It’s hard not to be honest about a day that changed your life. One can even say it’s impossible. The moments never forgotten that are ingrained into your thoughts. The emotions you feel when inevitably you have a flashback. So my telling of 9/11 will be the truth as I recall it. It will be my story but one I know others will relate to.
It was a Tuesday morning. A gorgeous day in September in New York City. I had an appointment in Manhattan at 10am. Every Tuesday I was seeing a therapist. I was needing someone to talk out my problems with and seek unbiased advice. I was 31 years old and my life was hectic. I had reached a boiling point and my friends and family around me asked that I do something about it. So I sought out therapy. Long term it wasn’t for me and eventually I had resolved my issues but that’s for another story.
My alarm had awoken me. It was very average that day. I showered quick, got dressed, brushed my teeth, and headed toward the subway. Living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan meant a nearly daily commute of almost an hour each way. In NYC that’s common and normal. I used the time on the train wisely and read books or the newspaper. Sometimes I would listen to music. I even ate on the train. I was never bored. I kept myself occupied.
Delays are common too. NY’ers are immune to hour waits while whatever else is going on is resolved. Anything from police action to sickness can result in long waiting periods. So you must be prepared to be patient. I’m admittedly an impatient person but I’ve grown accustomed to train delays. On this day the delay was different.
I was riding the B train which travels from Coney Island in Brooklyn through Manhattan which was my destination. It stops frequently. I was enjoying my ride but I remember feeling alert. I was anticipating my therapy session and considering how I felt about the last week. When you go to therapy you can’t just walk in without some expectation of what you want to discuss. At $120 an hour you made sure not a minute was wasted.
The train was coming close to leaving Brooklyn. The B train travels at first above ground and then burrows into downtown Brooklyn. As it reaches the river it escalates over the Manhattan Bridge. An ascension into a mecca of building. It’s normally a view I don’t take for granted. I enjoy skyscrapers immensely.
I was born in Minnesota but my fathers side of the family were all born in Brooklyn. My grandparents, uncles, and aunts from that side of the family were almost all in Brooklyn. I had spent entire summers in Brooklyn and it was amazing. I would be taken on tourist rides into Manhattan by my uncles frequently. I also have a single memory when I must have been 4 or 5 and my grandfather took me to the World Trade Center. It was magnificent. Even as a very small child the wonder of these buildings were awe inspiring. They literally reached into the clouds. Standing at their base made one feel the power of humanity. You felt vertigo peering up so far that you almost had to bend over backwards. Few native New Yorkers really appreciated these marvelous achievements. They were for many decades the tallest buildings in the world. And there wasn’t just one. There was two of them.
The Twin Towers. The World Trade Centers. They represented a great deal to me. They represented New York, a memory with my grandfather, and a deep desire to achieve. In a way the WTC inspired me to be more. Even before September 11th I had deep emotional attachments to these structures.
So when I turned 18 and had no direction in my life I made a bold move. I went from St. Paul, Minnesota to New York City. It was not easy. But turning into a man I don’t think ever is. I was on my own for the most part. While I did get some family help early on I was the type of person to want independence. I never wanted to rely on others. Within months I had friends and was working low paying jobs. The first place I looked for a job was inside the World Trade Center. To me it was where I wanted to be. It was the reason I was in NY. I knew there was something there for me.
My work experience wasn’t grand. I had worked at low-end jobs like Taco Bell and a car wash. I had some other restaurant experience too but at 18 you just want a job that pays. Minimum was around $4.25 an hour. So anything above that was great. I applied at many places but nothing really panned out. I was like other young people with few skills. I remember feeling low. Sitting in parks in the afternoon and just walking around without a real clue. But during that time I felt like an explorer. I had this immense city to travel. Every building I stepped into was fantastic. The architecture was grand.
Everyone knows that fast food is the last place you want to work. But after 2 weeks of searching I felt that I had no choice. I knew I could quickly snap up a job hustling burgers if it came down to it. Eventually the decision became clear. A job was more important than my pride. I had seen a very large sign right next to the World Trade Center. It was in a Burger King. So as a shy apprehensive 18 year old skinny white boy from Minnesota I stepped in and became a New Yorker. This job unlike any other shaped my life. It was the worst job I had ever had. It was the best learning experience I could ever get. I had no plans for college and while I had considered it. I never had the support or means to go forward with it. I was at the age of 17 responsible for myself. Who was going to help me? No one.
Working at this Burger King meant 5 days a week of traveling into Manhattan. It meant every day viewing the wonders of the city. The rich business men were aspiring. Who didn’t want to be rich in the 80s? I was miserable and poor. I enjoyed aspects of my job but it was probably the conflicts that taught me most. I was a good worker and quickly rose to management. This didn’t please many who had been working there for much longer than I. But I had ambition and drive. I had the desire for power and the motivation to succeed. Yes it was Burger King but I had stumbled into one of the most successful corporate Burger Kings in the world. It was corporate owned. A flagship store that was often used to test new products. The CEO of BK would stop in and see how things were doing. It was definitely a place to launch a career.
You might feel at this point that I’m giving you too much information. That I’m going off topic. But I’m pointing out my emotional attachment and history to the WTC. It was a center focal point for an important chapter in my life. To this day I can tear up with thoughts of those towers. Of times with friends and growing into my own. Of family like my Uncle Henry who is now passed but took me as a teen into the Trade Center for a view from the observation deck. And my Uncle Robert who loved me and spent a lot of time with me. He took me around like an everyday tourist as I glowed walking between skyscrapers as if they were part of the Grand Canyon.
I can only speak for myself and how the WTC inspired me. But from speaking personally with many who move to NY they had similar feelings. Ironically it was the native NY born citizens that didn’t even seem to notice how great their city truly was. I knew many young people who moved to NY that just loved the city and what it had to offer.
So back to the day of September 11th 2001. So far an uneventful morning and the weather was wonderful. No humidity and not a cloud in the sky. Temperature was great that day.
The B train was finally at the last couple stops in Brooklyn and would soon ascend over the bridge and then descend into a Manhattan tunnel. But something wasn’t going well that morning. The train was stalled. It was taking a very long time to move. We had left the last Brooklyn stop and we should have been over the bridge 20 minutes ago. Not completely unusual for a NYC train but what was unusual was the announcement from the conductor which was something like this “Sorry, we are having some delays. Apparently a plane has hit the World Trade Center and there is a fire.” I remember his voice even now. It was monotone and matter of fact. Almost annoyed even. But I was struck at the oddity of the message itself. There quick words told almost nothing yet said a great deal. A plane had hit the WTC?
It was only a few minutes more that we crawled up the bridge into the morning light to finally see what he was talking about. You can see a fire burning at the top. We had no other information from the conductor and the train would stop and go for another 10-15 minutes. During this time most had gone back to reading their newspapers and drinking their coffee. New Yorkers are a hard bunch to captivate. But my attention didn’t falter. I could not look away. I was perplexed at the site. My first instinct told me this was no accident.
Most in NY were well aware of the dangers of terrorists. We knew that the WTC was attacked in 1993 by Al Qaeda. And while the rest of America ignored Middle East policy the NY population which consisted of global citizens had a firm grasp that tensions were boiling. That America was a target especially NY. An attack wasn’t just probable. It was imminent. So while I watched the Tower burn this was in my mind. I recalled one name and it was Bin Laden. A man at the top of the FBI Most Wanted list.
But I watched and I watched. Minutes passed and the train barely moved. I’d look around stunned that this fire didn’t catch the attention of anyone else in my subway car. I had a very good view as I was in a spot on the side of the train facing the towers and right next to a window. Maybe that was why I was the only guy watching. Maybe that’s why after a time I had seen the second plane coming.
It was like a dream these moments. From the corner of my eye it caught my attention. A very obvious passenger jet airliner. Massive and lumbering in the sky. I can still clearly see it rotating back and forth taking careful aim. I remember the thought of trying to see inside the windows of the plane to catch a glimpse of a person. I could swear I saw shadows but even now I think it might have been my imagination. I had a good few seconds to watch the next horror unfold. It was obvious. This plane was headed toward the second tower. It was aiming and veering. I lifted myself off the seat and these few seconds felt like eternity. This was the moment my life changed.
In an instant it had hit the second tower. I had expected it to crash through and see debris or the signs of a plane coming out the other side. However it disintegrated. It turned into dust right in front of me. It became a fireball. My first thought was, “How many people just died. I’ve just seen people die. There was people in there.”. I was fully standing now and I had screamed loudly, “Oh my God, oh my God” and quickly sat down shivering at what I saw. I can’t tell you if I was speaking out loud now but I was stunned and doing the sign of the cross and continually saying “Oh my God” over and over. My mind could not grasp what I had just witnessed.
Now everyone was standing and looking out the window. But I couldn’t. I sat there with my heart racing while I tried to recover my senses. I suddenly realized how scared I was. I was mortified. I had just witnessed something terrible. People were killed. I knew the towers and I knew planes. I know the potential for hundreds to have died if not thousands. People were working and a full plane can carry hundreds alone. No one could have survived that blast. It was instant death for everyone.
I was so scared at that moment. I was counting the dead. I then quickly realized where I was. In NYC, in an attack, and sitting in a train on a bridge open to the sky. An attack against America was here. Airplanes were falling from the sky. The greater NY area has three very close airports. There is Laguardia, JFK and Newark Airport in New Jersey across the river. Planes were not only common they were consistent. It was every couple minutes one would fly over. You can almost always see one or more in the air. Now every plane was a potential missile aimed at the city. And here I was sitting on a bridge to the city. A possible if not likely target if a full scale attack was happening.
I guess I wasn’t the only one to think this way. Because within seconds of the plane crashing the once slow moving train was suddenly speeding over the bridge. As if we suddenly needed to find a fox hole and gain cover. I had no control and we were sitting ducks. I don’t know what I would have done if that train didn’t move. Thankfully it did.
It was only a few stops until I had reached my job. I was very late for my therapist and in light of this second crash I was now concerned with getting to safety. The city was quickly becoming aware that something was going on.
I had exited the train on 14th street and University Ave. I don’t remembering actually getting off. I only remember walking out of the station and seeing the people standing in the streets gawking down University Ave at the World Trade Center. It was a perfect view from this street. Clearly you could see the towers burn.
It was about half a mile to my store. I had owned a video game store for about 6 years on Saint Marks Place. I also had an office on the block where I was publishing a new game magazine and also trying to run some internet upstarts.
I was walking. I can’t recall if it was fast or slow. I felt numb as if in shock. I couldn’t look up at the towers. I was however watching all the reactions of people. Most simply stared up into the sky. The mass of NYU students who have their own stories of that day probably decided to skip class or leave their breakfast table. It was compelling to watch. The world was turning on their TVs.
I have one very clear memory of that walk. It was two young women. Probably NYU students walking, talking, and laughing. Yes they were laughing. They seemed oblivious and uncaring to the situation. I was very angry and I wanted to smash their smiling faces. I realized I had great anger inside me and continued to walk on more briskly to my destination.
When I arrived at my store I had called my friend and co-worker who was schedule to arrive soon anyways. He was on his way. This was before text messaging and cell phones were common. I had picked up the phone and dialed home. No one answered. I had to speak to someone. I called my best friend in Minnesota. He was awake and watching the television. I relayed my story quickly but for some reason I didn’t feel the need for a long conversation. I told him I was okay and that I loved him with a simple “Love you buddy” and hung up.
I dialed home again. No answer.
My co-worker and actually very good friend had arrived. We watched the TV which normally played video games for customers. We spoke frantically discussing how we didn’t know what to do and how best to proceed. NY was quickly under lock-down. They had closed the bridges, stopped the trains, and blocked off the tunnels. The city was under siege. What was the next move? What was the next attack?
We decided to go to the office which was two building down on the second floor. For a few minutes we went to the roof and saw the towers burning. This was so wrong I thought. It was as if my world had collapsed and the apocalypse had begun. We realized it probably wasn’t safe to be on a roof and honestly I didn’t want to watch the towers burn. I was very concerned about my family and my city.
The next couple hours were a blur. Calling people, talking, and in general trying to figure out what all this meant. We had decided to open. Routine seemed to be the only way to continue the day without going mad. What were we to do? There was nowhere to go.
I finally spoke with my wife. She was fine. I told her I was fine. Our children who went to school a few blocks from our home were fine. We told each other how much we loved one another. Once I figured out how I was getting home I’d call her again.
I called back my best friend in Minnesota from my store. He was watching the TV and I wasn’t. So he relayed to me the news. I was telling him what I felt and what was going on. I guess in a weird way I wanted to speak with someone who was safe outside the city. If something terrible was going to happen I knew he’d be okay and be able to relay my story and tell my loved ones what happened to me. He went quiet for a second. He told me that there was nothing but smoke and that he couldn’t see the tower anymore. All he could see was smoke.
Watching the towers burn for nearly two hours you couldn’t avoid the questions. Will the towers fall? Can they stop the fire? Time was passing and without more attacks. Not that it felt safe but it felt like the immediate attack was over.
All he could see was smoke. Words from him that I didn’t grasp. I asked him, “what do you mean”. We were quiet but stayed on the phone. Eventually he said it, “the tower fell, it’s gone”. And in that instant my hopes of this being resolved were crushed. It was without doubt the other tower would fall too. It was smoking and burning terribly. Where was I? What was I doing? What was going on? Questions to this day I can’t answer. Had you asked me the next day I would not have answered. The World Trade Center was gone. I got off the phone.
The day moved on and I was walking between my store and office. I had walked to the corner to see what was happening in the street and to see downtown. My store was officially in Ground Zero territory. Downtown Manhattan was only a few miles away. A long walk, a short bike ride, or a quick hop in a cab. But this day no cabs, no buses, and no trains. Outside I saw a few black GM SUV driving fast toward downtown. Clearly government vehicles. It felt odd. Then I saw them.
Almost like zombies walking grudgingly from the downtown area. They were covered in debris, soot, and dust. You could see that they too had stories to tell. Witnesses each and every one of them. I couldn’t see emotion. Maybe I was too shocked or embarrassed to look into their faces. Too ashamed that I had no way to help anyone. A real feeling of helplessness came over me. I had compassion for all these people and in that moment we were in this together. My fellow New Yorkers and I couldn’t understand why this was happening to us.
The day went on mainly uneventful and shock turned into numbness and eventually I tired. I was listening to news and figuring out how to get back to Brooklyn. I normally closed at 10pm but as soon as a train was running into Brooklyn I knew I had to get home. All the bridges were closed but around 6 or 7 pm they opened up some tunnels for people to train out of the city. In a weird way it was an evacuation. I along with thousands of others were trapped just wanting to escape this nightmare and hug our loved ones.
I finally was able to catch a train that went not far from my home. It was not my usual train but it was close enough. The train was packed with people and I was forced to stand. The sadness and quiet on the train were insurmountable. It was like funeral home. I felt tears on my face. This was certainly a day on which many shed tears.
Some trains when they hit the boroughs are elevated or nick named “El’s”. The train I was on was an El and had left me off about 20 minute walk to my home. It was dusk but enough light to see far away. The weather was still gorgeous. And Brooklyn felt calm and comforting. Most walked quickly out of the car leaving the station to run home. A few of us looked back. I recall this clearly. The feeling of dread of this long day and the view of a burning city. Lower Manhattan was on fire. The smoke drizzling out for miles. I could not smell the burn but nonetheless I imagined I could. It was a powerful vision of destruction that made me feel destitute. I lingered for a moment.
I was tired from the long day and when I did arrive home I was incredibly grateful to be there. I was safe with my family but the days tragedy was unfolding. My neighbors were ready for war. One in particular walked over asking if I needed a gun. I told him we were okay. Many felt that Muslims were to blame and that a battle could break out at any time. To this day I’m amazed that a certain calm was kept. That riots to capture and kill didn’t happen. But I think many were on guard and just waiting for approval or instructions to take action. Instead our mayor Rudy Guliani spoke calmly and provided comforting words. He could have just as easily pointed a finger and called on New York to take action. Instead being a man of confidence and iron will he kept NY sane that day.
That night I was glued to the news on television. Reports of the days events continued. I was nearly on the edge of my seat with every new story. My wife and I broke into tears a number of times. This was tragedy on a scale we could never foresee. I stayed up very late that night as if the news would give me a conclusion. It never did.
The next day I immediately woke up and turned on the news. Reports were coming in and speculation that it was Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were all over the place. The death toll was rising and some speculated 10,000 killed. People were missing. America was scarred. Our politicians were attempting to console and comfort us.
I had found out that my store was in Ground Zero zone and cut off. There was no way to open and get back to normal. But now what was normal? It felt like NYC would never be the same and for me. It never was. The wife and I discussed leaving right away. But it felt wrong and somehow a resignation to defeat if we did. So we made the decision we would be strong and stay.
It was a couple days until my store reopened. It was slow at first but eventually normalized. But the tourists were gone. 20% of my business was gone almost immediately after 9/11. My new game magazine which I only started to publish now had this huge hurdle to face. How could anyone do anything and not think of the 9/11 tragedy? It was all around us now. The new laws, the speculation on new attacks, the added security and the invasion of Afghanistan that was about to unfold. War was upon us.
The days would pass into weeks but things were different for me and my family. I would break into a full sessions of crying without much enticement. I would wake from horrible nightmares of planes falling from the sky and my family attacked. I now flinched when a bird was in the corner of my vision. I was timid. These were signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I tried to move on with my life but I never really did. Within 4 years my business had dropped in half. My magazine after two years of publishing finally failed. Faced with loads of debt, a failing business, and a growing family I enticed the wife to leave NYC. We sold our house and chose Las Vegas as our destination.
I always say that 9/11 changed my life and it was an event that directly effected me. For many 9/11 was something they saw on the news. Something they have an opinion about. It’s often trivialized by those with no understanding of how that day effected so many. How lives were lost, families destroyed, a city ruined, and a nation challenged.
To this day you can trace the current problems of America to that event. It was a catalyst to our changing position in the world. Is America still great? It just doesn’t feel like it is.
I know some will debate the reasons for that day. Some will debate the events themselves. The conspiracies seem to never end. There is finger pointing at every turn. I myself don’t buy into any of it. It was what it appeared to be. A simple plan by terrorists that exceeded their expectations. And even if you’re not mature enough to believe that you can’t deny that a tragedy did occur that morning. That on 9/11 thousands of Americans died. People who were not soldiers. People that were like you and me.