Finding My Way Home on 9/11

 Wow!  Quite the night. Osama Bin Laden is dead. Still digesting.

When 9/11 happened I was a few blocks away, having walked out of 5 World Trade about fifteen minutes earlier. I was early for my train that day, for the first time in forever. While I was on the train out of NYC that day, I wrote this to document my experiences immediately after the tragedy. It’s just one guy trying to get home to his family, like so many were trying to that day. I offer this as a prayer for those who never made it home.

“It’s 2pm on Tuesday, September 11th. I’m on a Metro-North train departing for Poughkeepsie—I am 90 minutes away from the Beacon stop and my family—my wife Mary El who’s three months pregnant, my son Conor who just turned two and my stepson James. What happened today is hard to explain. There is no purpose, no reality, no enigma to unravel that will make everything clear—only human hatred. Burning, unrepentant, evil hatred. It is beyond explanation. It has no face.

From my office building at the extreme South end of Manhattan you could feel and hear a rumbling impact at about 9am. It sounded like thunder, the kind that regularly shook the place during rainstorms. Someone said a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. I made a joke about my afternoon commute being ruined. I thought it was just a rumor, until I saw people gathering by the seventh floor window, watching smoke billowing out of the tower above.

The train has just started to move. A smattering of spontaneous, relieved applause breaks out.

A co-worker knew of someone with TV access on their computer. We watched the live coverage of the burning Trade Center with its wide, lopsided, jack-o’ lantern grin on its face. It was a passenger plane, they said, and no, it couldn’t have been misdirected into the tower. While we were watching another plane flickered onto the screen, then disappeared with the video feed. We heard the thunder again and I glanced out the window at the people in Battery Park below, pointing in awe or running aimlessly in fear. The second tower was on fire but it wasn’t immediately clear what had happened—one reporter thought there was a missile attack, and we thought the second explosion was somehow related to the first. Only when they replayed the film in slow motion (footage that will probably be played and replayed as long as this country exists) could the facts be surmised. It showed a second commercial jet heading toward the tower at terrific speed, leaning as if honing in on its prey and disappearing out of sight behind the building. Seconds later the opposite end of the building exploded in fire, black smoke and glass. There was no mistaking the intention.

There was palpable fear in the room. I decided to suggest to my staff and manager that they leave immediately—the subway was right under our building and there was only one stop to Brooklyn and relative safety. We were told by the powers that be to stay put. We took turns looking out the window, then back at the TV reports that were mirroring our reality. A split screen showed the Pentagon in flames. We didn’t know when or how this would end.

Then the sky disappeared. I was watching on TV when the first tower began to melt away, out of the screen and then out of the skyline. The now familiar thunder was felt, and the lights in our building flickered. Debris rained down on the streets and thick smoke filled the avenues in all directions. After a few seconds you couldn’t see out our seventh story window, blocks away. People began to panic, grabbing their belongings and heading God knows where. At this point there was nowhere to go, since all the bridges, tunnels and subways were already shut down. An voice came over the floor loudspeaker announcing the immediate evacuation of our building. It was counter-intuitive. Since the smoke cleared a bit, all you could see below was absolute pandemonium, a war zone with nothing but civilians. The smoke was still prevalent, sharp and metallic, so people wore surgical masks or wet paper towels over their mouths.

I called my wife to let her know I was OK, and despite the announcement I felt safer where I was. I told her not to worry, but of course she was worried anyway. How are you getting out of there? Will there be more attacks? What does this all mean. I had no answers.

We’ve stopped in Yonkers. There’s an American flag in the foreground, and in the distance the GW bridge, the Empire State Building and the south end of Manhattan—a burnt out, continuous billow of black smoke. The skyline is already altered forever. I keep trying to peek at the sight as we pull off in the opposite direction, but the Hudson envelops it and makes it remote.

Standing in a crowded office watching the remaining tower burn, I say to no one in particular that there’s no way to combat that fire, that sooner or later the tower will collapse as well. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the antenna on top of the tower falls forward toward the camera and floor after floor collapses into itself and tumbles downward in a rumbling explosion. It became dark outside again, and I wondered how the people who were stuck out in the streets were breathing right now.

Let’s fight fire with fire, someone on the train says. You want to see terrorism? Let’s drop a thousand bombs and see who comes out alive. I’m thinking about my baby boy and the world I brought him into.

Most of the rest of my floor is gone. The only sound is the drone of network anchors, feeding us wire reports as we sit there numb. Planes have been hijacked—as many as eight they think. One crashes in rural Pennsylvania with a secret all its own than no one may ever know. Firefighters hug each other unabashedly in the NY streets, after narrowly escaping death. A passenger on a hijacked fight managed to call 911 on her cell phone. I can only close my eyes and imagine her panicked voice. All air travel in North Americ is shut down. The stock market, so much a topic of conversation in the past weeks, closes down and the news seems insignificant. Foreign markets are reeling. I wonder aloud if this attack was meant to take down the American economy like a great white whale. Or maybe its our affiliation with Israel or the promised apocalypse of Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe, or maybe…

Those are the terms being used now: apocalypse, reign of terror, war zone. I eat half a sandwich I packed this morning, before the world changed. We just switched trains on our way north. People wandering around, confused, prematurely drained, numb, like displaced persons.

The stragglers start to leave our floor one by one, slipping away to their personal voyages amid “good luck”s and “get home safe”s. There is still the feeling in the air that the terror is not over, that there are still hijacked planes in the air waiting to strike. The fellow whose office we’re in leaves the TV on for us, bent on walking across the Brooklyn Bridge as so many are deciding to do. Two of the floor’s PC techs gravitate toward the sound, along with a supremely calm girl who seems most concerned about how she will obtain cigarettes. The men have deep Russian accents. Where I work is a melting pot, black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, Western European. One of them has a car parked nearby and is waiting for things to calm down on the street before venturing out. She’s bringing the girl to the Bronx on his way to White Plains and on her way out she turns to me and says, “Coming?”

I figure if I get to White Plains I’m better off than I am now—hell, if I get out of the building at this point I’m better off. We take the emergency stairs down and step out into the street for the first time. There is dust on everything, and an eerie quiet permeates the air.  This is the Wall Street sector, it should never be this quiet on a weekday. I’ve never been in a war zone, thank God, but this is what I imagine it to be like.  We get in the Russian tech’s car and head north, the radio blaring what little news there is to be had. Traffic is directed and redirected until it’s two lanes trying to squeeze up the East side. I see a man on the sidewalk running back and forth yelling, “Give blood! Go to the hospitals! They need blood!” I don’t know how he knows or if he really knows anything. I look up into the blue sky from the back seat and everything seems wrong. There are no planes in the sky, no helicopters, nothing. The radio says the NY hospitals are readying for a deluge.

We stop again, the first of three local train stops before we head north to my neck of the woods. The news on my pager says, “All domestic flights have now been accounted for; there are no longer hijacked planes in American skies…” Someone behind me questions the pilots: Were they forced to fly? Why didn’t they ditch the planes in the Hudson? No one knows the story, no one knows the how or the why, and that’s as scary as the jets crashing. I miss my wife. I just want to see her.

The radio is extremely loud, blaring. One of the newscasters mentions in passing that trains are headed north out of Penn Station. I look around quickly to see where we are and we’re in the high twenties. I ask my ride if he would let me out at 33rd street and he says sure. We exchange good lucks and thank yous and I make my way to Penn. I couldn’t have been in a better place when I heard the news. The conductors are loading trains up with bodies, of which there are plenty, and getting the trains out as quickly as possible. Nobody’s checking tickets, just cattle prodding everyone in. We all sit down and look at each other, exhausted but glad to be headed someplace. The one thing you cling to in an emergency is a direction to go in. People talk to each other freely, over seats, from the front of the car to the back, in the aisles. Usually you can’t hear much talking on a train ride home unless friends find seats together. It’s people reading, or napping or listening to music. None of that today.

Mary El will be waiting for me in Beacon, just a few short miles away. My boy will be with her, with another baby on the way. So much has happened since I saw her sleeping in our bed this morning. So much has changed since I last looked into my son’s eyes. What kind of world has this become?”

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    • Kae
    • May 2nd, 2011

    Thanks, Brian. What an awful, frightening day that was. Thank God you got out in time.

  1. Thanks Kae. I was one of the luckier ones.

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