In ten days, it will be ten years since September 11, 2001.
There are a lot of September 11 commemoration articles, documentaries, etc. going on, so I couldn’t help but chime in. I’ve never fully written this down, so here is my story — where I was, what I experienced, and how September 11, 2001, hit me. Please feel free to share your experience as a comment, or say whatever you feel needs to be said.
Rainbow in Dutchess County, a wedding gift for my sister from Hurricane Irene.
A New Yorker’s September 11 (in Maine)
The phone kept ringing. I figured it was just my brand new roommate’s persistent boyfriend, Jared, whose constant calling had already become routine even one week into my new life as a college freshman living in Maine. I had just had crew practice that morning and was up at 5 am rowing on the New Meadows River, so I was trying to catch a few minutes of shut-eye before heading to my 10:30am Art History class. After the third or fourth call, and my roommate’s third or fourth refusal to get out of bed and answer the phone, I got up — slightly annoyed, but more perplexed — and picked it up myself. Jared’s words changed my world.
Me: “Hey, Jared…It’s Rachel. Emily’s asleep.”
Jared: “I’ve been calling nonstop! You’re from NYC, right?!”
This was the little many people knew about me at this point.
Jared: “Turn on the TV right NOW. Terrorists are attacking New York! They just crashed a plane into the Twin Towers! TURN ON THE NEWS! IT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!”
His words didn’t make sense. What was he TALKING about? Terrorists? Attacking MY hometown? My family was there… all six of them. This stuff didn’t really happen, did it?
Me: “Wait, WHAT?”
Meanwhile, I started to hear knocking at my door. I told Jared I had to go, and that I would turn on the TV. I thanked him for calling. My mind started trying to spin some sense out of what he said, but his words still bounced off of me as nothing but words — they weren’t sinking in.
I answered the door. It was a couple of my dorm-mates asking me if I was ok. Ok from what? I still wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. I started getting nervous. I had only left New York City a little over a week ago, and all these people checking in on me were shiny new friends who knew little more about me than the fact that I was a New York City girl in Maine living on the fourth floor of Maine Hall at Bowdoin College, but I would soon need their comfort more than I had ever needed anyone’s.
Most of us hadn’t connected our TVs or cable yet, so the boys downstairs came and got me, and told me to call my family and come watch TV in their room. My first instinct was to call my Mom — my Dad was at work. I tried calling. NOTHING. I couldn’t get through. I tried calling my Dad. Nothing. I tried calling cell phones, landlines, home, work, brothers, sisters… Nada. Word came through that the Pentagon had been attacked too. My dad worked in Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan, 30 or 40 floors up. Was he safe? Where was my baby brother? It was his first day of school.
Just before I headed downstairs to watch the news, the other NYC-girl who lived next door to me, Allison, came to my room. She asked me if I heard what was happening. I could barely comprehend what was going on because it was all happening so fast. I had never used the word “terrorists” until that day. I had never used it directly relating to my life, at least. Earlier that summer, in July, I had taken a friend visiting from Paris to the Twin Towers. I was just there, probably for the fourth or fifth time in my life. I remembered how impressive the lobby was, with the high stone arches lining the endlessly tall windows. I remember waiting in line in the lobby, and loving how excited all the tourists looked.
We went up to the top, and looked down at the whole city. It seemed like a dream now. My mom used to work in one of the Towers. Sure, I remember the bombings. I remember getting bomb threats at our school and piling into a nearby school’s gym until we were told it was safe. Growing up in NYC during the 80s and 90s was different — the city had changed a LOT since then. It was safer, stronger, there were less prostitutes, less drugs, fewer crack vials on the sidewalks and less guns, but I knew the city had a dangerous side — I grew up there. My backyard was Riverside Park.
Who else did I know who worked in the Twin Towers? I knew there would be someone — if not someone, 50 people that I knew indirectly. Maybe many more. But the Towers would be fine. They were huge. They were the biggest thing about the biggest city I had ever known. They were indestructible. Were they our Titanic?
Allison burst into the room and asked me, “Did you hear what’s going on?” I said “Yeah, I’m so confused. What is happening?!” A few friends stood and watched as we tried to put together the scraps of information we had gathered. Neither of us could get in touch with our families. All I kept thinking was what’s next? Where is next? How many of these attacks are we supposed to expect? Were we safe? Was my family safe? Was anyone safe?
Then Allison and I had the most bizarre reaction; we started laughing. It was a nervous, uncomfortable laughter that neither of us could understand, but we stood there covering our mouths in shock. Then, she said “Oh my God, I think I’m going to cry…” I told her I thought I was going to cry too. I still didn’t even know why, but everyone was scaring me. I knew so little, but I could see the fear and the shock on everyone’s faces. Before I knew it, our awkward laughter had turned into a confused, fearful cry. It was almost like everything around us was telling us to cry, whether or not we understood why… yet.
No one else was crying. People hugged us and told us to go watch the news. The first priority was getting more information. Allison began to realize this was affecting us differently than everyone else. We sat on the floor in the dorm room directly below my new room and watched, live, as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. At this point, my tears turned silent. I felt sick to my stomach. My new roommate stroked my back. Someone else got me tissues. I just watched. I couldn’t believe it.
No, this was not happening. I was not seeing this.
The first Tower crumbled to the ground. I watched it happen, live, with my hand covering my mouth, feeling like I wanted to throw up, watching my world crumble, feeling my heart break, just trying to understand what my eyes were telling me.
I never planned to have all these new friends see me cry ever, let alone within two weeks of arriving on campus. But I had no control. I settled into my tears and watched, in shock, quiet. I didn’t want to talk. I couldn’t.
As we watched, RAs came around to tell us that classes were canceled for the day, and that there would be a mandatory full-campus meeting in the gym at 4pm that afternoon to discuss what was happening. They also told all the New Yorkers to hang tight — that they would help us get in touch with family as soon as possible.
There I was, surrounded by almost-strangers, in a new place, with a new life, after leaving my one and only hometown — Manhattan — to live somewhere else for the first time in my life. And there I was, watching on TV as the world I knew best literally fell apart. I kept thinking: I was just there… I could have been standing right there.
My 18th birthday was two days later. I felt weird. I was in the wrong place to be experiencing this. I should have been there, on the ground, running away from the plumes of smoke with everyone else, trying to help. I couldn’t comprehend what this meant. I remembered plenty of bombings and minor attacks on New York City, but this hit too close to home. This was too big. This was different.
I watched as each Tower crumbled into dust from a dorm room in Maine. I watched as the lobby I had just stood in disappeared into an ominous, terrifying cloud of black death. I watched, helplessly, as I tried desperately to come up with the names of people I knew were in that building. I couldn’t think of any. I watched with my hands covering my mouth, tears rolling down my cheeks, new friends stroking my back, my phone sitting silent, my family all within a few miles of this disaster, and I tried to understand WHY? As large-scale as these attacks were, why did it feel so personal? Why did it feel like someone was attacking me? As weird as it sounds, I felt in that moment like those Towers were my family, and everyone in them was a part of my family, and I was watching someone kill them right in front of me, and I couldn’t even remember their names.
The Bowdoin College campus was right next to a Naval Air Base. Pretty quickly after the disaster struck, planes started soaring over campus. Huge planes — the kind that blast in your ears and shake the whole building. I felt so incredibly vulnerable. I had never felt that vulnerable. The way I saw it, my home, my family, my world was under attack, and I was so small that I couldn’t even make a phone call to check that my mom, dad, two brothers and two sisters were ok. What could I do besides sit there and watch everything fall apart? How long would we have to watch? Whose world was I living in?
I was worried about not even showing up to my 10:30 am class, so I told everyone I had to make the two-minute run across campus to tell my Professor that I wasn’t going to be there. I was prepared to sit through class if I was supposed to. Mostly, I think I needed alone time, and to run away from what was happening the only way I could.
As I ran across campus, I caught the eye of a friend — Elliot — who had been one of the pre-orientation leaders I met during my backpacking and canoeing trip the week before. He sprinted — literally — across the campus to give me a hug, to ask if I was ok. He looked me in the eyes and held my shoulders and said “Are you OK? Have you talked to your family? Is there ANYTHING I can do?” I was blown away by the support of Elliot, of my dorm-mates, of my proctor group friends, of the boys downstairs, of the girls upstairs… I hadn’t processed my feelings yet. They were just coming out in sloppy, bizarre bursts of emotion that were completely disorganized and confused.
I reassured Elliot that I was OK, although I wasn’t sure if this was true, and accepted his hugs before I continued on to my Professor’s office. I walked in, totally shaken like a bright orange autumn leaf on the ground that just got stomped on. I was the only one there. He told me class was cancelled, of course, and asked me if I was ok. We talked briefly, then he told me to go back to my friends and keep trying to get in touch with my family. He wished me luck.
The rest of the day was a blur, but I was beyond impressed with how Bowdoin handled something so unexpected and shocking. In retrospect, I think it brought me closer to my new friends, and my entire campus, than anything else could have done in the first two weeks of college. For the rest of our lives, this would be something we all went through together. For the rest of the day, week, month, year and years to come, this would be the family that surrounded me when tragedy struck… and it would again, only in a more personal form a few months later when my mom was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer that December, 2001.
Needless to say, it was a rather somber 18th birthday. But no more so than when I went home, for the first time, after September 11.
I’ll never forget it. The city was different than when I had left it. The atmosphere had totally changed. American flags hung from every building entrance. The city that once stood tall like the Twin Towers — untouchable and strong — was now aching, heartbroken, and trying to muster the strength to stand back up. It was hurting, but beneath the hurt there was pride. Every restaurant or cafe I visited, people were still talking about it. You heard, “I was doing… (this) when it happened…” “So and so’s brother was getting a bagel on the corner…” “My coworker lost his father…” Etc. etc. My parents knew at least 300 people in the towers. My friend Chris’ parents had reservations for their anniversary dinner at the restaurant on top of World Trade Center — 7pm, September 11th, 2001. A family friend was catching the elevator, late for work after a fight with her husband, when a fireball shot through the elevator down to the ground floor and knocked her across the lobby. She wouldn’t get home until March 12, 2002, after two months in a coma and a long, painful recovery from 2nd and 3rd degree burns covering 82% of her body (her story is currently featured in Vanity Fair). The stories kept piling in. So and so’s uncle died, so and so’s fiance was there, and on and on and on and on and on… But, we were safe. What I was feeling, what I was experiencing, as profound as the effect felt for me, it was nothing compared to how this was going to directly affect so many other people’s lives. But the city, as a whole — the country — we were all in this together.
There was a vulnerability to the once cocky city, a vulnerability like the one I felt as I watched the World Trade Center disappear — one life at a time — into nothingness. But there was also a strength like I’ve never seen before.
I remember taking off my bags and putting them down beside my bed when I got home, to NY, for the first time that October. I walked up to my window to look out at the changed city and noticed it was hard to see through the screen. The screen was filthy. I had never seen it so dirty. I took a paper towel and began to wipe away the thick layer of ashes that coated my window. I’ll never forget it, because in that moment, as I wiped the layers of dirt and ash off my screen, I realized where it had come from. I wiped it as carefully and thoroughly as I could, and let a tear roll down my cheek as I did so, because I knew that those ashes came from the World Trade Center on September 11th. I knew that the wind had carried them uptown, and that I was wiping away broken hearts, and that it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, but it was as real as ever.
I couldn’t wait to get downtown. I was supposed to be there and almost felt guilty that I wasn’t in NYC on that horrible day. My local train was the one to the World Trade Center. I got on and took it to the closest stop it would allow. And then, it hit me: THE SMELL. I’ve never smelled anything like it. As the train got closer and closer, the smell got stronger and stronger. It was the first week of October. Everything was still so fresh. Every wound was open and still bleeding, and you could smell the death. When I walked out of those subway doors, I had to cover my mouth and nose. It smelled like burning, like chemicals, like metal…like hatred. It smelled toxic and sad, and so so real. I walked out onto the streets. I followed them to the remains of the buildings I once knew. I saw the signs for missing loved ones. I smelled the burning. I felt the destruction. I can smell, see, feel it all still today.
I know it might sound cheesy, and cliche, and melodramatic, and whatever the heck you want to call it, but that day really did change my life. For the first time, I realized I was a part of this world more than I thought I was. I was not untouchable — my city was not untouchable — and I could do whatever I wanted with my life but the world would be something I couldn’t control.
I also realized how much I loved New York. I loved it like a brother or sister. I loved it because it was a part of me, and I was a part of it, and I was going to love the hell out of NY because anything else was unacceptable. Yes, this wasn’t just about New York. The attacks on September 11th were so much bigger than New York, and yet for me, I felt instinctively protective over my town. As Carrie Bradshaw once said (oh yes, I went there…), “If Louis was right, and you only get one great love, then New York may just be mine…and I can’t have nobody talkin’ shit about my boyfriend.” New York and I, well, we were in this together. New York took a hard hit, but I wasn’t about to let anybody think they could knock us down.
This fall, I will go back to the site of the World Trade Center for the first time in ten years. I will go back to remember, and to reflect. My heart goes out to all of the families of the victims, but not just to them — attacks like this one happen all the time, and nobody rebuilds for the nameless victims in more constant, small-scale attacks. That said, when I get down to Ground Zero, and stand over the footprints of the World Trade Center Towers I once knew so well, I will be looking up, at a new tower, built stronger, smarter, and taller than the first ones. In many ways, I am that Tower. New York is that Tower. Each decade only makes us stronger. I can’t wait to enter the new World Trade Center, go all the way to the top, look out over the city and smile — for me, for New York, and for everyone who couldn’t be here today. Until then, I remember. We all do.