Remembering 9/11 as a college student living under the towers
Every year, the day sneaks up on me. That underlying slow burn of tension I can't put my finger on until it arrives and I'm forced to remember, to deal. It took me more than 10 years to finally get it down on paper, mostly because I felt my story was just like anyone else's that day: I woke up. I lived. I was never rescued from under the rubble, nor punctured with debris. I didn't shed a single drop of blood that day. There is no story, I have convinced myself.
Comedian Colin Quinn had a great joke at the time about how everyone was desperate to feel a connection as though they would have been one of the thousands of victims, "You don't understand," he pleaded mockingly, "if I had decided to become an investment banker instead of running the Go-Karts in Utica," putting into perspective how hopeless we were all feeling. There are few feelings that stay with you as strongly as the rattling and overwhelming inkling that today is my last day. Fear paired with adrenaline. And I guess adrenaline is what fueled most people who shared that experience with me.
As I blow-dried my hair, the floor vibrated for a moment under my feet....
I felt like the last person my age to get a cell phone. I was 19 and in my junior year at Pace University in the downtown Manhattan campus. I lived in university housing off-campus with three roommates: two close friends and one other girl. Two were born and bred New Yorkers, my friend Danielle from Mill Basin at the southern end of Brooklyn and her longtime roommate Liz from Yonkers just north of the city. The fourth was my friend Inga from Kaliningrad, a Soviet city I'd never heard of or seen on a map until we met a few semesters earlier.
We lived in an unbearably large apartment at 75 West St. #3A New York, New York 10006. Pace University had rented out one floor of a residential co-op building due to its overwhelming student population that year. The apartments weren't outfitted with those standard-issue office phones found in college dorm rooms or even internet connection jacks; we were responsible for any kind of telecom installation and had only moved in five days beforehand. The space had unusually high ceilings, only making it feel emptier--more of a void. Sure, the four of us had moved in our stuff; bedding for each of our university-provided extra-long twin beds, kitchen items, miscellaneous crap, but it felt like we were living in a racquetball court.
I'm certain class scheduling is designed to fit the go-getters vs. the less motivated. I was a Communications major and none of my classes began earlier than 11am. Inga and Liz, both accounting majors, were out the door to school no later than 8:00am each morning. That Tuesday was no exception and Danielle slept late while I slowly got myself together for the day. She studied psychology.
As I blow-dried my hair, the floor vibrated for a moment under my feet. Given the extensive network of subway lines below, I gave it no consideration. Instead, what caught my eye minutes later was a terrible car accident just outside our window facing the West Side Highway. We were on the third floor, so it wasn't difficult to see below that a woman in a small car had veered off the street into a commercial truck. She was visibly panicked, her car covered in blood and flesh. Yet, no one looked injured and I made the esteemed observation, of course, that truck must have been delivering meat! As a voyeur, I watched for another few minutes until I began to notice an outpouring of people onto the street. The West Side Highway is a major thoroughfare. For cars. Not thousands of people. It was at that moment I realized something was awry.
Waking Danielle was impossible. After gently cooing her and lightly shaking to no avail I finally I yelled, "something is happening outside; I need you to get out of bed!" She opened her eyes and we watched out the window together before investigating further.
(A note on Danielle: Tough, yet naturally beautiful, an Italian-American raised in Brooklyn with one of the heaviest regional accents I'd ever heard. Hers could have been a foreign dialect if we weren't all familiar with character actors playing tough guys on Law & Order. Her father is a retired NYPD cop. In short, she's not scared of nothin'.)
Not having cable or internet, we wandered down the hall to find the "cool" girls' apartment [read: spoiled wealthy girls with cable and a T1 line installed within 48 hours of moving day]. But despite what was broadcast on the local news, no one could make sense of what was unfolding outside our window.
The elevators had shut down, lights flickered down to a hushed corona, and no solid information came our way. A group of us took the fire stairwell down to the ground level to get a better look. Over our heads was the majestic North Tower in all its glory with a jet jutting from its side. From our point of view and the sheer size of the tower, the plane looked small and like the news had suggested, it was merely a prop plane accident.
Nevertheless, Danielle and I and the others dashed back upstairs to prepare for, well, we didn't know what. I wore jeans and a black tank top-the same uniform I wear now over a decade later-and thankfully, sneakers. I grabbed my brand new flip phone trying to reach my mother, which was futile, the lines were jammed. In that moment, I remember worrying more about her in Boston than what in the world was going on just two short blocks from me. That's when the second plane hit the South Tower, this time shaking the building more pronouncedly than before. Yet it would be hours, days before anyone had any idea. My heart was racing.
Fifty-four minutes passed between the second crash and the first tower collapse. It felt like five. I've never looked closely at the timeline of that day until now, but I realize we didn't leave our floor for nearly an hour getting new and confusing information from others down the hall every minute. Danielle was hell-bent on staying put, but I couldn't leave fast enough, yet neither of us wanted to separate from the other. She had lived next door to me in the freshman dorms and was the first friend I made on move-in day.
The sunlight over our giant windows vanished and despite being closed, dust began pouring into our apartment, into the hallways. I grabbed my purse, a cheap $9 H&M thing that held my wallet, a film camera, Chapstick, and the new cell phone. That's it. Seeing what was filling the air outside, I went back for sunglasses-a brilliant solution for protective eyewear-and an ivory cardigan to cover my face. Only the dim emergency lighting was working now as dozens of us on the floor, all teenagers really, frantically felt around in the darkness for fire exits. I feared getting trampled.
We felt bits of pebbles and rock pelting at our shoulders. The crowd broke into a panicked sprint, knowing imminent danger threatened perilously close.
When Danielle and I reached the lobby, many were already there having sought shelter from the wake of the collapse. More and more people filed in from outside covered in dust; some bleeding, injured from falling debris. Residents offered makeshift bandages and alcohol to care for anyone in need. Everyone was a ghost covered in white dust as it completely adhered to skin dampened by sweat from the warmth and panic of the day. Despite 50, maybe 60 people seeking asylum in this small lobby, the space was completely silent save for a few whispers and whimpers.
We were all together and all completely lost. One resident in the building, a painter, passed out face masks to whomever wanted one. He began with the children and then us, the stranded parentless college kids.
At that moment, a uniformed woman came forth. The NYPD was now in charge of this lobby. The policewoman took the helm now and owned all of us: our fate, our panic, and our calm. No one would exit the building, we would all sit tight, and above of all we would stay calm. I realize based on the timeline, we sat together on the floor of the 75 West Street lobby for no longer than 29 minutes; the space between each tower collapse and a space of time I remember feeling like eternity. Soon a firefighter -- once powerful, now defeated by what he had witnessed outside --
entered completely enveloped in dust. Folks rushed to him with water and towels to clear off his face. We gazed upon him with hope, our source to the outside.
"Okay, everyone," his voice shaken, feigning confidence, "this is what's going to happen: each one of you is going to calmly and orderly exit left and head south to Battery Park to the Hudson River. There will be boats there to evacuate you off Manhattan. Under no circumstances are you to turn right. Do not even look right. You do not want to look right. Does everyone understand?"
We all believed him. We trusted him. But this instruction was exactly like telling someone, "Don't think about elephants."
Nevertheless, we filed out of the building trying to keep some semblance of calm order, some vague understanding that we would see another day. This was not going to be a big deal. This was a directive we could follow and complete. Adults, children, and college kids obeying orders in silence. But, in thinking about elephants, I looked to the right and saw the monstrosity looming overhead. I took a few blurry photos with my little film camera.
What happened instead of the calm order as dozens of us exited our shelter from the storm was the crack of thunder that broke above. I took each careful step with my ivory-colored cardigan over my head; Danielle held her forearms over her brow. We faced the pavement of the West Side Highway sidestepped debris and worse. That short walk made it clear people had perished. Bits of undeserving victims scattered at our feet.
And then another crack of thunder sounded, a rolling roar, a bass grumble only Hell could produce; the North Tower was beginning to fall over us. We were exposed with no place to hide and there was no turning back to our 75 West Street asylum. We felt bits of pebbles and rock pelting at our shoulders. The crowd broke into a panicked sprint knowing imminent danger threatened perilously close. As if by fate, Danielle and I and dozens of others spotted an open loading dock that presented itself for those nearby seeking shelter; if nothing but for a few moments to catch our breath and reassess strategy. But, there was no strategy. It was simply "head to the river." Dozens took cover with us as we ducked behind any kind of shield we could find. There wasn't much, a single truck and some kind of equipment. This safe haven gave me a moment to consider my own mortality and resign myself to the end. We hadn't run that far and I envisioned the Tower crushing and suffocating us with its mass, not imploding in upon itself as it was designed to do. We cowered for a moment listening to the low growl of the building collapsing before fleeing again.
We resumed running and I remember gasping for breath promising myself, If I survive this day, I'll get in better shape. I'll run a mile without breaking a sweat. I'm still working on that.
As Danielle and I ran towards Battery Park, I looked up at the woman retreating next to me. Our friend Erin. The three of us had all met on that first day of freshman year in 1999. Our spirits lifted at the sight of each other, shocked that amid the thousands of people escaping around us, we had somehow found each other.
The three of us were some of the first to reach Battery Park and no boats had yet arrived for evacuation. There's no documented timeline to show how long we stayed there, but within minutes hundreds had gathered; bewildered, scared, and conflicted.
We stood at the water's edge under a perfect blue sky as the US Air Force fighter jets flew low overhead. After the last two hours, we viewed them with fear not knowing their presence was our protection. We were terrified of anything looming above and the masses cowered at their presence.
Soon, salvation floated into the dock, the Statue of Liberty ferryboats arrived to evacuate us. With the help of police officers and the ship's crew, each evacuee scaled over the locked metal barrier to board. Danielle, Erin, and I waited patiently although I know they were also thinking, me, me, me, me, me!!! in that moment.
To this day I have no idea exactly where the ferry let us off, but we were delivered to a makeshift triage center somewhere in Jersey City, NJ. A man with medical credentials checked over each of us carefully to ensure debris hadn't permeated our eyes. The three of us were cleared and free to go.
By then, the panic had subsided and we were in good spirits either because we were in shock or young idiots. Probably a bit of both. The three of us spent what felt like hours wandering aimlessly around Jersey City in hopes of finding Hoboken because we had heard it was "cute." "I'm A Survivor" by Destiny's Child was on constant rotation at the time and still having no concept of the breadth of this attack, we wandered the streets singing this together. In retrospect, I look back at this moment shamefully, but we were young, unaware, and alone with no place to go. That bit of levity kept us moving.
We never found Hoboken [for what, shopping?] but, instead we met others who were out to seek shelter for the night at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. Trains, buses, and subways were all shut down. We would likely spend the night there, too.
When we arrived to the Science Center, the three of us were finally able to make outgoing calls. I phoned my mother's office in Boston only to learn the city had shut down and evacuated hours earlier. When I finally reached her, I learned the PATH trains, some subways, and parts of the Metro North train system would be running again soon. We made a plan to meet in New Haven, Connecticut, the northern most stop on the Metro North line and the halfway point between New York and home.
Erin, from Pennsylvania, had a friend in the West Village with a spare bed and she would stay there for the coming days. Danielle's father, the retired Brooklyn cop, used his badge anywhere he could to drive through the traffic and pass police barricades inching closer to his youngest daughter. Reluctant to leave her, Erin and I hugged Danielle tight and made our way to the PATH train back into Manhattan. On the New York side, Erin and I soon parted ways, too, hugging each other goodbye stunned by our day. I walked the empty streets to Grand Central to catch the first train that would take me to New Haven. The eerie stillness made my bustling island seem like an abandoned ghost town.
I boarded the train with so many others surprised to see most just looked tired, as though they'd come from a long day at work. I knew better. We all knew better of each other's day. Another journey and another group of people together in silence, each reliving their thoughts, moments of horror, and moments of courage they witnessed that day.
Walking with hundreds of others noiselessly down the corridor of the New Haven train station carrying next to nothing, all I could think was, my mother, my mother, my mother, my mother... I was 19, an only child, and still a child in many ways and hers was the only face in the world I wanted to see. As the escalator climbed to street level, I saw her anxiously waiting for me at the top. I remember looking up at her, this symbol of love and safety just feet away, yet hours earlier I was convinced I would never see her again.
When I finally reached the landing, she took me in her arms. It was like being hugged for the first time. She held me close and whispered into my dirty hair, my baby, my baby.
My story isn't something of great personal tragedy or heroism. It is simply that I, like so many others, woke up that day and lived.