For the first year after 9/11/01, the words "Nine-eleven" evoked a very powerful feeling...the vivid memory of a huge explosion outside my office window...the unprecedented fear that I was not safe...the smoke that enveloped the neighborhood that day as I walked out; the smell that lingered everywhere for weeks...and my co-workers who literally ran for their lives to get out of tower two, and those (that I didn't know) who didn't make it.
For the last four years, the words "Nine-eleven" have been used as a political trump card to justify postures and policies, to berate those who disagree, to invoke fear. It drives me crazy when I hear them used so casually.
Today, as with each anniversary, I will try to remove the jaded, skeptical part of my "Nine-eleven" associations. I will try to go back to remembering what that day was, before it became so many other things.
This is an email that I sent to friends and family on 9/13/01:
Tuesday morning was the most extraordinary morning of my life. I have found it helpful but difficult to write about the things that I experienced and felt on that day, and would like to share them with you. My experience is not unique, and compared with those of thousands of others, hardly seems like an experience at all. Thanks to those of you who called, wrote, and offered your prayers.
I got off the #2 train at the Wall Street stop at about 8:15 Tuesday morning and headed toward my office on the 22nd floor of the New York Stock Exchange. After going through the usual security checks at the door and waiting for the elevators I ride to get to my floor, I walked into my office at about 8:25. I started answering emails and talked with some of the guys on my floor about last night's football game, etc.
At about 8:45, I was walking back into my office when I heard a whining sound (as a shooting missile sounds in a movie) that lasted for about one second followed by a very low BOOM that gave my office a thump. You hear many strange sounds in New York and teach yourself not to pay attention to them, but there was never any question that this sound was completely out of the ordinary. I looked out my window and saw the World Trade Center tower (see the attached photo of the WTC that I took from my office window on August 17th), which is about 3 blocks away, in flames at least as tall as ten floors. Others on my floor rushed into my office and we stood for a few seconds trying to comprehend what we were looking at. "Someone got a bomb into the World Trade Center" was the first thing out of my mouth. We view the WTC from the Southeast, so from our view the damage took place from the inside out. Once the flames died down a little bit, we could see the huge gash in the side of the building. Smoke was pouring from the building and the sky was full of papers, flying everywhere, some of them landing on my window ledge. Though my windows were closed, we could smell the ash. All I could think about was that many people had probably just died.
We immediately began calling news stations and family to report what we saw. Within five minutes, we found news stories online with pictures of the smoking tower and eyewitness reports that a plane had crashed into the building. We thought that the eyewitness reports were absurd (we couldn't see the north side of the building where the plane hit) and could never believe that a plane could be off course or out of control so badly that it could hit a major building. We continued looking out the window and debating the cause, while watching pedestrians below run through the streets, some of them abandoning their cars in traffic. Then, one of my co-workers, Erbil, arrived. He said that he had been getting off the PATH train from New Jersey (in the World Trade Center, where the train station is) when the building began to shake. He said that people were screaming and panicking in the lobby of the Tower. They didn't know whether it was safer to stay in the building or leave and try to avoid getting hit by the falling debris outside. Erbil had decided to make a run for it and made it all the way to the Exchange.
At a little after 9 a.m., we heard the same whining, rocket-like sound followed by the same thump, and our stomachs just sank. In that one second, we knew that whatever it was that happened the first time was happening again. This was the instant that the real panic set in: if it was an airplane that hit the first tower, then this was another, which means that it was definitely no accident. The second explosion left a much larger gash in the tower, from our point of view. The plane had hit from the west, but most of the damage was to the south face of the building, which we could see distinctly. We watched for a few seconds in silent disbelief. This was something that you might see in a movie, but never in person.
Soon, we began to fear for ourselves. This attack was getting closer to our building and we felt like the NYSE might be a target. We quickly grabbed our things and headed downstairs. After slowly making our way down 22 flights of stairs, we were ushered onto the trading floor to await further instructions.
The trading floor was loud and busy (and awe-inspiring, as it was my first time to be on the floor), not with trading but with people trying to get information about what was happening outside. Our cell phones won't work from the trading floor (for security, no electronic signals from the floor can be detected outside), so we had to find phones that could give us an outside line. When I did, I left a message for Beth, who was in class, and called my dad to let him know I was okay.
For the next several minutes, we watched the television monitors to find out what was going on. In disbelief, we watched reports that indicated that commercial planes had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and we finally saw footage of what the other side of the towers looked like. From our firsthand views, nobody in my circle of discussion ever would have thought that the towers were in danger of collapsing. Never. The damage seemed to be significant, but the fact that the towers didn't collapse immediately led us to believe that they would continue to stand. These buildings were so enormous, not only in height but in its perimeter, that it was unimaginable that they could ever fall. The TV reports now indicated that the same type of attack had struck the Pentagon. I felt frightened for the country. I felt like anything could happen now -- the Capital could be decimated, or the White House; the President could be killed -- nothing seemed out of the realm of possibilities. Announcements were made informing us that no one would be allowed to leave the building. The borough of Manhattan was sealed off, the condition of the public transportation was uncertain, and we were told that it was simply too dangerous to risk going outside.
Many, many long minutes later, I heard a thundering noise, quickly began to smell more ash and soot, and the lights in the Exchange started to flicker. Some people on the floor began to yell in panic and the screams and quick reactions to the sound had everybody on edge -- we thought that the Exchange was under attack. For the next few minutes, rumors circulated that there were people in the building without IDs, that bags were found unattended, possibly with explosives. The paranoia of a few quickly spread to many others and people began dashing for the exit, which was being blocked by security guards. The security guards tackled several people to the ground and Dick Grasso, the president of the Exchange, got on the loudspeaker yelling at people to calm down. The whole scene lasted less than thirty seconds, but it only took seconds for me and others who were calm to become extremely worried and frantically look around the room for something to run away from. The first World Trade tower had collapsed.
We could see it on the TV screens and we had certainly smelled, heard, and felt it happen, but couldn't believe that downtown New York would forever be changed. As the TV cameras zoomed in on where the tower had once been we were amazed to see the sky peeking through the dense smoke. My friend Maneesh was receiving messages on his wireless email device. I borrowed it to send an email to Beth: "Safe on trading floor. Can't leave yet. Love you, B." Two minutes later I got her reply: " Brandon if you are still there please come home as soon as you can. The trading floor does not seem safe to me. I love you."
A few minutes later we felt and heard the second tower collapse as we watched it on live television. For the next two hours, our eyes were glued to the television terminals. Every once in a while, someone would come by with fruit or bottled water and every few minutes they would bring in another ash-covered person in need of medical attention. We walked from trading floor to trading floor (I didn't know there were so many) finding people we knew, asking if everyone we knew made it down safely, seeing who had new information, and if anyone knew when we'd be able to leave. We never felt completely safe in 11 Wall, despite hearing some of the NYSE officials' proclamations that it was the safest building in the city. We knew it wasn't completely safe to leave either, but we definitely wanted to try.
A little after noon, Grasso announced that the Broad Street exits would be opened and that we could leave. We were instructed to head east and then north in order to move away from the world trade center, which was west, and the dangerous smoke, which was being blown south. The great majority of people decided not to leave right away. Most people who work in Manhattan live in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, Connecticut, or New Jersey.
Since every way in and out of Manhattan had been closed, most people would had nowhere to go. Personally, I didn't even know how I was going to get home, since all of the public transportation was reportedly closed. But my Manhattan-residing friends and I decided we would go anyway -- at worst it would be a nine-mile walk home. I called Beth to let her know I was leaving, but that it may be some time before I got home.
We collected some damp cloths from the medical workers who were there and made our way to the exit. The security guards watching the door gave us repeated warnings about turning back if we felt any indication of smoke damage to our lungs or eyes. Apparently several people who had tried to leave had to return and receive medical attention. As I listened to their warnings I was looking out the doors in disbelief. The world outside had turned completely gray. Although it was noon, there was very little light.
We covered our mouths and noses with our towels and made sure that we could comfortably breathe. They opened the doors, and we stepped outside. This was the neighborhood in which we all worked and spent a great deal of time, but the conditions were so disorienting that we began our trip with a brief argument about which way was east (we weren't even sure which exit we had just used). The air was thick and gray, filled with ash. It was difficult to see more than a block ahead. These streets that we walked every single day looked instead like the surface of the moon. The ground was covered in ash more than an inch thick.
In the next 10 minutes, we saw only a dozen other people. We walked east about five blocks to Water Street and then turned north. It wasn't until we had walked another five blocks north that our visibility began to increase and it seemed that we would soon be able to remove the towels from our faces. At that time we came upon two firemen who were handing out bottled water to those fleeing the area. They gave us water, poured some on our towels, instructed us to continue breathing through the towels and pointed us north. This brief stop was the first time that we were able to look back and see the tower of smoke that used to be the World Trade Center.
We continued heading north and eventually met up with hundreds of others who were evacuating the financial district. The area we were attempting to navigate was the lower east side -- a neighborhood I venture to guess that none of us had ever traveled on foot. Water Street to Madison Street. Past the Brooklyn Bridge. Past the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway to Chinatown. Occasionally, we came across a church or a public building that were already responding to the crisis. Priests and church staffs were on the sidewalks outside their churches with tables of bottled water and fruit.
Poster board signs were on display, reading "Water, Food, Bathrooms, Telephones, Rest, Prayer." We did not take advantage of these offerings, but were moved to see the community reacting so quickly. Other men stood on the street corners -- under whose direction, I don't know -- holding signs reading "This way North" or "A and F trains" with arrows pointing the way.
We headed toward train stations at every opportunity, but always to find that they weren't running. Finally, after walking (in suits and ties, carrying our briefcases) for about an hour and a half, we found a station where trains were running. I took the F train to 42nd Street, said goodbye to my friends, switched to the D train, and took it to 125th Street. When I came out of the station, I called Beth from a pay phone and told her where I was. I began walking home down Amsterdam Ave. At about 121st Street, I saw Beth running up the sidewalk. It was 3 p.m. We hugged and cried there on the sidewalk, and the world was a thousand times better with her in my arms.
As I am writing this, it is reportedly beginning to rain in lower Manhattan.
From inside my apartment I can hear the distant thunder. My innocence is lost: my first reaction is not that there is a storm, but that there is an explosion. I get up and go to the window so that I can listen more closely. I hear police and ambulance sirens. I still think it could be an explosion. In the new world that began two days ago, it could be anything at all.