For 14 years now, whenever I have told the story of my September 11th experience, I am always asked if I have written or documented it. I had shared my story with a client, and she told me she never quite heard the details of that day, described or expressed the way I spoke about it. She asked if I was ever interviewed for a story. I do not consider my story to be unique, it is just one of the thousands of stories from that day. Over 2,700 innocent people, which included many heroes of the New York City Fire and Police Departments, along with the Port Authority Police, lost their lives on a day none of us will ever forget.
I only share my story today for a few reasons, I felt it was important to document it somewhere for my grandchildren to read someday and for whatever reason, at this juncture of my life, I found it to be therapeutic to write about it. My disclaimer for this story, for privacy reasons, I did not use any of my friends or colleagues’ names but if any of them ever have the opportunity to read this, I am sure they will recognize themselves, along with the unforgettable and horrific events of a day that we shared. With that said, here is my story…
It was like any other normal workday; I was awoken by the alarm at the ungodly hour of 5am and my normal routine morning regiment began. I was leading a focus group at 10am and I decided to dress a little more corporate than my normal attire of business casual. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear blue skies. Just a picture-perfect day with a slight hint of fall in air. As I walked out the door at 6:45am, I grabbed a sweater, and I started my route to the train station. My normal morning routine continued with my first stop at the local convenience store, to buy a newspaper and a cup a coffee. The usual morning customers of the convenience store were standing out front with their coffee and this morning was no different than any other, where one of the regulars would pass a flirtatious remark. I caught the 7:15am train, out of the Springdale station and I was off to my office located in the Financial District of Manhattan.
On the train ride in, I reviewed my notes in preparation of the focus group. Part of me felt unprepared but I knew I would have plenty of time to finish any last-minute preparation once I arrived at my office. Strangely and oddly, for whatever reason, I appeared and felt, more than usual, extremely observant of my surroundings. Once the train pulled into Grand Central it was the normal rush through the crowds of people to catch the express train down to Wall Street. It was the normal hustle and bustle of the rush hour commuters and no one paid attention to anyone, only focusing on their final destination. As much as I loved my position as a Project Manager, I was not a fan of the NYC subway system, especially in the hot summer but I loved the excitement, the vitality and the vibrancy you felt being in the midst of it all. It was an adrenaline rush every day. It was my 5-year anniversary mark of working in Manhattan and even with 5 years under my belt, with every subway ride, I still counted the stops…#1-Union Square, #2-Brooklyn Bridge, #3-Fulton St and #4-Wall St… off!
Maybe if it were not for the focus group, I would not have had my “A” game face on and I would have been just like everyone else, oblivious to my surroundings and just as robotic as the rest of the rush hour commuters. The entire subway ride I felt anxious and I kept watching the time. It felt like it was taking forever to get to my end destination. When we finally pulled into Wall St, the stairwell was crowded with people and as my foot hit the first step, I looked at my watch and it was 8:45am. I remember thinking, you have plenty of time to finish preparing. When I reached the street, I saw what appeared to be paper falling from the sky. My immediate first thought was…is there a ticker tape parade, today? People were running everywhere, and many were crying. Many were trying to use their cell phones and I stopped a gentleman and asked him what was going on. He said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” I thought…how is that possible? It is a beautiful, clear, picture perfect day. I would normally walk-up Broadway towards the World Trade Center and turn down the block towards my building. Today, I thought differently and turned down the street walking towards the New York Stock Exchange.
As I walked, stunned with the thought of a plane crashing into a tower, charred paper and debris kept hitting the ground of my path. I immediately thought, my God, this is paper from someone’s desk. Someone, most certainly, was sitting at their desk when the plane hit. A horrifying feeling came over me as I continued to watch the paper and debris fall to the ground. I walked as quickly as possible to my office at Chase Plaza. All I wanted was to get off the streets. When I arrived at the plaza, it was filled with people watching the burning tower. I was not a spectator and my only focus was to get to my desk, to call my daughter, who I knew would be home with my 18-month-old granddaughter. I knew she watched the Today Show, every morning and possibly, she could fill me in as to what had happened.
My daughter could not tell me much, as the media was not yet clear as to what was happening, however, the firemen, police and the port authority police were frantically working their way towards and into the building to begin rescue efforts. While my office was only on the 3rd floor of my building, we had a clear view of the towers. My building had glass windows, which were nearly from the floor to the ceiling. Many of my colleagues were gathered by the windows watching the burning building. I walked to the windows and my eyes saw everything and nothing. There was so much to take in and the movement of my eyes was rapid but what I saw, will forever be a vivid memory etched in my mind. A huge gaping hole in the tower, with massive flames and smoke pouring out of it. I heard one of my colleagues scream, “Oh, my God!”, as he saw someone jump from the building. It was enough to confirm, yet again, I was not a spectator, nor did I want to be one.
I returned to my desk and sat there stunned. Everything, till this day, appeared as if it were happening in slow motion. I made frantic calls to everyone scheduled to attend the focus group, to cancel the meeting and to tell them to not come anywhere near the building. Next, I heard a huge explosive sound, and it was the South Tower that was hit by a second plane. I was surrounded by frantic mayhem and as I walked the floor of my office, many people were watching live footage on their computers. I just went back to my desk and I had several messages from many family and friends checking on me. By this time, officials began closing all New York City bridges and tunnels, along with mass transit being shut down. The FAA stops, for the first time ever, nationwide, all flights from taking off.
It is now 9:37am and a third plane crashes into the Pentagon and it is confirmed the United States is under attack. The emotions that ran through my body and mind, went from shock to fear and still not fully understanding what the hell was going on nor the magnitude of it all. As I continued to sit at my desk, a friend called, who worked on Broadway. She told me to stay at my desk, she was coming to get me, and we were getting the hell out of here. I sat like an obedient child, with my back straight, sitting tall, with my bag over my shoulder and I waited. I knew my friend, undeniably, knew how to navigate her way through Manhattan so much better than myself. I sat there and assured myself, she was going to get us out of here.
Suddenly, what sounded like a stampede of cattle, my colleagues who were watching at the windows, were screaming and running down the corridors. I could hear the voice of a gentlemen on our management team screaming, “Get down on the floor and away from the windows!” The building began to tremble and there was this rumbling, loud sound and vibration. It was so powerful; it threw me down to my knees. Scared, frantic and overwhelmed with fear, I stayed on the floor and hid under my desk. I was frozen and I had no clue as to what was happening. Was our building hit? Was it going to crumble with me in it? As I quivered under my desk, with a million thoughts running through my mind, I could see out the windows and something was happening outside. Again, it felt like life was in slow motion, as I watched what appeared to be an enormous cloud of billowing, grayish black smoke and enveloped inside of it were particles of debris. I watch this massive cloud of smoke, move slowly around the entire building and embrace it. You could not see anything outside, not the perfect blue sky or the buildings surrounding the plaza. It felt like the world stopped and I was somewhere in the middle of it all, frozen under my desk.
Things went quiet and not a sound could be heard for a moment or two. Until someone yelled, “Get out of the building.” Still not knowing what happened, I grabbed my bag and like everyone else, I ran for the stairwell and this is where I learned that the South Tower had collapsed. It was in the stairwell that I met another dear friend, we locked arms and proceeded to quickly walk down the flights of stairs, heading for the lobby. The stairwell was jammed with people coming from the higher floors. Suddenly, I remembered my friend, who was coming to get me was out on the streets when the tower collapsed, and I got weak in the knees and began crying. My dear friend, who I was latched arm and arm with, tried to reassure me that she would be alright. When we finally reached the lobby, as people in the stairwell were trying to pull the door open to get out, there were people on the other side trying to push their way in to get away from the smoke and flying debris, which overcame the building’s lobby. Security instructed all of us to go back up to our floors and the building was immediately placed into lockdown.
My floor was the first floor of offices up from the lobby and quickly it was filled with many employees from the higher floors. My first instinct was to go to my desk and call my children. Till today, I can still hear my daughter’s screams and cries through the telephone, “Mom, please get out of there!” For the first time ever, I knew I had absolutely no control over my life or what the outcome of the day would be for me or the people in my building. I returned messages, to family and friends to let them know that at the moment I was okay, and I could finally breath when I learned my friend, who was coming to get me was safe and fortunately, her manager stopped her from leaving her building prior to the tower collapsing.
The group of people that were on the plaza level when the tower collapsed, who pushed their way into the stairwell for safety, were completely covered in ash, they were unrecognizable and all you could see were their blood shot eyes. They were in shock and began to babble about the sights they witnessed and of people jumping from the blazing building. I could not sit there and listen, and I began to walk the floor in disbelief and observed so many things and people that will be etched in my memory for years to come. A former manager was sitting, silently, on the floor outside his office, holding his legs close to his chest, in deep thought and rocking back and forth. There were several different groups of men and women sitting in circles, on the floor, in prayer and holding each other’s hands.
I sat in a small hallway, which separated one side of the floor from the other, with my dear friend and we just sat silently, holding each other’s hand. There was a young lady, who had just relocated to New York from Texas that sat with us and we attempted to comfort her. She was worried about her husband, who worked for the FBI and she lost all communication with him. Then again, without warning the building began to tremble, vibrate and there was that roaring sound and as I squeezed my friends hand tighter, she softly whispered to me that it was the second tower coming down and she attempted to reassure me, yet again, that everything would be alright.
Another colleague stood vigil at the window overlooking the plaza, which faced the direction of the World Trade Center. She was beyond worried, fearful and she was frantically trying to focus and search through the thick smoke and debris for her son. Her last communication with him was that he was coming to get her. Another moment and thought that is etched in my memory, how was she ever going see or find him through the thickness of the smoke? I could not imagine the thoughts that were going through her mind about her son being out on the streets. What happened next, I can only explain it as being nothing short of a miracle and a mother’s determination to find her child. It was as if the smoke parted just enough for her to see him on the plaza and she screamed, “I see him!” She ran through the crowd of people on our floor and there was not one person, who was going to stop her from getting out of the building or getting to her son and we learned later that morning that they found each other and they were safe.
As time passed, the heavy smoke that surrounded the building and filled the lobby of the building was finding its way up to the upper floors through the elevator shafts and stairwells. Yet, another moment etched in my memory is of the Senior Executive, who walked the floor with a bullhorn, advising everyone that they should consider moving to a higher floor as the air quality of the 3rd floor was not good. Not one person moved. Not one person would even consider going to a higher floor. Colleagues from the marketing group, ripped promotional t-shirts, dampened them with water and passed them around for people to wrap and tie around their mouth and nose. Again, there was silence and we just sat and waited for hours.
It was noon before a decision was made to begin the evacuation of our building. We formed ourselves into groups according to where everyone lived and exchanged home telephones numbers. Now, with barely any communication to the outside world, a decision needed to be made as to whether we would take the stairwell or elevator down. I was beyond frightened to get into the elevator, but a colleague convinced me it was the fastest way down to the basement level of the building, which was the only exist being used for the evacuation. I reluctantly got into the elevator but when we reached the basement level and those doors opened, there was a sigh of relief until I stepped out and witnessed what I saw next.
There was a bank branch on the ground level, which had an atrium glass fountain, in the center of the branch that went up to the plaza level. The branch was completely empty of people. Debris was everywhere. The glass of the fountain window was shattered and there was blood. It looked like a war zone. No one was talking and we walked silently as we were led out the back doors. When we got outside the building, again, it was with complete disbelief as to what I was witnessing. The ground was completely covered with ash and debris. It was so deep; it came up to my calves. Military were everywhere, armed and standing guard. Military vehicles were everywhere. We were directed to walk towards Water Street.
As I walked, halfway down the block, I turned and looked back at what would have been the World Trade Center Plaza from afar and all I could see was thick, black smoke. As I shuffled through the debris and passed more and more military, I thought to myself this just does not happen in the United States. This is what you see on the news, in other countries or in movies. As we approached Water Street and turned to walk up the East Side of Manhattan towards Grand Central, the streets were empty of noise, moving cars, buses and taxi cabs. The streets were filled with thousands of people walking and for the first time ever, in New York City, the streets were silent, and it felt like you could have heard a pin drop.
Across the crowded street, I caught a glimpse of a visiting Texas colleague. We caught each other’s eye and while they welled up with tears, we just gave each other a half of a smile, as an acknowledgement of each other. As we ascended onto the neighborhood near the Manhattan Bridge, again, military were everywhere, and a military tank was in the middle of the large intersection. Suddenly, there was this roar of sound up in the sky and we all knew that air traffic was shut down. People screamed and dropped to the ground for cover. It was a fleet of F16 flying over Manhattan. At this point, the crowd started to disband into several different directions with many either going towards Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Grand Central and New Jersey.
We walked and we walked for hours. So many of us had little to no cell phone service but we all were so anxious to let our families know we were alright, and we were attempting to make our way home. At some point, along the long journey and not having the proper shoes on, the straps of my shoes began to cut into my feet, which started to bleed. There was not a store, or a street vendor opened or to be found. Unheard of on any given normal day in New York City but this was not a normal day. At some point, I just took the shoes off and walked barefoot the rest of the way to Grand Central Terminal.
It took over two hours to get to Grand Central and when we finally arrived, it was somewhere around 2:30pm. The outside of Grand Central was completely guarded by armed military. Inside, every track gate and door were closed and guarded by military personnel. I frantically searched the schedule boards looking to see when the next train to Stamford was. My former manager and a dear friend’s, husband was part of my group and they lived in Scarsdale, which was a different train line than Connecticut. The next train to Stamford was at 4pm and his train for Scarsdale was at 3pm. Needless to say, he said, “You’re coming home with me. We are getting out of here, together and I will drive you home to Stamford.” We stood in front of the gates for the Scarsdale bound train, anxiously waiting for them to open. We were one of the first to arrive on the platform waiting for the train to pull in and when it did, it filled up so quickly, the doors closed quickly, and we were on our way out of the tunnel. Again, no one was really speaking, and I held my breath until we got completely out of the tunnel. A huge sense of relief came over my entire being when I could see the light of day and I was finally on my way home.
Another one of my colleagues, who was on the Scarsdale bound train, sat quietly and kept to himself for most of the train ride. He was overcome with grief when he learned from his wife that a dear friend of theirs, who worked in one of the towers had not been heard from since that morning. We tried to comfort him but in our hearts we all knew this was just a piece of the bigger picture yet to be discovered and faced by many. The train pulled into Scarsdale and we drove to my friend’s house, where we were greeted by his wife, my former manager and dear friend with hugs, tears and sobs on their front lawn. We cleaned ourselves up somewhat, we sat, we talked, and we had a drink. As emotionally drained and as exhausted as we were, my friend drove me to get my car at the train station.
When I arrived home, it was well after 6pm and after letting my family and friends know that I was home safely, I took a shower. I felt like I needed to get the day off of my skin. The biggest mistake I made was turning on the television. When I saw the news footage that captured so much of the horrific events of the day, which was repeated over and over again, I just collapsed on my bed and cried. Even though I was horrified by what I was watching, I just could not turn it off. The telephone never stopped ringing that night and at some point, the day just ended and turned into the next morning.
My first call of the morning came from my mother-in-law and I just broke on the phone with her. I packed a bag after that call, got in my car and drove to my daughter’s house. I needed to see her and my granddaughter. When we saw each other, we hugged, and we cried. My daughter took me to a doctor that day, to make sure my eyes and lungs were clear. She was worried that I may have taken in too much of the smoke and debris. I checked out okay but was suffering from post-traumatic stress and was treated for it for many months to come.
Throughout the entire day of September 11, 2001, there were many times I thought I would never see my children, granddaughter or family again. Life changed for many of us after that day and mine was with no exception. Fear consumed me and I gave up my dream position as a Project Manager, which required me to travel to Texas several times a month. Back then, I just could not get myself on a plane nor could I ride the train or the subway. I went back to Chase Plaza once after that day and it took my manager to personally escort me there, to meet and hand off my outstanding projects to the new Project Manager and to pack up my desk. I have not returned since, but I know one day I will…it is just not today.
I was one of the fortunate people of that day. I saw. I witnessed. I survived and I will always remember.
God Bless America