Three Years Ago — One person’s story

The past two years, around this time, I’ve reflected on what happened to me three years ago. I was headed into work for my second day as a law clerk. My route was the A train from 207th to Brooklyn. I was on schedule to be in Brooklyn just before 9.

At Canal Street, around a quarter till nine, the train suddenly stopped. (For those unfamiliar with the city, this is one stop before Chambers, which is the trade center stop on the A line. The A line doesn’t run directly below the trade center, however, it’s a block to the east). The train waited for about fifteen minutes. Everyone was getting antsy and frustrated — New York subways are sometimes prone to unexplained stops.

A woman got on the train, all out of breath. She was talking about a terrible accident, that an airplane had crashed into a building. One or two people asked her questions. Some people looked at her strangely — all sorts of strange people get on the subway, and it was entirely possible that she was a looney. Most of the riders continued to read their newspaper or listen to their walkman.

The doors closed, and the train moved on. We skipped the Chambers stop, with no announcement as to what was going on. A few riders — who were apparently intending to get off there — were unhappy. We stopped at Broadway Nassau. Now three or four more people got on, and they were talking with each other about the airplane (or was it airplanes?) too. More passengers listened in. The atmosphere on the train car became a little more agitated, but still, at least half of the car continued to simply read or listen to music.

Finally, we reached High Street. I was a little annoyed, I had been meaning to be in earlier, and it was ten after nine by then. A great arrival time for day two of work. At least I had a valid excuse, train delay.

The ticket agent had a crowd around the booth, all agitated and asking questions. What was going on? I needed to get to work, quickly, and then I would look up online to see what was happening. I stepped out of the station at High street, just across the river from Manhattan, two and a half miles from the trade center. I wasn’t all that familiar with the setting, since it was only the third time I had gotten off at that stop. I looked around me to get my bearings. The twin towers were on fire.

My first impression, strangely enough, was that the fire was in the wrong place. On those ultra-symmetrical buildings, one fire was distinctly lower than the other.

By now the day was totally surreal. I needed to get to work, sit down, and figure out what was going on. I walked across the park, into the building, and went up to chambers. Our deputy, June, was there. My co-clerk had left earlier. Our intern called in to say that he wouldn’t be coming in, because the Staten Island ferries were not working right. I said that I thought that would be fine.

The judge wasn’t in, he had been planning on getting in later. So I sat down and worked on a few edits I had been making the day before. I really didn’t know what to do. I could see the burning buildings from my office (well, sort of, you had to go right by the window, since my window actually looks kind of to the side of the trade center). Every few minutes, I got up and looked over at them. The judge called in. I told him I was editing, and he said not to worry about work, and that everyone should go home as soon as they could.

Going home wasn’t really an option at the moment. Trains weren’t running, and the streets were jammed. The Brooklyn bridge and the Manhattan bridge were bumper-to-bumper cars, mostly leaving Manhattan. Every few minutes, we heard sirens pass. Fire trucks from all over Brooklyn were racing over to help. I felt a vague impulse that I should be helping somehow — I was a Boy Scout, after all, and aren’t we supposed to be helpful in emergencies? — but I couldn’t think of a way that I could actually do anything useful.

Some of the other clerks were in and out, discussing what was going on. June had a mini-TV and was keeping up with the news. A former court intern showed up, she was scared and didn’t know where to go, so she came to the court. I continued editing — what else was I going to do? Then June came running in and announced that one of the towers had fallen. We looked out the window, and sure enough, there was just a cloud of dust. A few minutes later, the second tower fell too. We sat in shocked silence for a moment, and then everyone seemed to have the thought at the same time. Oh no, all those fire trucks, all those fire fighters.

June’s TV was full of news, but it was changing minute to minute. There were more planes on the way to attack. There was sarin gas and anthrax on the Manhattan planes. The police had foiled an attack on the George Washington Bridge. And the news was announcing that all federal buildings had been evacuated — and showing footage of people leaving buildings in Ohio — as we sat in a federal building, two miles from the trade center.

Finally, around 1 p.m., the marshals told everyone to leave the building. Several of us had no where to go, really. One of my classmates, clerking down the hall from me, lived in Brooklyn, and so we went to his apartment.

I still remember the walk over. The dust cloud covered most of the Manhattan bridge. Above the cloud of dust, you could see the American flag. It’s an image that is burned onto my mind. Every time I see a flag poking out from clouds, I recall that image.

We stayed at Jason’s for a few hours, sitting on his couch and watching CNN. Wackiness abounded — people saying that there was anthrax on the planes, connecting the attacks to Palestinians, homegrown militants, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and bin Laden. A few of the ideas eventually turned out to be right, but the signal-to-noise ratio was not particularly great.

I was mostly worried about getting home. I had had trouble calling home earlier, but eventually got through. I told Mardell that I was okay, and would be home as soon as I could. I contemplated the possibility of a fifteen-mile walk across chaotic Manhattan. Then, at about 3, Rudy Giuliani announced that the trains were running again. I went down to the A station and waited for an hour, and the train showed up. It took another two hours to get back to 207th. I wasn’t complaining.

Mardell was home the whole time, as were the kids. She had originally been planning to go shopping downtown, but had overslept.

The weeks after were very sad for many people. I didn’t know anyone who worked at the center. Two friends had worked there or close by, and I was worried for them, but as it turned out, they had both changed locations recently.

I felt terrible whenever I saw the handmade posters, all over every subway station, “Have you seen my Dad? Name: ___. Brown hair, thirty-five years old. [Picture]. Please call ___.” “Have you seen our daughter? Blond hair, twenty-two. A heart tattoo on one ankle. [Picture]. Please call ___.”

Over the next few weeks, rumors abounded. An air pocket had been found full of survivors. (No, it hadn’t). More survivors had been located. (No, they hadn’t). And of course the ever-present LDS rumors, such as the group of missionaries on their way to the trade center, miraculously detained. (Not a bit of truth).

Meanwhile, life goes on. For most of us, after a few months, life settled back in to the familiar routines of work, family, church, school. (I had the impression in early 2002 that the rest of the country was more fixated on 9/11 than New York City). Years later, the routine continues. Yes, I could dwell on it endlessly. I don’t. But I remember it sometimes. When I had to review documents downtown, I stopped by and looked at the WTC site. And I think about 9/11 when this time of year rolls around. And any time that I happen to see the Manhattan skyline.

5 comments for “Three Years Ago — One person’s story

  1. D. Fletcher
    September 11, 2004 at 10:36 am

    Here’s a letter I wrote on 9/11/2003.

    Friends,

    I think it would be nice to memorialize the events of September 11, by sharing our personal experiences. Here’s mine.

    I was on the subway going to work. I live at 112th Street, and my office is on 22nd Street, so I only use one subway, the #1, going from the 110th Street Station to the 23rd Street Station.

    On this particular day, the subway stopped at Times Square (42nd Street) and an announcement was made, no downtown service. As we left the car, I overheard someone say that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, and it was an attack on our country. Some people laughed, and I laughed, because it was absurd.

    I walked out of the station and started down Seventh Avenue. I had forgotten all about the World Trade Center. I was focussed on getting to work, which was a mile away at this point, and I knew I’d be pretty late. As I walked down the avenue, I noticed groups of people congregating around stores with televisions in the windows. But I was still oblivious to “news” or anything untoward
    happening in the city.

    When I reached 22nd Street, I turned east (my building is between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue). When I got to Sixth Avenue, I could see people looking south. So when I reached the corner, I looked south.

    The World Trade Center appeared at the end of the avenue. Because it was so tall, you could almost see the entire expanse of the building, from the ground to the roof. And both buildings were on fire. It was an amazing sight, like nothing I’d ever known before. Immense, billowing smoke was pouring out in a southern stream.

    Although I was mesmerized by the sight of the fire, I rushed to my office. When I got there, the president of my company was coming out the door, saying, “I’ve got to go home. It isn’t safe. The country is under attack. The WTC and the Pentagon have been hit.” I asked him if everyone had gone home, and he said they were all on the roof of the building. So I went to the roof.

    Here was an even better view of the buildings, nearly unobstructed. About 2 minutes after I got up there, the first building (2 WTC) collapsed, pancaking down, creating havoc, debris, and untold dead. Everyone on the roof was speechless, though there was some sobbing, I don’t know from whom. I myself was stock still, shocked but fascinated, still finding it absurd and yet pregnant
    with ramifications for the future.

    I stayed on the roof for another 45 minutes, watching the second tower fall. Then, with the others, I slowly walked down the stairs of the building to the street, and I walked home (about 6 miles away). There was no panic in the streets that I saw. Everyone was walking slowly home. Cell phones didn’t work, so people lined up outside payphones. I knew my chances for calling anyone were
    slim, so I waited until I got home to call my parents in Salt Lake. They had watched the entire event on the television, and my mother’s first words to me were, “now you know what Pearl Harbor was like.”

    At the time, my niece’s husband, Chris Williams, was staying with me. He arrived home some hours later, and we were grateful to see each other. I spent the rest of the day, and the rest of the week, watching the news coverage like everyone else. We didn’t return to work until Friday.

    Although I was a witness to these events, I wasn’t personally affected in any way (although my hometown, Summit, NJ, was hard-hit — it was featured on 60 minutes, and one well-known casualty, Todd Rancke, was someone who had dated my little sister). There is probably some stress-related trauma which I’ve experienced as difficulty concentrating and other physiological symptoms, but for the most part, I am unharmed and unaltered by the experience. But it certainly was vivid, perhaps my most vivid memory of all.

    Chris thought of a scripture which works to memorialize the event as a metaphor.

    Proverbs 18:10

    The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe.

    Of course, this scripture could have been used by Bid Laden’s suicide hijackers, as justification. Just a thought.

    Love to all,

    D.

  2. John H
    September 11, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing these stories. While 9/11 fades from some memories, I think about it everyday. I’m not even sure why it changed me and affected me so much. I didn’t know anyone who died, I didn’t lose my job because of a tanking economy, I don’t have any relatives in Afghanistan. But everytime those images appear on TV or in a magazine, I stand transfixed, mesmerized, unable to look away.

  3. Adam Greenwood
    September 11, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    In [u]Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream[/u], the protagonist goes to a dinner party for his stockbroker boss’ ninety-year-old uncle Sergei. After the conversation ebbed, the protagonist’s wife “turned to Uncle Sergei and, with that combination of tact and directness that she can employ when it pleases her to, said: You must have seen a great many things in your life, sir.

    This roused him. He turned his eyes to her. You could tell that he must once have been a formidable man.

    I have seen the czar blessing the Neva, Uncle Sergei said.”

    That last phrase has as much pathos as anything I know. So does, for entirely different reasons, Kaimi saying he saw the twin towers on fire.

  4. Julie in Austin
    September 11, 2004 at 9:21 pm

    Adam–

    I thought I might have been the only person in the entire world to read that odd little book.

    I was in Austin 9.11.01, so I have no dramatic tale to tell. The night before, however, I was reading something about a plan that FDR had, in case of a Japanese invasion, to basically allow them to proceed unopposed thru the Rockies (hoping they would fall prey to the winter weather) and only try to hold the line at the Mississippi. I remember going to bed thinking about how utterly bizarre it would be to have a foreign attack on American soil, how very unfathomable, and then the very next day . . .

  5. Maren
    September 12, 2004 at 8:11 pm

    My tale comes from a little different area. I was in the Washington DC South Mission at the time. It was first Tuesday of the Month, therefore my companion and I were on our way to a zone meeting in Winchester, Virginia. We were serving in the ward furthest away from DC, furthest away from the mission home, and it took an hour to drive to the stake center. We had gotten permission from the mission president to do some sight seeing in a small town on the way to the stake center, As we were walking through a small tunnel on the C&O Canal, the twin towers were hit. We had no idea. We arrived at the Stake Center minutes before 10am, and one of the elders told us someone had run a plane into the twin towers, This Elder was known to be a bit of a joker, so I told him to stop being stupid, and get on with the meeting. Then a member volunteering in the family history library ran in and said the twin towers had both been hit, and we had better come in and listen. Instead, the radio was brought into the room we were all in, and we listened to the broadcast. Moments later, we heard about the pentagon, which was right by where my companion had just been transferred. At that point, my zone leader ran out of the room to try and get in touch with the mission home. Minutes later (which seemed like hours) we were told to get into our cars, go home, and await further instructions. Cancel any appointments and stay in our apartments, We could listen to the radio broadcasts at home. My companion and I were both very scared. We both knew many people who worked at the pentagon, and I had always felt very tied to NYC (and would eventually live here!). We sat at home until late afternoon, when the President called us, and told us we were far enough away we could go to members houses and watch the news if we wanted. We went to a members house, who insisted on having our parents numbers. She said she would not let us talk, but as a parent wanted to call our families and let them know we were okay. She cried as she talked to my father and mother, who were both grateful for the call, but had spent the day reassuring family and friends that they felt their daughter had been protected, and was far away from the city at this point. It was then that we realized just how close the plane in Pennysylvania was to us in Cumberland. Our ward actually borders closely to where the plane fell, in that some people come down to our chapel while others drive to the one in Pennysylvania, and I had actually on the last P-day been site-seeing with a member right near where the plane had fallen. Wednesday was P-day, and then Thursday it was back to work, The mission president had spoken with us twice, wanting to know if we wanted someone to contact our homes, so we told him the sister in our ward had done it for us, He was glad. We waited a week to find out the fate of some members and investigators from other missionaries at a transfer meeting, but I had to wait until I went home in December to discover there were some I knew who survived, while others did not. Many of my friends were surprised that after living in DC I would move to New York, but as Kaimi said, we just go on. Of course we think about it. I had a companion come and visit me with my family this summer, and we went to ground zero, the first time I had finally found the courage to go. She and I sobbed, her perhaps more than me, seeing as at the time she had been serving in Alexandria, right near the Pentagon. We were a little more sober that day, but we just keep on with our daily routine. It is good to remember, but not to dwell. Yes, we all could dwell, but God needs us to work. The temple came to New York after the events, because we need to do the Lords work, I also know that the temple in DC was very crowded the weeks following the attack at the Pentagon.

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