For nearly five years now, loved ones of mine have asked me time and again to recount my experiences from the week of September 10th, 2001. They don’t know what happened to me that week, only that I was in the World Trade Center the day before it was hit by two hijacked planes. I’ve never told the story because I’ve felt incredibly guilty for the grief I’ve felt. I’ve been afraid that survivors would read it and say, “You don’t deserve to feel grief, you were a tourist.” All the things in my head that have kept me from telling my story, I’ve decided to push away-to tell it once, and never again. I want it to be read with the understanding that it is just a story, a true one, but nevertheless is told with the knowledge that there are far more moving and important ones yet to be told. I want it to serve as a reminder that there are sacred moments locked inside souls all around us.
On Friday, September 6th, 2001, I boarded a plane bound for JFK Airport in New York City. After a flight of several hours from Texas, I was greeted on the ground in my destination by my boyfriend, Paul, who had flown from the opposite direction in Scotland. We were going to have a rare long weekend together in his favorite city, it was my first time in New York. We got into a towncar and headed for our hotel, The Michelangelo, which took alot longer than I thought it would, but as a first time visitor, I didn’t mind at all. I couldn’t stop looking at all the thing’s I’d spent my life seeing on television and in the movies. It was so alive, and beautiful, and real to me. Even the garbage piled high on the sidewalks excited me.
We spent very little time in our hotel, as I was intent on seeing everything in Manhattan before we had to end our long weekend. We took in the U.S. Open, Carnegie Hall, and Broadway, but it was the little sidestreets in Soho and the Village that I adored. All the divey bars that you could blink and miss, the delis, and little shops. We took a carriage ride in Central Park, and visited the zoo. My favorite was watching all the artists do amazing portraits at the entrance to the Park. From our hotel room I could look out across Manhattan and see the windows of penthouses, and I would fantasize, “I wonder who lives there. What are their lives like?” I couldn’t stop watching all the beautiful men and women on Wall Street, in their Prada and Chanel. Some of the people looked strange, and some were almost too rich and beautiful to seem real, but I fell in love with all the stories that floated in the air around them. I fell in love with New York.
The weather in Manhattan was so beautiful, there was no wind, no rain that week, and we walked for hours in the evenings before returning to our room. I felt like such a small town girl, and I was constantly trying to appear aloof and removed, and hip. It makes me laugh to think of it now, I so didn’t want to look like a tourist. New Yorkers seemed so tired of them, and understandably so. I remember expecting everyone to be rude, which was the stereotype of New Yorkers, but I didn’t experience that. Everyday New Yorkers seemed fairly unflappable, and a little removed, but not unkind. We went for dinner to a restaurant called Tequilaville off Broadway, which was empty but for the staff and us, and they surrounded us and had me taste different kinds of tequila they had at the bar, because they thought I was an afficionado being from Texas. I found that so endearing, and as we left they each kissed me on the cheek twice and waved to us all the way down the street. The doorman at Michelangelo always greeted me by name, even though my tips weren’t what you could call generous. Those are the things I carry with me of New York now.
On the morning of September 10th, we had breakfast and took in a movie in Times Square-“The Others”. Afterwards we wanted to make the most of our last day in Manhattan, so Paul suggested we take the subway to the World Trade Center and have a visit. I had no interest in going to the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings, but I went along, as it seemed we’d only done things I’d wanted to do thusfar. I actually had a hard time getting off the subway that morning because I was so engrossed in wondering where all the people were going, what their lives were like, their stories. I’m such an inherent people watcher, I could have spent the entire day doing that. I loved the diversity that was side by side on the train.
When we arrived at World Trade, I remember squealing because there was a Krispy Creme donut shop right there in the plaza, and there were hundreds of policemen there. I laughed so hard I teared up, I couldn’t stop repeating, “They really do love donuts!!!”
We window shopped, and walked along the plaza, sitting under the trees on the cement benches, just watching the busy people go by. It became one of my favorite moments in my life. After a few hours of that, we finally made our way to visit the actual World Trade Center, and I had to make a complete ass of myself right away. I was still trying to get the hang of revolving doors, and maneuvering them without nervousness-so of course there were revolving doors to that building, and one of my shoes got caught in the door and promptly got eaten. I replaced my mangled footwear and we walked in.
I had forgotten that World Trade had been bombed in 1993, until I realized they were going to search me thoroughly on the way in. I felt comforted at that, because no matter how many times you see it on television, you can’t believe how tall it is when you’re in front of it. We got into the elevator and the guy running it had a huge grin on his face, I couldn’t get over that. It was infectious. I said, “You must adore your job,” to which he replied, “It’s the best job on earth, miss”.
When we got to the top, we blended in with so many people, speaking so many languages, all of us in awe of the view. And I felt like I’d love to have an apartment that looked out on that view. It was the epitome of New York, the beauty and character of it all spread out before us like a gift. I stood next to that huge window and felt like I could fly. Going up and out into the open air at the top was frightening and real and breathtaking. I immediately started making plans to take my young daughter who was waiting for me back in Texas, to see it as soon as I could.
We left that area after taking many pictures, and I still can’t figure out why, but I went into the gift shop and purchased $300 worth of souvenirs. I hadn’t spent that much anywhere on anything, since we’d arrived in New York. With my bags in tow and my feet aching, we decided it was time for lunch, and Windows on the World was where we ate. We spent two hours eating and admiring everything, and visiting with the sweet wait staff and manager. You would not find nicer people anywhere, not even in the hospitable South.
When we left, it was time to pack and go to the airport. We did that in record time and said our long goodbye in Newark Airport, where we were taking seperate flights. Paul and I had had an amazing time in New York, that we would never forget. I told him I loved him, and thanked him for introducing me to his favorite place on earth. I boarded my flight for Houston soon after, alone and wishing the weekend hadn’t ended so soon. I spent six hours on the runway, because there was an unfortunate fire at the airport that night. I knew I would miss my connection in Houston and not make it home that night. We did finally land in Texas at 2am, and the airline put me up in a motel room, where I had a quick shower, called my family, and had a nap. The next morning at 7am I was up and ready, and as I grabbed a pastry and boarded the bus that would take me to Houston Hobby Airport, I heard Charles Gibson on ABC talking about a plane crash. I didn’t have time to think anything of it, until I got to the airport.
Twenty minutes after arriving, I received a flyer from one of the airline people, which I still have today: We regret to inform you that two planes have hit each main tower of The World Trade Center, in New York City this morning. All flights have been grounded and the airport will close until further notice. Please make arrangements to leave the airport.
So there I was, and I read the flyer three more times. I can’t explain to you what was going through my mind, I think it was numb. I realized far too late that I was holding a carryon and a huge clear plastic bag that said “Top of the World Trade Center Gift Shop”, as someone approached me and said, “Were you just there”? I just nodded dumbly and then I was on camera, with a CNN reporter asking me how I felt. I could not come up with any words, and was fighting the urge to run. Thirty seconds had now passed since I’d read the flyer. A very large Norwegian who spoke little to no english stepped in front of me and put his hand over the camera lens, and repeated “Enough, enough!” until I could make my legs move. People were staring at me and parting everywhere I went. I had no idea what to do. A Southwest ticket agent approached me then and gave me her cell phone, and said “Call your family, and tell them you’re safe. ” When I heard my mother’s screaming voice over the phone line, reality hit. She told me there were hijacked planes circling the White House, and the Pentagon, and they were estimating fifty thousand dead at the World Trade Center.
At five minutes after I read the flyer, I lost control of my bodily functions and was taken by the arm by yet another Southwest employee in tears, into the bathroom, where she dug in my luggage and changed all of my clothes while I stood there like a zombie, and took me outside to the curb. She then got into my purse and got a cigarette and a lighter, and handed them to me and left. I don’t remember what happened to the cigarette or the lighter because at 20 minutes after I read the flyer, I dropped to the ground and began to scream.
Flashes of Windows on the World, the man in the elevator, the view, the revolving door that ate my shoe, the policemen at Krispy Kreme, were moving across my field of vision to the point that I felt I was experiencing a breakdown, and could not stop the screams that were lining up at the base of my throat. I have no idea how long this went on because I had no more control over any aspect of myself.
Because I was curled up in a fetal position on the curb outside of Hobby airport, I couldn’t see, but felt myself being lifted off the ground and carried. I was set down on a bench a few feet away, and I was being rocked like a baby. Someone was whispering in my ear, and this is what he said.
“Shhhh, I’ve got you. I love you, God loves you, you’re safe”.
After what seemed an hour, I finally moved my humiliation out of the way enough to open my eyes, and the person holding me in his lap and rocking me, was in a military uniform. He was a National Guardsman named John, and he was leaving his pregnant wife to go back to work. He told me he knew why I was hysterical when he saw the gift bag I was carrying. He told me he was scared, and didn’t know why he’d been ordered to go to the airport, or where he’d end up. He held both my hands in his and said a prayer, and left to get his orders.
On the curb once again, I was told that all buses were full, and I would have to find other means out of the airport. I knew noone in Houston. I sat down on the suitcase I’d retrieved from baggage claim, and tried not to think at all. After an hour of this, a woman I’d never seen before approached me at a run, and said, “Are you going to Amarillo?” When I nodded my head she said, “Your bus is leaving, RUN.” She then grabbed all my luggage and carryons and ran me across the entire airport, loaded my luggage on the bus, hugged me, and disappeared.
I made it home, after hours and hours of wondering what had happened to the city I’d fallen in love with, wondering how it was possible that a building I had spent the day in just hours before, was gone. I have not been able to return to Lower Manhattan since that week, or even to glance at the twin beams of light outside the plane window the few times I’ve flown over. I promised myself I would go back when there was a memorial, and come to terms with it. As insignificant in the grand scheme of the story as I am, I will find the strength one day to return and say thank you and goodbye, to all those lost people, all the lost memories, and the me I was before that day. I have been all over the world since then, experienced joy and heartbreak. Still, every morning when I wake up, and every night before I sleep, I think of that young man’s smile, in the elevator. I thought it would be temporary, this sense of loss, but it’s permanent.