Courage & Humanity on 9.11.01
I originally read this story on a message board, many years ago. I can verify this is a true accounting of one woman’s experience on September 11, 2001. The site that had it posted is now gone; I have reposted it here in its entirety so that I can return to it annually, and remember.
Here is a 9/11 story of a ‘friend’ that was in the tower that morning. This is a powerful survivor’s account of courage and humanity on such a tragic day in US history.
Quite a few people have asked me quite a few times to post about my experiences on 9/11. A few months afterward, I was seeing a counselor for a while, and she told me to write it out like a journal entry. According to her, it would help me deal with things. So this is what I wrote.
Warning: I’m going to try not to jump around, but I may a little bit, because I had quite a few blank spots during that morning. I put some of what I did together later, after speaking to two women I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge with, Doris and Hanna. I’ve been watching a few documentaries lately, so I’m going to try a similar timeline approach to try and keep things straight.
September 11, 2001
6:00AM — My alarm goes off. Mike has an early pick-up that has to go way the hell out on Long Island. He tells me to go back to sleep because I don’t have to be in the office until 9:30; I tell him I’m going in early because I’m meeting my supervisor Maria at 8:45. She is going to teach me a new job function, and I want to have time to eat my breakfast outside by the Orb sculpture on the WTC Plaza. He rolls his eyes at me before he kisses me good-bye, and dashes off. I lounge for a while, watching the TODAY show before I jump in the shower at 6:30, leaving the TV blasting loud enough to hear the weather. According to Al Roker, it’s going to be a gorgeous day.
7:15AM — Well, Al was right; it is a stunning day. Clear skies, sunshine, and a light breeze. The N train is actually on time for once, and I even get a seat! I’ll be at work in no time; and since I have a seat, maybe I’ll just stay on the local and not even bother with the express.
8:15AM — Cortlandt Street-World Trade Center. I have plenty of time. I stop and browse in Barnes and Noble, on the underground Concourse level. Maybe I’ll come down on lunch and pick up a book. They have a huge sci-fi section, so the selection is really pretty good. Oh, damn, where did the time go? It’s getting late; no breakfast on the Plaza now if I want to meet Maria in time. I have to switch elevators at the 44th floor, so I’ll just run down the escalator and grab something in the cafeteria on the 43rd floor on my way up to the 49th.
8:40AM –Damn, but this French toast smells heavenly! The woman in front of me on line is digging for exact change. A man behind me sighs heavily. I turn to look at him and shoot him a “grin and bear it” sort of look. He rolls his eyes and silently grins in response. The woman drops her handful of change. The grinning man helps her pick it up, as my hands are full with my tray. The cashier rings up my order, and I pay. I hear a distant rumble, like a freight train. The cashier absently wonders aloud, “What’s that noise?” as she hands me my receipt. I notice that the time on the receipt is 8:45AM. Damn, I’m late to meet Maria.
8:46AM — There is a huge noise, and I stagger and fall, french toast flying. As I pick up my head, the floor actually ripples, and through the floor-to-ceiling windows, I see WTC 2 sway. Then I realize that our building is swaying. Not just swaying, whipping back and forth, like an old car antenna. There is a shower of shiny stuff cascading past the windows; I realize that it is glass. I get to my feet as debris begins to fall past the high windows, some of it burning. I walk towards the windows. My first thought is that a chopper has missed the helipad, but already too much stuff is coming down for it to be a chopper. Jesus, maybe it’s a Cessna. More and more debris is plummeting past the windows, and people are screaming. I lean against the window and look up to see something large coming down, aflame. It looks vaguely like a La-z-boy recliner. It seems to float past in slow motion, and as it disappears below me, in a moment of horrible clarity, I realize it is an entire row of airline seats. They are occupied. I hear a voice, and turn to see the grinning man. He isn’t grinning any more. Debris is raining past the windows now, and a snowstorm of paper is floating by. He looks at me and very matter-of-factly says, “I was here in ’93. I can’t do this shit again. I’m outta here.” And he bolts towards the emergency stairwell. It’s right near the cashier’s station, and I hadn’t even realized it was there. I follow him as he enters the stairwell, but I stop at the door. It is already crowded in there, and I can’t make myself go in. A building security man is there. “C’mon, lady, we gotta go!” I can’t make myself enter the stairwell, and I shake my head and back up. “Lady! We gotta GO!” he shouts at me. “I CAN’T!” I scream back. “There’s too many people, and no AIR!” I am not entirely rational at this point. My claustrophobia is kicking in. A very large man stops at the door, and comes back to our little standoff. The security man barely glances at him. “Miss, I can’t leave until the last person is out, you’re the last, let’s GO!” The large man very softly says to me, “Miss, he’s only doing his job. Help him do his job. Come on, now.” And he takes my hand. “I’ll stay with you.” He waved the security man away, and walked me towards the door. At the threshold, I balk, planting my feet. He slips a hand to the back of my head, grabs a handful of hair, and yanks me into the stairwell. I am highly pissed off, and he’s hurting me, so I start calling him every filthy name I can think of. He drags me towards the first flight of stairs leading down. I can’t stop now without being trampled. He lets go of my hair, takes my hand again, and smiles at me. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? You just needed to get started. My name is Guy. What’s yours?” I start to cry, and tell him my name. He talks to me all the way down 43 floors, asking me all kinds of questions. By the time we hit the 30’s, I find myself telling him that my first anniversary is at the end of the month, and about our wedding, and about my sisters, and my husband, and how I have such a nice Mother-in-Law, and oh, God, did Maria get out? Firefighters are passing us, headed upwards. I can see terror in their eyes, but some of them actually manage to joke with us as they pass. Somewhere in the 20’s, I think it was 26, there was water cascading out of the fire door on the landing, and it was shin-deep on me all the way to the teens. I realized that Guy was quite a large man, well over 6 feet tall, because the water doesn’t come up much past his ankles. In retrospect, we actually moved down quite quickly, but at the time it seemed to take forever.
Approximately 9:00AM — Upper Lobby. Plaza Level. Cops and firefighter are everywhere. There is a line of cops along where the windows at street level used to be. Glass is crunching underfoot; it’s all over the place. There are cops at the stairwell door, directing us underground to the concourse level. I am really not interested in going underground. All the cops are shouting to be heard. “Do not try to exit the building here! Don’t look outside, keep going down! You’ll be led out to Cortlandt Street!” The stench is incredible. Of course, despite instructions not to, everyone looks out at the Plaza as they head down to the Concourse; it is a wasteland. Debris covers everything, even the Orb. There are bodies scattered like leaves, along with chunks of the building itself, and pieces of fuselage, and the smell of blood and jet fuel is overpowering. As I get to the top of the powerless escalator, clutching Guy’s hand, another jumper hits. I realize I am repeating “oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus” over and over, and I clamp my mouth shut. We cross the lower Lobby towards the revolving doors that lead to the shopping concourse beneath the Trade Center. The sprinkler systems are still on down here. In the background, there is another rumble.
9:03AM — We are crossing through the propped open revolving doors on the concourse level when there is an enormous, booming crash, and we almost lose out footing. Remnants of glass stuck in the frames of the lobby windows suddenly let go and crash down around us. Guy wraps me in his arms and hunches over, protecting me. A large shard of glass falls from the frame of the revolving door and wedges itself into his back. I hear someone screaming, and I realize it’s me. There are screams from the Upper Lobby. “Another one! Holy shit, another one!” The second plane has struck WTC 2, the South Tower. A man runs over, taking his shirt off. “Guy!! Holy Jesus, Guy, I’ve been looking all over for you, don’t move, lemme pull this out…” Apparently he works with Guy, but I never caught his name. He wraps his shirt around his hands and yanks the shard of glass out of Guy’s back. I realize that the glass would have struck me if not for Guy. The three of us follow the crowd through the concourse. It looks as though it has been abandoned for years; chunks of glass litter the floor, discarded high heel shoes are all over the place, and there is about 3 inches of water flowing steadily from the lower level of WTC 1 towards the subways. The Barnes and Noble sign hangs crazily down, attached by only one bolt. Beneath it, mingled with the remnants of the front windows on the floor is what remains of the Anne McCaffrey display that caught my eye on the way in. “Keep moving! Head for Cortlandt Street!” The NYPD and PAPD are lining the route through the concourse and up the steps of the subway exit. As we hit the street level, the sun blinds me, and I trip. Guy hauls me up, and drags me across the street and up the block, towards St. Paul’s Chapel. We pause for breath in the middle of the block, and look back, and up. Oh, sweet Jesus, I’m sorry I looked; both towers are burning. The South Tower is hit much lower than the North, and my first though is that the top section of the building will fall over. We bolt up to Broadway, and presumed safety. We pause at the chapel, and collapse onto the curb with scores of others. A cop rushes over to tell us to clear the area. “Sorry, people, you have to keep going. Head north, go uptown, go over the bridge, just GO!” Guy asks me if I will be all right; he wants to go and try to find more of his colleagues. I tell him yes, and ask him which way to go to get to the Brooklyn Bridge. All I want is to go home. He points me towards the Bridge, and asks me again if I’ll be okay. We hug, both of us crying, and I thank him over and over. He and his friend disappear into the crowd, and I never see him again. I don’t even know his last name, or what company he worked for.
(I don’t remember much about this part; I put it together later on. I have no recollection of calling my sister-in-law, but I know I spoke to her from a barbershop, because apparently, I told her that’s where I was, and that the nice lady in the barbershop gave me some water. I couldn’t get through to Mike, and asked her to try.)
I walk up Broadway, looking for a pay phone; Mike must be frantic by now. The lines at all the pay phones are 20 and 30 people long. There aren’t any bars open yet, either. I am not too sure how far I went looking for a phone, but I do remember waving a $50.00 bill around, asking people to use their cell phones. No one had service.
The next conscious memory I have, is of being on the Brooklyn Bridge, walking with two women, Hanna and Doris. They work together at the Chase Bank on Broadway. Hanna is giving me sips of tea from a takeout cup. It is about 9:45AM, which means I wandered a bit after getting out of Tower 1. From here on out, my timeline is fuzzy.
(According to the phone conversation I had with Hanna three days later, I was on the pedestrian ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge itself, when I walked up to her and Doris and said, “I’m lost. Can you tell me where the Brooklyn Bridge is? I’m really lost, and I want to go home now.”)
We continue across the bridge, walking slower than most, along the inside railing, because Hanna is in her 60’s and not as nimble as she used to be. We come across a tall, slim, black girl, model pretty, who is limping along on a pair of heels. We ask if she needs help. She had foot surgery the day before, and just wore the heels for looks in the cab she took to work, so she could put on her bunny slippers when she got there. “I don’t even own a pair of flats!” She doesn’t want to take the shoes off, to avoid getting her foot dirty. I tell her to ditch the damn heels, and offer her my sandals. I go barefoot most of the time anyway, so it’s not a problem. She resists at first, until Doris gives us all a reason to want to move a little faster. “I don’t want to scare anyone, but it occurs to me that we’re standing on a big frigging target here! Could we move this along? Tall Girl, I don’t know your name, but put the fucking sandals on, and let’s get the hell out of here!” Tall Girl puts on my sandals, and now that she is off the heels, she can walk faster. We end up getting separated in the crowd, and lose her. We hear a distant rumble, and I look up, praying I don’t see another plane. People behind us begin to scream, and we look back to a surreal sight: The top of Tower 2 is sliding sideways. The top section actually tilts at a crazy angle before it begins to crumble, and we see the rest of the building start to give way beneath it. People begin to run on the bridge, and we duck behind a support beam to keep from being trampled. There is a gray cloud billowing through lower Manhattan.
(At this point I apparently began to lose touch with reality again, because I don’t remember walking the rest of the way across the bridge. According to Hanna, I started babbling inane questions, asking, ”where are all the cameras? This can’t be real, someone’s shooting a movie. If they’re shooting a movie, shouldn’t there be cameras? These special effects are awesome, Jesus, all these extras must be costing Speilberg a fortune.”)
Reality again. We come to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Apparently some of the debris caught up with us on our way over, because I am clutching a tea-soaked tissue and breathing through it. There are ambulances and a couple of fire trucks at the bottom of the pedestrian ramp. Someone is calling out, “Miss? Miss! Hey! Barefoot girl!” It is Tall Girl. She is sitting on a gurney near one of the ambulances, having her foot attended to, and waving wildly with my sandals. “I got the right one all bloody, but the fireman washed them off for you!” I step into my slightly soggy sandals and tall girl hops up and hugs me. “Thank you so much!” We survey the area, and try to figure out where to go next. An extremely young fireman walks over to us with a bucket. “Okay, ladies, let’s get you rinsed off.” He motions us toward one of the trucks. “We’ve got an open hydrant over here, so you can rinse off some of that muck.” I realize that we are all lightly coated with a gritty dust. We take turns dumping bucketsful of icy water over our heads to get rid of the grit. My blouse is filthy, and it suddenly feels as though I have been eating dust by the spoonful, so I dump a couple more buckets over my whole body, and I gargle a bit for good measure. The fireman tell us there are no trains running on this side of the river, but there might be busses by the Courthouse complex, so we head off. When we get there, the lines for the shuttle busses are literally thousands of people long, and confusion is rampant. Doris wanders off to see if there is a bus to Canarsie for Hanna. “Don’t go anywhere yet!” she says. I ask a passing cop for directions to walk to Bay Ridge. She has no idea. “I honestly don’t know, hon, I just got off a bus from the Bronx! Lemme ask someone.” She motions over an ambulance attendant. He’s not too sure, “but it’s in that general direction”, he says, pointing vaguely. Doris comes running back. “Hanna! I found a shuttle to Canarsie, and they’re taking senior citizens first!” We pelt over to the bus, hug Hanna and get her safely on board. She sticks her head out the window, and screams to Doris, “Call me when you get home!” Doris & I start to walk, checking pay phones on the way.
They all still have lines. About two hours later, we’re in a quiet residential neighborhood, and a woman watering her lawn tells us we’re in Bensonhurst, about two blocks from the intersection of McDonald & Church. I realize my father works not too far away. I ask to use her phone. “It hasn’t worked all morning, but you’re welcome to try.” She brings out a portable phone and a pitcher of iced tea with too much sugar. It is the most delicious thing I have ever had in my life. First I tried to call Mike; “This call can not be connected at this time.” Fuck ATT anyway. I get one of the “office girls” at my father’s job. “Hi, I need to speak to Carmine, please; this is his daughter.” “OH MY GOD”, she screams, “IS THIS ADRIANN?” “Yeah, is he there?” “Hold on honey, I’ll get him!” The phone clunks down, and I can hear her screaming to the rest of the office, “We found her, we found her, she’s on the phone, we found her, go get Bear!” I start to giggle. We have now been surrounded on this woman’s porch by some of her neighbors. “Honey? Are you okay? Where are you?” I have never been so glad to hear a voice in my entire life. I start to sob, and all I can say is “oh, Daddy” over and over. We’re all crying, and Doris is hugging me. The iced tea lady takes the phone, and tells my Dad to meet us at McDonald & Church, and she shows us the way there, and waits with us for my Dad. He finally pulls into the intersection, tires screeching, jumps out of the car, and runs to me, sobbing as hard as I am. Meanwhile, the car is in the middle of the intersection. A traffic cop wanders over, realizes what is going on, gets into the car and pulls it out of the intersection. We hug iced tea lady, and Doris & I pile into the car with Dad. Turns out that if we had made a right turn three miles ago, I would have been home by now. We take Doris to her house, which is a block away from my Dad’s job, and we stop in there so the office girls can see I’m okay. I leave them my home number so they can keep trying to call Mike for me, and we head to my place. They must have gotten through, because when we turned the corner, all our neighbors were out, and Mike came pelting up the block to where we parked. I have never been held quite so tightly, and I have never been so happy to see anyone, ever. We went upstairs to see if we could get through to people on the phone. Mike had the TV on, and my father — who doesn’t drink — went straight to the liquor cabinet. I felt grungy, so I went to take a shower. It turned out to be the first of many. I kept swearing that I could smell that horrible stench from the plaza. When I came out, the TV was showing the collapse of Tower 1 — my tower. It was the first time I heard that both towers were down. I went back to the bathroom and threw up. Mike got me settled on the couch with Daddy and a cup of tea. Then he listed everyone who called. “Franny, my mother, your sister Daria, — who is fucking nuts, by the way. Her husband called her from 14th St, and she told him to go downtown and find you, and that if he didn’t, not to bother coming home. He called me, asking where he should look. I told him to go home. Who else? My sister, your brother is on his way with his wife and some Chinese food, Caren, your job doesn’t know where you are, Maria and Crystal are okay, and ToniAnn is at the MidTown office, Joe & Laura, Jimmy, Mary, both Colleens, and some girl from Canada named CC.” “Who?!?” “CC. She said she knows you from on-line, at the bridal site.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” “No, I’m not kidding you; she was one of the first people to get through. Here’s her number, call her back, if the damn phone is working.”
I can’t remember when I called CC back; it might have been the next day, but I seem to remember it being later that evening. I called my job to check in and get my name off the casualty lists. There was supposed to be a large breakfast meeting in Windows on the World that morning, but one of the Japanese execs missed his flight out of Tokyo the night before so it was cancelled. We would have had the entire senior staff at the meeting, over 100 people, but thanks to a slow cabdriver in Tokyo, they all made it. As it was, we had personnel in both towers, and we lost 29 people, all from Tower 2, the South Tower.
So that’s pretty much it, I guess.