9/11/2011 My Story
Written September 3-4, 2001, images added 12/2/2013
I boarded the NJ Transit Bergen County Local train to Hoboken Terminal at 8:19 in Garfield as I do daily to report to my current project at JPMorganChase in lower Manhattan (located at the corner of Nassau and Cedar, one block north of the NYSE, two blocks east of the WTC). In the usual 25 minutes, I arrived in Hoboken and briskly descended the stairs underground to the PATH train station. I boarded the PATH train to the World Trade Center as usual, jockeying for a seat in one of the last cars in the train. The familiar "bing-bing" sounded, and the doors closed. The train lurched slightly forward as though it were going to leave the station but then stopped and the doors opened again. "Bing-bing"... "No service to the World Trade Center," droned the voice of the conductor. Disgusted at the poor train service, I exited the train and made my way across the platform to the other PATH train, which runs up the center of Manhattan from the west. I contemplated taking the ferry to the World Financial Center (part of the WTC on the pier), but retreated for some reason from that course and entered the 33rd street PATH. I would get into the city and check the map to see where I could take a subway to work. I had no idea there was any reason I should not try to enter the city. In retrospect I realize that the first plane had just hit the towers.
The PATH left the station as normal and I took out my City Slicker subway map to determine where I should exit to take the subway downtown to my office. At first I didn't hear it, but I started to focus on the chatter around me: "The woman I was standing next to just said she looked up and saw a plane hit the World Trade Center..." said one man. "Oh my God," came the reply from another. "How big a plane?" I asked. Shrugs were the only reply. I reasoned that it must have been a small prop-plane - a tragedy no doubt that would cost lives, but I shrugged it off with concerned neutrality. These things happen. No one else really said anything about it, going back to his or her magazines, books, and empty stares.
I exited the PATH at 14th street. To the southeast I saw thick, billowing smoke, coming up from the skyline. I couldn't see the towers, just the smoke. I descended again into the subway, this time to catch the L train across town to the 4/5 line which I would take the City Hall stop, one half mile from my office and ground zero. As I waited for the L to arrive at the platform, I overheard a man on a payphone talking to someone in an excited tone: "A second plane just hit the towers, it was a huge plane like a 747... I took pictures and I'm getting them developed right away." "A second plane hit?" I stammered. "Yeah, it was unbelievable.” said the man. That moment I realized this was no accident. A sick feeling came over me and I waited as I approached the next station.
Aboard the 4/5 it was silent. But I couldn't tell whether it was the blank stare silence I was used to or another more ominous silence. I'm still not sure. I don't normally ride that line, but there were some abnormally long pauses as the train traveled. I suspect the conductors were being informed there was something wrong in their path.
I exited the subway station and came into the daylight on the sidewalk just to the east of City Hall. The view was shocking. People all around were frantically dialing cell phones and pointing. I looked up for a perfect view of the towers, huge holes torn in their sides, fire and smoke bellowing out into thick black clouds. Emergency vehicles were flying down Broadway one after another. Police were blocking the streets and ordering people to keep moving and get off their phones - "We have to keep the lines of communication open!" barked a female officer. I stared upwards as I walked south, not knowing whether I would be able to get through.
More worried about contacting my family than about keeping communication lines open, I tried repeatedly to dial my fiancé and my parents. I had no luck in this as all communication channels were jammed. I later heard on the news that call activity had been double the normal levels all that day. For some reason, the voice mail system on the phone was working. I could see the number of messages I was receiving climb each time I looked at the phone - "4 new messages... 5 new messages... 6 new messages...” Still, I could not contact anyone, and I continued to make my way through the crowds. I remember seeing a bank of payphones on the sidewalk. The line for them was already about 20 people deep.
I walked east one block and looked up to see what street I was on because at that point I was completely turned around. It was Nassau Street so I knew my building was directly south about 6 blocks. As I walked I paused in the doorway of a small electronics store. They were playing the news radio loudly out the door. "In what is believed to be a terrorist attack, two commercial airline jets have crashed into both of the World Trade Center towers in New York City" rang the reports. I then heard reports that the Pentagon and White House had also been targeted. Only one of these reports, as we now know, was true. My world was under siege, things were instantly changed - I can't even remember all the thoughts that were going through my head...mostly disbelief.
I paused again after walking south a few more blocks to stand in a large circle of people surrounding a small handheld radio in the street. 1010 WINS radio was playing. I remember the familiar voices that I had heard so many mornings repeating the fateful news. Onlookers were in shock. I baggy-clothed black man yelled "We at war! Bomb those mutha f-ckas!” It was general chaos. I begin to move more quickly toward my building. Police were yelling for people to keep moving - "You can't stand here!" yelled one officer at a few women who were staring up at the burning towers.
Despite my growing urgency to get to my building, I stopped one block north, just before entering my plaza and gazed up at the burning towers. All around me, office paper and documents came floating down like some kind of surreal ticker-tape parade. I watched a piece of office paper float down from high among the rooftops and picked it up off the ground. I carefully folded it and put it into my pocket. I had a sense that this was going to be a day to go down in history and I wanted to take a piece with me.
What is shocking to me now, but seemed completely ordinary at the time, was the number of people on the streets and in the general area looking up at the towers. I don't know what happened to all these people, but there were a lot. I later reflected that my own curiosity almost put me at serious risk. I hope all these people made it to cover when the buildings fell.
I entered 2 Chase Manhattan Plaza at 9:53 AM. I remember looking at my watch. I showed my badge as always as I entered. People looked tense, but thus far systems were operating as normal. I pushed the “up” button on the elevator and waited, entering the first car that arrived in the lobby. As the elevator doors closed in front of me, it occurred to me that I had forgotten to buy coffee from the street vendor whom I visited daily. I thought about going back out to get my coffee, but I decided to check in upstairs first. I pushed the button for the third floor, where my office is located, and proceeded upward.
People were moving briskly about the third floor. Many were on cell phones and landlines. Many of my colleagues were huddled by the windows of the back conference room. My team-lead and manager looked relieved when they saw me. They had been trying to call me all morning, but of course could not get in touch on my cell phone. They checked my name off of a list and continued to try to get in touch with those people who had not arrived. My team-lead told me to call my family quickly and make sure they knew I was okay.
From my desk phone, I dialed my fiance’s cell phone number, but could not get a connection. I then left a message on our apartment answering machine in case she made it home. Then I called my father. He sounded grieved when he picked up the phone and relieved when he found it was me. My brother was on the other line asking where I was and whether I was okay. I told my father I had reached my building and was okay and that we were safe in the building. I told him to try to reach my fiancé so that he could tell her I was okay. I knew she would be frantic by this point.
The situation for the time being seemed to be calm but tense. While people were looking for colleagues who had not arrived yet, I think most people thought we were not in any danger, being as much as 2 blocks away. The planes had hit, but the buildings were standing. At what I now know was 10:05 AM, that all changed.
At 10:05 AM we began to hear a loud rumble that got louder and more intense over the next minute. I’m not sure, but I think the windows in the building were shaking. People started to yell and run from the windows. I was near my desk with my team-lead at this time. A black cloud blasted quickly past the windows outside. We had no idea what was going on, thinking there was another plane, or maybe even a bomb. My team-lead and I dove to the floor, hiding behind the wall that made our cube and covering our heads. It was a terrifying moment and no one knew what was coming next.
Other colleagues quickly ran by and grabbed us, pulling us to our feet and towards the center area of the building where the elevators are located. I looked back over my shoulder on the way – all the windows were black, but had withstood the blast and were not broken. A large group of us huddled in the building’s center area, not knowing what to do next. Everyone looked very somber, some people were crying, everyone was scared. The air was slowly getting more and more thick with smoke and dust as it seeped in from the outside. It smelled similar to burning rubber.
After waiting a few minutes, some people went back to the office area because things seemed to have calmed down a bit. I went into the bathroom where I grabbed a pile of paper towels and ran water over them. I then went back to the hallway and handed some out to people to breathe through. We would continue breathing this way as the air got more and more thick with smoke and dust.
Slowly, people emerged from the center area and went back to the office. The windows were black, covered with a thick layer of soot and dust. Where we could see out there was only more of the same, soot and dust covering everything. Some people who had been caught in the blast were still making their way away from the area. They were covered as well. Amidst all the dust and soot was an eerie layer of office paper and documents, presumably from the doomed building. We still had no idea what had happened.
Slowly, everyone emerged from the center area back into the office. Everything seemed really quite, except for the sirens in the distance. It was like the whole city had been killed. We listened to 1010 WINS radio, huddled in the middle of the office. It was then that we learned that the south tower of the WTC had come down and presumably thousands of people with it.
I quickly called home to let my father know I was okay. I still had not talked to my fiancé and I wanted to make sure he talked to her as well. Later he told me how shaken and scared I sounded. I just remember saying it was horrible and awful with my voice cracking as I choked back tears. I said, “This place is like a war zone.” “It is a war zone,” my father replied.
Despite that most phones were hardly working, I got a few rings through on my cell phone. One was my friend from Boston who works at Compaq. They, like the rest of the world, were watching the events on the television. I assured him I was okay and was about to hang up when my phone rang through another call. It was my fiancé. I talked to her and tried to get her to stop crying. I said I was scared, but okay. We talked a bit and I told her to go to my parents’ house. I would call there.
We had no televisions so we turned to the internet for news coverage. cnn.com was completely overloaded, but one person had an idea to try bbc.com and get our news from England, which would presumably not be so overloaded. We tried that and were greeted with the first pictures of the formerly twin towers, now only the single north tower. Despite already knowing what had happened, my heart sank when I saw it. Those bastards had succeeded.
Not long after we received this news we were shaken by another blast. This time we knew that the second tower had come down, taking even more lives with it. We again ducked behind furniture just to make sure we were protected if the windows blew in. They held up and were even more blacked out now with the dust of two collapses on them.
At some point, though I’m not sure when it happened, we were frightened again by the sounds of air traffic above. Fearing another plane was incoming, we waited nervously. It turned out to be a series of fighter jets flying around to protect the airspace above the city. The attack was over, but the day was just beginning. It was about 10:40.
All the building’s fire alarms were going off and flashing white lights from the alarms illuminated the dust and smoke-filled air. A periodic message warned us not to come down to the lobby area. We were to stay, however uneasy we felt about it, on the third floor.
We continued to breathe through wet towels. I periodically blew my nose, producing black mucus. The pungent air burned my lungs and made my throat hurt and eyes dry. A dull haze of smoke and dust hung over everything. We continued to listen to the news on the radio and get updates from the internet. It was now a waiting game.
I had called home a few times and talked to my fiancé and my father. Other family members and family friends were calling frantically to my parents’ house to find out if I was okay. My father gave them the news. I promised when I called that when I knew we were moving I would call back and give an update. I had to share the phones with all the other people who wanted to call out.
I looked out the back window of the building with a colleague of mine at the New York Stock Exchange building. It, like everything else, looked like it had been through a war. Everything was covered with dust and the sky was dark with smoke. It reminded me of movies I have seen that depicted nuclear attacks. I asked my colleague if he had gotten through to his home. He had and had spoken to his wife and children. At one point, he asked, seemingly into the air, “What kind of world are we leaving for our children?” He almost seemed, like many of us, that he would break into tears right then and there. I had no answer to the question.
When I spoke to my father he said that the mayor was on TV telling people who were down town to leave the homes and offices and walk north. I relayed this message and shortly there after some senior people from JPMorganChase came to our floor and told us we were going to evacuate the building and walk north to other offices. At this point, the PwC consultants gathered together and decided we would travel together and walk uptown to the 11 Madison office at 23rd Street. I called home and said we were going to move and I would call when I got to the next stopping point.
We loaded what we could carry into our bags and left a number of things behind. I left my laptop because it was too heavy. Others did the same. We knew we had a long walk ahead of us. We stocked up on wet towels to breathe with and grouped up, moving towards the stairs.
On the way down the back stairwell of the building, I could see out a side window into the plaza in back of our building. Outdoor tables and chairs that were placed out there for the summer were now mangled piles of metal, covered in thick soot and dust. There were office papers all over the place, mixed in with debris and dust.
We exited the stairs and came up into the lobby of our building. It too was full of dust and smoke. Since the front of my building is glass, we were greeted with a stark panoramic view of the wasteland that had been downtown NYC. Everything looked dead, buried in thick dust and soot, paper and debris. We were told to go down the escalator that leads to the underground lobby of the main building in our complex. We would then exit out the back of the plaza.
We walked through the lobby under Chase Manhattan Plaza 1 and were directed by security guards and doormen from that building. A man from the food service department downstairs was ready with a cart of bottled water, which he handed out to everyone who needed it. This was the first of many acts of generosity I experienced that day. As we were about to exit the building, my cell phone rang again and it was another friend from NJ checking on me. I was happy to hear her voice, but I had to go and pay attention to what my team leaders and managers were telling us. As we walked out I gave my cell phone to other members of the team because at that time it seemed to be working. We were able to get in touch with some other people who would meet us for the walk north.
We walked a bit north and got some directions from police officers that were standing in the road. They were completely covered with soot and dust. At the corner of William St. and John St. we paused and waited for one of our team members to enter a nearby apartment building to go and look for another member of our team who had left earlier from the building and his wife. While he was away people of all sorts greeted us, some dirty with dust and some clean. They provided us with towels to cover out faces, surgical masks to wear, and bottles of water to keep our mouths clean from the dust that the air was thick with. Already it was clear that people were pulling together to help one another.
Looking straight down John St. all I could see was dust and smoke in the air. Visibility was at best two blocks. Everything was dark with soot and dust. Even the trees in a nearby park had no green visible on them. The ground had between two and three inches of dust on it, like all other surfaces. Walking through it made my shoes a ghostly white color. From the knee down I was covered with thick dust. The rest of my body had traces as well. I took out and put on my sunglasses to try to protect my eyes, which became dry and burned quickly after we started waiting there. It didn’t really help.
Many people were taking the same escape route as we were. All looked scared and bewildered. I remember seeing street vendor carts abandoned, some with their doors still open. Dust covered bagels lined their shelves. It was if the whole world just up and ran away. Despite being with fellow workers, I felt very alone.
After a few minutes, we realized that we were standing next to the lobby doors of an HSBC bank branch. This would have normally been clear by the signs, but they were all covered so much that they were just piles of gray dust. We entered the small vestibule area and used it for cover while we waited. While in there we thought it was wise to take as much money out of the ATM machine as possible. I don’t know what we were really thinking at that point. I had visions of the whole world being in a state of marshal law or something. I thought I might have to pay hundreds of dollars for a cab ride, ten dollars for a hotdog. I had no idea. From our perspective the world had just come down. I think in my mind I thought at that time that all of society must have gone with it.
The rest of our party arrived and we departed the area, walking “north”, the 11 Madison office of PwC as our destination. As we walked I looked around me at what had previously been the bustling downtown area. Everything looked dead. The ground was covered with ash and dust. It was a terrible site. There was a sense of how many people must have died that day, just two blocks away from where I was. I bent down and picked up what remained of a burned office document and put it in my pocket. I would want to save a piece of this day for the rest of my life, however horrible it was. This was history. I also wished I had a camera. I think it would have taken my mind off of the misery of it all. I still remember pairs of shoes, half buried in the dust, littering the sidewalk where they had been kicked as people ran away.
We trudged heavy-footed uptown and things started to look more and more normal. I remember the strangest thing was that the Avenues were completely empty except for an occasional emergency vehicle. People were roller-blading down the middle of 6th Avenue at 12:00 Noon on a Tuesday. I wondered how they could be enjoying themselves while so many suffered. I later reconciled that feeling. Life had to go on, what else was there to do?
I remember thinking after about an hour when we reached 13th St. how far we had come and that we still had 10 blocks to walk. Then I squelched the complaint that was going to come forth from my mouth. I was alive, that was good enough right now. Scores of people, covered in dust, were walking north with us. It was like I was a refugee like I had seen on TV in countries like Rwanda and Kosovo. I never felt so helpless before. I never felt like a stranger in my own country. This kind of thing doesn’t happy in America, I thought. I guess now it does.
We finally reached the office and entered the lobby of the building. PwC owns the 17th and 18th floors. Different companies own the rest of the building. One of them is Bank of New York. They had people on the 5th floor I think of the WTC. There were signs for people who made it out to go to a certain floor and be accounted for. It was very sad to see all the people hoping for their colleagues to return.
It took awhile for everyone to get through security because it was pretty tight. Since that is my home office, I had a badge already so I beeped in. After I got to the other side of the desk, I just sat on the floor and dropped my bag. I was soaked with sweat and the dust stuck to my arms. I brushed some of it out of my hair and it made a little cloud. I was exhausted.
Finally we all made it upstairs. We planted our things in the cafeteria and crashed into the chairs. Everyone looked so tired. Ironically, there was a perfect view of the downtown area from the windows on that side of the building. We looked out to see the smoke bellowing from the place where the towers used to stand. It was an eerie and depressing site. I think my heart sank a little more at that point just seeing it from a distance. I remembered working late a few nights in 1999 and gazing at the beautiful lights from the towers from those same windows. But that was to be no more. Some people from the office had even seen the attacks from that same vantage point. I didn’t envy them.
I went to the bathroom and cleaned up a bit. When I returned to the cafeteria, they were allowing us to serve ourselves free of charge from the food lines. It was a nice gesture because we were all starving. I actually had a lunch packed in my bag, but since I had no idea where I would end up that day and how hungry I would get, I saved it.
After we ate we took a roll call and figured out who was there and who was missing. Some people had not been heard from all day and we tried to assemble their phone numbers. Soon another manager from that office came and spoke to us. He offered kind words and then brought us into a small conference room with a psychiatrist who was already on the scene. He told us about the emotions we would be having and the effects they would have on our lives. I thought it was a bunch of hot air at the time. 1 week later I can tell you I was wrong.
We watched the flat-screen TVs in the main seating area of the office off and on the whole day. There were so many reports and the magnitude of the attack was even clearer. They showed the second plane crashing over and over again into the tower. I will never forget that image. Nor will I forget the images of Palestinians cheering and reveling in the streets. To say I didn’t feel hate at that moment would be a complete lie.
We also got onto the internet to try to figure out how to get home, while awaiting any news we could get on mass transit options. We finally settled on the ferry from 38th street and began to walk in a large group in that direction. Many of the people I was with had no idea where they would go; only knowing that being in New Jersey was closer to home than being on the island of Manhattan.
We walked all the way from 23rd St. to 38th St., again noticing the baron streets and avenues. It was strange. We walked past Penn Station and only a few people were around it at all – all this at 4:00 PM on a Tuesday. That place should have been crawling at that time. As we neared the ferry, I began to realize that we were only a few in a parade of thousands heading for the only way out of the city. We had passed the PATH train entrance only to see that it wasn’t running yet and there was a line out of the station into the street. We decided that being above ground and on line for a boat was better than being below ground and on line for a subway. I think we made the right choice.
When we finally got to 38th St. on the water, we were greeted by many police officers telling us we had to walk north until we could find the end of the line. Much to our dismay, this was 14 blocks (about 1.5 miles) away. So we walked, grabbing a hot dog along the way for energy. We finally reached the end of the line at 52nd street and began to wait. All bets were that this would take about 5 hours. For the first time that day we would have a pleasant surprise.
Luckily for us, the line moved quickly as the city was running every boat it had as a ferry. We were on the way to Hoboken within one hour, which was absolutely wonderful. I might get a train home before too long.
The ferry crowd was quiet as we plowed through the water, headed south in the Hudson River. It was a somber moment when the downtown area came into view. There was our treasured skyline raped of its finest splendor, blackened in smoke and ash. I will never forget that site. Some people looked like they would break into tears. Some people closed their eyes and looked to be praying. I just stared. My legs were exhausted. I had terrible chafing on my inner legs from walking all day in sweat-soaked pants. My eyes were burning and my chest hurt. I felt like what I knew I was, a victim of war.
When we arrived at the Hoboken terminal, we thought we might just get off and finally walk away. This was not to be either. Over the loud speaker came the announcement, “You must be de-toxed when you exit the ferry. Please follow the directions of the police and EMT workers as you disembark.” We all wondered what this meant. I should have known it was simple.
Though I believe it was later proven not to be so, at this time they still thought that the thick dust we were covered in from the buildings was full of asbestos. If this were the case it would be a terrible health risk to spread it. The EMTs were trying to prevent this from happening. We were given large trash bags and told to put anything we didn’t want to get wet into them. Then, one by one, we were led through a small corralled area where first our ancles and shoes were sprayed with fire hoses and then we had to walk through a shower, fully clothed. At this point I was soaked and stood off to the side to try to dry off with a small towel I was given. I just wanted to go home.
I left my colleagues to get on their train to Newark and boarded the Bergen County Line train, running locally in the western direction. I had learned that all hardware was running from East to West at that time. There were no schedules that I could see – just get on the right train and wait. I sat down on the train and was soon freezing from being wet in the air-conditioned car. A nice girl next to me tried to make conversation, but I was gently short with her. I couldn’t talk to anyone at that time. After a few minutes more I simply passed out. I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
I woke as we approached my stop and got off in Garfield, NJ at the Plauderville stop and walked to my car. On the way I passed some people. They just looked down like usual and went back to their business. I felt like yelling – “Do you know what happened today! Do you know what I’ve been through!” But I didn’t and I kept walking. I drove home and parked and got out. Then I slowly walked toward the door, the chafing on my legs barely allowing me to take a full stride.
Finally, a welcomed face as my fiancé pulled up in her car. She parked quickly and ran out, hugging me tightly. I all but collapsed in her arms. We cried together and I said, “It’s okay, I’m okay… I’m home now.”
I went inside and showered and called my parents. The day of terror was finally over. The terrorists had taken many lives, but not mine. I was grateful, but already in mourning. I would keep vigil over the television for three days - sleeping and watching CNN, NBC, CBS, and other networks. Only now, a week later, am I on the road to recovery. The patriotism and outpouring from our country has been unbelievable. I get teary just seeing the American flags and hearing our anthem and “America The Beautiful” played everywhere.
To the people who did this: we will catch you and punish you dearly. America is strong. You have failed. The world is with us, and not with you.
Of all the horror I have seen this past week, the one thing that stands out most in my mind was an act of love from our ally, Great Britain. For the first time ever, they played our anthem at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. When I heard those notes, I just cried and cried. It was beautiful and it gave me hope.
Hear us now in one voice: GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!
The events of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001:
8:45 a.m.: Jet airliner crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
9:03 a.m.: A second airliner crashes into its twin south tower, causing a devastating explosion.
9:10 a.m.: In Florida, President Bush is reading to children in a classroom when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispers news of the attacks into his ear.
9:20 a.m.: The FBI investigates reports of planes being hijacked before the World Trade Center crashes.
9:29 a.m.: First reports of casualties indicate that at least six people were killed, with at least 1,000 injured.
9:30 a.m.: Bush declares: "We have had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country."
9:43 a.m.: Abu Dhabi television reports it received a call from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claiming responsibility for crashing two planes into the WTC. However, leading officials later deny the claim.
9:43 a.m.: Another plane crashes into the Pentagon in Washington. The nerve center of the U.S. military bursts into flames and a portion of one side of the five-sided structure collapses.
9:48 a.m.: The White House and the Capitol are evacuated amid further threats.
9:49 a.m.: All airports across the U.S. shut down.
10:00 a.m.: United Airlines Flight 93, en route from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, crashes near Pittsburgh. The crash site is 85 miles northwest of Camp David.
10:05 a.m.: The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
10:29 a.m.: The north tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
12:33 p.m.: United Airlines confirms a second of its planes has crashed at an unknown location.
12:39 p.m.: Bush makes a second statement, vowing to hunt down and punish those responsible.
2:48 p.m.: New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani says the eventual death toll from Tuesday's attack may be "more than any of us can bear."
2:51 p.m.: The Navy dispatches missile destroyers and other equipment to New York and Washington.
4:25 p.m.: The American Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange say they will remain closed on Wednesday.
4:30 p.m.: Bush leaves Offutt Air Force Base aboard Air Force One to return to Washington, where he will make a nationally televised address.
5:25 p.m.: World Trade Center 7 collapses.
8:30 p.m.: Bush addresses the nation. "These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat," he said. "But they have failed; our country is strong."
8:35 p.m.: Bush attends national security meeting.