9/11/01September 11th, 2007
I updated this and am posting it again due to popular reader demand (and also because there are new readers who might have missed it the first time, and also because, well, it’s still true):
I don’t know where you were today six years ago, but I can tell you where I was: in my Greenwich Village apartment, watching the office buildings across the street from where my husband worked fall down.
I got woken up by a phone call from my friend Jen. Yes, I was still asleep when the first plane hit. I realize this sounds slothful. But 9/11/2001 was one of those rare days where sloth was rewarded. I know several people who are still alive today because they were late to work that morning, or stopped to get coffee to help them feel a little less groggy.
“Look out your window,” Jen said.
Which is when I saw the smoke.
I called my husband’s office first thing. I mean, I couldn’t see his building from our apartment, but I could see the building ACROSS from his, and black smoke was billowing out of it. What was happening? Was he all right? I knew he worked on a really high floor, and it looked as if whatever had happened to that tower across from his, it had to be happening right in front of his office window.
I couldn’t get through. I couldn’t make any outgoing calls from my phone that day. For some reason, people could call me, but I couldn’t call anyone else.
It turned out this was due to the massive volume of calls going on in my part of the city that day.
But I didn’t know that then.
I turned on New York 1, the local news channel for New York City. Pat Kiernan, my favorite newscaster, was saying that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
Weird, I thought. Was the pilot drunk? How could someone not see a building that big, and run into it with a plane?
It was right then that Luz, my housekeeper, showed up. I’d forgotten it was Tuesday, the day she comes to clean. When she saw what I was watching, she looked worried.
“I just dropped my son off at his college,” she said. “It’s right next to the World Trade Center.”
“My husband works across the street from the World Trade Center,” I said.
“Is he all right?” Luz wanted to know. “What’s happening down there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t reach him.”
Luz tried to call her son on his cell phone. She, too, could not get through.
We both stood there staring at the TV, not really knowing what to do. It was as we were watching that something weird happened: the OTHER tower—the one that hadn’t been hit—suddenly exploded, right there on TV.
I thought maybe one of the helicopters that was filming the disaster had gotten too close.
But Luz said, “No. A plane hit it. I saw it. That was a plane.”
I hadn’t seen a plane. I said, “No. No, how could that be? There can’t be TWO drunk pilots.”
“You don’t understand,” Luz said. “They’re doing this on purpose.”
“No,” I said. “Of course they aren’t. Who would do that?”
That’s when Pat Kiernan, on the TV, said, “Oh, my God.”
It’s weird to hear a newscaster say, “Oh, my God.” Especially Pat. He is always very professional.
Also, Pat’s voice cracked when he said it. Like he was about to cry.
But newscasters don’t cry.
“Another plane has hit the World Trade Center,” Pat said. “It looks as if another plane—a commercial jet—has hit the World Trade Center. And we are getting reports that—oh, God–a plane has just hit the Pentagon.”
That’s when I grabbed Luz. And Luz grabbed me. And we both started to cry. We sat on the couch in the living room, hugging each other, and crying as we watched what was happening on TV…which was what was happening a dozen blocks from where we sat, where both the people we loved were.
We could see things flying out of the burning buildings. Pat said that those things were people.
That’s when my phone rang.
I grabbed it, but it wasn’t my husband. It was his mother. Where was he? she wanted to know. Was he all right?
I said I didn’t know. I said I was trying to keep the line clear, in case he called. She said she understood but to call her as soon as I heard anything, and hung up.
Then the phone rang again. It was my husband’s sister-in-law. Then it rang again. It was MY mother.
The phone rang all morning. It was never my husband. It was always family or friends, wondering if he was all right.
“I don’t know,” I kept telling them. “I don’t know–”
Luz went up to the roof of my building to see if she could see anything more from there than what they were showing on New York 1. While she was gone, I went into my bedroom to get dressed (I was still wearing my pajamas). All I could think, as I looked into my closet, trying to figure out what to wear, was that my husband was probably dead. I didn’t see how anybody could be down in that part of Manhattan and still be alive. All I could see were things falling—and people jumping—out of those buildings. Anyone on the streets down below would have to be killed by all of that.
I remember exactly what I put on that day: olive green capris and a black T-shirt, with my black Steve Madden slides. I remember thinking, “This will be my Identifying My Dead Husband’s Body outfit. I will never, ever wear it again after this day.”
Luz came back down from the roof, very excited. No, she hadn’t seen if the buildings in which my husband and her son were in were all right. But she’d seen thousands—THOUSANDS—of people coming down 4th Avenue, the busy street I lived off of at the time. 4th Avenue is always crazy crowded with honking cars, buses, taxis, bike messengers, you name it.
Not today. Today all the cars and buses were gone, and the entire avenue was crowded with people.
“Walking,” Luz said. “They’re WALKING.”
I ran to look out the window. Luz was right. Instead of the constant stream of cars I’d gotten used to seeing outside our living room, I saw wall to wall people. They had taken over the street. They were coming from the Battery, where the Trade Center is located, shoulder to shoulder, ten deep in the middle of the road, like a parade. There were tens of thousands of them.
There were men in business suits, and some in khakis. There were women in skirts and dresses, walking barefoot or in shredded pantyhose, holding their shoes because their high heels hurt too much and they hadn’t had time to grab their commuter running shoes. I saw the ladies who worked in the manicure shop across the street from my building running outside with the flip flops they put on their customers’ feet when they’ve had a pedicure (the flip flops the staff always make sure they get back before you leave).
But today, the staff was giving the flip flops to the women who were barefoot. They were giving away the flip flops.
That’s when I got REALLY freaked out.
The manicurists weren’t the only ones trying to help. The men who worked in the deli on the counter were running outside with bottles of water to give to the hot, thirsty marchers. New York City deli owners, GIVING water away.
It was like the world had turned upside down.
“They have to be in there,” Luz said, about her son and my husband, pointing to the crowd. “They’re walking with them, and that’s what’s taking so long.”
Then Luz ran downstairs to see if anyone in the crowd was coming from the same college her son went to, anyone who might have seen him.
I was afraid to leave my apartment, though, because I thought my husband might try to call. Not knowing what else to do, I logged onto the computer. My email was still working, even if the phones weren’t. I emailed my husband: WHERE ARE YOU?
A friend from Indiana wrote to ask if there was anything she could do. At the time, the only thing I could think of was, “Give blood.”
My friend, and almost everyone she knew, gave blood that day. So many people gave blood that there were lines around the corner to give it. And after a month, a lot of that surplus blood had to be destroyed, because they didn’t have room to store it all. And there turned out to be no use for it, anyway. There were few survivors to give blood to.
My friend Jen, the one from who’d woken me up, e’d me from her job at NYU. Fred (out of respect for this person’s desire for anonymity, I have changed his name here), one of Jen’s employees, and also a volunteer EMT, had jumped on his bike and headed downtown to see if there was anything he could do to help.
Jen herself was organizing a massive effort to set up shelter for students who didn’t live on campus, since the subway and trains had stopped running, and the kids would have no way of getting home tonight. Jen was trying to arrange for cots to be set up in the gym for them.
She ended up sleeping on cots right alongside them that night, and for the next three nights after that.
Another co-worker from NYU, Jen said, did manage to reach his spouse, who worked in the Trade Center, that day. His wife had just walked eighty floors to reach the ground safely, only to realize the guys in her IT department were still up there, backing up data. Once she reached the ground, and realized how bad things were, she tried calling them, to get them to come down, but couldn’t get hold of them.
So she went back up to get them.
But by the time she got back to her office, she, along with the IT guys, became trapped in the fire and smoke. She called her husband at NYU, and told him to say good bye to their twins toddlers for her.
Reading this, and thinking of Jen’s co-worker’s happy, cheerful greeting every time I saw him, I felt like I’d been kicked in the chest.
Another friend, a pilot who had access to air traffic control radar, e’d me to say all the planes in the U.S. were being grounded—that what had happened had been the result of highjackings. That it was a commercial jet that had hit the Pentagon, where my friend’s father-in-law worked (they eventually found him, safe and sound. He’d been stuck in traffic on his way to the Pentagon when the plane hit).
But another friend–a girl I’d worked with when I’d been a receptionist in my husband’s office, a girl whom I’d helped pick out a wedding dress and who, since the big day, had quit her job to raise the four kids she’d had–wasn’t so lucky. She never saw her husband, who worked at the Trade Center, again after he left for work that day.
Then, behind me, I heard Pat Kiernan on the TV say, “Oh, my God,” again.
And this time he really WAS crying.
Because one of the towers was collapsing.
I watched, not believing my eyes. Since having moved to New York City in 1989, I had become accustomed to using the Twin Towers as my own personal compass point for the direction South, since they’re on the southern tip of the island, and visible from dozens of blocks away. Wherever you were in the maze of streets that made up the Village, all you had to do to orient yourself was find the Twin Towers, and you knew which direction to go in. If you ever watched closely during the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” you can see the towers beneath the Washington Square arch in the scene where Sally drops Harry off when they first arrive in New York.
I have seen that view thousands of times since arriving in the city myself, since I worked at NYU, which is on Washington Square.
And now one of those towers was coming down.
Possibly on top of my husband.
I don’t remember anything else about that moment except that, as I watched the TV in horror, the front door to my apartment opened, and, assuming it was Luz back from the street, I turned to scream, “It’s falling down! It’s FALLING DOWN!”
Only it wasn’t Luz.
It was my husband.
He said, “What’s falling down? Why are you crying?”
Because he had no idea. HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON.
Because my husband, being my husband, had watched the first plane hit—directly across from his office window—picked up his briefcase, and said, “Let’s go,” to everyone in his department.
And they all started walking for our apartment, because it was the closest one to where they were.
They saw the bodies of the people who jumped from the burning towers because they couldn’t stand the heat anymore. They saw the desk chairs and PCs that had been blown out of the offices so high above littering the street like tickertape from a parade. They saw the second plane hit while they were on the street, and ducked into a cell phone store until the rubble from the explosion settled.
And then they kept walking.
I don’t know what people normally do when someone they love, who they were convinced was dead, suddenly walks through the door. All I know is how I reacted: I flung my arms around him. And then I yelled, so mad I could have killed him myself, “WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL ME?”
“I tried, I couldn’t get through,” he said. “What’s falling down?”
Because they had no idea.
So my husband and his colleagues gathered in our living room—hot, thirsty, but alive, and the ones who lived in New Jersey wondering how (and if) they were going to get home (eventually, that night, they caught special emergency ferries…and when they arrived on the Jersey side, they were hosed down by people in Haz-Mat suits, in case they were carrying asbestos on their clothes. They were each given a single paper towel to dry off with).
Luz, not wanting to go home until she’d heard from her son, who was supposed to meet her after class in my building, cleaned. I told her not to, but she said it helped keep her mind off what was happening.
So she vacuumed, while we watched the Twin Towers fall.
It wasn’t long after the second tower came down that our friends David and Susan from Indiana, who lived in a beautiful condo in the shadow of the Twin Towers with their two children, showed up at our door, their kids and half the employees from their office (which was in our neighborhood) behind them. They had been some of the people shown on the news escaping from the massive dust cloud that erupted when the towers fell. They’d abandoned their daughter’s stroller and run for it, while shopowners tossed water on their backs as they passed by, to keep their clothes from catching on fire.
In typical Hoosier fashion, however, they had stopped on their way to our place to pick up some bagels.
For all they knew, their apartment was burning down, or being buried under ten feet of rubble. But they’d stopped for bagels, because they’d been worried people might be hungry.
I took the kids into my bedroom, where there was a second TV, because I didn’t think they should see what everyone was watching in the living room—which was footage of the carnage they had just escaped from.
It was very quiet in my bedroom. I set up my Playstation for Jake, seven or so at the time, to use, while Shai, just turning 4, and I did a puzzle on my floor. Both kids were worried about Mr. Fluff, their pet rabbit, whom they’d been forced to leave behind in their apartment, so abrupt had their departure from it been.
“Do you think he’s all right?” Jake wanted to know.
At the time, I didn’t see how anything south of Canal Street could be alive, but I told Jake I was sure Mr. Fluff was fine.
This was when Shai and I had the following conversation:
“Are planes going to fly into THIS building?” Shai wanted to know. She was crying as she looked out the windows of my thirteenth floor apartment.
Me: “No. No planes are going to fly into this building.”
Shai (still crying): “How do you know?”
Me: “Because all the planes are grounded. No more planes are allowed in the air.”
Me: “No. Just until the bad guys who did this get caught.”
Shai: “Who’s going to catch the bad guys?”
Me: “The police will catch them.”
Shai: “No, they won’t. All the police are dead. I saw them going into the building that just fell down.”
Me (trying not to cry): “Shai. Not all the police are dead.”
Shai (crying harder): “Yes, they ARE. I SAW THEM.”
Me (showing Shai a picture from my family photo album of a policeman in his uniform): “Shai, this is my brother, Matt. He’s a policeman. And he’s not dead, I promise. And he, and other policemen like him, and probably even the Army, will catch the bad guys.”
Shai (no longer crying): “Okay.”
And she went back to her puzzle.
Watching from my living room window, we saw the crowds of people streaming out from what was soon to be called, forever after, Ground Zero, thin to a trickle, then stop altogether. That was when 4th Avenue became crowded with vehicular traffic again. But not taxis or bike messengers.
Soon, our building was shaking from the wheels of hundreds of Humvees and Army trucks, as the National Guard moved in. The Village was blockaded from 14th Street down. You couldn’t come in or out without showing proof (a piece of mail with your name and address on it, along with a photo ID) that you lived there.
The next day, after having spent the night on our fold-out couch in the living room, Shai’s parents snuck back to their apartment (they had to sneak, because the National Guard wasn’t letting anyone at all, even with proof that they lived there, into the area. For weeks afterwards, on every corner from 14th Street down, stood a National Guardsman, armed with an assault rifle. For days, you couldn’t get milk, bread, or a newspaper below Union Square because they weren’t allowing any delivery trucks—or any vehicles at all, except Army vehicles—into the area), and found Mr. Fluff alive and well. They snuck him back out, so that later that day, we were able to put the entire family on a bus to the Hamptons—where they lived for the rest of the year.
As my husband and I were walking back to our apartment from the bus stop where we’d seen off our friends, we saw a familiar face standing on the corner of 4th Avenue and 12th Street, where we lived: Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea, asking people in our neighborhood if we were all right, and if there was anything they could do. I didn’t go up to shake the ex-President’s hand, because I was too shy. But I stood there watching him and Chelsea, and something about seeing them, so genuinely concerned and kind, made me burst into tears, after having held them in the whole time Shai had been in my apartment, since I didn’t want to upset her.
It was impossible, after that, NOT to walk around crying. Everyone was doing it…so much so that the deli across the street put a sign in its window: “No Crying, Please.”
The same day we put Shai and her family on a bus to the Hamptons, September 12, companies—even RIVAL companies–all over Manhattan offered up their conference rooms and spare offices to my husband’s company, so that it would be able to remain in business until their own building was accessible again (which wouldn’t be for another six more months, due to all the windows having been blown out, and asbestos having fallen all over everything. In fact, from that office my husband was able to save only one thing: a picture of our beloved dead cat, Jenny. On his way in to gather sensitive data that needed removing, a few days after 9/11, he had to pass through the Brooks Brothers in his building’s foyer, from which he had bought so many of his business shirts and ties. The Brooks Brothers had been turned into a morgue).
For the next week, even if you wanted to forget, for a minute, what had happened on that cloudless Tuesday morning, you couldn’t. The front window of my apartment building filled with Missing Person posters of loved ones that had been lost in the Trade Center. The front doors of my local fire station filled with flowers as we learned that every firefighter who had been on duty that day from our station had perished at Ground Zero.
You couldn’t go outside during that week—until it finally rained Friday night–without smelling the acrid smoke from Ground Zero…and, in fact, you were encouraged to wear surgical masks outdoors. It wasn’t until workers from a barbecue restaurant drove all the way to Manhattan from Memphis, and stationed its giant smokers right next to Ground Zero, giving free barbecue to the rescue workers for weeks on end, that the smell changed to something pleasanter.
I get a lot of letters from readers asking why I haven’t written about 9/11 in any of my books, and wondering what Mia did on that day.
But that is a day I cannot write about without crying. It’s a day I can’t even THINK about without crying. It’s a day I’ll never forget, the worst day I have personally ever experienced, and a day I could never, ever write a piece of fiction about. Because what really happened that day was so much worse than any author could ever, ever imagine.
Strangely enough, the thing that makes me cry most of all when I think about 9/11 was what happened to Fred, the volunteer paramedic, and to my housekeeper Luz’s son.
While Shai and I were having our conversation about the dead policemen, Fred, Jen’s employee, the EMT who had ridden his bike downtown to see if there was anything he could do, found something to do: He helped commandeer a city bus, and started cramming as many civilians onto it as he could.
While he was doing that, the crew that he normally volunteered with were crushed to death beneath the rubble.
Like many rescue workers who lost coworkers in the attack, Fred seemed to feel guilty about having survived, while his friends had not. Even when we all pitched in and bought him a new bike, after his old one got buried at Ground Zero, Fred couldn’t seem to shake his sadness.
Which was when I finally told him about a life I knew for certain he, and he alone, had saved:
Because remember Luz’s son?
Well, he showed up at my apartment not long after Jake and Shai and their parents did. Luz grabbed him and kissed him and shook him and cried, and when she finally let go of him, he told his story:
He had been heading towards—not away from–the towers when they started to fall, because he’d wanted to help, he said. That’s when suddenly someone grabbed him from behind, and threw him onto a bus.
“But I want to stay and help!” Luz’s son yelled at the guy who’d grabbed him.
“Not today,” Fred said, driving Luz’s son and all the other students from that community college to safety, just as the towers fell.
It’s been six years since that day. Luz’s son is doing fine, and Fred is now head of his own division at NYU. Jake and Shai are back in the city, and are thriving. Mr. Fluff did eventually die, but of natural causes, and now there’s a dog to take his place. Shai’s mother says her daughter has no memory whatsoever of that day, or of the conversation she and I had, or of the promise I made her—that we’d catch the bad guys.
But I remember it.
And I want the rest of the world to remember it, too.