September 11th 2001 was an undeniable oxymoron. Serene chaos, basically. I was living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the time, a few blocks from the United Nations when the twin towers were hit and sunk my adopted home into pandemonium.
I woke up with a hangover that Tuesday morning, having met up with an old school friend for a few drinks after a decade of missing each other the night before. My roommate had got a call from her sister in Israel telling us to put the TV on and we started to watch the events of a day that would change so many lives.
By then the first plane had hit and we watched the second live on TV, like many other people around the world. You are never prepared for tragedy, but especially not on that scale.
Common sense does actually kick in when something like that happens and that surprised me. My boss would have either been at work in the World Financial Centre or on his way, so my first thought was his kids. They would have been 6 and 7 at the time and were in a school over on the West Side. Their mother was upstate and the news channels were talking of the city being locked down, so I knew there was no way for her to get back to get them. That was my mission – to get to the boys.
I remember vividly the 79 cross-town bus journey, one I had made so many times. People going around their daily business who would normally look away or pay no mind to the other passengers were all looking to each other for reassurance in a way, that everything was going to be ok. Others frantically trying to contact loved ones on their cell phones, and not getting through.
It was a gorgeous September day, you see that in all the footage. Not a cloud in the sky, about 75 degrees, a day that would usually be relatively loud if you were to measure days in sound. But it wasn’t. It was eerily quiet. The only noises to break the serenity were those of the F16s flying overhead protecting Manhattan and the sirens of ambulances and fire trucks.
It was possibly the loneliest time I have experienced in my life, that one day. My boss had done an about-turn on the West Side highway and had taken the kids out of school and off upstate to meet their mum when he saw what was going on.
Everyone who I knew that lived out of the city was partaking in the mass exodus across every bridge that linked Manhattan to the outer boroughs. We were lucky to get a signal on our phones as the masts were down and calling within the US was almost impossible, but we could call overseas.
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My roommate worked in a bar in Hell’s Kitchen and she was called into work as it was a watering hole for quite a few firefighters, so they knew they had to open. It was then you started to consider the people involved. Those who had lost their lives, those who were trying to save lives, that’s when it became personal and you began to think of the people who you might know that were down there, working or who lived in the area.
The people who I knew were lucky. They got out, my boss’s close friend – not as lucky. The hardest watch was the people who felt jumping from the 90th and 100th floors of the WTC was their better option. It was so difficult to comprehend what they must have been experiencing inside those buildings to make that choice.
And that was the reality of it. Like any tragedy, pain, suffering and loss encourage tough decisions but they also bring people together. Making my way home that evening on the crosstown bus, I noticed so many parents out with their kids who would normally have been in the office and used to missing bedtimes.
September 11th encouraged unity, a sense of solidarity within a community of eight million people who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day. It was just such a strange feeling being stuck in the city that never sleeps when it felt like the heart had been ripped out of it.
** This is the first time I have ever written about September 11th and I genuinely thought it would be easy, but even now, twenty years on, explaining the feelings and emotions doesn’t come easy.