September 11th, 2001 is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. Yesterday, I realized that it was an important day but the shock had not fully registered. Today, it’s hitting… hard. I actually witnessed most of the drama unfold not through a TV screen but right in front of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined HSBC.com, which is located in Pavonia/Newport, on the waterfront, clear across from Manhattan. The World Trade Center was by far the most noticeable building in our view of the financial district.
When I got to work, it was a day like any other days. The weather was nice, I was running early so I decided to go grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks before getting up to my desk. The cool thing about the Starbucks near our office is that it has full view of downtown from ground level. The WTC stood majestically above the rest of the towers. I had no way to realize it at this time but this would be the last time I saw it in its full intact nature.
I got up to my desk, started answering some emails. A loud bang was heard but I mistook it for construction trucks passing by (although, now that I think of it, noise from construction trucks would not have traveled 11 floors up). Then a few minutes later (or was it seconds, time started to distort at that point), someone screamed “Oh My God!”
We all looked at it and it looked like something had collided with the northernmost building. Big black clouds of smoke were going up and we could see flames engulfing several floors. It is a sight that should have prepared us for what was going on next.
With our eyes fixed on the WTC, we saw the rest of the drama unfold. We saw the plane coming from the south and hitting WTC2. We saw WTC1 go down. We saw WTC2 go down.
Once that happened, I went into automatic mode. I guess that was my way of coping. I had seen it all and yet it didn’t register. I wanted to cry and yet I couldn’t. I wanted… to do something to keep my mind off the horrible thing I had just witnessed. By 11am, I had witnessed a major fire, a plane crash, what was obviously a terrorist attack, and the two biggest buildings in Manhattan collapse. It was more than my brain could register.
I started making a list of what I had to do:
- Get phone numbers of people living in Jersey, just in case.
- Call friends and family to reassure them that I was OK.
- Get back to Manhattan.
- See how I could help.
- See how work would go on.
After redialing several times, I got a hold of Amy (my girlfriend) and told her about my plan. I had gotten phone numbers already, secured two potential shelters, and was on my way to Hoboken (on foot) to see if the Ferrys were running (tunnels, bridges, and trains would not be an option as I assumed that the police would close them so they could evacuate people faster.
The ferry was not an option. Tons of people were milling about, trying to find a way to get home. I walked to a policeman and asked how I could volunteer. He pointed me in a direction, where I filled out my name and phone number on a form. I was acting like a robot, reworking if… then loops through my mind. Not wanting to deal with it, not wanting to think about anything but the next step in my program.
I then went to a bar for a few minutes to see if I would be called into action or get a way home. I had a phone signal on my cell whereas others didn’t. I passed my phone around. Some people made calls (how many and to where I don’t know but I’m glad I could help).
After a few minutes (or a couple of hours, I don’t know) of sitting there, I figured that there was no way I would get home that night. I was getting pretty stressed out by the continuous recounts of tallies and reports of how much worse the nightmare was getting. I took refuge in the idea that I now had to seek shelter. I called Tony Emond, a Canadian developer at HSBC, and told him I was coming over to his place (he had volunteered earlier). I figured that from there, I would have access to an Internet connection to blast mail a note to my list and change the web site so that everyone who knew me could be reassured quickly.
Tony gave me a login ID on his linux box and I made the changes. When I walked back into the living room (where the TV was) I noticed the clock on the VCR. It was 4pm, the first time stamp I can remember for that day.
Things got worse, we ate, we went to sleep. Now, I am not the most religious person but last night, I felt I had to say a prayer for the people who disappeared in that disaster, and thank god for sparing my life.
To say that I didn’t sleep well is an understatement. Somehow, my psyche is replaying the images again and again. I ended sleeping only a few hours, and all of them in spurts of a few minutes.
But so far, things were easy.
This morning, I went to a deserted office (I figured that it made sense since the PATH train is right next door to the office). The area where the World Trade Center stood was clouded in smoke. If we hadn’t know better, we could have imagined that there was a big cloud covering the towers. I signed out of the office, left my contact info, and packed up to go home.
The PATH train station was very quiet. Families were gathered there, ready to go home. The train was eerily quiet. Not a word was spoken but the faces spoke loudly enough. Shock, dismay, more shock. We stopped at Christopher street and couple of people walked out of the train. In my mind, I could see a map of the city and saw that those people were going to an area that was most probably affected. The train made another stop at 9th street, 14th street (mind map flashing that this was were the city blockade ended), and 23rd street, where I got of.
Once again, people moved quietly towards the exits. The subway station was deserted except for the attendant behind the toll booth. It was 9am, usually a very busy time for this area. Yet, when I stepped out on the corner of 6th avenue and 23rd, the area was empty. Maybe a dozen people in sight. On the street, emergency vehicles rushing by and the odd cab. At morning rush our, the city was quieter than I have ever seen it.
I made my way up 23rd street towards 5th Avenue. On the corner of 5th and 23rd stands the flatiron building, another landmark building. I looked up. One of the weird things about yesterday is how important it has made what remains. I must have walked by the Flatiron building 100 times this year and seldom really looked at it. Today, I marvelled at it, glad to see not only something familiar but something beautiful.
One of the thing that few people know is that there used to be a couple of angels overlooking town on top of the Flatiron building. Recently, they were reinstalled there (I read about it in the Times a couple of weeks ago). I looked up and there they were, looking over the northern end of the city. I thought about how sad it was that there wasn’t a set also looking over the south side. Maybe that would have helped….
At the street corner, a group of people waited patiently for the “Walk” light to change. There was no traffic but people were following the rules. Today, as we grieve, we are all a little more careful and any sembleance of order, even if it is embodied in a “Walk/Don’t Walk” signal is something that we cling to.
In Madison Square park, life seemed to be going back to normal. Parks department workers were cleaning the place up, blowing leaves out, emptying trashcans. It’s funny how you notice those things in a situation like today. I was happy to see that life was getting back to normal. Inside me, tears that had been trapped started piling up.
As I moved up Madison avenue, I noticed that there was a graffiti piece on a bus stop. It said “Bomb Muslim Businesses.” I thought that was ridiculous. Yes, I’m angry, but I don’t think that I should go out and take it out and more innocent people.
I finally got home and hugged Amy harder and for longer than I ever had. My quest home had ended and I was exhausted and elated to see her… and then I fell apart. I cried for a long time, hours maybe (I’m still crying as I write this).
I got around to checking email and would like to thank everyone who emailed to tell that they were fine or check if I was OK. At the same time, I would like to give my condoleances to the families of friends and acquaintances who are already reported as confirmed dead (three so far and I’m afraid there will be more).
The next few days will be tough. I’m going to go back to work tomorrow and hopefully, that will help somewhat. I’m trying to get back into a routine so I can deal.
Like many people, I’ve lost a lot yesterday. I’ve lost some friends, and I think all of us lost something else. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s innocence; Maybe it’s a certain naivete; Maybe it’s something else. What I do know is that what I saw yesterday is something that I hope to never have to witness again in my life; What I know is that those pictures will be forever etched in my mind; What I know is that my life will never be the same. How will it change, I don’t know but I do know that I was changed yesterday.
I know it may sound crazy but one of the good things to come out of this is that it has made me reconsider a number of things. A big shock like this makes you realize how valuable life is and how inconsequential some of the little problems you have are.
What has also amazed me is the feeling of kinship this has created in every NYC resident. We’re under a state of siege but people are working hard to help each others.
Amy and I went to one of the red cross shelters to ask what they needed (if you’re in New York, find your nearest red cross shelter and bring socks and cell phone battery chargers. That’s their top priority right now). People were bringing in brand new products they had just bought. For example, I saw a bunch of people bringing sheets and blankets they had just bought at Macy’s. Other people were bringing in platters of prepared food they had bought at local stores.
Online (a vital link for a lot of people as mobile phone traffic seems to have overloaded the network), people were organizing quickly for blood drives, donations, and space (some Internet businesses away from the disaster area are offering their space up to help out other businesses). Messages are breaking down between “how are you,” “I’m OK,” “so and so is OK,” and other information about the crisis at hand.
We’re all chipping in, we’re all doing our part and hopefully, we will all get back to more normal lives soon. If you are looking to help and are in the US, the top thing to do is to give blood. There will be a lot of wounded and blood will help. Otherwise, look through your closets and see what you can spare in terms of clothing for people.