What I Remember
In late June of 2001, we moved out of Manhattan and up to the Hudson Highlands. I had a three-month-old baby, Tess. She was a little more fragile than other newborns; she was born five weeks early and had spent ten days in the NICU before coming home to us. She needed lots of extra holding; it seems like I spent most of that summer nursing her while reading the entire Inspector Lynley series, which I checked out in bulk from our new library.
With Tess’s arrival, Patrick and I had four children aged 8 and under. Our two oldest had just started at their new school the week before — Christian in third grade and James in kindergarten. Two-year-old Hope followed me around our new house every day and asked me when we were going to go “home.” I hadn’t had much time to get to know people, what with unpacking and postpartum sleep deprivation, but we had met three houses’ worth of very kind neighbors.
The morning of September 11th, Patrick took the train into Manhattan for work, like he did every day. I put the boys on the school bus, cleaned up breakfast, and was reading to Hope and nursing Tess. A knock on the door interrupted us; I went to answer it while trying to comfort indignant Tess.
It was darling, newly wed Mary, my neighbor from across the street. “Is Patrick all right?” she asked.
I told her that as far as I knew, he was fine, and asked why.
“Does he work in the World Trade Center?”
“No, he’s not downtown; he’s on the east side,” I said. “His office is across the street from the United Nations.”
“Oh, good.” Her relief was obvious.
I asked her what was going on, and she told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I pictured one of the small private planes that I’d often seen flying along the Hudson River. I asked her in, and we made our way around all the unpacked boxes to the master bedroom. We sat down on the edge of my unmade bed and turned on the TV while I bounced fussy Tess until my thighs ached. I still didn’t know the new channel lineup, but I eventually found CNN, and Mary and I watched the coverage of the crash together.
Just after the first plane hit the North Tower, it seemed like a bizarre accident; no one at that point thought the plane had crashed deliberately. But as we watched the live coverage, listening to reporters trying to figure out what was going on, the second plane hit the South Tower — right in front of our eyes.
That was when everything changed. For me, the event instantly transformed from a tragic but random event to an apocalyptic attack of unknown proportions. Looking back, that is what I remember most clearly: that we had no idea what the next target would be, or how many targets there would be. Once the Pentagon was hit, my terrified mind told me that an attack on the UN was a logical possibility — and my husband was far too close to it for comfort. I frantically tried to reach Patrick in every way I knew how.
He had a cell phone, but at that point, all cell phones were useless; the city’s cell towers had all been on top of the WTC. And no one at Patrick’s law firm was picking up the phone. Social media and smart phones didn’t exist, and email was a rudimentary thing in those days. Sometimes it’s difficult to recall how different the world was before texting and tweeting and instant messaging. But I remember how isolated and desperate I felt that morning.
Then our phone started to ring. Members of our new church congregation knew Patrick worked in the city, but they didn’t know where. I told people over and over again that I was positive he was safe — but that was a lie.
After that, the school called, informing us that all the children were being sent home. I met the boys at the bus stop, gave the three older kids a snack, and let them watch VHS tape after VHS tape on the little TV upstairs. I couldn’t tear myself away from the news coverage, but I didn’t want the kids to see any of it. I’d witnessed people jumping or falling out of the upper floors of the towers. CNN only showed that footage once, when it was live; mercifully, I never saw it again, but I’ll never forget it.
Meanwhile, Patrick had gotten off the train at Grand Central Station and walked a few blocks uptown, as he always did. He passed several people who were standing on the street and looking south. In New York City, you don’t generally pay attention to strangers doing odd things, but he finally asked a construction worker what was going on. The guy said he’d been working at the top of one of the Trump buildings nearby and had seen a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Patrick’s initial reaction was the same as mine — it had to have been an accident.
By the time he got to his office, the second tower had been hit, and the law firm immediately shut down and sent everyone home. Patrick went back to Grand Central and got on a Hudson Line train — but he and all the other anxious passengers sat waiting in the station for a long time. Finally, armed men came down the platform and asked everyone to exit the train and the building as quickly as possible. The historic station was thought to be a potential target and had been closed. People started stampeding off the train and through the halls; Patrick says that’s the only time he was truly frightened.
Once outside, he waited for over an hour in a block-long line for a pay phone so he could call me. We talked briefly, and I can’t describe the relief I felt when I heard his voice. Once we hung up, I burst out sobbing and couldn’t stop for a long time. I knew he was safe for the moment, but no one knew what would happen next.
Patrick went over to Times Square, where the Jumbotron showed live footage of what was going on downtown. He stood with thousands of other people in the streets and watched the second tower collapse.
In ever increasing shock, he decided to see if he could take a ferry across the Hudson to Hoboken; he figured that his parents or I could then drive down and pick him up. He walked west to Eleventh Avenue. There he saw two alarming things. First, the line for the ferry was literally a mile long. He realized getting across the river was not an option.
But far worse, for the first time he saw people walking up the avenue from downtown. They were grey with dust, hollow-eyed, and numb. They looked like zombies.
He turned and also walked uptown — all the way to his best friend from college David’s apartment at 106th and Broadway. He and David and Catherine (David’s wife) sat on their couch for hours, glued to CNN. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania. Footage of the towers on endless repeat. It was sickening, but it was almost impossible to look away.
A while later, transit officials announced that trains were running on the Hudson Line again, so Patrick walked up and over to the Harlem station at 125th Street and waited for a train. He says that when one finally arrived, it was packed to the gills, like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. He elbowed his way on and got home to us a little more than an hour later. Holding him in my arms late that afternoon was the best feeling in the world — except that I knew that thousands of families weren’t so lucky. My sister-in-law’s first husband was a firefighter who died while working to save the lives of others.
The days that followed are a blur. I know there was no school the following day, and maybe not for the rest of the week. Patrick eventually went back to work, and life slowly assumed a more normal routine. But it was a new normal, far different than the one we’d had until that morning. And the world hasn’t been the same since.
I experienced intense survivor’s guilt for months. We’d abandoned our beloved city just weeks before, and now it struggled to rebuild without us there to help. We still visited Manhattan often, but we could no longer claim it as our own.
One night the next spring, I was driving along the river in New Jersey for some reason, and I saw the Tribute in Light for the first time. I hadn’t known about it beforehand; remember, there was no Facebook and no Instagram, and I didn’t watch the news very often. At first, I thought it was some sort of hallucination. The sight of those two beams of light reaching up from the ground into the infinite sky — it was astonishing. I had to pull over and stare, my grief renewed.
Three and a half years later, Patrick and new baby Daniel and I were on our way to London for a quick trip. Due to a passport mixup, we couldn’t take our original plane. We already had a babysitter for the other four chlidren, so we stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Manhattan. Our window directly overlooked the Ground Zero site, which was brightly lit, with heavy equipment driving around and people working. I couldn’t bear to look at it for more than a minute, and quickly drew the blackout shades.
Seventeen years later, I still get emotional when I talk about these memories. Probably everyone old enough to remember does.
And I can’t help thinking of another day four years before 9/11, in the fall of 1997. On one of Patrick’s rare days off, he and I took Christian and James downtown. We walked along Battery Park and ate street hot dogs. Christian chased seagulls while James watched from the stroller, laughing glorious toddler belly laughs.
The weather was gorgeous and clear, so we decided to go up to the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Center. I’d been up to the top of the Empire State Building, but had never seen the view from the Twin Towers. We stood in line for quite a while, but by this point it was James’s nap time. Normally, he happily fell asleep in his stroller, but that day, he was fidgety and cranky.
Finally, when it was apparent that our one-year-old was gearing up for full-on rage and would not be distracted or lulled in any way, I turned to Patrick. “Let’s go up to the top another day,” I said. “After all, it’ll always be here.”
But we never did make it back.