As the 10th anniversary approaches, I've been thinking back about what I experienced that day, and in the days and weeks that followed. I don't know why but, I thought it'd be a good idea to share it. Feel free to share your own 9/11 story if you'd like.
In 2001, I lived in northern NJ and I worked in NYC for Entertainment Weekly magazine. I was getting ready for work and listening to Howard Stern when his producer cut in and said "a small plane hit the WTC." He didn't sound concerned and I was running late (as usual) so I didn't turn on the TV. I was about to run out the door when Howard, who usually takes nothing seriously said something like "Another plane just hit the building, this is bad. Stop listening and turn on your TV's." I turned on CNN, about 5 seconds after the second tower was hit. The first words I heard were "our country is under attack." I tried to call my office but the lines were jammed and cell service had been cut off in Manhattan. I knew there was no chance of getting to the city so I just sat down and watched it unfold.
I remember when the first tower collapsed, I said out loud "my god, thousands of people just died." Then I got sick to my stomach when I flashed back to a party I attended a year earlier at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the north tower. [link]
My friend and I stood up against a window looking down at the city and I joked "what would happen if this building fell?" After the first tower fell, the phone started ringing. Family and friends were calling because they didn't know if I was in Manhattan or at home. A few hours later, my manger called with a status report. Amazingly some people made it to the office and were trying to get the issue to the printer (they did). But the city was locked down, nobody could get in or out. He said I should stay home until the bridges and tunnels reopened, which would take days. I watched CNN the rest of the day, through the night into the next afternoon. I didn't even try to go to sleep.
The bridges and tunnels reopened at the end of the week. But nobody knew if more attacks were planned so the thought of going into NYC was unsettling. But there was one part of my commute I'd been dreading for days. The drive to the bus took me past a viewpoint of NYC that was always my favorite part of the trip. As the highway exits the hills, it opens up to an unobstructed of the entire NYC skyline. That would be the first time I'd see the skyline without the towers. When I got there, I almost lost control of the car. If you never saw the towers, it's hard to appreciate how big they were. The viewpoint is about 10 miles away and they still looked massive from that distance. So when I came around the turn and saw they were gone... along with the huge cloud of smoke covering lower Manhattan, my brain couldn't process it. I was stunned and in a fog for the rest of the drive. I arrived at the park and ride to transfer to the bus and when I walked into the depot I noticed nobody was talking. People were sitting there, staring out the windows and everyone looked nervous. The bus ride was no different. On "the helix" leading into the Lincoln Tunnel, I got my first close up view of ground zero from across the river. There were boats and helicopters everywhere. Smoke covered all of lower Manhattan and part of NY harbor. I could see and hear the fighter jets flying overhead. By the time the bus entered the tunnel, I was on the verge of a panic attack.
The NYC bus station was normally a very noisy place but as I came down the escalator, I didn't hear a sound. It was completely silent which was very, very creepy. I thought it would be better out on the street, but it wasn't. People were in a daze, nobody was talking. As I crossed the street, an F-15 or F-16 flew directly overhead which literally made me drop to my knees in the middle of the street. It was flying so low and it was so loud that I thought it was another attack. I walked up 8th Ave. and approached the local firehouse. There was a crowd standing outside, some of the people were holding candles. I assumed one of the firefighters had died. But it turned out that firehouse lost more firefighters than any other station in the entire city. People had been leaving flowers, photos and notes on the sidewalk and the pile was about 3 feet high. When I arrived at my office building, there were security people and metal detectors everywhere. Once inside, I learned one of my good friends had just moved into a apartment directly across the street from the WTC. We found out later he was in the apt. sleeping when the first plane hit. His widows exploded in and destroyed almost everything he owned. He made it out of the building to the street which he later described as hell. He saw people jumping from the towers to escape the fire, the bodies of those who already jumped or who were blown out of the towers by the explosions. I think he was evacuated before the first tower fell. Still, he was pretty traumatized and didn't return to work for several weeks.
The following day, I walked past the train station in my town. There were about 10 cars in the parking lot and a group of people standing there looking at them. I asked somebody what happened and he told me the cars belonged to people who were killed in the attack. In all the chaos, nobody thought to return them to the families. In the weeks that followed, every other day there was a new rumor about pending attacks. My brother called me at work one night telling me to get out of the city right away because he'd just picked up a CEO at the airport (he's was a town car driver) who told him a nuclear attack was imminent. I asked him why would the guy fly into NY if it was true? Silence... Still, I never felt safe while I was in the city again. Every time I heard a plane fly overhead or a loud noise, I got weak in the knees.
About two months later, I went down to ground zero to visit my friend from work. The city was allowing people who lived in the area to return to buildings they cleared for structural damage. His building's owner had repaired the big damage so they allowed him back in. After I arrived, he pointed towards one window and told me to look outside. I was looking directly down at the wreckage of the south tower from across the street. I could see the emergency workers and the wreckage was still smoking. Then I realized that hundreds or thousands of bodies were buried down there. That was the last time I was in lower Manhattan. I'll probably never visit the area again. I still can't understand how my friend's building wasn't completely destroyed, it was only about one hundred yards away.
So... that's my 9/11 story. Thankfully I didn't witness the events first hand, I don't think I would have handled it very well. Living with the aftermath was stressful enough.