Sunday, September 11, 2011

september 11, 2001

we had gotten back to the hotel early the night before. we were only in new york for a quick 3 day trip to interview with the co-op board of the building we were planning to move into in the fall, all the way from california. huge move, huge change, huge adventure, huge excitement. we had spent the day shopping and getting lost looking for the subway in the rain, the kind of summer rainstorm that rolls through like a freight train and drenches you from head to toe in a matter of minutes if you're not under cover, fat juicy raindrops pelting every inch of you, soaking you to the bone and gone as fast as they came leaving a wake of steam on the concrete, stifling humidity in the air, the smells of the city, pleasant and otherwise, suspended and exaggerated.

not paying attention and not being particularly familiar with the city, we missed our subway stop at chambers street and had to exit at the next stop and get back on going back one stop. we could have walked the 5 blocks, but we were wet and it was hot and we had an interview to get ready for so we stayed on the 1 train down to the WTC exit, then got off and turned around. we exited into an underground mall that we never knew existed. there was the gap and jcrew and all sorts of fun stores. who knew there was a whole mall underneath the world trade center?! we promised we would come back tomorrow. needless to say, we didn't keep that promise.

 the interview later that evening was very bizarre. we expected a boardroom of tenants, looking over our documents and scrutinizing our every comment. instead, we met with one lady in the basement of the apartments in a room that looked like a janitor's closet. she looked like she had just rolled out of bed and, after introducing herself and asking us a handful of questions, she told us she didn't see any reason why we couldn't move in and we were free to leave. 6400 miles round trip. 12 hours in flight. 5 minutes in a basement and we had our new york apartment. it was all happening.

we headed to little italy to go to our favorite place and get some lasagna and a glass of wine to celebrate. neither one of us was feeling quite right at dinner, a little sick to our stomachs, just kind of inexplicable "off" which is why on one of our only 3 nights in the city, we were back in bed at the hotel by 9pm. i remember turning the tv on to vh1 while we were getting ready for bed. i remember that they were playing alicia keys "fallin'".

our hotel was on the corner of chambers and west broadway in lower manhattan. we had stayed there twice before, both times on lower floors with a view of the brick wall of the neighboring building. on this particular trip, our room was on the 7th floor with windows facing south. one of the windows didn't even have a screen so we slept with it open, wrapped in the late summer breeze.

around 5am, shauna got up to use the bathroom. she was in and out of the bathroom for the next 2 hours with stomach cramps. by 8:46am we had both finally fallen back asleep just deep enough to be completely disoriented. the noise was deafening, the building was shaking, it was an earthquake. a big one. we jumped out of bed and ran for the bathroom doorway, halfway there realizing we weren't in california, we were in new york and this wasn't an earthquake and then she screamed. a blood curdling, paralyzing scream, and she fell to her knees with her hands over her mouth and started to cry and i looked out the window where she had been looking and i saw the north tower of the world trade center engulfed in flames. i looked down to the street and saw people running up from the subway, buying disposable cameras from the bodega on the corner and taking picture after picture. people crying, people running, sirens. shauna continued to cry and shake and stare, i stepped away from the window and searched every corner of my mind for a reasonable explanation.

it was a terrible accident. it must have been a small plane, flown by an amateur pilot. how could it have gone so wrong?

it was an explosion. somebody mixed some chemicals and lit a match. it was just a terrible accident.

it was just a terrible accident. a bomb. we were being attacked. we were at war. no. it was just a terrible accident. whatever was happening was not intententional. this was obviously just a terrible accident.

i paced. i started to pack my things. i turned on the tv, but there was no coverage, no information.

she started screaming again from the bathroom floor, where she still knelt crying with her hands over her face. the screams were filled with terror and i ran to her side and looked up at the single wall of fire just in time to see united flight 175 fly into the south tower. it flew in from the south, so all i saw from our window was a wing and then an explosion out of the north side of the tower spanning what must have been 20 floors. it was and will remain the most horrific, terrifying image burned on my brain, but i was outside myself by then in a way i have never been able to explain.

it was just another accident, i promised. i knew that was a lie. there must be something terribly wrong with the air traffic controllers. this is a horrible, horrible accident.

it wasn't an accident.

it occured to me that it was very possible that we were about to die.

i looked out the window again, down to west broadway. sirens, screaming, hundreds of civilians running north, covered in debris and blood, policemen and firefighters running south, some for the last time.

i called my mom, back home in california. she was sleeping, completely unaware. i can't remember what i said because there was no way to explain. i was frustrated that she was oblivious to the enormity of what i was trying to tell her. how could she have known?

i continued throwing things in my purse. a pair of socks. my curling iron.

all of the sudden, i heard a low rumble start and the building began to vibrate. the noise got louder and shauna started to scream again. by now, she had picked herself up off the bathroom floor and was bracing herself against the open window. we stared as the south tower fell. an indescribable wave of dust, smoke and debris rolled down the streets with the speed and force of a tsunami. we watched people captive in the inferno of the still standing north tower jump out office windows, choosing suicide over murder. i snapped back to reality, slamming the window shut with seconds to spare before our entire hotel was engulfed in a thick cocoon of grey smoke and ash. looking out the window, it was a wall of white. we couldn't see anything, it was like a curtain had come down and all i could hear was screaming and sirens.

it took 5 minutes for the dust to settle enough to see that the north tower was still burning. there was a layer of soot on the windowsill 2'' deep. we could see the tops of shorter buildings all around us, and the ground. it looked like a winter wonderland. everything was covered in ash. everything was white. on the street, all traffic had obviously been closed off. people we walking aimlessly, sobbing, covered and bleeding, towels on their heads, towels covering their mouths. the loud speaker came on for the hotel and they announced that we were being evacuated. i grabbed my purse, assuming we would return for the rest of our things later. we took the stairs down to chambers street and stood in front of starbucks. the scene on the ground was indescribable. from the 7th floor window, i was an observer. standing on the street, i was a very real player in this, now undeniable, attack on our country.

a policeman was standing there. i asked him "where do we go?" he said, simply, "head north." so we covered our mouths with towels stolen from the hotel and we wove our way in between the hordes of people, the mass exodus, heading north.

 the further we walked, the more quiet the city got. it was surreal to be amongst the deafening silence in the noisiest city i had ever been in, except for the sirens and the crying. i saw a businessman in a suit riding his bike, travelling south towards his nightmare, sobbing so hard i didn't know how he could see to steer his bike. i got the feeling he didn't have a destination anymore anyway. i saw a woman in a suit, walking north with us, stop at a planter box and vomit violently. i heard a familar rumble and we turned around to see the north tower fall. everyone walking stopped and turned. some fell to the ground and wept, some just stood and stared, but everyone stopped. we had walked far enough by then that the rolling wave of debris didn't reach us but we ducked into a coffeshop anyway. we ordered breakfast, but we didn't eat it. we just sat there and tried to understand.

we hardly spoke all day. we kept walking north, trying to think of people we knew in the city that we could call, someplace we could stay for the night. the further north we got, the less aware and effected people were, but the city was still in complete shutdown. we wandered the streets of greenwich village aimlessly. it was an empty movie set of cobblestone streets. we tried to make some calls at a payphone, but all circuits were busy.

we walked to central park and back down to times square. we tried to give blood but they couldn't take any more volunteers that day. i remembered my mom's friend suzie who had kept a $180/month rent controlled studio apartment in new york city the whole time she was living next door to us in california. i called 411 from a payphone and got her phone number. i called her without any idea if she would even remember me. i used to go up to her apartment all the time when i was little when she lived next door to us. we would make ice cream in her ice cream maker and i would play with her cat, felicity. she answered and i told her who i was. of course she knew exactly who i was. she said "thank you for calling me! i'm ok!" and i told her i was ok too and explained where we were. she told us to come over right away so we walked over to 52nd and 2nd and spent the night with a family friend i hadn't seen or spoken to since i was 6 years old. we slept on her twin size murphy bed with a cat an inch from my face.

so will i remember? i couldn't forget if i tried.



Skye said...

Wow! What an amazing coincidence (or not) that you were in NYC at that time. What a surreal day it must have been for you. We live right outside of NY (in NJ) and it was such a scary and horrific day - not even being right there. I can't imagine what you went through seeing it and experiencing it. Sadly one of many that lived through this and will NEVER forget.I know I never will. I never got used to driving up to the city, seeing the skyline minus the twin towers. It's still weird to see the void.

Anonymous said...

I'm speechless, Rach. You were able to articulate this so beautifully. I never understand the impact 9/11 had on you until finally reading this. I don't know how you could ever forget seeing and experiencing that. Thank you for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

this was a very powerful recollection...thanks for sharing.

Sami said...

Omg Rachel, I had no idea that you were in the midst of it all. That is so heartbreaking and terrifying and I of course am so glad that you were okay and unharmed. Even though I will never truly understand how it felt to witness it first hand, you did an incredible job of portraying your feelings and emotions. So beautifully written! Love you lady xoxox

Celeste said...

This is so beautifully written. I cannot imagine what this day must be like for you every year. I remember so clearly what I felt, sitting in a high school English class in actually have been there and to have witnessed everything first hand? I can't even begin to wrap my brain around what that would be like. Thank you for sharing your story!

Kim Orpin said...

I can't imagine the horror of what you went through, and I know it was incredibly emotional for you to write this, but that you for sharing. It was tragically vivid, but a real reminder of what united us all.

Amber said...

I had no clue that you were there when that happened! I have never known anyone who was there or knew anyone who was there. It is so strange to hear your account of it. I mean you were there, saw it firsthand. I can't imagine the fear and shock and I don't even know what else you must have felt. I am so sorry. What a strange coincidence that you were there. I always think there is a reason for everything and everything is planned out and there are no accidents. Do you feel that way? Why do you think you were there? Do I sound like a freaky weirdo? I am sorry you had to go through that Rach. Love you love you love you

Ashley {hudson's happenings} said...

I have absolutely no words to describe how I'm feeling after reading this, Rachel. This is the most touching, REAL, sad, heart wrenching account of a day that changed SO many people's lives...including mine. (I "know" only one person that was there that day...a man we go to church with, who was in the N.Tower when it happened. But his story didn't affect me like yours. Probably because I feel a much stronger connection to you!)

I always refer to life as pre-9/11 or post-9/11. Even though I wasn't there, that day touched me in ways that I can changed who I was from the inside made me different. I love NYC with all of my heart....and I love you even more. Thank you for sharing this story. xoxoxoxo

Dana @ five30three said...

I have chills reading this and at a complete loss for words. How terrifying. I remember how terrified I was and I was in college in a small Illinois town...miles and miles away. Thank you for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

i started reading this and couldnt stop. oh my gosh. how intense. thank GOD you are ok and here now if solely for my own selfish reasons! bless your sweet heart.