Last year at this time, I wondered how it would feel to recall 9/11 from the other side of a global pandemic. How many major tragedies do we witness in a lifetime? I know there’s no number. It depends on the life–how long, when one lives. You cannot hold up one event and compare it to another. Each one resonates differently for each of us. And today, after twenty years, 9/11 still feels shocking and visceral in a way nothing else does.
People hold complicated opinions about New York City. They love it, hate it. Admire it. Find it too dirty/busy/noisy. They consider it dangerous or magical or full of itself. And frankly, all of those opinions are fair. But New York also represents things that many people strive for; success, wealth, culture, creativity, importance, excellence. There’s the old line from the song: “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” NYC serves as a proving ground. A challenge. It’s part of what made it a target.
On the Day
In September, 2001, I worked at 100 Park Avenue, for a mutual fund firm, in corporate communications. Finance. The sales team had desks one section over on the same floor, with TVs suspended from the ceiling so they could have CNN and CNBC running all day. That’s how we all learned what was going on.
Some people were still on their way to work when the first plane hit, but I was at my desk. We thought it was an accident until the second one. The morning turned upside down. Like everyone watching, we were horrified. But also, every person in that office knew at least one person in the towers. Nature of the industry, plus many of us had grown up in the tri-state area. There were friends, family, work associates.
Everyone got on their phones. People spoke to loved ones inside those burning buildings. Early on, things seemed under control. They weren’t evacuating. But that changed fast. Coverage was live, so every terrible moment played out on the news. And the worse it looked, the harder it became to connect. Calling my mother in Connecticut, I learned she’d been trying to call me with no success; phone lines were swamped.
First one tower fell, then the second. Those toppling towers destabilized the nearest buildings, and the remainder of the morning became a tense wait to see which held on and which succumbed. You didn’t want to watch. You could not stop watching. I know I was breathing that entire day, but I only remember holding my breath.
Beyond the towers, there were bomb threats. Everything shut down. Bridges and tunnels closed to traffic; trains and buses halted. Anyone who lived outside Manhattan was trapped. We stayed at work, not because we were working, but because it wasn’t safe to leave.
Finally, word came trains were running out of Grand Central Terminal, starting early afternoon. I packed up and headed over. There was one train for each of the three lines: Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven. No schedule, no departure time. They packed us on, as many as fit, and started a slow chug out of the city.
It was silent on the train. No one spoke. People stared off in front of themselves, unseeing. One older man in my train car wore a dark suit covered in a grey film of ash and dirt, and had a bleeding cut on his forehead. Shock and exhaustion clung to him. I had no doubt he’d run to escape a collapsing building.
Paramedics waited at each train station, and as we slowly pulled into each stop, they scooped up the injured from the platforms.
When I finally got off the train, my cellphone blew up with messages. Everyone who hadn’t been able to get hold of me while I was in the city. I went to my mother’s house. My family sat and watched the news. I felt like I was coming down with the flu; exhausted, shaky, unreal. It had started as this beautiful, early fall day. The kind with a cloudless sky and the perfect temperature and endless sunshine. And then everything changed. What came next?
For the next week, I split my time between my mother’s house and my own apartment. I watched too much news, dreading each time they replayed significant moments from that day, but wanting the updates. The internet served as a lifeline, allowing people to check in and announce they were safe. So many people walked out of the city in the days following the attacks, some hiking over bridges to get to their apartments in outer boroughs. Others crashed with friends. After a few days, people who had not appeared began to be considered missing.
My office was closed, because we were one block from Grand Central, which continued to have bomb scares. I called a hotline each morning to get the status. The idea of returning to the city was nerve wracking, but I needed something to do. Staying home felt worse.
When my office finally reopened, new security measures were implimented. The lobby, once open, gained a security/ID check. But we were incredibly busy. Financial markets don’t appreciate chaos.
Flyers papered the city. Photos of those who had not come home.
Eventually I learned that four people I knew had died in the collapse of the towers. Countless had managed to get out. Somehow.
That winter I came down with first bronchitis then walking pneumonia. I lived on antibiotics. My lungs refused to clear. “It’s the air,” a doctor told me. “You work in the city, so it’s worse. You’re inhaling debris from the towers.”
I moved to California late the following September. Not because of 9/11. If anything, I delayed the move because of it. Leaving felt like deserting. But I needed a change, for many reasons, and so finally, I went.
I was born in New York and I grew up with one foot in the city, even after we moved to the ‘burbs in search of lower taxes and good public schools. I spent many years working there, and even after moving away, I’ve returned for visits and work trips. It’s my city. I love it. It’s in my heart.
But we live in a different world. I watched how the pandemic hit New York, and I understood why people moved away, even as I also understood the ones who stayed. Because for me, New York is a microcosm of the nation, and I’d been feeling the same way. When the place you live feels unsafe, when you’re frustrated by your inability to fix anything, it’s natural to look elsewhere. To wonder if you could make things work if you just made a change.
This tragedy is not that tragedy. And I think more than anything, I miss living in a time and place where the answer to adversity is unity. Where we pull together instead of tearing each other apart.
Do I miss New York? Yes. Always. But more than that, I miss the spark of hope I felt returning to New York the week after the 9/11 attacks, to find nearly everyone pulling together and doing what was necessary to get things back to normal.