Saturday, September 11, 2010

That Day

Nine years.  Has it really been that long?  It seems like just last year.  Has it only been that long?  It seems like a lifetime ago.  September 11, 2001.  Everyone remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard the news, who they were with, the eerie feeling in the pit of their stomach, etc.   There are very few events of this magnitude in a person’s lifetime.

Looking back, I realize that I may soon forget some of the details of my own September 11th story, unless I take the time to write them down.  My story begins in April 2001, when I moved to New York City (Brooklyn).  My parents and girlfriend came along with me that first weekend, and we took the opportunity to do some sightseeing.  This included going to the top of the World Trade Center.  This would be my only visit inside the towers.  From the glass in the observation area, I took a picture straight down.  I would later look at this photo, and imagine what it would feel like to decide to jump out from that height.

My job in New York involved delivering books to various retail locations throughout New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, and upstate New York.  My schedule had me going to Manhattan on Mondays and Tuesdays of each week.

Tuesday September 11, 2001 dawned a beautiful, clear sunny day.  It was Primary Day in New York City, with the mayor’s race being the main subject in the news.  As I recall, our day started around 7:00 AM.  Our route that day was known as “North Manhattan” and consisted of about 8 stores located between 14th St. and 96th St. mostly on the east side of Manhattan.  We crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and went to our first store, on First Ave. near 23rd St.  Our next two stores were located on or near 14th St.  We were just getting done with these stores when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center.  My co-worker, remembers hearing a noise, but not thinking much about it since we were in a city filled with constant noise.  At this point, we were about 1.5 – 2 miles (as the crow flies) away from towers.  We got into our van and drove north towards our next store at 75th St. and 1st Ave.  We were unaware of anything that was going on.  Parking at the next location was hard to find, so I dropped off my colleague and circled around the block to find parking.  I flipped on the radio as I spotted a parking spot along 1st Ave.  The time was 9AM.  They were talking about an airplane that had hit the World Trade Center and how downtown was a traffic nightmare.  I assumed they were talking about an amateur pilot in a little Cessna who had gotten lost or was too busy looking at the scenery, and had inadvertently smacked the tower.  It was only when they started talking about a second airplane that was heading for the towers that I realized the magnitude of what was taking place.  I quickly did my parallel parking routine and rushed into the store we were delivering to.  As I crossed First Avenue, I looked south to see smoke rising above the skyline.  We were too far north to see the towers themselves, but the smoke was very much visible.  I informed my co-worker what had happened, and the store employees turned on the TVs to see what was going on.  What just happened!?  We were shocked.  The only thing we knew to do was to keep on working.  As we left, I had the presence of mind to buy a cheap disposable camera.  We didn’t know what we should do, so we continued north to our next store.  While we were working there, we spoke to our manager in Pennsylvania.  He said he would contact our families to let them know we were ok, and told us to wrap it up and head for home.  Neither of my parents were home, so he was unable to reach them.  I called my girlfriend, told her we were ok, and that we may try to get closer to see what we could see.   Things were mostly quiet in the area where we were, except for the occasional siren, which was typical a sound anywhere in New York City.  We spoke several times with another co-worker, who was working by himself in the Bronx.  He was also stopping for the day.  We finished at the store and drove west toward Central Park.

We headed south on Fifth Ave. hanging on to every word of WCBS 880.  Our minds were swimming.  Both towers were hit, the Pentagon was on fire, there were unaccounted airplanes out there somewhere, all the bridges and tunnels were closed…the bad news seemed endless.  And it would not end for a while.  We continued driving, not knowing what we were going to do.  The commentators on the radio interrupted with an excited voice saying that one of the towers had fallen.  My heart sank with it.  In all the horror of the day, this was the worst.  It had not entered my mind that they would fall.  I had no words.  My mind raced.  One of the towers had fallen.  Would the other one stand, or was it doomed as well?  Was this just the beginning, or the end?  These were the landmarks, the points of reference for Manhattan.  Every time we went into the City, my eyes were drawn to the twin towers.  They were my compass in the City.

We drove south far enough that we started getting into traffic.  Every bridge and tunnel was closed, and Manhattan being an island, that was a problem for us.  We crossed through Central Park, and found parking near 68th St. on the west side of Manhattan.  We had no choice but to walk.  And walk we did.  We walked down to Times Square to see what the news tickers were saying.  The streets were eerily silent.  People were huddled in groups listening to a radio or watching a portable tv.  Everyone seemed to be in a state of shock.  We came into Times Square and watched the breaking reports on the big screens.  When they reported another airplane that was still un-accounted for, we decided Times Square was not the place to be.

Meanwhile, my parents still had not heard anything from me.  Making phone calls became impossible.  All the circuits were completely jammed making our cell phones useless.  Landlines and pay phones were no different, no one could get through.  Close to noon, our manager finally got hold of my Dad at his job, and told him I was ok.  My girlfriend had not heard from me since before the towers fell, and she remembered that we were trying to get closer.

From Times Square we walked south on a deserted Broadway.  Never before or after have I seen New York streets so deserted.  We walked all the way down to Delancey St.  All the streets south of there were barricaded and we could get no further.  There we saw emergency vehicles covered in dust.  We walked across the Williamsburg Bridge in a sea of humanity.  Looking back at Manhattan from the crest of the bridge gave one an ominous feeling.  Smoke was billowing from the site of the twin towers, battle ships were parked in the bay, and fighter jets were circling the skies.  It looked like a scene from a movie, unlike anything I had seen before in real life.  I was in a war zone.  Like a refugee, trying to get away.  The magnitude of it all started to grip me.  Our sense of security and innocence had been ripped away in several moments.  I am sure the Statue of Liberty had tears in her eyes.

On the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, the local Jewish communities had rows of tables set up and were distributing bottles of water and snacks.  There were rows of city buses, and they were packed.  We stood on the front step right inside the door.  After walking 7 miles, we were just glad to have transportation.  By late afternoon, the trains in Brooklyn started running again, and we got back to our apartment around 4:30.  We spent the rest of the day watching footage and news reports.  The full impact of everything started soaking in, and I realized this was a day I would never forget.  I was able to get hold of my family and my girlfriend and assure them I was ok.

We had the next day off as well.  It took some time for the numbness to wear off.  The new reality was here.  Our delivery vehicles were searched at every bridge and tunnel.  Everyone was more watchful and on edge.  Patriotic displays were everywhere.  Many tourist attractions were closed indefinitely.  Downtown was a traffic disaster, and we didn’t do any deliveries south of Canal Street for about two months.  We saw cars parked, covered in dust, whose owners' never came back.

In the weeks and months that followed we slowly adjusted to the new normal.  Our innocence and naivety were stripped, our vulnerability was exposed.  Our landmarks were gone.  Forever.  Never the same.   A deep sense of sadness and loss was still there, but we knew that as a city, as a nation, we had banded together.  We were closer.  We were stronger.  We were scarred and battered, but we were better.  Forever.  Never the same.