On April 27, 2009, I was sitting at my desk on the 26th floor of a building in lower Manhattan, surrounded by a view of the entire harbor. It was clear and sunny, and from where I sat the Statue of Liberty was in my direct line of sight. And then I heard what sounded like… engines? And the building shook a little. I turned around — the sound came from behind me — and moments later a massive airplane roared past the southern side of the building — I caught a glimpse as it made the pass. My blood ran cold. A jet in lower Manhattan? So close to buildings? Without warning?
My boss and I looked across our screens at each other, brows furrowed, asking each other telepathically how we should respond. He was nearly frozen to his chair, having been in that same office when the second plane hit the South Tower in 2001. As we watched the plane shoot out over the harbor toward the Statue, I noticed some familiar details. My boss turned back to me. “Does that … look like Air Force One?”
“It does,” I responded slowly, still unsure of how to react.
A man from another publication bounded across the floor to ask those of us in the corner whether we knew what had just happened, whether we should be evacuating, whether we had any notice, and should we evacuate anyway? He was going to evacuate, he announced, and bounded away. I placed a call to our operations department to ask whether she had any information. I started Googling. Within 10 minutes reports were coming in, with video of panicked investment bankers in New Jersey hurrying to leave their building — one that had relocated across the river following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Come to find out, it was all just an ill-thought-out photo op, blessed by the DOD.
For just one moment that morning, I fully grasped what it meant to work a quarter mile from where the World Trade Center once stood, years after their destruction, and what it meant to work with many people who had watched it happen just to the north of them, in real time, without the comfortable barrier of a television screen and Peter Jennings or Dan Rather.
This is the first September 11 in 14 years that I will not spend in New York City and I’m feeling a little sad about that fact.
It also feels weird to actively miss being there on what is for some a day of solemnity and remembrance, others a day of gratitude, and still others a simple reminder to keep going.
I guess it gradually turned into those things for me, too.
Writers collect stories. We collect the stories of people we meet in airports, at train stations, at conferences and in bars. We harbor the narratives of countless strangers, people coming and going and stationary.
Finding the beams of light ascending into the night sky across the river always made me stop and think of the stories people have shared with me of that day. Snippets of memories, some of them. Deep, scarring traumas, others. Colleagues who watched the planes crash into both buildings. Colleagues who watched the towers burn and collapse. Colleagues who, by Providence, missed their usual train, and were spared the horror of being trapped underground when the first plane hit the North Tower. A friend who narrowly missed large chunks of building debris as it hurtled toward the ground. A loved one who saw the first plane careen over his head on Rector Street, heard about the impact once he got into the office, and knew when he heard of the second crash that it wasn’t a fluke. He sprinted back to the PATH trains to get home, and caught the last train to Jersey. More loved ones were in high school at Stuyvesant, just blocks away from the Towers, and were instructed to continue class. No one was to leave campus. College roommates walked miles across town to find younger siblings and collect them from elementary school. One of my career counselors in college lost her partner.
I never understood people who visited the city to go to Ground Zero (as it was called before the rebuilding) and take pictures before it. Some even had the audacity to smile. People died there — suddenly, and violently. Somewhere in its soil and sediment, whether waiting to be found and identified, or lost to time, are their remains.
My ex’s aunt — one of the women who raised him and his siblings, and best friend to his mother — was an EMT with NYFD and a First Responder. For her heroic efforts, she was diagnosed in 2007 with an aggressive form of breast cancer that began to eat away at her body and killed her just a little more than two years later.
I wasn’t there that day in 2001. I’ll never know exactly what it was like to be there, to walk through the city searching for loved ones, hoping your friends and roommates and spouses made it back across the rivers or bridges or safely back into the apartment, the dorm, the house. But I do remember how it felt to pass the wall of Missing posters plastered to the brick outside St. Vincent’s on 12th Street. Every day on my way to class, hundreds of faces of fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers — aunts, uncles, best friends and lovers — left there because the city couldn’t bear to take them down even after hope was determined to be lost.
One of my boyfriends was in college in San Diego on 9/11 and remembers his girlfriend at the time waking him up to the news of the attacks. He turned on the TV to images of flames shooting out of the Fulton Street stop he used for work. While we were together, he liked to watch the anniversary remembrances played on TV, but after the second year of viewing the same footage of a woman watching the crash from the roof of her building in Tribeca and screaming into the camera, I was finished. Her screams are etched into my memory forever, and I heard them eight years after the fact.
ABC doesn’t show any footage of planes crashing into buildings. NBC will, with preceding warnings. I don’t need to see them anymore. Sixteen years and dozens of stories later, those images are more overwhelming to me today than they were as they unfolded live.
And, as much as the museum is a memorial, and the pools and the wall of names are for healing and remembering, I’ve avoided them to the best of my ability. Let the ill-dressed tourists lacking manners congregate and take selfies on that hallowed land. The stories within me are my memorial.
I already miss the beams in the sky. I miss the long walk from 42nd Street, along the Hudson River Parkway Greenway, that my friend walks every year as her own private memorial. September 11 has become for me a sacred day of survival, a day when I celebrate the good luck and, possibly, good intuition of so many people I love so much. It’s a day I’m grateful to be a New Yorker, even if the city welcomed me (as much as the city ever welcomes anyone) two years afterward. We can handle anything.
P.S. For anyone who feels the need to post pictures of burning buildings, or great amounts of smoke and ash, or the destruction of that day “In Remembrance,” or because you pledge to “Never Forget,” please understand those images are still traumatic for many people who were in NYC and lower Manhattan, and think or exercise caution before you post to social media. Thank you.