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From 3000 miles away, 9/11 left an indelible mark on my life

I was working in a Los Angeles highrise that day.

The morning of 9/11, I was going through my usual routine. I was in my room getting dressed for work and watching the news. I remember a female reporter saying the North Tower was on fire after a plane accidentally hit it. Mild alarm bells went off in my head. Then I brushed them off. It could have happened.

I watched as she stood to one side of the screen while the North Tower burned on the other. She continued talking when another plane suddenly appeared and rammed into South Tower, exploding into flames. Someone off screen said, “Another plane just hit!” This was no accident.

I tried to call my work emergency information number, but of course there was news yet. I worked downtown Los Angeles on the 50th floor of a highrise building, but I decided to wait a while before leaving the house. I watched the news as reporters scrambled to make sense of what was happening. They now knew the planes had purposely flown into the towers. But who did it and why?

I was numb. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. It hit me that the people on those planes were dead. My heart sank. I tried our emergency number again. Still nothing. I sent an email to my manager and some coworkers but got no response. I decided to drive into work.

It was about 7:00 am (10:00 New York time) when I finally left, and traffic was eerily light driving toward downtown. I parked and took the elevator up to the 50th floor. I didn’t see anyone at first. Then I heard voices coming from one of the conference rooms. I headed that way and found about ten people staring at the television. The room was quiet. No one was talking. The reporter was now saying this was a terrorist attack.

I watched as they looped footage of the planes hitting the towers. I felt nauseous, but like everyone else in that room, I couldn’t stop watching. They then showed footage of people in the towers leaning out the windows. A man next to me whispered, “Oh no.” I could feel the tension as we watched people trying to escape the smoke and flames.

After what seemed like hours — although it was probably only 30 minutes — I realized that no other workers had shown up. By now, the floor would be filled with chatter from the 100 or so people who worked there. Suddenly, a building safety person rushed in and told us we all needed to evacuate. Downtown Los Angeles was on the list of terrorist targets. We all rushed for the elevators. They seemed to take forever to retrieve us and take us to the parking garage level.

The drive home was surreal. Because we were all trying to leave at the same time, it took what was usually a matter of minutes to leave downtown about an hour. I finally left the parking garage and then the block. I kept looking back at the building expecting to see billows of smoke and flames. But there was nothing. I turned on the radio and heard the same information as before. Still I listened.

I got home, threw my stuff on a chair and turned on the television. Again, the news looped footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I sat down and obsessively flipped channels. I came across new footage. As the camera zoomed into one tower, I looked and squeezed my eyes shut.

People were jumping.

I opened my eyes and watched as a man’s anguished voice spoke. At some point, I must have zoned out because everything got quiet. Still I watched. I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was seeing. These poor people, knowing there was no way they were getting out alive, decided to jump instead of being caught up in the smoke and flames.

I spent several hours watching the news. Then exhausted, I finally turned it off and went to bed. I didn’t sleep. I replayed the images in my head. I felt helpless. I was nauseous. I wanted to run. I wanted to curl up in a ball.

I wanted it all to stop.

That day was endless. I wondered about the other people in the towers. Would they be okay? Would anyone ever be okay again?

We may be okay, but we will never be the same again.