My 9/11 Story

9/11 photos: Here are 20 of the most historic images from that day — Deseret News

It was a sunny fall morning as I left my friend Cate Breslin’s apartment on the Upper West Side to catch a subway downtown. I’m a technical expert for a software company based in Seattle, and I’m helping with their booth at the NABE convention being held in the North Tower at the World Trade Center. It was shortly after I arrived there that morning when the building shook. It was early so there weren’t that many people, but we all looked around and at each other. I said to my colleague in the booth that it couldn’t be an earthquake. We had experienced an earthquake only a few months before in Seattle, the Nisqually quake, and I knew this wasn’t a quake.

People started milling about talking about what we had just experienced. Someone said that an airplane had collided with the building. I found that hard to believe because it was a very clear sunny day outside. I then observed conference attendees filing down the stairs and heading for the exits. Near me was a door to the lobby of the North Tower. I opened it and the smell of diesel fuel was overpowering. I joined the flow of people going into the lobby of the Marriott hotel that adjoined the North Tower. It was filling up with people. Someone who appeared to be in charge was directing people out onto the street. I found out later that two people died in the revolving doors from diesel fumes.

While amid the crowd of people in the Marriott lobby I decided to retrieve my bag. The room was empty and smelled strongly of diesel. I grabbed it and went back into the Marriott lobby. I later realized what a dangerous thing that was to do. I also wished I had grabbed my laptop. I found a side door, and went out onto the street.

I walked the ten feet to West Avenue which borders on the west side of the North Tower. The lanes inbound to Manhattan were filled with stalled cars. Some were crushed by airplane parts, engines, pieces of wings. And body parts, arms, legs, torsos, were strewn about on the street. I didn’t know where everybody else was going, but I headed southbound on West Avenue. After about a block I was alone except for a policeman standing on the street looking up at the Tower just watching what was happening.

I stopped just past the policeman’s parked car and looked up at the smoke pouring from high up the North Tower. I still couldn’t understand how an airplane could be so misdirected on this sunny fall day as to plow into a building. I was stunned to see people falling onto the Marriott below. I could hear the thudding sound of their collision with the lobby roof.

I heard the sound of an airplane. I looked up to see a 757 heading for the South Tower and then its disappearing into it just below the roof. That was when I realized what had happened. I remembered the first attempt in the 90’s on the World Trade Center and to no one nearby I cried out “bin Laden”. I knew then it was not just some errant airplane hitting the North Tower, but that it was part of a terrorist attack, a reprise of the first attack.

I began to think about Janis, my wife, back home in Seattle. Later I found out that our daughter in Philadelphia had watched what was happening and called her mother. It was very early on the West Coast and she was still in bed asleep. Both my daughter and my wife knew I was in New York on business, but worse than that, when she looked at my schedule on my desk, she saw that I had written “World Trade Center” for that day. It was going to be another two hours before they could relax.

I knew that I was going to have to get in touch with Janis to tell her I was ok. My cellphone wasn’t working and so I walked down to the Battery and found a line of people at some payphones (yes, in 2001, there were still some payphones). However, after a short time I realized I didn’t have any quarters so I headed up Wall Street looking for a subway entrance.

The subway I got on came from Brooklyn. No one there had any idea what had just happened to the World Trade Center. I had the strange experience of listening to ordinary conversation while knowing about a momentous event. A voice interrupted our passage to tell us that the subway was not going to the stop at Church Street declaring that a police action prevented it.

My intention was to get back to my friend’s place on the Upper West Side. The 5 took me to Grand Central and then the 7 cross-town to Times Square where I could catch a 1 or a 9 to the Upper West Side. I heard that the Towers had collapsed. I then wondered if they were running. They pass underneath the World Trade Center so I wasn’t sure they’d be running at all. Finally a 9 came by and I got on it. I exited at 79th. I was heading for my friend’s place when I finally was able to get through to Janis. That was two hours after the Towers had been hit. She was then able to call our kids to tell them I was ok.

I lost sight of my colleagues from the software company almost immediately after the building had been hit. I found out afterwards that they had made their way to the Hudson river a few blocks west of the World Trade Center. They were waiting on a dock with many other people when the Towers collapsed. Buildings intervened so the debris cloud didn’t affect them.

Eventually a tug boat ferried them across the river to New Jersey. They split into two groups. One got a car after the people in front of them agreed to share, and the other group got the last rental car in Orange N.J. They had been staying at the Marriott and thus all their luggage was now under tons of debris. All they had with them was some money and credit cards.

I arrived at my friend Cate’s co-op. It was a nice penthouse apartment with an outside deck. Like many New Yorkers she used her oven for storage and mostly ordered out for dinner. We were going to have to go out for dinner but this was clearly going to be a problem that evening. We ventured out anyway and found almost everything closed. It was an eerie New York. Almost no cars on the streets, no taxis even, and the Midtown buildings were all dark. We finally found an open restaurant on Broadway. I felt that the people serving us were heroes to be working on a night like that. We had sidewalk seating and we watched a long line of military green 18-wheeler National Guard trucks passing on the street next to us heading for downtown.

I had talked to Janis and all my kids, and I asked Lisa, my daughter in Wayne Pennsylvania which is just west of Philadelphia, if I could stay with her for a couple of days. The next day then, which was a more normal New York day, I caught a taxi to Penn Station. The place was crowded with people all wanting to get out of New York. I was looking for a ride on the New Jersey Transit to Trenton where my daughter could pick me up when they announced all tickets were going to be free. I followed a long line of people to a train heading for Trenton. After getting there my daughter picked me up and we drove to their home in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. I was soon telling my story to my daughter Lisa, who was at that time seven months pregnant with twins, and Mark, her husband, and Charlotte, their four year old first daughter.

I returned to New York on Friday. I had no trouble arranging for a flight back to Seattle leaving on Sunday. Apparently no one wanted to fly in airplanes after the attack on the Towers. Saturday I went back to where I was on that Tuesday morning. I couldn’t get very close. The entire area, where the North and South Towers and the Marriott was surrounded by fencing. Everywhere on the fences people had attached notes to and about people, some asking the reader if they knew where someone was or whether they survived.

I managed to get some of the Tower debris into a bag for a memento and returned to my friend’s place. The next day I flew home to Seattle.

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Ronald J Schoenberg

Retired applied mathematician who is a widower with three children and seven grandchildren. Google Scholar brings up my publications.