielle's father, the retired Brooklyn cop, used his badge anywhere he could to drive through the traffic and pass police barricades inching closer to his youngest daughter. Reluctantly, Erin and I hugged Danielle tight and left her there alone as we made our way to the PATH train back into Manhattan. On the Manhattan side, Erin and I soon parted ways hugging each other goodbye, stunned by our day. I walked the empty streets to Grand Central to catch the first train that would take me to New Haven. The eerie stillness made my bustling island seem like an abandoned ghost town.
When I boarded the train with so many others, it surprised me to see that most looked tired just as though they'd come from a long day at work. I knew better. We all knew better of each other's day. Another journey and another group of people together in silence each reliving their thoughts, the moments of horror, and the moments of courage they had witnessed that day.
As I walked with hundreds of others still in silence down the corridor of the New Haven train station carrying next to nothing, all I could think was, my mother, my mother, my mother, my mother... I was nineteen, an only child, and still a child in many ways. And hers was the only face in the world I wanted to see. As the escalator climbed to street level, I saw her anxiously waiting for me at the top. I remember looking up at her, this symbol of love and safety just feet away, yet hours earlier I was convinced I would never see her again.
When I finally reached the landing, she took me in her arms. It was like being hugged for the first time. She held me close and whispered into my dirty hair, "my baby, my baby."
I don't remember if I cried then. If not, then I made up for it dozens of other times afterward.
I realize my story isn't something of great personal tragedy or heroism. It is simply that I like so many others woke up that day... and I lived.
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