Sunday, September 11, 2011

My September 11th

September 11, 2001 is a day that seems frozen in time. It's hard to believe that 10 years have already gone by since the U.S. was attacked and taken completely by surprise.

I moved away from New York City last year, but the weather here in North Carolina on September 11, 2011 feels the same as it did that day in New York City 10 years ago. It's a crisp morning and the sky is bright blue and cloudless.

I'm going to ramble a bit, but I wanted to get some feelings down on "paper" about my 9/11.

We all hear the "Where were you when...?" questions that surround a pivotal day. Being born before or after a certain event, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the day President John F. Kennedy was killed,  places "your tick" on the timeline.

Sprinkled among my more pleasant memories, and the ups and downs of the day-to-day, attacks and disasters mark my timeline. They are the ripples in the relatively calm lake of my life. In my 50 years here, I remember very clearly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news about:

1. The first moon landing
2. The Kent State shootings
2. Ronald Reagan and the Pope being shot
3. The Space Shuttle Challenger breaking apart
4. The World Trade Center was first bombed
5. Mid air explosions that downed the flight over Lockerbie, Scotland and TWA Flight 800
6. The start of the Gulf War
7. Blizzards and blackouts in New York
8. September 11th, 2001

I'll stop there for the purposes of this blog post.

On September 11, 2001 I was working at an executive recruiting firm at 100 Park Avenue. The building was one block south of 42nd Street and Grand Central Station, and 2 blocks east of 5th Avenue. I worked on the 11th Floor and had a 9:00am meeting on the 34th floor. Before heading upstairs I made my usual big cup of English Breakfast Tea and called a friend with whom I'd spent the weekend. I had gotten divorced 6 weeks prior, and she and her boyfriend were having a she came out to my family's place out East, and we hung out. September is so gorgeous on the North Fork of Long Island.  We BBQ'd and went on a 10 mile walk, chitchatting all the while about men, relationships, work and where life sat as we'd both just turned 40. On Tuesday morning 9/11 at 8:30am, we re-hashed the weekend and she told me that happily, she and her guy made up, and he proposed marriage the night she got back into the city, Sunday Sept. 9th. At around 8:45am, the phone went dead. We were mid-sentence. E-mail and instant messaging were nascent back then, and Facebook did not exist. I called back and got her voicemail, so I left a "hey what happened" wrap-up message and said I was heading to my meeting and I hoped we'd finish our convo soon.

The next time we spoke was after 1:00pm, and thankfully, she was safe at home. She let me know that while we were talking, she heard what turned out to be deafening jet engine noise. She turned to see the airplane scream past her office window, and crash into the Tower, right across the street. Fireballs caused blown out windows. Mayhem, confusion and dread converged, and she got downstairs and just started running and walking the 3 1/2 miles to her apartment on the Upper West Side. She thanked me for "training her" for the walk of her life. Wow.

All morning, the news was breaking, and I learned from one of my two brothers that Grand Central Station was closed. I was on Manhattan Island and had to get across the East River to Long Island City, Queens. There was some confusion in my office. Should we leave? Is the business closed for the day? Do we update our voicemails and e-mail "out of office" reply? Should there be a phone chain? Not a good time to create a disaster recovery plan, but this scenario was new to New York City, and it was happening in real time. My name is not on the front door. I walked out at noon.

Outside, I literally felt panic in the air. The scene looked like a B/W dubbed monster movie from the '60's. People were running down 42nd Street, not knowing where to go or what to do. Could the Empire State Bldg, Grand Central, the Chrysler Bldg or the 59th St Bridge be the next targets? On the other side of town, the same was being asked about the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and the George Washington Bridge. Downtown, could the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges be next? The United Nations was already cordoned off and military personnel with machine guns moved us along. No gawking, no talking. There were hundreds of thousands of people trying to get out of the city, and many were not able to take their "regular commute" home.  No subways, no trains, no ferries. The scene was unfolding and no one knew that the deadly work was already done, and that it would be limited to Lower Manhattan. Military jets were searing the sky overhead. I made my way to the river and walked north to the 59th St Bridge. I walked very fast across the bridge, looked to my right and could see massive plumes of thick, black smoke where the Twin Towers had stood.

When I got to the other side about an hour later, I really heard the quiet. No commercial air traffic. New York is a v-e-r-y noisy place. It was brutally quiet. People were standing at their cars listening to the breaking news on the radio. I walked toward my house, looking across the river to the skyline and wondered if it would be further altered. Today? Tomorrow?

I called my family to let them know I was alright. They were ok, too. My sister was 30 miles away, on a Long Island golf course and could see the smoke wafting. By the next day, she could smell the burning wires and plastic of the downed towers. The odor was very strong in my neighborhood, for many weeks. One brother would be stranded in Ibiza, Spain for a few extra days because all commercial flights were cancelled. Not a "bad" place to be stranded for any reason except this, terrorism. His wife of just over 2 years was very worried. My mother had moved to Florida one month prior and was understandably feeling very disconnected and concerned for her kids who were living and working near the "epicenter." The term Ground Zero had not been created yet.

I grabbed my camera and some film and walked over the Pulaski Bridge where Queens connects to Brooklyn, to see the lower skyline across the East River. I took some photos through the chainlink fence. I shot a few rolls of film then went home and turned on the TV. And I cried.

I walked to the waterfront, 2 blocks from my house, and I saw people jumping off a tugboat onto the Long Island City Piers. They are not passenger piers so there are no gates, and people were just leaping. Many had no idea where they were. They were two rivers and a long way from their homes in Connecticut, New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island. It was warm, so people slept in the parks, in doorways, and some of my neighbors took in strangers. I had some people stay in my house, friends of friends, and I couldn't tell you who they were.

By late afternoon, New Yorkers were in "community mode." Firefighters, police and medical techs were making their way in, and people were posting "Missing" flyers with photos and descriptions of colleagues and loved ones all over walls, fences, US Mailboxes, lightposts and telephone poles. The breaking news was non-stop, with more horrible stories coming in from Shanksville, PA and the Pentagon in DC. People came together in disbelief, sadness, and in wanting to help somehow.

There was no phone chain from my office, but I didn't want to be a no-show at work on Wednesday the 12th. The subway was running, oddly, so I jumped aboard for my 2 stop commute to 5th Avenue/42nd St. 5th Avenue was eerily empty...very few cars and some handfuls of people wandering around. I went into the camera store that was always having a "going out of business" sale, and bought some more film. I thought to get some postcards, which you can see below. I kept them in the original paper bag and labeled it "Purchased in NYC Sept 12, 2001. They're not reprints.

By 11am, our office building was evacuated because there was a bomb threat at Grand Central Station. The station was closed and there were no subways running. I hoofed it down 11 flights, thankful to be wearing flat shoes. Once out on the street, I had a river to cross. Again. I never thought to bring sneakers to the office. I walked over the 59th St Bridge for the second time in 2 days. That's it. New York was under attack by terrorists, and there was no sense of an end point. I didn't return to work for the rest of the week. Our clients and prospects were downtown for the most part, and the grim reality was emerging that they were just GONE. Aon Corp, Marsh McLennan, Cantor Fitzgerald...

Hospitals were on alert to take in the wounded, ready with triage and with white-sheeted stretchers lined up outside. And no one came. The horror was setting in. What was the magnitude? Massive, burning rubble, and the chirping of the alarms from buried firefighters' communications equipment. Thousands were missing, thousands were probably dead. All the terrible words were being uttered by news reporters...grim, grisly, acrid, recovery mission rather than rescue mission. Those words spell disaster.

I went into "what can I do" mode, and drove to Costco to buy athletic socks, shaving stuff, white tee shirts, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap. I collected 'hotel sample' shampoos and soaps from my neighbors, and some work gloves, facemasks and heavy duty rags from the industrial hardware store a few doors down from my home. No one hesitated. I packed it all into the car and on Friday I drove, crying intermittently, to the Jacob Javits Center on the West side of Manhattan, which was made a designated relief/supply drop-off center. A quick trip across midtown Manhattan, in an out, with armed National Guardsmen waving me through on both ends.  It wasn't much, but the boxes were accepted with gratitude. In coming days, large corporations mobilized huge pallet loads of donated supplies, and local restaurants set up mobile kitchens and fed those who were working "on the pile" 24/7 to find survivors and recover the dead.

As the days, weeks and years passed, I heard about people I knew casually, who were feared then confirmed dead. My brothers' friends, 20+ members of my athletic club, 4 women from the Junior League, neighbors, the husband and the mother of two high school classmates. There were near misses, too. Husbands of 2 friends who got to work late, and came up out of the subway to see the people jumping off their burning office buildings. An unspeakable sight that will never leave them. People I knew who had breakfast meetings uptown, and who by fate were not at their desks that morning. There are endless stories, and images and thoughts and feelings---and my experience is very much "on the fringe" compared to so many. I was in NYC that day, but my little slice of life was not directly affected. A pair of pants was being held for me at a store in the World Financial Center, to be picked up "anytime after September 10th." I was not planning to get them on Tuesday the 11th. In no way did I have a "near miss" experience. I never did get the pants, though.

My "10-mile walk" friend invited me (and my mother) to see her in the temporary office space that Merrill Lynch was using in early October 2011. I think it was on Vesey St. She and her colleagues were issued facemasks, and work was getting back online very slowly. I took photos looking down at the still smoldering rubble, and of some street scenes. People were writing names and messages in the dusty windows, and there were thousands of "Missing" flyers posted.  I have saved some newspapers and magazines, and I have a film cannister with ashes I took from a large planter on a street a few blocks from Ground Zero. I didn't want to be a gruesome souvenier hunter. Maybe my nephews (aged 8 and 5 now) can borrow these "pieces of history" someday for a future school report.

I picked up this random piece of paper, and found it a bit eerie since the attacks were by airplane.

Ashes and a crumpled piece of paper.

One room in my NC home has been dubbed "Le Refuge" by my cousin, Christina. It's an homage to NYC with some photos, some city-centric mementos and  posters (1912 and 1923) of the skyline and the 59th St. Bridge. There is no radio or TV. It's a quiet zone for reading, relaxing and reflecting.

Among the photos in "Le Refuge" is one that I took in the 90's from the Observation Deck on the Empire State Bldg. It shows the southern tip of Manhattan and the Twin Towers.

One corner of a bookcase shelf has NYC mementos. Matchbox-type police car and taxi, a photo of the Chrysler Bldg, and an Empire State Bldg Christmas ornament. The photo at left is the only bit of 9/11 displayed. I took the photo from the Pulaski Bridge at 1:30 pm Sept. 11th, and it shows smoke billowing from where the towers stood.

Also on the shelf is a small snowglobe that my cousin Christina gave me when I moved to NC in 2010. It broke but I couldn't throw it away. To me, it's a symbol of New York's bubble having been burst. The city was altered on many levels, but it's still standing and it's people are healing. My September 11, 2001 is a day I'll never forget.

Don't be stingy with your hugs and "I love you's." Keep your family and your friends close.

Live life fully~~ Level & Plumb. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful Post Dale. Sad but touching. We all can imagine how it feels being there on the TV coverage but only the people who where there really know. I am touched by your bravery and good will to your wonderful city. The Snow Globe photo is haunting but love it.

    Proud to be an American now and always

    God Bless