Friday, September 11, 2009

8 Days

On September 3rd, 2001, I was as happy as I could possibly be. I was 18 and getting the hell out of my house. I was going to college on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. How cool! Marymount here I come!

Luckily we left insanely early and we were one of the first people in the queue to unload our cars. It being New York, a campus didn't exist. The 42 story dorm building was situated on 55th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. You had a set amount of time to unload your car and drive away because of the number of people they had to move in. We were something like number 2.

Of course, that day all the elevators did was go up. You wanted to come down, whatever floor you were on, take the stairs. Fun times. I got a lot of exercise that day.

My mom was thrilled for me to go to New York. She's from Brooklyn, after all, so she didn't have any worries. Figured I could take care of myself. My dad on the other hand was, truth be told, scared shitless. Here he was dropping off his only daughter and only child in the middle of Manhattan and leaving her there. Yeah, he wasn't happy. But he did it.

Like anyone moving away to go to college, it's an adjustment. You're free! You can do pretty much whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. On the second night I went on got my belly button pierced. I'd wanted it done so bad but my mom would never sign the release for it. I got my first tattoo at 16 but holes in the body? Nuh uh. So I got a belly ring. And then rode in a pedicab. That kind of hurt.

But it wasn't just the freedom I had to adjust to. Here I am, an only child, and I'm sharing my dorm suite with 5 other chicks. One bathroom. Eep! And my classes were 16 blocks north on 71st Street between the same two avenues in the one and only building of the school. You mean I had to get myself up and go to class every morning? WTF?

Major adjusting going on.

On September 11, 2001, I was just barely getting into school. It was only the second day, or thereabouts. Who could be into that?

My first class was at 10 so I was up at 8. My window faced downtown and I had a decent view over some buildings, but the shades were drawn because my roommate was still sleeping. I got dressed without turning on the radio because I didn't want to disturb her. I got dressed without turning on the TV because the cable hadn't been turned on yet anyway. The dorm was brand new. We were the first occupants and the school was still working out a lot of kinks. Like hot water. Not an issue at the beginning of September, but it was in November. We even had to take the plastic off of our mattresses, they were that new. And I remember the night sweats I used to get adjusting to the vinyl, pee-proof mattresses. Apparently that's an issue with kids just going to college. Not that they'd want you to know about that.

Now, I could go one of two ways to school, up 3rd Avenue or up 2nd. The difference? Sun. 2nd Avenue actually got sun. 3rd didn't. Not in the morning. It was a little chilly so I wanted the heat. 2nd it was.

I got maybe a block before I realized that the avenue was empty. Absolutely no cars on this southbound avenue. WTF? I had no idea. Then I got to the Queensboro Bridge on and off ramps at 57th Street and it was one giant clusterfuck. The cars coming off of the bridge into the city were all knotted up, traffic was being directed back onto the bridge and policemen were screaming, "YOU CAN'T GO DOWN THERE! YOU CAN'T GO SOUTH! NO ONE GOES SOUTH!" What the hell was going on?

As I got closer to the school, I started to hear little snippets of conversations about planes crashing into the World Trade Center. But I really didn't think anything of it. It could happen. That's why the buildings were built the way they were, to withstand such crashes. When I got to the classroom, the information was just as scattered. The people that commuted in had been there for a while and didn't have all that much information. The rest only caught pieces on TV before they left. But no one was really worried.

About an hour into class the school's psychiatrist came into the room and said World Trade Centers had collapsed. They were closing the school. One of my classmates rushed out. His dad worked in the Towers. We later found out he was running late that day. The rest of us were just stunned. It wasn't until I got to the entrance that the panic really hit, when people were saying things like officials were closing down highrise buildings. I lived in a 42 story sky scraper. What was I going to do?

I checked my cell phone. My first cell phone. Everyone had one in New York but back here in Connecticut, I was the first at my school. I had numerous missed calls and a bunch of voicemails, all from my parents. Panicked. Crying. Where was I? Call. Call. Call. Where am I? Call. Call. Call. I tried. I wasn't getting through. I knew I was ok. They didn't and didn't have any way of knowing.

I went back to 2nd Avenue and that's when I saw the waves of people. Hordes. In suits. In dust. Walking. Away. It was the only way to get away. The island was closed. Barricaded. No one off, no one on unless you were on foot. One of the girls in my class had to walk back to Roosevelt Island via that Queensboro Bridge. It took her hours. There were people stationed all along the bridge, vendors, random people, handing out water, juice, anything, to make it easier.

As I walked back to the dorm, pushing through the crowds in the opposite direction, the only one, men in business suits, everyday guys, were stopping people as they walked by, asking them if they were ok. I got back to the dorm and we were lost. What did we do? We had no direction. My dad had dropped me off 8 days earlier afraid for me and now I'm lost. Was more coming? The tanks were rolling down the avenues. The battleships were coming to the harbor. What do we do?

Still no calls. The cell phone satellites were jammed. One of the towers was on the Tower. The pay phones were emergency use only. The phone in my room was local only. Still no calls. We were able to watch what had happened while we were getting dressed and going to classes, completely oblivious what was was going on. Through the snowy news station it all looked like a cheap Japanese movie. It didn't look real. It couldn't have been real. No way.

Later on people would ask me how I couldn't have heard anything. How didn't I feel anything? How could we have been so oblivious? You don't understand New York. It's immensely vast in its compact state. Those buildings muffle in noise like silencers. And while my window faced downtown, I could not see the Towers even when they were standing. New York slopes down the further south you go. After it all happened, I was only able to see the smoke plumes. But there was no noise. No sounds of low flying jets to wake me up. I couldn't hear the sounds of the hits. The few miles in between really was so close but so far away.

7 hours after the fact I was finally able to get through to my mom. She was hysterical. I later found out my dad's wife all but had to tie him to a chair, literally, to keep him from going as far as he could to New York by car, and walking and/or swimming the rest of the way to find me. It wasn't until I talked to him that he calmed down. It had only been 8 days.

I also found out my cousin had been choppered into Ground Zero before the dust had settled after the buildings collapsed. Then he worked investigations and clean-up for the FAA. He knew things that he couldn't tell us. And he never did. He only stayed down there a few days before his lungs got too bad to breathe. Then he was moved to JFK and was positioned as an FAA escort to the president. His daughter was a manager at the Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Towers. She was off that day. My other cousin had an office in World Trade, along with a bunch of other guys. None of them had made it to work on time that morning. Back in July, I had to make a decision between Marymount Manhattan College up on the Upper East Side of New York and Pace University, main campus, in lower Manhattan, with classrooms in the World Trade Center. My brain wanted to go to Pace. My gut told me Marymount. I went to Marymount.

That afternoon, during rush hour, I was able to stand in the middle of 5th Avenue, right in the center, and not be in any danger of oncoming traffic. It was a southbound avenue. Only the northbound carried any traffic. You cannot understand the absolute fear a silent New York can cause. It's supposed to be the city that never sleeps. It didn't sleep. It died.

It had only been 8 days. I didn't sign up for war. I just wanted to go to school.

On Septmeber 12, 2001, the wind shifted, covering the rest of the island in the yellow murk that downtown already was in. We were advised not to go outside if at all possible, but they assured us that there was no, ABSOLUTELY NO, asbestos in that yellow cloud of death. Of course, they lied. Not only was it asbestos but passenger jets, bodies of men, women and children, jet fuel, buildings, papers, computers, cars, carpet, tile, stairs, concrete, flame retardant clothing, blood, plastic, metal, support beams, glass . . .

The sickness came a few months later.

Two weeks later I went down there, got on a subway for the first time in two weeks. It was fear. I won't lie. What if something else happened? But we went down there. We could only get so far and had to walk the rest of the way. The subway to Chambers Street wouldn't open for months.

Down there, the streets were buckled and bulged, as if something exploded underneath them. Ash and debris were everywhere. And it was silent. I called my mom. She asked me if I was inside and I told her where I was. Awe. Silence at the murder scene. It wasn't a normal silence. It was a smothered silence. An unnatural silence. There were no tourists then. It wasn't something to gawk at then. It was still too fresh. People were still too afraid.

But we were there. The building, the pieces, were still there. Nothing had been moved yet. The debris removal hadn't started yet. It would soon. They feared a second coming of the plague. There were too many bodies in that pile of rubble we were looking at. And too many rats. They had to act quickly.

That's where all of the missing posters were. Sure there were some uptown. But most were down there. Tacked everywhere. All the faces that didn't come home that day. They were still there.

And so was the smell. On my jacket, in my hair. It stayed with me back uptown. It wouldn't go away. Hope you never know the smell of burning, smoldering bodies.

In November my friends and I had a variety show fundraiser for another one of our friends. Her dad was just a business man. He and his friend were down there when it all happened. They ran into the building just to help people. The friend came out. Our friend's father never did. At least not until March. Intact. They had buried his empty coffin in December. They had to bury him again in March.

We had that variety show just to let her know we loved her. We wanted to help her. We didn't raise too much. A few hundred dollars. Not bad for "whatever you could give" donations. But the show was a success and our friend was grateful. She appreciated it and that's all we wanted, was to bring something happy to her life after . . . that.

I went back down there in November, with my dad and his wife. The streets still looked the same. Most of the rubble was still there. But so were the tourists. Videotaping. Those lucky ones got my face on their camera screaming, "IT'S A FUCKING MURDER SCENE YOU STICK FUCK! STOP FILMING!" There were signs posted everywhere not to take pictures or video. It was a murder scene. Would you walk into a house and do the same thing if people were killed there? I wasn't afraid of what they might do. They didn't do anything. Because they knew I was right.

There were still restaurants open down there. A half block from the line of the wreckage. Where the guards down there were wearing gas masks. And we weren't. There were restaurants. Everyone was going into a pub on the right. We went into the ritzy restaurant on the left. The one where the maitre'd was wearing coattails and a top hat. We were wearing jeans and leather jackets. On a normal day, we would have been snubbed. They were desperate for business. Unfortunately we had already eaten but we were desperate to help them. I had a coffee and some dessert. I hate coffee. My dad left a 50% tip, if not more. I can't remember too well.

Help. We all needed it.

We moved on. The city moved on. But it's scarred. We're scarred. And every time I think I've desensitized myself to it all, I still find myself with tears.


Addicted Book Reader said...

Om my what a story! I'm so sorry you had to go through that, I can't even imagine. I was only eight at the time, so I don't remember much. It just brings tears to my eyes thinking of the tragic event and all the horrible footage.

Wulf said...

Thank you. I'd never really understood the scope of this disaster until I read this. I know, how could I not? My only defence is that, as I am not American, I didn't fully identify with the tragedy. I knew it was a horrible thing, and I mourned the countless who died, but I could never fathom the impact, the lasting footprint it left on New York and the US and the World. Thank you.

robin_titan said...


I'm speechless/worldless.


April said...

Thank you for sharing your experience with 9/11, Donna. It really brings home what a tragic event it was. I'm from NY (upstate) and was very fortunate to not have someone I know perish in the WTC. Your story is very touching,and heartrenching, especially the part about your friend's dad going into the building to help people, oh my god. Anyways, thank you again for sharing your experience.

Shalonda said...

Thank for sharing Donna. That was a moving story.

Though I was not in NYC, I will never forget where I was and how I felt on 9/11.

My birthday happens to be on 9/11 and I often feel guilty for having something to celebrate on that date. I will never forget and always feel a sadness overcome me when I think of the men, women, and children who lost their lives or loved ones.

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