NYC LIFE: Recollections of 9/11 on the 20th Anniversary

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Image by David Z from Pixabay light tribute

It did not seem right on this day, the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, to have our regular New York City events newsletter. This is a day to pause and reflect, as we do every year. The moments of silence when each plane hit and the reading of the names of those who never got home that day, is as poignant to hear today as it was the first year.  As we commemorate this twentieth anniversary, the memories come rushing back, especially for those of us who were in New York City on that fateful day. It is a day that none of us will ever forget.

Over the years, when asked what it was like being in New York City that day, I have talked about it. But I have never written about it publicly before. I think just about everyone in the New York metro area knew someone who perished that day. I knew a few people too, but they weren’t close friends or family.

So, I always felt my experience paled in comparison to the families who lost dear loved ones, the stories of those who made their way out of the towers, and all the brave first responders. But we must never forget, and our stories must be told for future generations. My grandchildren were not even born then, and while they know of the horrific events of 9/11, it’s important that they hear the stories from those of us who were in New York City that day. This is my story.

On September 11, 2001, my husband and I were living and working in Murray Hill in the heart of New York City’s midtown. I remember the events like it was yesterday.

I was in the bedroom getting ready to leave for work with the Today Show on in the background, when I heard Katie Couric say to Matt Lauer that a plane had just hit one of the Twin Towers. I immediately ran into the den to tell my husband to quickly turn on the TV.  First reports were that it was a small plane, so everyone was thinking it was an accident. And then we watched on live TV, as the second plane hit, and that’s when we all knew this was a terrorist attack.  We immediately ran up to the rooftop terrace of our building and looked south, where we saw the huge plume of rising smoke against the backdrop of a beautiful cloudless blue sky on what had started as a perfect fall day. Even now, perfect fall days and blue skies are twinged with the memories of that day.

We went back to our apartment, and I grabbed my handbag and started for the door. When my husband asked me where I was going, I said to work. (My office was only about 10 blocks away.) He insisted that I stay, but I wouldn’t listen. I think like everyone I was in shock, and just felt I needed my normal routine and then maybe this wouldn’t be real. There was no stopping me.

As I started to walk down Park Avenue, people were coming out of subways and taxi cabs and just finding out what had happened. We were all in shock. People were trying to call family and friends but none of the cell phones work.

I walked into my office as everyone was arriving. Some had just found out what had happened. We gathered in the conference room with the TV on and that’s where we watched the horror of people jumping and then the first tower fell. There were audible gasps. By then the city had gone into lockdown mode, and there was no way for people who lived outside of Manhattan to leave. We were shutting down the offices but all of us in management first made sure that anyone in our groups had somewhere to go.

I then made my way back up Park Avenue with throngs of other walkers trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.  Shortly after I returned to the apartment, my daughter, who worked nearby showed up with about eight other people from her office. We ordered food, which hardly anyone ate, while glued to the TV as the situation unfolded. By then we could hear sirens, helicopters, and jet fighter planes flying overhead.  Would there be more targets in NYC? It was a frightening time.

By late afternoon they allowed the trains to start running again and opened the bridges and the tunnel so people could return home.  Our daughter lives on Long Island, and while we wanted her to stay, she and her husband were closing on their first house the next day. So early that evening we walked her to Penn Station. It was surreal. There were no cars or taxis on the streets…just throngs of people in shock. We had never seen anything like it.

Later that night we took the dogs out for their nightly walk. There were still people covered in dust who had walked all day from downtown and were heading to Grand Central Terminal. There was an eerie silence. But there was one image that is seared in my mind. There was a lone firefighter, in all his gear, covered in ashes and dust, and I will never, ever forget the look on his face that showed his unimaginable pain and grief.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

That night we had to close the windows, because you could smell the acrid smoke, and it stayed in the air for many weeks. It’s a smell you don’t forget. We didn’t sleep much that night with the disconcerting sounds of sirens, helicopters, and jet fighters.

The next day we took our two dogs and met friends with their dogs at Madison Square Park. There were many others there with their pets. I think we all just needed to feel a little normalcy and watching the dogs run and play was a much-needed distraction.

By the third day, we knew we had to get out of the city. Fortunately, we have a home on Long Island where we retreated. And then that weekend we visited friends in Vermont, where life still seemed normal, and we felt some of the stress dissipate. But I have to say, like so many others, I had nightmares for weeks.

The following week we returned to the city and back to our offices as businesses started to reopen again. One of the most difficult things in those early days was seeing posters everywhere of faces of people who never returned home that day. The enormity of it all was sinking in daily. The newspapers started featuring the stories of the people who had left their homes that morning and never returned. I think I read every single story.

Over the next few weeks, we saw the very best of humanity in New York City. In our collective grief and trauma, we had somehow all come together, and at times the city felt like one gigantic hug. People stopped and cheered firefighters on their trucks. I remember stopping to thank a group of firefighters on the street who had come in from Los Angeles to help with the search downtown. One night we were in a restaurant near the New York City office of the Governor, who at that time was Pataki. He walked into the restaurant, and in a moment of spontaneity everyone stood and applauded. It didn’t matter what your politics were.

The spirit and resiliency of New York rose to the occasion, and our mayor, Rudy Giuliani was the calming and strong leader we needed at that time. He wanted New York to get back, and Broadway was soon re-opened, and the first baseball games played in New York were a powerful moment that signaled we wouldn’t let terrorists win.

A platform was built over the gigantic footprints that once held the towers and became known as Ground Zero, where people could see the enormity themselves. My husband and I never went to see that. Many visitors who came to town made their way there, almost as if it were a tourist attraction. I have to say, that always bothered me.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay ground zero

The first time I made a visit was when the memorial wall opened several years later. I knew it would be an emotional experience, but the depth of those emotions were unexpected.  Seeing all those names and discovering names of people you knew was overwhelming. I have been back several times and to this day, is still a somber, powerful experience.

It also took me a few years before I could bring myself to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I have now been twice. It is an extraordinary memorial that captures the day and pays homage to every single person who died that day. But it’s a gut-wrenching experience and I’ve never been able to stay there too long. But I am glad it is there, so we never forgot the enormity of that time.

Image by Frank Nürnberger from Pixabay

The pandemic is the only other time that we have seen New York City brought to a halt. And once again, we have seen the loss of so many people, and our lives, once again changed forever. And we saw crowds cheering our front line workers again, this time nurses and doctors. But it’s certainly very different from the days and weeks after 9/11. While we continue to show our resilience, our sense of we’re all in this together, has sadly turned into contentious factions. And our rebound this time is taking much, much longer.

But we are New Yorkers…we come together when the going gets tough and we always rebuild. We will rebound but let us never, ever forgot.

Please feel free to share your stories below.

Author

  • The tomato behind The Three Tomatoes. Cheryl Benton, aka the “head tomato” is founder and publisher of The Three Tomatoes, a digital lifestyle magazine for “women who aren’t kids”. Having lived and worked for many years in New York City, the land of size zero twenty-somethings, she was truly starting to feel like an invisible woman. She created The Three Tomatoes just for the fun of it as the antidote for invisibility and sent it to 60 friends. Today she has thousands of friends and is chief cheerleader for smart, savvy women who want to live their lives fully at every age and every stage. She is the author of the novel, "Can You See Us Now?" and co-author of a humorous books of quips, "Martini Wisdom." Because she's lived a long time, her full bio won't fit here. If you want the "blah, blah, blah", read more. www.thethreetomatoes.com/about-the-head-tomato

11 Responses

  1. Judy Davis says:

    I was at my computer desk in my living room next to the window with screens closed. My proudest view from my apartment was that of unobstructed view of the twin towers. On the other side of the wall, my TV was on in my bedroom tuned to the Today show. It was 8:45…9/11. I closed my computer a few moments later and walked into the bedroom and saw on TV the devastation of the tower. It was just before 9:00. I opened the screen in my bedroom and there before my eyes, a mere few miles down Broadway was the real thing. Massive black hole, flames and smoke spewing. A few moments later, I watched the further horror of the 2nd plane hitting. From my view from the back and bursting forth towards me, the enormous fireball. With the TV images on my left and the real images happening live out my window in front of me, there could be no more horrific thing for your being to witness. The tears streaming. The anguish of seeing war outside my window in my wonderful city, my United States.
    Until awhile later when I was on the phone with my brother in Florida and I started screaming! The tower was falling. The ash and smoke rising into the sky. Unconscionable.
    We all know the strength of this city and her people and how we all came together as one. A renewed lesson desperately needed.
    But one day…was it 10 years later, sitting at the same computer but with screens open I said “Whats that?”
    It was the Freedom Tower rising from the ash, proudly reaching to the sky, floor by floor higher than all the rest and I felt such pride that we as New Yorkers did not succumb but rose up, rebuilt and lived our lives while remembering the loved ones who perished and always remembering where we were the moment our beloved towers were no more.
    Judy Davis

  2. Living in New York City that fateful day the The World Trade Center Towers disappeared forever, I still find myself looking downtown as I approach the city, hoping that magical thinking will fill the hole in the skyline with the same images that had been there before. Instead I remember seeing some of the burning ashes, like dark snowflakes, wafting through the air as I walked down 106th Street. In stark contrast to the chaos that was happening that day and others to follow, a stranger came up to me and gave me an unsolicited hug. Any other day I would have shunned her reaching out like that, but that day was different, I welcomed her into my arms and hugged her back. Clearly we were both trying to comfort each other and make sense out of the cruel and senseless warlike act that had befallen our city.

    On December 14th, 2012 and April 15th, 2013 as I watched the people in Newtown hugging their children close after twenty young children and six adults were massacred at the Sandy Hook School, and lethal homemade bombs exploded and maimed innocent people at the Boston Marathon, I remembered again, not only how I felt on Sept 11th, but also another tragic day in 1990 when I hugged my daughter closely after delivering the unbelievable news that her father at 35 years old was dying of cancer.

    The hard facts about how many loved ones are taken from our hearts everyday is shocking. The statistics tell us that approximately 4,700 people die from a chronic disease each day,  including 4 of our children, from cancer alone,  and 268 people who succumb to a violent act,  including 8 of our precious children. That’s more than 100,000 people each year. Losing a loved one to an act of physical violence, or a devastating disease is heartbreaking and unfathomable and these statistics have to change.

    While the government is trying to find ways to protect us through gun safety initiatives and using research to find cures for catastrophic disease, how do we explain to our children incomprehensible acts of violence and loss? At these times we lift our arms and keep those dear to us as close as possible. And at these times, hugs can become the band-aids we offer each other as a temporary measure of protection and comfort. They can help us feel safer, and even try to help us overcome our feelings of impotence when a tragedy occurs. Maybe even help diffuse a potential situation before it happens.

    A hug can help a person feel less alienated ~ an emotion described by some of the perpetrators of these heinous events. A hug and supportive words like “I love you and want you to keep healthy” can also help protect us from chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease because evidenced-based information says it is often for others we care about and who care about us, that we will do something for ourselves. Hugs are available to anyone at any age and they are free. A hug is the most powerful non-verbal gesture we have to reassure ourselves, as well as others, that for the moment, everything will be okay.

    Some may think this is a very simplistic idea that will not solve the overarching problems we face in America right now. It won’t. We are hoping it will prove to be a safe and constructive way to help empower ourselves and our children. In a world that is so much out of control, we all need an action we can control, because losing a loved one, whether it is to an act of physical violence, or a devastating disease, is truly heartbreaking and unfathomable, and the bottom line for me and I hope for you, is that if it helps one person, we’ve done our job.

    “Hugs should be available at the medical stores 24/7. Sometimes, they are the best healers for almost everything.”
    ~Minhal Mehdi

  3. Ellen Easton says:

    The unity on September 11, 2001, our Congress demonstrated on the Capitol steps showed the world we were the United States of America – Americans all first and foremost.

    On this, the 20th Anniversary of that heinous day, I ask my fellow Americans, “ What has become of us as a Nation? Why are we so divided? Let us not do to ourselves what Foreign terrorists could not achieve. Stop the bi- patrician bloodbath. NEVER FORGET- UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL!”

    Everyone who was alive on September 11, 2001, has a story from that wretched day. But aside from the personal tragedies one suffered , to me the tragedy is now the bigger picture that has evolved to divide our great country. If the division continues then our enemies will indeed ultimately win. The world has become too dangerous and the democracy we have been privileged to enjoy is in serious peril. The USA cannot afford the vitriolic venom of false information too many are now spewing under the guise of “freedom”. Hogwash! And it must cease soon or life as we know it will pay the price and cease to exist. We must learn tolerance and live in peace.

  4. I’ll never forget that day. I was going to visit a friend who was at a medical Center right near one of the Twin Towers. I live on 36th Street near the East River Drive. I heard a few people racing down my hallway and then I got a knock on my door saying I should plan to stay indoors and let my building staff, who are wonderful, know if I’d hear anything or see anything odd on the River. I was asked to look for air planes I didn’t usually see, etc. I got a call from an old friend who asked that he’d heard Manhattan had gotten attacked! I almost couldn’t believe it – and if I hadn’t heard so much else going on around my building – I would have thought he was joking. I was thankful, that by that evening I was able to find out that my friend who was getting medical attention near the Twin Towers had been moved way uptown on the West side. I never thought NYC would be attacked! It’s hard to believe that 2 decades have passed since that day.

  5. Celeste Champagne says:

    What poignant reminiscences of that fateful day. I was no longer living in NYC by then, but commuted from CT as I continued to work at our midtown offices. From our office window we saw the whole horrific episode. Cheryl your expressions and those of the other writers sum up exactly what I felt (and continue to feel) about that terrible day. But the days that followed the unity that came forth was like no other time in my existence. Sadly, it has disappeared, and we don’t seem to be able to capture the moment. The days that followed were eerie even when we returned to work. The City without tourists and the somber demeanor we all shared changed the rythm ,and it took several months to get it back. I vowed never again to complain about the tourists. They are part of the magic that makes New York what it is. Thanks to all for expressing your thoughts which all seem to reflect my own.

    • Cheryl Benton says:

      That you Celeste for sharing your thoughts too. So true about the city without tourists. Feels like that again in NYC. I wish we had the feeling of unity back too.

  6. Leslie says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Cheryl and the people above. Hard to believe 20 years ago 9/11….and yes our country is so divided. I lived in NYC then and will never forget that day and how we all came together. Wish our country would embrace that now…rather rich or poor, black or white, Jewish or catholic, democrat or republican….we all are HUMAN

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