The first time I spoke publicly about what I saw on September 11th, 2001 I was completely unprepared for what would happen. As the memories flooded back, so did the emotions of that day. I could barely talk.
Staring out into the crowd I could see their faces – they wondered if I would be able to finish.
I was speaking in front of a group in Kansas City, Missouri. I can’t even remember the name of the group, I just remember a friend asked me if I would share my experiences with a crowd about of about 100.
The speech didn’t seem like that big of a deal – my experience on 9/11 wasn’t horrific, in the sense that I wasn’t in the towers, and I didn’t know anyone who died. But it was during that speech that I truly realized that just being in Manhattan and seeing the towers burn and the devastation that followed, I was forever changed.
I was relatively new to Manhattan when the attacks occurred. I moved to the city just two months prior to 9/11 – it was a dream come true to be a resident of the greatest city in the world. My end goal was to score my dream job as a reporter.
My first apartment was near 39th Street and 9th Avenue on the west side, close enough to walk to my job at that time, which was at Macy’s marketing. The offices are on top of the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square at 34th Street and 6th Avenue.
On September 11th 2001 I woke up to a beautiful day – as did the rest of New York. You’ve probably heard before how gorgeous it was. The sky was flawless, not one cloud. I grabbed my coffee and headed out the door. When I got to work everything was normal. But not for long.
Soon there was chatter. Someone in the cube a few feet away said “something hit the empire state building – wait no, the Trade Center.”
From another cube “a small plane hit one of the trade center towers.”
The chatter grew. Finally we all went to a window near the employee elevators where you could see the Twin Towers. One of them was on fire. Some of my co-workers starting crying – one let out a yelp. She clasped her face.
People started calling their families. I called my parents who live in California. It was early there. They were still asleep.
“Mom, dad, get up and turn on the TV,” I said.
They did. And they couldn’t believe their eyes. I couldn’t talk to them for very long. We were given an order to evacuate the building. Macy’s sits just about a block from the Empire State Building, which was a potential target in everybody’s minds.
We headed for the basement. It was orderly. Everyone was kind of quiet. It was eerie to say the least.
I can’t remember how long we were in the basement. It seemed like forever. None of us knew what was going on above us. Finally we got an all clear and we were allowed to go upstairs and leave the building.
Outside the streets were packed with people who had also been evacuated. A lot of people on their cell phones, many didn’t seem to know where to go. The subways, trains and bridges were closed. Manhattan was an island with no way in or out.
I walked to my apartment with one of my co-workers. She couldn’t get home because her apartment was in Brooklyn.
From my apartment I watched the coverage – I saw my city covered in a horrific brown and black fog. The towers were gone, the carnage impossible to comprehend.
The next morning I got up and called some friends. We decided to spend the day together. It was somber. Some of us cried. We just couldn’t wrap our heads around what happened. It was therapeutic for us to tell our stories of where we were and what we were doing when we found out the city was under attack.
That night I took a cab ride through the city. People flooded the streets to hold vigils. New Yorkers were coming together. In shock as they were the city was unified – sad and angry but standing together.
It was impossible to forget for even a few moments about what the terrorists did to Manhattan. First there was the smell. When thousands of people die in a horrific fire the smoke and fumes are not stagnant – they wafted through the city. The blaze at Ground Zero would burn for months.
I think it was about six months after the attacks that finally work crews were able to clear the debris and put out the hot spots that smoldered for so long. It was time for a grand memorial. The towers of light would soon shoot into the sky and remind us all of who and what we lost. I remember tearing up when I looked up and saw them for the first time. It made me realize how resilient we all are when we stand together. Ten years later I sometimes wonder whether we’re forgetting that positive lesson from that day.
Everyone says never forget 9/11. I know I can’t forget it. It’s part of my DNA now… I’m sure that’s probably true for most Americans including Detroiters, whether you were in Manhattan or somewhere else.
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