My dear grandma asked me to write about my experience of September 11th, 2001, which I will gratefully share. However, my account is miniscule compared to so many other, more affected people all around me that day. But to recognize it’s been ten years already does take me back . . .
My husband Adam and I had moved to Jersey City, NJ in January 2001 as fresh college grads from SDSU. He was working downtown on the New York Stock Exchange floor, and I was employed in midtown at a small magazine. We had been living our life for eight months of Adam commuting on the PATH train from Exchange Place in Jersey City to World Trade Center (WTC) in Manhattan. One happy homeless man named Bruce would hold multiple doors, stretched fingertips to toes, for thousands of commuters, visitors, employees, civilians, and terrorists, entering and exiting The World Trade Center every day. Adam used to tip him with sandwiches. Bruce was not seen again after that day, but we do randomly remember him. We often traipsed around the city on weekends, via the WTC train, or strolled along the Jersey City boardwalk, with a natural backdrop of the beautiful towers. They connected us both physically and emotionally to the city more than any other landmark at that time.
My workday started around 9am; Adam’s was much earlier, thankfully. Although, I had to replay that particular morning in my head after hearing our boss shout down the hall that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I can remember my body sensing real fear, and that fear swelling too quickly. The staff all crammed in the CEO’s office watching the event unfold on TV. The first tower was hit; we desperately decided a commuter plane crashed into the building… mixed traffic signals, maybe a heart attack, could be anything. Second tower was hit; we sat in silence as flames and smoke erupted from two towers of the World Trade Center, splintered by two airplanes. TV reporters were even speechless. We were officially under attack. We all ran to our desks trying to make phone calls, sending out emails, when I heard the exasperated screams down the hall. The first tower had collapsed. That was the most unbelievable part. I couldn’t fathom a 110-story building was actually crumbling to the ground, just a couple miles away, in my new city, within blocks of my beloved. And then it happened again. Surreal was defined for me that day.
Adam was awaiting the opening bell of the market when he heard about the plane crash. He and a couple coworkers decided to rush to the corner of Broadway and Liberty for a closer view. It was close enough and just in time to see the second plane hit, and to witness men and women falling through the air to their death, one victim’s hand still clutching his brief case. People and paper scattered everywhere, and it was only one city block from where he stood, but had dropped to his stomach at the time of impact, as did everyone else. Strangers searched each other’s eyes for the next move. Run! Adam and the masses ran east toward the seaport. He recognized a few familiar work faces along the way; bosses with utmost confidence on the trading floor were as wide-eyed and lost as the new interns. Adam darted into a restaurant bar, along with other escapees, some with scratches on their heads, some with dust on their suits, some with gaping wounds. Adam glanced at the TV for an update to see the first tower come crashing down, then turned to the window to see a massive gust of wind and debris swoosh past his refuge. Then the second tower, and the second swoosh. We later talked to a friend who had instinctively jumped from the elevated East Side Hwy down to the underlying ground, while running blindly toward the water in all that rubble. He couldn’t see, yet he was running for his life. You didn’t know if, or when, or where the next attack could be. Everyone shared that fear. Is it over, or just beginning?
After numerous failed cell phone attempts, Adam did finally reach me, pay phone to landline. He said the boats were running to the Jersey shore, with many generous offers to stay at coworkers’ homes. I looked out my window over 3rd Avenue and quickly realized that was not an option. A herd of humans was rushing uptown. I would have been turned around by a stranger had I attempted to slice that crowd southward. Adam said he couldn’t leave me there, so he waited. Eventually, boats were running to Jersey City and Hoboken, so we decided it was best for him to leave downtown. Neighboring buildings were still requiring the FDNY and NYPD; you could only speculate the cause, but assumed bombs as flames erupted from one building to the next, eventually determined as residual damage from the towers’ collapse. That “residual damage” holds existential meaning to all of these and in between: demolition, construction, sanitation, commutes, office buildings, lunch breaks, parks, apartments, homes, high schools, tourism, economy, safety.
I went to a coworker’s apartment on the Upper East Side. Her husband and some of his coworkers were already there, eyes fixed on the screen, assuring one particular man, cell phone to ear, mindlessly calling his brother, who worked in the first tower, very near the 90th floors, where the plane landed: “His office was on the opposite side of the building.” But that ounce of hope dissolved quickly. I was later informed this brave husband and father of three had crowded his coworkers into elevators and shuffled strangers down the stairwells. He saved many lives, but lost his own. That is the truth of many heroes that day.
Around dusk, a couple subway lines opened up, which transported me as far south as Union Square; the rest of the journey to the seaport was on foot. The normally bustling Chinatown was my first glimpse of what manifested into a ghost town. The further south I traveled, the more desolate it felt. Dust and debris covered the sidewalks, filled the storefronts, dirtied my feet with every step. Vehicles were left in the streets with doors wide open, a sign of desperate escape. No one in sight, except a couple NYPD officers I approached for an update. Another building had crumbled following the first two, a whole daytime before, yet felt like an eternity. I was deflated. Then I reminded myself these officers’ workday was indefinite, and dangerous, and selfless. My sore blisters and tired heart didn’t compare to fallen brethren, saving lives, sacrificing families, keeping peace amongst millions of people. I appreciatively reached the docks, boarded my boat, rounded the tip of the island, and watched in pure sadness as the smoke billowed over the city and blew east over Brooklyn. The new view of fire and wreckage lasted for months, followed by a gaping hole. The site smoldered, while workers and volunteers fought day and night to retrieve more bodies, hope dwindling each day. Those heroes knowingly inhaled smoke, dust, and vapors that caused some deaths and still affect many now ten years later.
Adam met me on Mercer Street. We hugged tightly and cried softly, surrounded by sirens of emergency vehicles speeding wounded and killed up the road to Jersey City Medical Center. We were scheduled to fly home a couple days later to celebrate our close friends’ wedding union. To leave, or not to leave? After two sleepless nights, we rented a car and drove west with tears in our eyes. Signs and supporters along the roads, on the bridges, at the truck stops, or just in the middle of nowhere, proved this tragic event resonated deep into the heart of our country. We cherished the next few days seeing family and loved ones, danced with full hearts to “I’m Proud to be an American” at a wedding with best friends, then drove through the night to return to our new reality. Adam made it just in time for the opening bell, six days after the attack, via NY Waterway instead of PATH train, only three blocks from a fiery war zone, where people’s lives were either being saved or confirmed dead, with high alert security surrounding his work place, requiring strict access information within a cautious radius, dogs sniffing for bombs. It was not easy to return to that scene every day, but they did, and endured a shaky market that personified a nervous mankind.
I had started running along the boardwalk that summer prior to 9/11, usually early mornings. Watching New York City wake up, over the width of the Hudson River, was a beautiful thing. I took a portable camera with me one morning in a lame attempt to capture the awe. But I was thankful a few months later when I discovered that camera in a forgotten bag, and developed the pictures that will forever remind me of our first year there, the decision to stay, and the beginning of a life that led us where we are today, which is back in our home state of SD, now residents of Rapid City. NJ remained our address until Summer 2008, when our daughter turned one, with a sibling on the way. We still marvel in our time spent out east, but we equally appreciate the pros of life for us in the Midwest: family, old and new friends, driveways and backyards, grass, seamless skyline, short lines, gravel roads, customer service, no traffic jams, country music, community, safety. The little things.
~ Chasity Marcus