10 years ago today, I was late for work in New York. The 4/5 express train heading downtown had been much slower and hotter than usual, and as soon as it pulled into the Fulton Street station in lower Manhattan, I took off at a very brisk walking pace.
To get to my then-job at the World Financial Center (WFC), I had to walk through the World Trade Center (WTC) complex, either through the underground mall or through the above-ground plaza in between the two towers. I chose the above-ground route because it was a nice way to cool off after the hot subway ride by catching the huge tunnel-effect breeze between the two towers. It was also more direct than going through the underground maze, and because I was already late for work, I continued at a very brisk pace.
I then passed through an entryway to the WTC North Tower and entered a footbridge leading away from it, across West Street towards the WFC. As I made my way across the bridge, a television overhead flashed "8:46am" as I heard the loud roar of an airplane overhead. I then heard and felt a loud boom, tripped over myself a bit as I walked, and began running through the other side of the footbridge into the WFC Winter Garden, as people 30 seconds behind me, on the side of the bridge closer to the WTC, started screaming and running towards me on the WFC side.
The WFC Winter Garden, which has since been restored, is an exquisite glass atrium filled with marble and palm trees. Through it I could see large chunks of debris in the near distance, raining down from above. I tried to process what was happening, thinking that it was simply a collapse of construction scaffolding or, at worse, a collapse of one of the antennas atop the WTC towers. I figured that I should just continue up to work as the WFC building where I worked was shielded from the two WTC towers by another WFC building occupied by American Express and Lehman Brothers.
When I got up to my office on the 16th floor, peoples' phones were already buzzing, and we were trying to look outside and see what was going on. As our view was partially obstructed by the Amex/Lehman building, we did not see the 2nd plane crash into the WTC south tower during this time (although others higher up in our building apparently saw this and were quite traumatized by it), but people's wives started calling frantically to tell us that they had seen this on TV. At this point, my boss remarked that this was a very serious situation and that we needed to evacuate. Apparently everybody else in the building had the same idea as the elevators I had ridden just minutes before were now shut down, and as the whole building shuffled into the emergency stairwells, there was a palpable sense of nervousness and tension in the air.
There was complete chaos when I got outside. Emergency vehicles were streaming into the area, their sirens reverberating everywhere. I looked up at the two blazing WTC towers and tried to pinch myself awake, hoping that I was just asleep in some bad nightmare. Police and firefighters were already trying to shoo the gathered crowds away from the area with little success, and a fighter jet passed by with an ear-splitting roar.
At this point, adrenaline kicked in as I realized that it wasn't going to be a normal day. I decided that I needed to leave Manhattan because if I were to walk all the way home to the Upper East Side, I'd pass an infinite number of potential targets in Midtown along the way. The ferries to New Jersey, right next to the WFC, were already mobbed, so I decided to walk very briskly towards the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at the tip of Manhattan.
I got to the ferry gate inside the terminal at about 10:00am when I heard and felt a loud rumble, like that of the subway running underneath. For a split second, I was afraid that I was in the middle of a nuclear blast and that I would be incinerated alive. The masses of people inside the terminal started screaming, even pushing and shoving, as a light grey smoke started permeating the terminal building. (Later I found out that this was when the WTC South Tower collapsed.) Fortunately, a ferry pulled in that very moment and the ferry gates opened. Everybody tore at the emergency compartments and donned life jackets. Although there was panic and tension in the air, there was also a sense of relief as people knew that they were somewhat safer at that moment on a boat than on land. The ferry soon pulled out and many people began meditating or praying openly, some with rosary beads in hand.
About 20 minutes into the ride, another round of screaming came from the areas of the boat that had a view outside. (This was when the WTC North Tower collapsed.) The captain came on the PA system to say that everything on the boat was all right and that we'd be safe. People began expressing relief as we pulled in to the dock at Staten Island, started putting away our life jackets into neat piles, and gratefully thanked and acknowledged the ferry staff.
As I got off the ferry, I looked back towards Manhattan and saw plumes of smoke from where the WTC towers had stood triumphantly just hours earlier. A piece of my heart literally died right that moment. The greater WTC/WFC complex, and all of Lower Manhattan including Wall Street, was where my career had begun just a year before, and I had many positive memories shared with friends and colleagues there. I couldn't believe that it was all gone.
I gradually snaked my way through Staten Island on whatever buses were in service, thinking that I'd be able to make my way into Brooklyn, and eventually Manhattan, through the Verrazano Bridge. Indeed, I got all the way to the entrance to the bridge, and it was here that I finally heard a news update through someone's car radio. For the rest of the day, I debated the meaning of life with some of the many people gathered there. Why were we spared? If you believed in karma, then why were the innocent people who perished so cruelly and painfully not spared? We couldn't come up with convincing answers, but at the very least it was tremendously helpful to share reassuring wishes and thoughts with complete strangers and to shake and hold their hands.
I finally got back to where I was living then, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, early that evening, and it was later when I broke down after fully processing all that had happened, particularly the fact that because I had been walking briskly that morning, I had passed through the WTC complex and avoided danger by 30 seconds. I later heard that people in the lobby of the WTC buildings at the moment the planes hit had been burned by flames shooting out of the elevator shafts, while others outside had been injured by falling glass and debris.
As many here from New York can attest to, the weeks and months that followed were very stressful. Smoke from the WTC blanketed the city depending on which way the wind blew, while every single phonebooth or lamp post was plastered with "missing" posters and later became makeshift shrines as people taped flowers and candles to them. The anthrax scare came soon thereafter, and from my team's temporary office in Times Square, we could see hazmat crews going into neighboring buildings; there was even a brief, but false, scare in our building, part of which hosted a major publishing firm. The American Airlines plane crash at JFK that fall triggered another round of worried phone calls from relatives and friends hoping that we weren't on that plane.
My firm started moving back into its offices at the WFC around Thanksgiving of that year, despite lingering air quality concerns. We were told that building management had shut off the building's air flow to the outside before the WTC buildings collapsed, and that the building had undergone thorough interior cleaning and air quality testing. On the outside, our building was unscathed by the WTC collapse, but the Amex/Lehman building next door suffered extensive damage. Amex couldn't move back in until a year after the fact. Lehman, meanwhile, never moved back. They started from scratch, taking over the Sheraton Manhattan hotel in Midtown for several months before moving into a brand new skyscraper just north of Times Square that Morgan Stanley sold them because they no longer wanted the bulk of their workforce concentrated in one small area (MS's headquarters are just down the street at 1585 Broadway).
To get to work at the WFC, we now needed to make a huge detour on foot, bus, or taxi around Ground Zero, now an excruciatingly painful, open wound which we could also see glimpses of through our windows. Even the WFC Winter Garden was punctured by huge beams of steel, like splinters on skin. Sometimes, at night, when we'd wait outside for taxis, we'd run back inside because we were freaked out by vividly ghastly, dusty whirlwinds coming out of Ground Zero just a block away. The memorial lights that debuted later were a more calming influence.
Gradually, over the next year or two, things returned to normal. The immediate WFC neighborhood sprang back to life, and the view from our windows changed from masses of deformed steel and debris into that of an open pit and construction site. For me, the fact that I was very busy at work in the months and years that followed helped me cope with daily life in New York and around Ground Zero, so that I wasn't bogged down by worry, anxiety, or negative thoughts.
I've since moved on and don't currently live in the New York area. While I don't think about 9/11 every day, I do live knowing that every day is a good day if I just wake up, that I've been very lucky in many respects, and that I should draw inspiration from the acts of the many heroes of 9/11 - whether the deceased, the emergency responders, or simply everyday people working with others to make their communities better and more civil places.