Every year, I try to take some time to reflect on September 11th and how it has affected me. In 2001, I was a junior at Stuyvesant High School, which was a five minute walk from Ground Zero.
Laura and I finally visited the Oculus last Friday. It’s been partially open to the public since March, but it fully opened in mid-August. I had seen photos of it (it is, after all, an “Instagram-ready attraction”) but had not yet found the time to visit it.
The space is stunning. The upward “ribs” of the Oculus make it look like you’re standing in a nave of a massive cathedral. I’m not a religious guy, but the grandeur of it’s cavernous design felt undeniably divine. Light streams through the vaulted windows like the stained glass of a cathedral.
As I looked around admiring the architecture, I was surprised by what stood out to me the most. It wasn’t the steel skeleton that somehow managed to look light as a feather (an engineering marvel), nor was it the retractable skylight (which will be opened for 102 minutes every September 11th).
Instead, it was what was underneath it all that affected me the most: the Westfield World Trade Center Mall. (Weird, right?)
Many may not know, or, frankly, care that there used to be a mall underneath the Twin Towers. It was a standard, boring transit mall: I remember a Sam Goody, Borders, Warner Brothers, and a PBS Store– relics of my childhood and the early aughts. But I had a very personal relationship with the space. My high school was a five minute walk from the Twin Towers and so I used to spend countless hours there. If I got to school too early, I’d walk over to the Borders in the mall and hang out there until school started. During Christmas, I would buy the vast majority of my gifts from that mall. I spent countless hours there, with my mom, with friends, or just by myself.
So when I saw the new mall, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s something that most people don’t care about (or maybe deride) but, to me, it felt like I was seeing an old friend. Business, tourism, housing, and foot traffic have all come back to the neighborhood, but something still felt missing. This mundane mall feels like another piece of the puzzle falling into place. For me, it symbolized a step towards completeness. It filled an absence I never quite knew existed– a homecoming to a very different, but intimately familiar New York.
In previous years:
2015 — “when I walk by Ground Zero, it’s always incredibly difficult to see the fences and the construction site. It just reminds me that while we’ve come a long way, we’ve still got some ways to go in recovering.”
2014 — “My heart hurt when I was watching this morning’s memorial on TV when a boy said: ‘Dad, I never met you…’”
2013 — “Seeing that newspaper again made me realize just how young we were when this happened.”
2012 — “the thing that I’ve kept coming back to…was how different this year would feel — how “normal” it would feel. [..] Cops with large semiautomatic rifles are farther and fewer between, the city has become more livable and lively, and the tower downtown is just starting to poke out above the skyline.”
2011 — “And now, ten years later, I realize that it’s important for everyone to grieve in their own way.”
Below is the post I’ve posted every year since 2001. Months after the attacks, I thought it was important to record my experience for myself.
“Wake up! It’s 6:45 already! Hurry! We have to leave in 15 minutes,” is what I hear from my mother. I glance up at my brother’s alarm clock sitting atop our desk. “Argh, not again,” I thought. I rushed out of bed to look for my clothes, realizing that I couldn’t decide which shirt I should wear that day. “I could wear the green one, but it’s a little tight, and a little small. Screw it. I’m not wasting my time finding another one.” That’s one of the only things I specifically remember from that day.
I quickly got dressed. Same routine. Brush my teeth, fix my hair, get my books and head out the door. As usual, I ate my breakfast in my car while half asleep. I don’t quite remember what I had that day. I fall straight back to sleep once I finish eating.
“Dee…” My mom calls me to get up. We had arrived at the foot of the TriBeCa bridge. I sluggishly walk up the stairs and then proceeded to go to my locker. I take out my Princeton review book to do my homework since I had no school homework the day before to finish. We had just had our first class of the Princeton Review the day before.
I start doing the Princeton Review work and periodically checking my watch. 8:40. I should go to my AP American History class. As I walk past the 3rd floor bulletin board, I read a sign that said, “Stuyvesant Hockey Interest Meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 11, Room — -.” Cool, I thought. My friend and I had discussed that we would join this year because it was walk-on, meaning you couldn’t be cut from the team.
I go to class and my friends Sam and David were there. I started talking to them, I forgot about what though. Boom. I hear clear, yet soft sound. We hear a car alarm go off in the distance. Sounds like one of those movies where they drop a metal beam on a car. Haha…a guy must’ve dropped something on a car or crashed into something we joked. The department chairperson came in, a little out of breath and asked, “Is everyone ok?” We were all confused and said, “what?” She said, “Here, look.” She proceeded to turn on the tv and to CBS 2. Oh my god, is the first reaction. We saw the north tower with a huge hole with smoke billowing out. They were reporting that a small private plane had hit the tower. I figured that was about right, it didn’t seem that bad.
“I guess I’ll leave this on because I know I can’t contest with this,” my AP American History teacher said as we watched in awe of what was happening. I remember vividly thinking, “Boy, I’m going to have a story to tell my kids in the future of where I was when this happened.” I wish now that that wasn’t true.
About five to ten minutes after the first hit, Mr. Teitel, our principal, came on the loudspeaker. “A plane has hit the World Trade Center. No one will be let out of the school. I will keep you updated.” An expert on airplane routes was on the phone with CBS saying that it was routine to fly over the Hudson going to LaGuardia. Most of us were thinking, “Ahh, what a stupid pilot. How do you crash into the tallest building in broad daylight?”
Around that time, a chilling report entered the CBS newsroom. “The FBI is looking into a possible plane hijacking, which may or may not be related to this.” Everyone in the class fell silent. There was a very somber feeling in the room.
About fifteen minutes after the first crash, as we were watching the tv, we saw a huge explosion. Everyone, in unison, let out a gasp, cupping their hands over their mouths. By this time, the camera was a stationary camera from the CBS studios because the news helicopters had all been grounded. Therefore, we had an unclear and distant view of it. “We have reports that a second plane may have hit the second tower.” Yeah, right, whatever man. You guys are crazy. Everyone had the same thought. No one could, or wanted to believe that. My initial thought was that they must have ruptured gas line or blew up a gas tank in one of the towers. My friend Noah said he had felt the tremor that the building had emitted.
They replayed the tape. That was one of the many discernible pictures in my mind. I see a white thing flying towards the towers and disappearing behind it. Seconds later, the explosion. Being the optimist that I am, I figured it was probably another plane or helicopter getting caught up in the smoke and losing control. By this time, almost everyone was in shock, not knowing what to do. “This is the wildest thing I’ve ever seen,” is what I said to my friend over and over. That was only the beginning.
By the time it was 9:20, the warning bell had rang. Mr. Stern, the teacher, let us out early. My friend Kevin and I rushed up to the seventh floor where we knew we would get a clear picture of it. His classroom was across the hall from mine, so I dropped by. The image that I saw would be the last time I would ever see it standing. I huge hole, barely fitting within the walls, has smoke coming out…debris falling all over the place. Thank goodness I didn’t see people falling.
In due time, I walked to my Chinese class. I had walked away feeling that everything would be okay. It was a fire and it has happened to the Empire State building before. We’ll get through this. My teacher started teaching again, as our principal had instructed. We started complaining. “Come on. It’s important to us. It so close.” That was the general feeling throughout the room. “I’m too short,” Mrs. Guan says with her heavy Chinese accent. Someone stood up and turned the tv on, and that was that.
People started saying immediately, oh, it’s terrorists. I thought, “Impossible.” I think, though, in the back of my mind, I sort of knew, but I refused to believe it. We watch and watch. “This just in, a plane has crashed into the Pentagon.” Planes are falling out of the sky into United State landmarks. At that point, it was obvious that it was terrorism. Oh crap.
Over the loud speaker, they start announcing names. That’s not a good sign. Everyone seems a little panicked, but tries to keep themselves composed. We hoped that nothing else would happen, naturally.
The lights flicker. Twice. Everything turns back on. The TV returns with just static. Uh-oh. Bewildered, we went into the hall. Mr. Teitel came on the loud speaker, “Everyone step away from the south windows!” People fill halls. I see my friend crying. Jessica started breaking down, mumbling, “I don’t want to die!” I later learned the flickering lights were caused by the collapse of the first tower.
At that time, I had no idea at that time what had happened. Mr. Teitel came on the loudspeaker once again, “No one will be let out of the building until further notice. Go to homeroom. We have extended homeroom indefinitely. Lunch will be on us today. Thank you.” Yeah, thanks, that’s just what I need, free lunch.
I start walking down the stairs. I see my friend Alice, who is in my homeroom. We discuss this a little in disbelief. At that moment, I had an epiphany. I had my radio CD player in my locker. I went to go get it so I could stay updated.
When I get there, I think, should I get my Princeton Review books? Nah. I go to my homeroom. I’m told we’re going downstairs in the lobby. We listen to my radio to keep updated. We hear reports of bombings here and there, like the state department. As we walked into the lobby, we see people in FBI, NYPD, FDNY and FEMA jackets swarming around. I look to my right. I’ve never seen so many people by the telephones. Everyone was edgy because they wanted to get in touch with loved ones.
We eventually went back to our 4th floor room. “In an orderly fashion, quickly exit the building through the North entrance. In an orderly fashion.” As we walked down the stairs, I lose my whole homeroom, except Alice.
As we walk through the doors to get outside, I hear the most terrifying sound I’ve heard in my life. I’ll never, ever forget it. This loud, but low rumbling started. I didn’t know what to think. I was scared. People yell, “run back in!” All the teachers say, “Oh it’s only a helicopter.” I remember only seeing Mr. Simonds. I started walking inside, but I thought, “There’s no way in hell that a helicopter.” Me and Alice start running staying close to each other so we wouldn’t get lost.
As we started running uptown, I seriously thought I was going to die. Not knowing if the second tower was toppling over or not, or in what direction. I had heard that the first one had collapsed into the river, so I thought this was the same. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, as most people say. My family flashed before my eyes. I started worrying about them. I didn’t want them to feel pain.
I start running as fast as the crowd permitted. As I got onto the walk path, I look back. That was the scariest thing I’ve seen. A huge cloud of smoke is chasing after us, faster than I can run. But we ran. And ran. And ran. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turn around. It’s my friend Danny. I’m pretty glad because now I have found a fellow Staten Islander. We keep on walking uptown. Everyone in the school did the same. Uptown was our mindset. Don’t care where. Just uptown.
Many times along the way, we stopped, found some friends. Then start walking again. Then stopped. We eventually congregated at Chelsea Piers between 18th and 23rd streets. I eventually found most, if not all the Staten Islanders that I usually hang out with. Ahh! Cell phones. “I need one, right now!” I needed to call my family. I don’t want them to worry, and also I wanted to see if they’re okay. Damn no signal. “Hey yo, can I use your phone for a second. Thanks.” Crap, no signal. I must’ve done this a dozen times. I called my mom, brother, sister and father on all the cells. Argh, they’re not working.
I’m itching to go uptown to my mom’s workplace. “I need to go. Come guys. I want to go. Let’s go.” I’m becoming uneasy. We start walking. Tash’s boyfriend offers to let us stay in his apartment until we have something figured out. I took down his address just in case.
As we’re going uptown, I see my friend Johnny, the one who I was discussing the hockey team with. “So Johnny, I guess we there’s no hockey interest meeting today, huh?”
I remember looking up. I looked, panning the sky. Not a cloud in the sky. Not ONE. The only one was of the remains of the World Trade Center. Around then, I remembered that me and a bunch of friends had gone through the World Trade Center the week before. We walked to the ferry, and for some reason, instead of going through the park, we went thru World Trade Center. Well, at least I went through that recently.
We see a guy covered in dust as we walked up West St. He covered head-to-toe with ash. He tells his story. He said how he was across the street and how he was running. I seem to forget the details, but it was a good story.
In the middle of nowhere, maybe around 28th and 9th Ave, someone yells out, “PAY PHONE!” Everyone’s so happy. Everyone tries to get a quarter. I wait for Yi Ding to finish. I call my mom.
“Hi ma?” I said in a tremulous voice. “Hello!” Her voice started uneasy and escalated. She has realized it was me. We both were so happy. She tells me that everyone had been in tears, worrying about me. Everyone my uncle from Taiwan called to see if I was ok. I tell her that I’m ok and that I’m heading her way. After I hung up I felt a tear in my eye.
These pay phones happened to be right outside a deli, so we dropped in to buy something. I bought a gatorade. I turned around. The small tv was on. That was the first time I saw the towers collapse. I was a horrifying image. I was relieved that it didn’t topple over, but it was still horrible. You just see a cloud of dust collapsing from the top. All throughout the walk, I kept on saying, “Oh my god, this isn’t real. It’s totally not real.”
Around 33rd St, I tell me friends I’m going to my mom’s place, and tell them if anything happens I’ll call them or go to Stefan’s house. I start walking alone listening to my trusty CD Player. I keep walking as fast as I could to 46th St.
Around 41st St., it was something I’ll probably never see again in my life. All the people within the block radius, and probably the whole island, looked up in unison. Fear had fallen upon us. The cause of this was an airplane that was flying overhead.
Something that struck me as disturbing, almost, was that people in midtown and above were going about their business. It seemed so regular. You could tell something was very wrong, but the scene did not stray far away from what you would see on a regular day. People were joking, laughing, talking on cell phones about what they did last night, all this while the towers had collapsed.
I eventually got up to 46th and 6th to my mom’s place. It was such a relief to be there. I went up. Up until then, I hadn’t believed it. I was in denial. Once I got up to the 21st floor, I went to my mom’s desk. My sister was there because she had gotten out of school. Everyone was so happy because my mom had been crying. I was so happy to see my family that I thought I would never be able to see again.
I went over to her desk to sit down and eat some left-over McDonald fries that my sister had not finished. All of her co-workers asked me what had happened, to me that is. Once I started telling my story, I couldn’t hold it back. I burst into tears thinking of what happened. I couldn’t stand not REALLY expressing what I was feeling. All the way over, I didn’t cry, I had only gotten a tear when I talked with my mom, which was weird. But boy, I felt relieved just to let that out.
After a while after I told my story and calmed down a bit, I went to my mom’s conference room. In there was a TV, locked onto CBS. I sat there for a while, just seeing the same pictures that are burned into my mind. The “U-Turn, World Trade Center” sign. The lone person walking through the rubble. The plane slicing through the second building. The collapsing of the building.
I forget which one it was, but either my brother called me, or I called my brother. He, like everyone else, was very happy to hear from me. I was happy to hear from him. We talked for about 20 minutes about anything and everything.
We watched for at least an hour or two. We really didn’t think of how we were going home. We sat there in awe, taking all this in. We eventually tried to figure out how we were getting home since there were no trains running really. My mom’s boss offered to let us stay at his house if we couldn’t find a way home.
In due time, we found out how to get home. We took the temporary R train all the way to 85th Street in Brooklyn, then transferred to the S79 to get home. The train was packed with people, rushing to get home. Everything transportation-wise ran very smoothly. Once we got off of the R train, the city had already had a bus to bring us to Staten Island.
During whole trip home, I remember thinking, “uh-oh, what was that? Is it anthrax? Are they going to attack again? What the noise?” I couldn’t stop worrying. I had a lingering feeling that there would be another attack. One thing that struck me as odd was when we were on the train. This man’s voice came on the loudspeakers on the train, although the conductor was a woman. I also heard gas coming in, hoping that it wasn’t anything.
Anyway, once we got to Staten Island, I was happy. I think that was happiest I’ve ever been to see Staten Island. Once we got off near Hylan Dairy, my cousin Patty was there to pick us up. I finally felt relieved, my lingering feeling diminished a lot, but it still hasn’t gone away.
When we got home, my brother ran upstairs in a hurry hugging all of us. He then told us 7 World trade had fallen, but surprisingly that didn’t surprise me. We kept on watching the tv, still dumbfounded about what happened.
I then went online, IMing everyone that was on, writing “are you and everyone you know ok?” Thank goodness everyone I know was ok. Although, I heard horror stories from everyone that knew people who knew people who were affected. It was still too unreal.
For the week and a half, I didn’t have school and stayed home, basically just watching the news. The next day, I think everyone stayed home. My dad might’ve gone to work. The feeling was very somber.
The day after, we heard possible terror suspects were being chased through Staten Island, which wasn’t a fun thing to hear. Eventually that passed, even though they never caught the guy.
During the next week or so, there were some opportunities to get out of the house, like to paint a 9/11 mural for our school or to volunteer. I didn’t go to any of them. I didn’t have the spirit to do anything. I was just phased out. I didn’t feel like it was time to see everyone else, but really wanting to see them at the same time. In essence, I wanted it to be like it was before, seeing everyone and back at school.
Through “emergency websites,” I found out we were being temporarily moved to Brooklyn Tech. I didn’t like the idea, but it would do.
For the next two weeks, we were there from around 2 to 6:30. I hated it there. We had no liberty. And the sheer fact of us being there was a bad reminder of what happened. This wasn’t the place I was for two years. This wasn’t the place I made all my friends. This wasn’t the school I loved. It just wasn’t.
I dreaded going to Tech for two weeks. Sure, the schedule was awesome, shortened periods, but it just wasn’t the same.
We eventually went back to Stuy, which was awesome, although everything was barricaded. It wasn’t the same, but at least we were there, back at Stuy.
So far, we’ve been back for about a month and a half, if not more. We need to wear our Ids all the time, which I don’t really mind.
Everyday, though, you see the wreckage and the rubble from any street you can look down, especially on the bridge on West St. On one of the streets, right before West St., you can clearly see the wreckage. Perfectly clear. I try to look at it everyday, try to remember what it’s like. It almost seems like I want to appreciate it because I didn’t when it was there. They are taking what left of it out more and more everyday, and I just want to see it as many times as I can now.
Everytime I think of the World Trade Center, I still get a tear. It’s never going to be there. How could it be? How could it not be there. It’s a hundred and ten stories! It’s always been there. I haven’t lived a day in my life without them there. It’s always been a marker/indicator. Of what? Of anything. On the way to school, on the Verrazano Bridge, I used to look up and think, “Where’s Manhattan?” I would look around…ahh, there it is. When you were in Manhattan, if you were lost and didn’t know where you were going, just look up and use the trade enters as markers. On the BQE, it was right across from the highway.
One of the first times I actually believed what happened was when we were on the BQE. For two whole years, I saw the towers across the river. Everyday. It was ALWAYS there. About two weeks after, coming home, I looked across the river, that was one of the first time I didn’t see it. It was like, “What the hell is going on?” It still didn’t register, it was the first time I saw it not there.
I don’t know how this could happen. It doesn’t make sense. It changed my life so much. I know there are people who have it worse than I do, but I can’t imagine what they’re feeling. I went to the Borders a lot in the morning. If I was early, or lazy, or didn’t want to go to school yet, I would go there and look at some magazines. Maybe GamePro, maybe Skateboarder, anything.
For two years, since I’ve been going to Stuyvesant, I’ve been taking the 1/9 train down to South Ferry. I went UNDER the building everyday! Damn. I can’t believe it. “Courtland Street World Trade Center” That’s what I would hear. I don’t know how long I’m going to have to wait to hear that. I really hope it’s soon.
It was also such a great place just to hang out and buy stuff. It was a great place to just buy whatever. It’s going to be hard to shop this year for Christmas. A lot of the Staten Island Stuy kids used to shop there. For anything at all, it usually had it.
I just wish I could walk the same route as I would if I was going to WTC. I wish that everything would go back to normal. Or at least everything would be unrestricted. Everything now is still barricaded. You can’t really do anything below Chambers St. It’s horrible.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I actually realized that the people who were dead/missing were actual people. I mean, I knew they were actual people, but they seemed like a collective body, not as individuals. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, I had one of those “realization moments.” I was looking through the time magazine and saw a person in a business suit plummeting to the ground. At the point, I realized that they were individuals, maybe even people I saw from time to time. I realized how many lives had changed. Maybe the guy who jumped had a family. Maybe his son had just got his first A in school. Maybe his daughter was just entered junior high and was excited and told him all about it the night before. Maybe his wife said, “I love you,” not knowing that it was her last time saying it. It was someone. Not just anyone. It was someone’s father. It was someone’s brother. It was someone’s cousin. It was someone’s boss. It was someone.
I can’t believe it still. I can’t believe what was going through his mind as he jumped out. Or the moment right before he did. Did he want to do it? Maybe. Could he stil make it? Maybe. Am I going to die anyway? Probably. While he was in the air, did he regret it. I know this is horrible to write about, but this is what’s going through my mind. I try to pretend I’m in another persons situation, be it the person who jumped, the person who lost family, the person who doesn’t care, the person who doesn’t really understand, but it just doesn’t work. I can only know what I’m feeling, and that feeling is horrible.
As I try to explore Manhattan, walking around, trying to absorb what a great city it still is, I still hear people talking about that day. People on the sidewalk, people on the train, people in stores, everywhere. They’re telling stories about where they were. Or how they escaped. Or how they saw it collapsing. Or who they knew in the towers. Or how their business was hurt. Or what the towers meant to them. It’s now a daily topic of conversation. It would seem that it would become annoying after a while, but it doesn’t. It has affected all of us so much that it’s unimaginable how you could NOT talk about it. I also think it’s healthy that people are talking about it. It reminds us of what happened. It also helps the storyteller a little bit of closure, just a little bit.
With the thought of what happened still on the surface of our minds, I can’t help but to be expecting the next thing to happen. Everyday I come home expecting news about something catastrophic happening, but hoping that I wouldn’t. I would say I wouldn’t be surprised if something DID happen. I’m always on edge.
Although, I think that I have some closure on that last thing. The plane crash that had just happened was sort of the big thing that I was expecting, although it wasn’t because of this whole thing. I think I’m a little safer that something has already happened somehow.
Well, this is as much as I’m going to write now. It’s November 25, 2001, at 1:21 in the morning. It took me just about two and a half months to finish this part of this story (I guess). Hopefully this document will never be finished. I’ll keep adding to it. I don’t want this to be finished. That’s it for now and I’ll come back when I have more on my mind.