September 11, 2001
The sky over New York City is flawless. Refracted sunlight dances on my arm as I fade in and out to the low hum of the New Jersey Transit bus creeping along the highway’s twists and turns on our approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. It’s 8:46am when I’m jolted awake by a loud, rushed voice. It takes me a moment to realize that it’s the bus driver, takes me another moment to interpret what he has just said, takes me yet another moment to follow the direction of the driver’s arm as he points a wavering hand towards downtown Manhattan.
I arch my head in the opposite direction of the turning bus as we round towards the tunnel, my mind trying to catch up with my eyes and ears. As I look around I pause on an old family friend. He’s on the phone with his wife, who tells him there’s news that a plane has flown into one of the Twin Towers.
At first it is believed to be a small commuter plane. Or, more accurately, at first it’s difficult to believe at all. But I can see something there—something, if only a bit of smoke, perhaps. And yet still definitely something. We enter the tunnel and snake through the lighted tube beneath the Hudson River.
As I rush through Port Authority I hear news of a second hit, this time in the other Tower. It’s shortly after 9am. I opt not to use the subway. I exit onto Eighth Avenue and swing a right, and it doesn’t occur to me that I’m headed downtown, 23 blocks closer to the “accident.” I suppose part of my dazed mind, with its limited knowledge of what is happening at present, reasons that I ought to get away from landmarks such as Port Authority. I suppose part of my nonsensical mind believes that as long as I get to work I will be safe. I’m on Eighth and 39th as I pull my cell phone out of my bag, planning to call my fiancé and father, but before I can dial a number it rings in my hand.
“Mazel Tov!” I hear through the earpiece, my friend Eli calling from Israel to wish me, with oblivious enthusiasm, congratulations on my recent engagement. “I just heard the news! Mazel tov!”
I’m speechless for a moment, and then, after a brief thank you, my mind quickly picks up again as I rush out the bits and pieces I’ve heard during my commute. My pressured babbling reaches a point wherein I lose track of what I’m saying just as the words leave my lips. I pause, breathe, and then summarize:
“Something’s happening here.”
Eli, when I finish, responds:
“My dad works in Tower One.”
Somehow, my feet take me down Eighth Avenue to the PW offices on 17th Street in Chelsea. I head up to the sixth floor and find that most everyone else is in a similar state of disbelief. TVs and radios murmur in private offices. Coworkers scuttle back and forth through the cubicles. I go to my desk in the book room and try to log onto my e-mail, but I keep getting an error message. I try AOL Instant Messenger instead, surprised and relieved to see my buddy list pop up. I see one of my fiancé’s school friends online and tell him to pass along that I’m at the office and that I’m okay.
At 9:50am, the bulk of us, having left our desks and detached our eyes from the blaring TV, gather in front of the huge picture window stretched along the south side of our building. From this sixth story window, we watch in suspended time an unobstructed view of the smoking, blazing Towers, not 2½ miles downtown. In the distance, we see fragments from the buildings splintering out from the sides.
Are those chunks of metal? Concrete?
My phone rings at 9:55am—it’s my father, who tells me he’s in the Bronx with my brother, heading up to the Tappan Zee Bridge in the hopes of crossing back over into New Jersey. I’m still on the phone at 9:59am when my colleagues and I stare out the window in shared horror and disbelief as the South Tower, in a matter of 10 seconds, collapses in one rumbling, raging storm cloud of dust and debris. I’ve no idea where I find the words to speak.
“The building is falling!” I cry into the phone.
“What?! What building?” My father is frantic. He thinks I’m referring to the one I’m in now. Added to the mix of overwhelming terror, I become frustrated that he can’t understand what I’m saying.
“No, the Tower! It collapsed! I’m looking at it right now! Oh my God, the whole Tower just collapsed!”
I feel someone’s hand on my shoulder, a feeble attempt at comfort. There are no more words to say, nothing in this moment that can possibly make anything better—but it’s the meaning behind this action, the attempt to, at the very least, try to alleviate the heaviness of the moment, that makes an impact. Weak and uncertain… firm and strong… it’s no matter. All that matters is that it’s there. I have no idea whose hand it is.
The rest of the morning is blurred. My father tells me to walk to the East Side to meet my parents’ friend, Paul. I go on foot, joining a mass exodus of people heading shocked, confused, uptown to unknown destinations. I zig-zag my way across town and uptown, noting a van shooting up Sixth Avenue that, aside from half the front window, is completely covered in a thick layer of off-white dust. I walk up through the streets, noting the overcrowded buses picking up passengers at no charge. I opt to walk. I don’t want to be in a vehicle. I want to be on my feet. I want to feel the ground beneath my feet as I make my way into uncertainty.
Paul drives us to the George Washington Bridge in his leased yellow Beetle. I’m not sure why the bridge is open. All I know is I’m horrified going over this bridge, counting every second as we inch closer and closer to the other side. It’s as though, somehow, if we could only get to Fort Lee, we’ll be safe. If we can only get onto Route 4, all will be okay. And once I am delivered safely to my parents’ house in my familiar, Bergen County suburb, all will be well with the world.