As the newsroom swirled with activity and nervous energy after the news of two explosions at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon yesterday, I couldn't help but remember the scene of the national disaster that I lived through 12 years earlier.
September 11, 2001 dawned bright and crisp. It was also my mother's birthday. My parents were staying with me in my studio apartment in downtown New York City as they prepared to leave for a trip to Italy. The phone rang early that day as my grandmother called to wish mom a happy birthday. We woke up, exchanged jokes about mom turning 39 yet again, and I got ready and headed out the door to work.
My apartment was located on 12th street between Broadway and University Place. I loved the view. If you looked north, you saw the Empire State Building; if you looked south, you saw the Twin Towers. As I walked along University Place to the 14th street subway stop to catch the train to work, I heard a noise unlike anything I'd ever heard before. We all stopped in our tracks and craned our necks to see what it was. There, above us -- almost close enough to touch -- was an airplane.
I'll never forget turning to watch it pass overhead, and then following its trajectory as it crashed into the World Trade Center. My first thought was that it was terrorism: The plane had flown so directly into the building that it seemed impossible that it wasn't aiming straight for the Twin Towers. Immediately thereafter I shook those thoughts from my head. The plane looked so small compared to the tower that I reasoned that it must have been a private plane. I reached into my bag for my cell phone to dial 911. It was busy.
I ran back to my apartment building. The sympathetic doorman watched me run past, in hysterics, probably wondering what the hell was the matter. I banged on my apartment door and my dad let me in, also wondering what was wrong. We turned on the TV and sat, speechless. With no answers, and the second attack yet to happen, we chalked it up to an accident and I left the apartment for the second time that morning to go to work.
Numb in disbelief that I had witnessed such a tragedy, I stepped onto a strangely quiet subway. I looked around at fellow passengers and wondered if they knew what had just transpired.
By the time I reached my office in midtown Manhattan, the second plane had hit the second tower. The staff crowded around a small TV to try to understand what was going on. Finally, our editor-in-chief gathered us in her office and urged us to go home. Rattled, my colleagues and I found any flat shoes we could and prepared to walk home.
That day I walked from 50th street and Broadway down to 14th street and Broadway. We circumvented Times Square for fear of another attack and walked home quietly.
I'll never forget turning onto 12th street and seeing my dad standing in the street amongst the mileu of people milling about. Cell phone service was overloaded and I hadn't been able to get in touch with my parents since I left my office. He welcomed me with open arms and told me that my mom was just sitting on the couch, watching the TV, weeping quietly.
Over the next week my parents and I camped out in my small apartment, watching the news and grieving for a wounded city. We walked around downtown, which was a ghost town. The city was eerily quiet in the days afterward and dust filled the air. I couldn't help but wonder if the dust that we were breathing was the bodies of the victims whose posters were plastered on lampposts throughout the city.
The four walls of my tiny studio apartment provided comfort for us as we waited to see what our next moves would be. But it was the emotional shelter that my parents and I built around us that got us through that time and the weeks to come. It didn't matter that we were cramped or that we had to show ID any time we wanted to leave or enter the neighborhood -- we had each other and that was all that mattered.
As I think of the people in Boston, I remember how New York City pulled together as a city to heal. I pray that the people of Boston have loved ones near and can support one another through this difficult time. The authorities are advising people to "Stay home." Whether home is your own house, a friend's couch, or a family member's place, pull your loved ones close and cherish the home that you create in the wake of tragedy.
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