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The September 11 Digital Archive
 


Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Smithsonian “September 11:
Bearing Witness to History”

 
     Story of September 11
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Contributed by: Trina
Contributor's location on 9/11:
Contributed on: 19 August 2002

How did you witness history on September 11th?

On 9/11/01, I was preparing to leave my apartment (located on the 23rd floor of a building just 2 blocks northwest of the North Tower) for the pharmacy in the shopping concourse of the World Trade Center. From there, I planned to take the PATH train to Jersey City to begin my work day. At roughly 8:45 AM, I heard the very loud sound of a plane approaching. The sound reminded me of the diving noise made by planes in old war films - a high pitched, mechanical whine. I knew immediately that a plane was about to crash. I the mini-blinds of my bedroom window in time to see a plane heading in my general direction. All I could think of was, "Oh my God, this plane is going to hit my building." The whining noise of the plane became defeaning as it sped by. I arrived at my dining room window just in time to see the plane smash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I cannot explain my horror in seeing the fireball, in hearing the explosion, in feeling the ground shake and my building sway beneath my feet. I remember thinking that this must be some sort of horrible accident. I watched through my window as debris filled the air and the North Tower stood - amazingly, defiantly, bleeding paper and bodies and luggage from a gaping, fiery wound. I picked up the phone and called my husband, who was away on business. He turned the TV on in his hotel room in Iowa. Within moments, coverage of the event was on all of the cable news channels and he watched on TV while I cried hysterically & watched from our apartment window. My husband tried to calm me, telling me that this was just a terrible accident and that it would soon be over. As I regained my composure a little, we agreed that I would call my boss and that my husband would call my family and let everyone know that I was okay. With that we hung up and I picked up the phone to call my boss. When I reached my boss in Jersey City, he was oblivious to what was going on just across the Hudson River. As I listened to his astonished voice blend with the TV announcers in the background, I heard another explosion and felt my building sway voilently beneath my feet again. I remember hysterically screaming, "Why is this happening?" as I lost my phone connetion. I ran to the window again and saw that the South Tower was now in flames as well. More debris filled the air and mixed with the black smoke curling from the windows of both wounded towers. At this point, I hung up the phone, having lost my connection with my boss. I turned to my local TV news station to find out what was going on. Even now, I still believed all of these happenings to be an accident. As I watched the news, a slow-motion video clip was replayed showing the 2nd plane purposely turning to slam into the South Tower. In that moment I knew someone had done this horrible, evil thing on purpose. I sobbed uncontrollably into my hands, wondering if the world was coming to an end, if I would ever see my husband and family again. As if on cue, my husband called me again. His voice was much less comforting and much more directive this time. "Get out of that building, right now" he told me. "Get outside with other people, but don't stay in that apartment alone." I told him that I was too afraid to move. I told him that I was afraid of being hit by falling debris if I went outside. He calmly reasoned with me until I agreed to go downstairs and ask the doormen if we were being evacuated. My husband and I traded "I Love Yous", but we never said "goodbye" as we hung up our phones. As I prepared to leave my apartment, I found it difficult to do the simplest tasks. I couldn't remember how to tie my shoes, for instance. Even when I could remember what to do, my hands were shaking so badly that it made it difficult to do simple things, like button my shirt. It took all of my concentration to keep it together. As I attempted to think through the problems of leaving (do I take the cats with me or leave them behind?), my phone rang again. It was my mother. My mom, not the most organized thinker I know, immediately calmed me. She set my focus on getting out of the apartment as if I were leaving for a weekend getaway. For the next 30 minutes, she walked me through what to put in my bag, how much food & water to leave for the cats, what important papers I should have with me, etc. By this time I had regained my composure enough to know that my husband was right about leaving the area. As I promised my mother that I would call her as soon as I was safe, an enormous sound welled up from the direction of the World Trade Center, my building shook violently beneath my feet and I lost my phone and power connections. I was tempted to run to the window again, but decided it was best to leave and not look back. After closing the front door behind me, I realized that I would be facing a 23-story decent in the darkness - a terrifying thought given my current state. Stepping into the stairwell, I noticed a fine dust in the thick, dark air (I still wasn't aware that the shaking I had just felt or the dust I was encountering were the result of the South Tower collapsing). Off in the distance, I heard shrill siren-like sounds echoing off the building (later I learned that the alarms were part of the firemen's uniform and used to help locate them in the event of a building collapse). Slowly, I made my descent, moving out of the way for people with flashlights, in the hopes that they could light the way for me. It seemed like forever to make it outside, and when I did I was shocked at the chaos around me. People stumbled by, covered in white dust, blood, & vomit. A grown man was on his knees in the middle of the sidewalk, sobbing and asking God why this was happening to us. A group of men from the nearby Mercantile Exchange, still wearing their smocks, sobbed into dust masks and held each other. Stunned and in shock, I willed myself to walk up the esplanade that runs along West Street to the north. With all of the emergency vehicles clogging West Street, the Esplanade was a shoulder to shoulder, slow moving mass of people, but at least I was alive and walking forward. People moved forward in the herd achingly slow, desperately dialing and redialing cell phones that wouldn't work. Some people were injured, limping, supported by colleagues. Some people quietly muttered prayers as we moved forward en masse. No one seemed to know where they were going. About 10 minutes into this exodus from Lower Manhattan, and just 3.5 blocks from the North Tower, a man stopped in front of me. He turned in the direction of the North Tower, pointed to it and said, "Jesus, please no...". I turned and looked back in time to see the spire from atop the North Tower toppling in the direction of the crowd. A collective intake of breath is all I remember hearing and then a scream as we all realized that the North Tower was collapsing. The ground shook beneath my feet. The crowd pushed forward, panic striken, running, attempting to outrun a tremendous cloud of dust & debris. My usually clumsy feet found an ability to navigate the crowd deftly and I managed to outrun the worst of the resulting dust cloud. After 10 blocks the adrenaline rush had passed and all I could think was that, none of this had really happened. For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, I slowly made my way uptown. I figured that I'd stay at the hotel my husband and I had stayed at when we first visited NYC as tourists in 1998. The hotel, at 79th Street & Amsterdam didn't seem far enough away to me, but at least it wasn't in downtown. As I walked uptown, I made my way walking on the street itself, the sidewalks being too crowded to use. The occasional bus would pass me by, filled to capacity with people. As I wandered into Times Square, I felt like a 1930's movie cliche as I watched the ticker go by, detailing a story far worse than I had imagined. BOTH towers were gone (I still only thought the North Tower had collapsed), the Pentagon had been attacked, and a third highjacked plane had crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. Standing in the shade of the crowded sidewalk and staring blankly at the horror unfolding on the ticker, it dawned on me that I was just a few blocks from the Empire State Building. What if "they" were going to ram a plan into that building, too? I took off running. Apparently my panic inspired others, because a group of people watched me bolt and began a sprint of their own. I ran up 8th Avenue to 57th Street where I became too dizzy and weak from hunger to run anymore. I pushed on, walking until I came to 68th & Broadway - a Barnes & Noble bookstore remained open. Inside it was cool, empty & calm. Someone had turned off the piped-in classical music and replaced it with a transitor radio spouting the latest news reports. I wandered up to the cafe and ordered a sandwich and a bottle of water. Much to my confusion, the woman behind the counter looked at me sympatheically as she took my money. I learned why when I made it to the ladies room and saw that the back half of my hair, shirt, jeans & shoes were covered in gray ash. A fine white powder lightly covered my skin, marking me as a survivor. I washed myself in the basin and noted that the fine powder wouldn't brush off. I gave up my cleanliness efforts and tried to use my cell phone to call my husband again. To my surprise, the phone began to ring in my hand; it was my husband. Never was I so happy to hear his voice. We began to exchange information, where was I, was I okay, etc. He took down phone numbers of family and friends to call and let know that I was safe. I learned that while I walked 4 miles uptown, he called everyone he could think of in New York City and had arranged for a place for me to stay on 68th & York Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Again, we said our "I Love Yous" and parted. I rested in Barnes & Noble until they closed at 3:00 PM. A group of us sat on the floor in the Bargain Books section, stunned, trying to comfort one another but not able to put the words together. Around 4:00 PM, I staggered into the area of my safe house; an area so beautiful, tree-lined, and peaceful that one would never know of the chaos unfolding just a few miles away were it not for haggard, dust-covered people like me and the sounds of sirens filling the air.

Has your life changed because of September 11, 2001?

Living in New York City after 9/11 has been an incredible experience. Returning to my home, 2 blocks from Ground Zero provided a stark, daily reminder of my brush with death and my dance with history. While I am happy to say that I didn't lose a friend or loved one as a result of the events of that day, I did lose a lot. My husband lost his job (90% of his company's clients were in the WTC), we lost our home & neighborhood (I couldn't bear to look at & smell the rubble around Ground Zero), I lost a lot of sleep from nightmares (I dream weekly of a faceless terrorist chasing me into a building and putting a gun to my head), and we lost a sense of security (albeit a naive one). I have gained, though as well. I have new insights into myself, my friends and my family that I would never have gained were it not for 9/11. I know, for instance, who my real friends are in this world. If someone didn't take the time to email me and see if I was okay, then their name came off the Christmas card list! More importantly, I learned that I can survive a desperate situation. I also learned to appreciate how incredibly fortunate I am to be alive. Along with hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers on their way to work that day, if it had been 10 minutes later, I would've been at the World Trade Center when the first plane struck. I grieve for the people who were lost that day and their families that must carry on without them. I cannot fully fathom that I watched so many people's last moments on this planet. I also grieve for the loss to society of all of that collective charity, friendship, love, genius, and expertise. Literally, thousands of lifetimes were extinguished in just a few moments. It's funny, but I also find myself grieving for the oddest things. I miss my old neighborhood and the seemingly carefree life we had before. I miss going shopping at the World Trade Center concourse (the closest thing to a mall in Lower Manhattan at the time). I miss using those gleaming buildings as my compass whenever I surface from the subway. I miss feeling like I was coming home every time I looked at the New York skyline. Everyday brings changes, but some days bring more than others. 9/11/01 will always be blessing & a curse - my burden and my privelege to bear.


Cite as: Trina, Smithsonian Story #223, The September 11 Digital Archive, 19 August 2002, <http://911digitalarchive.org/smithsonian/details/223>.
Archival Information: 1983 words, 10452 characters

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