Thursday, September 11, 2008

On This Day . . .



7 years ago, on this day . . .

I was walking to work from the West 4th Street subway when I saw a plane flying low over the Hudson River. My company was located on the extreme west side of lower Manhattan at the time, nearly one and a half miles north of the World Trade Center. Something in the back of my mind found the sight of the plane odd, as airliners don't usually fly over this part of Manhattan, and certainly not that low. But, as I was running late, I put the thought out of my head and rushed to get to the office.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I was in the middle of reading through stacks of tax legislation when I got a phone call from Lisa telling me to watch the news. She said a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. My immediate thought was: "Oh, what fool took a joy ride in his prop plane and got himself killed?" See, I thought it was something like the small private plane that had crashed into the Empire State Building not so long ago. Sad and tragic, but didn't do much damage. I wasn't worried. But then she said, no, it was a 747. Now that was something entirely different, I admitted. That technically shouldn't be possible, I said, unless it was deliberate. Still, I didn't want to believe it could be terrorist related. Maybe a suicidal pilot? But the news only got worse as the minutes ticked on by. Pretty soon a noticeable buzz started to build up around the office. My co-worker had her radio tuned to the live news broadcast, listening with her headphones on. She told everyone that another plane hit the other tower now. That's when folks started to really worry.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I took a quick break and stepped outside to assess the state of the world. I was expecting people to be going about their business as normal, a reassuring reminder that the rest of the city still chugged to the usual beat despite what might be happening just a mile or so south of us. But to my surprise, the streets were a hotbed of chaotic activity. Fire engine after fire engine came roaring down Varick street, followed by motorcades of police patrol cars with their sirens blaring as well. Fire marshals and unmarked detective vehicles joined the fray, and in the air a distinct smell of something burning hung over us. People were leaving their offices and walking in the opposite direction. Surely they were overreacting? Still, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, so I cut my break short and rushed back upstairs. By now, the office was in an uproar, too. People wanted to go home, but the higher ups told us all--by mass e-mail, no less--to remain calm and continue working until further notice. They were keeping abreast of the situation.

7 Years ago, on this day . . .

My co-worker took off her headphones and turned to us, face streaming with tears. One of the towers had fallen, she told us. They think the other one will, too. My brain tried to process this impossible news. I had an absurd mental picture of a gigantic looming office tower toppling forward onto all the smaller office buildings around it. I went numb. The phones were ringing off the hook now; one of them was mine. Lisa was worried. She told me that people were being evacuated from the area -- were they letting us leave? No, I said. But I had heard enough. I wasn't staying around any longer, waiting for the company brass to decide my fate for me. Others were of the same mind. Finally the official order came from up high. We were to leave the premises for home, and to contact our managers over the course of the next few days to find out when it would be safe to come back in to work. That was all. So we powered down our workstations and filed out of the building at once. We didn't know it, but it would be a week before we were allowed to come back.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I was hoofing it up 6th avenue, heading north. Around five hundred other people crammed around me, trying to do the same thing. I travelled up to West 4th street, then took a shortcut cutting through Washington Square Park and the campuses of NYU. Students and faculty were standing around the steps of the buildings, chatting calmly but obviously confused. No one yet fully understood the magnitude of what had happened. Neither did I, but at that moment I didn't care. I was in pure survival mode, just thinking how in hell I was going to walk up the full length of the island of Manhattan, cross the Harlem River, and then walk 30 more blocks to my highrise in the Bronx. The subways and buses were frozen, mass transit had come to a standstill. The entire lower half of the city was walking east and north with me. At 23rd street I had to decide: did I go east past 1st avenue and work my way up the FDR? Or head west and walk along the West Side Highway? I imagined the east side route taking me past the U.N. Having a vague knowledge that this had been a terrorist attack, I did not want to chance that the U.N. would not be a target, too. So I made a compromise, I stuck to 5th avenue and continued on north until I hit Central Park. From there I headed east to 1st avenue, and then north again to Harlem. I crossed the barricaded Willis Avenue bridge near 135 street into the Bronx. Buses and trains were not working here, either, so I continued walking home. I walked 10 miles that day in 3.5 hours. A city of dazed and eerily silent zombies had shadowed my movements almost every step of the way. Everyone else was in survival mode, too, it seemed.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

Once home at last, I sat on the couch all day long, numbly watching all the news reports on the television. Nothing seemed real. From my 10th story apartment, I could see down into the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Not far enough to see the WTC on a normal day . . . but this was not a normal day. A thick, black plume of smoke rose up from the horizon, testament to how far I had walked that morning. My feet were not as sore as the day my boy scout troop got lost and we ended up walking 15 miles along broken trails with full packs on our backs, but they were hurt nonetheless. The news reporters kept repeating themselves: A tragedy they called it. Still no word on the Pentagon. Still no word on that 4th plane. A tragedy. That word repeated over and over.

7 years later, on this day . . .

My company has since moved locations, but this time settling us directly across the street from the World Trade Center and the pit that is Ground Zero. Today is my first 9/11 memorial ceremony so close to the site. The bell just tolled here at around 8:47, filling the entire office with an eerie silence in its wake. One of the most surreal moments of my life, besides the actual event of course. A lot of folks did not come in today so as to avoid the crowds and all the security that has shut down the side streets to vehicular traffic. Later this afternoon McCain and Obama will make an appearance. I brought my lunch with me, so I doubt I'll set foot outside in that zoo until I leave to go home for the day.

They tell us never to forget. But for me, on this day, it's impossible not to remember.

7 comments:

cindy said...

this entry gave me goosebumps. thank you for sharing, david.

Ashe Hunt said...

Man, I was in Cali at the time freaking out. Veronica called me into the room to see the news on the television. I was getting ready for work and I just froze. I'm like, oh shit dumbfounded! I'm worried as shit 'cause I know you and my Brother work downtown. My brother actually saw the second plane hit. He had just come out of the train station. And I don't know where the rest of my family works but I know some of them work downtown, too. Talk about helpless. Couldn't get any damn calls through. Worried as shit! Who knew what else was coming, you know? No guilt in my relief that I didn't lose anyone close to me. Insane day. Wonderfully recollected my friend.

Pavonne said...

Thanks for sharing the details of a mammoth event... one that will never be forgotten by me. I remember the day clearly.

I started my mornings watching Good Morning America and the comments at the time were casual... like some nut is flying low and ran into the WTC. By the time I got to work, the office was in an uproar and all of the televisions we used to show videos were in full operation showing the details. Everyone in the office knew I was from NYC and checked on me regularly. "Did I know anyone there? Was any of my family in the towers? Am I okay?" I felt numb as horror after horror was reported. Even though I was 3,000 miles away, they let us go early. Even today, when I think about that day, my heart goes numb.

Since that day, I have visited Ground Zero several times and relived the stories, the news broadcast, reviewed the details of one of our client's wife who died that day and it is overwhelming... every time.

You're right David... it is indeed impossible, not to remember. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful account of this day. I am glad that you and thousands of others made it home... even with sore feet.

David Batista said...

Where were you working at the time, Pam? I'm always fascinated to hear other people's accounts of the same event. Although 11 years would normally seem like a long time to me, it's funny how this seems like it just happened last year. Even after all this time it's hard to believe it really occurred over a decade ago. Wow!

Pavonne said...

I was working at a company called Access Business Group in Buena Park, CA. I was sitting at the computer reading minute-by-minute updates of the event, watching television and talking to folks in NYC on my phone and in the office.

You're right about how fast 11 years can fly by. We now have a whole generation of youngsters who are clueless about what happened. We remember... many of those who experienced it and/or lost loved ones in the mayhem. I just saw a tweet encouraging readers to stop by and participate/read results of a poll entitled, "I'm so over 9/11." Amazing! And this is the world in which we live and call home. :)

David Batista said...

True. So sad. And it's also weird thinking there are kids like Liam who will only know of this event through history books and documentaries. His reaction will be like my own was growing up and hearing my grandma talk about the day of JFK's assassination. I know it happened, but it has very little emotional resonance with me since I was not even born yet at the time.

Guess this is just one more thing to let me know I'm getting OLDER!!!! :)

Pavonne said...

Sadly, I remember the assassination. I guess I have arrived at being older... lol. Okay, I know. I missed the point. You are right about not connecting. For me, it was an event like WWII. :)

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