A Chico woman’s memories of New York City on 9/11

Dazed New Yorkers in the moments following the collapse of the twin towers.

Dazed New Yorkers in the moments following the collapse of the twin towers.

photo by Scott Pam Photograph, <a href="http://scottpam.com/">ScottPam.com</a>

Sept. 11, 2001, 8:30 a.m.: I leave my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, running late for work, and am nearly blinded by the extraordinarily bright sun bouncing off the asphalt. Squinting into the glare, I head east, to the Seventh Avenue subway station.

Six minutes later, thanks to an express train, I emerge at 14th Street, Union Square. The sky is crystal blue, with white, delicate clouds, like a child’s painting. I squint in awe as the twin towers of the World Trade Center rise into my view. But something is out of place. A large plane is flying directly at the north tower. It doesn’t change direction; it is flying through the building. No, it is in the building.

This doesn’t make sense. It must be a dream. The sky is not this bright in real life. A plane would not fly into the World Trade Center.

A crowd of people gathers to stare at the hole in the building. People ask what happened. Every couple of minutes a rush of smoke and fire comes from the hole, as if the building is trying to purge itself.

A fireball suddenly erupts from the south tower. There is a collective gasp, then silence descends as silhouettes of people, dark and wriggling against the Technicolor sky, fall off of the building like ants from a wall.

I walk a couple of blocks, thinking I should go to my office. Instead I end up standing on a corner, holding an iced coffee, staring at the gaping holes in the sky and the wriggling silhouettes. A man says, “F-ing Palestinians, man.” What is he talking about? “F-ing terrorists!” Terrorists? I’m sure it was an accident.

A small crowd has gathered in the middle of Fifth Avenue to listen to news blasting from a car radio. Suddenly, a shower of glitter cascades down the south tower and becomes a massive cloud of black and white smoke and glittering windowpanes, moving up the street, consuming everything, until all of southern Manhattan disappears.

A black man with a bushy beard and a shopping cart stands frozen next to me. Our eyes lock as we brace ourselves for death. We will go together.

A moment passes, and we are still alive. The smoke obscuring the tower dissipates and gradually reveals not mangled beams, or missing windows; nothing but terrifyingly blue sky. It is suddenly, horrifically clear: the south tower is gone. The crowd heaves, screams and disperses.

I find myself in an elevator in my office building. An executive in a suit and tie collapses into a corner, crying. As the doors open, and we spill out onto the sixth floor, co-workers wrap their trembling arms around us. Someone removes the iced coffee from my terrified clutch and hands me a Dixie cup of water. A guy hurries by, briefcase in hand, announcing, “I’m outta here. They got the Pentagon. They’re saying the White House is next.”

The author with two NYC firefighters in 2002.

PHOTo courtesy of Emily Brannen

I try to call my mom from an office phone, but the landlines have gone down, too. So I sit on a window ledge and watch the north tower collapse.

Through a window on the 17th floor, I can see the steaming carcass of lower Manhattan. A radio blares chaos and rumors: 11 more planes missing, everything a target. Not safe here. I wonder if I could swim across the Hudson River.

Manhattan is on “lockdown.” No subways, no bridges, no tunnels. The buses are running, but they don’t stop because they are packed with ash-covered mummies. Expressionless people move northward on foot, like zombies in a scene from Dawn of the Dead. When I finally get on a bus, the driver won’t let me pay. I don’t understand.

At my apartment building, my neighbor is sitting on the stoop, head in hands, sobbing. Her husband works in the south tower, and she hasn’t heard from him yet. Upstairs, my roommate has collected a group of immigrant workers from a sewing factory and brought them home. A dozen Asian women are sitting on the couch, the floor, the table, my bed …

I need a quiet place to think, so I leave my apartment to the weeping strangers and go back outside. Ninth Avenue is abandoned. When a cab finally pulls over, we head south, but we are stopped by yellow police tape that extends along 42nd Street all the way from the Hudson River to the East River. The cabbie tells me he’s heard the C train is running.

He lets me out on Broadway, in the heart of the Big Apple. Something is missing. The theater district is eerily silent. Though the neon lights still flicker ceaselessly, the theater doors are shut. The restaurants and shops, all closed. There are no cars on the street, not one person in sight. I am alone in Times Square.

I pass the remainder of the week at candlelight vigils. The stench of a burning city stings our eyes and burns our lungs. I stop at firehouses to light candles and look at the photos of dead heroes. Too many are dead. Men and women weep openly in crowds, and strangers embrace them. Our hearts have been ripped open.

We are evacuated from subways, office buildings, parking garages, Penn Station and other random areas. “No one in or out!” is heard daily as the NYPD bomb squad races to inspect “suspicious packages.” Uniformed men with machine guns patrol the streets in Humvees, and fighter jets circle overhead like flies over a carcass. Manhattan is a war zone.

On Sunday the 16th, I am watching a movie when I suddenly realize that I have forgotten. It is the first time in seven days that I have forgotten, even for a moment. I turn off the movie, sit on the edge of the bed, and wonder if I will ever be able to forget again, long enough to watch a movie all the way through. Everything has changed. And the banners everywhere warn me that we will not forget.

Sept. 1, 2011: I leave my house in Chico, running late for work, and am nearly blinded by the white hot sun bouncing off the asphalt of my driveway. In one hand I hold my purse and an iced coffee. In the other is the small hand of my 4-year-old son.

He doesn’t know about the planes and the World Trade Center yet, and I can watch a movie all the way through—two or three times if I have to. Last night we saw a flock of wild turkeys in Bidwell Park. I told him that wild turkeys are seen only by people who are very lucky. People like us.

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am. It is good to be reminded.

May we never forget.