5 Years Later

It was 9am, and I was 30 minutes late for work. I was stressed out about it.  I should have only been about 10 minutes late, but something was making the subway from Queens Plaza slower than usual. I breathlessly entered my cubicle area and began apologizing to the other 3 assistants I sat with.  You see, when one of us was late, it was a burden for the rest, because we all had to answer each others’ phones and our boss’s phones. This was a large management consulting firm, and the phones were priority #1. 

One cubemate told me not to worry.  "Didn’t you hear?" she said, "A plane crashed into the World Trade Center. We dont know if it’s an accident or what."  No, I hadn’t heard.  I was in the subway. And then a few minutes later the second plane hit.  And we knew it wasn’t an accident. 

The next hour or two passed quickly.  We were trying to reach all the consultants we thought might be in the area.  We had a terrible time getting through on our phones.  A friend called me from Queens in tears.  I called my dad to let him know I was ok. I was working in midtown and safe.  I heard about a colleague upstairs who was in tears. Her fiance worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on one of the top floors, and she had not heard from him.  She was in her early 40s, had never been married, and had finally found her soulmate. She was sure he was OK. He had to be.  They were getting married in a few weeks. 

Around 10:30am, our supervisors told us we could go home, if we could get home.  I wondered how I would get back to Woodside, Queens. A friend of mine offered me a ride with her sister who had driven into work.  Several of us walked with her about 10 blocks to where the car was parked.  Her husband was a fire chief.  You can see him in the documentaries, walking near Guiliani. She had heard from him when it first happened, but nothing since.  In the meantime, we knew the towers had collapsed, although we could hardly believe it. Yet, she was more calm than I was. 

We drove toward the Queensboro bridge, and it was eerie how quiet Manhattan was.  There was no traffic.  As we approached the bridge, I saw people walking toward it, covered in soot and debris. I saw a pickup truck loaded with people.  Then from the bridge, I got my first glimpse of the smoke from the towers.  It was all unreal. 

They dropped me off near my apartment.  I went to Genovese, bought junk food and went home and watched TV for about 10 hours straight, punctuated by crying and phone calls from friends when we could get through.  The junk food didn’t help.  I felt isolated and helpless, yet somehow safe in Queens. 

I checked my voicemail that night and found out the next day would be business as usual at work. We were expected to come in. I didn’t look forward to getting on a subway, but at the same time I was longing to be around people.  So I went to work and my boss asked me why I was there.  I told him our administrative supervisor had ordered us to report.  He told me I should go home.  I think I stayed for half a day, but the office was pretty empty, so there wasn’t much community. 

Images from that time are frozen in my mind, and it doesnt seem like 5 years ago.  The gut-wrenching missing person fliers in the subway stations and all over town.  People selling patriotic souvenirs.  A candlelight vigil in Woodside. Bits of paper strewn all over Brooklyn.  My first glimpse of the downtown skyline without those buildings from the BQE. 

I had just been to the WTC subway stop that previous Friday, with a group of friends to see "Rock Star" at the new movie theater down there that was now destroyed. The previous weekend I had celebrated my birthday on a carefree weekend with friends at the beach town of Cape May.  That seemed like an all-together different life.  We still remark on that weekend as the "end of innocence".

I was lucky that nobody who was close to me nor any of my coworkers perished. Several friends escaped.  My friend’s fire chief husband survived, although she did not hear from him for almost 12 hours.  My colleague’s fiancee did not.  She became the face of the tragedy for me. I couldn’t fathom her pain or imagine what it must be like to make all the calls to cancel the wedding that was just weeks away. 

My 9/11 story is nothing exceptional. It is what many of us New Yorkers experienced that day. But it feels important to write it down, although I am sure the images in my head will never fade.

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