Usually I steady myself for this day. I see it on the horizon and mentally prepare myself to see photos and videos of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. I allow my mind to go numb. I try to see it as something clinical and distant, but it wasn’t. It was my community. It was my neighborhood. It was my back yard. That’s something you don’t easily forget.
This year, however, it snuck up on me. Clearly my present situation has me pretty distracted. I was thankful for a quiet hospital room and the company of one of my favorite people to pass what would normally be an incredibly sad day for me.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2011
God was there too…
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on… when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend… some hurts that go too deep… that have taken hold. ” ~ The Lord of the Rings- The Return of the King (film)
There are moments in our lives that, for better or worse, define us. We carry them with us, haunted by them. Their specters invade our thoughts, cloaked in memory and brimming with emotion. As time passes, they become more distant, the scar becomes numb. But it never goes away. It lies dormant, waiting patiently for an opportunity to cut through years of built up defenses to create a sensation so reminiscent of the original injury that time compresses and life stands still.
September 2001 saw the beginning of my senior year in college. I lived in 200 Water Street, in the Financial District of NYC, less than 10 blocks from the World Trade Center.
That Tuesday morning did not go as I had planned. I woke up early that morning. It was my first day of the semester at my job at the NYU video post production desk. When I got up, so did my roommate. She had a class a bit later than I had to be at work, but she said she wanted to head up to campus early with me. She looked exhausted, sitting at the table eating her breakfast. When I asked her if she was ok, she said that she hadn’t slept well. She kept having dreams that all these people were dying. Strange.
NYU had a shuttle that would pick you up at the Water Street dorm and drop you off at campus, right in front of the Tisch School of the Arts. I hated taking the shuttle. You had to wait in a line and there wasn’t always room, and if you missed it, the next one didn’t come for awhile. Me, I preferred to take the subway. It was a short jot up Fulton Street. The N/R was at the base of the WTC. the 4/5 was a bit closer to my appartment. Either one brought me close to campus. Granted, it took longer than the NYU shuttle, but I enjoyed the experience so much more.
We were running late that morning. There was no time for the subway, but there was a massive line for the shuttle. As students crammed into the bus, I was relieved so see that we were going to make it on. Barely. I was the last one to get on the bus and the driver kept yelling at me that if I didn’t keep my feet behind the white line, he was going to kick me off. Little did I know that at about that moment, the first plane hit the World Trade Center mere blocks away. As the bus made its route, there were a lot of sirens; ambulance, police. This is not an unusual noise in NYC, so I wasn’t at all alarmed.
It took longer to get to campus, but when we did, I got to my job at 9am, just in time to open. It was then that my boss got a call from his mother. She told him a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Imaging that it was an accident, it never crossed my mind that it was on purpose. We found a tv and turned it on. By that time, the second plane had hit. This was no accident.
On any given day at NYU, you could see the WTC clearly. I could have run outside and seen it, but I was glued to the tv. It made it feel a little less real. There was a wideshot of lower Manhatten and it suddenly began to fill with smoke. The girls standing next to me screamed. It wasn’t immediately apparent that the tower had fallen, it looked like subsequent massive explosions. When I realized what it was, I started to feel sick. A few minutes later the other tower fell.
The towers had just fallen. There were people in those towers. Those people were now dead. I rode the subway with those people. I walked the streets with those people. All of that just happened in my back yard.
The remainder of that day and the subsequent weeks I can recall in such vivid detail.
I remember the fear of not knowing if my friends were safe.
I remember the smell: that metallic smell mixed with burnt flesh. It would get stuck in your nose and the back of your throat. You could taste it.
The ash that fell like snow. The people covered in dust, stumbling up broadway. The deathly quiet of the city, punctuated with police and emergency vehicles.
Cell phones didn’t work. Landlines were static-y.
Never once did I cry… there was no time for that.
We weren’t allowed back to our apartment. We had nothing. No place to stay. No clothes. And no idea when we could return. I spent that night on the floor of NYU’s health center. I had a friend that worked there. I went to K-Mart and bought tennis shoes.
The next day, we got up early to head to Queens to our friend’s apartment. The black cloud had expanded and the smell had gotten stronger. The streets were quiet and empty, save for the National Guardsmen patrolling with their large guns.
My heart broke for the people that were missing, for the families that were searching and for the answers they would find. The days that followed the attack were so surreal. I never once got on a subway or a bus when a complete stranger wouldn’t strike up a conversation. There was this overwhelming need to connect with another person. So it happened everywhere you went. I met a man who was holding out hope that at least one of his seven missing friends would turn up… Seven…
When a plane would fly overhead, everyone would stop and look up in unison. Which direction was it going? Was it flying too low? Was it about to happen again?
It took two weeks to get back into our apartment. I lived in a 33 floor building and they had to make sure that is was structurally sound before we could return. When we first surfaced from the subway onto Fulton street we were struck by the thick layer of dust still clinging to the buildings and the cars. Walking into our apartment, we were greeted with the overpowering stench of rotten chicken. There had been raw chicken in our fridge that day. The chicken smell, mixed with the burning smell made me want to vomit.
September 11th was horrible… But what followed wasn’t much easier.
The initial clean up took months. Dust fell from the sky as the workers dug, searching for bodies. I tried not to think of what that dust contained as I dodged the flakes. I saw the destruction every day… a constant visceral reminder of what had happened. The first night I couldn’t sleep. I could hear the clean up efforts and feel the building rumbling slightly. I kept thinking about all those people and the broken lives of their loved ones.
The smell lingered for weeks, which turned into months. Every other corner had a soldier with a large gun.There were posters of missing loved ones everywhere, most of whom were never found. As time passed, they opened a viewing platform to look at the rubble. You had to get tickets, and those tickets were found across the street from my building. The street I took to the subway became populated by posters of planes ramming the buildings and statues of the towers. Anything a hapless tourist might buy. For me, I bought a snow globe with the towers intact. It still sits in my china cabinet.
Early on I didn’t cry… I thought I needed to be strong. And as each day passed, I became more numb. I thought, if I’m numb, then it won’t hurt. I can survive. I remember my first visit back home, and even subsequent visits, when it seemed apparent to me that everyone had moved on. Their lives had kept going. They had gone on vacations or started dating, but me, I was stuck. I was reliving that day over and over again. I couldn’t escape. I kept waiting for it to happen again. It took years for me to break out of my survival mode. Even now, when I see a plane that is flying low, I get an adrenaline rush… When I smell rotten chicken, it transports me back to that moment… When my cellphone stops working, I lose my breath…
Alongside these memories are etched the memories of how I saw God work that day. I was encouraged to see the hand of God in the midst of such devastation. I saw how He orchestrated that the towers would be at lower capacity that morning. That there was time for so many people to escape. I saw the kindness of strangers helping each other. I saw God provide for my needs in ways that I did not expect. And I saw God comfort the broken. I saw these things in tangible ways. In ways I had never experienced.
I don’t doubt that God had me move to New York, at least in some part, to be there for that day. He kept me at a distance far enough to be safe, but close enough to live it.
It’s been ten years since that day. Each year gets a bit easier. The memories don’t flood me like they used to. But every once in awhile, something will happen that will remind me of that day. The scar will open and I cry the tears that I didn’t cry then. It’s true that you can’t go back, some hurts go too deep and they take hold.
That day changed my life, but not in the ways that I thought that it would. It actually gave me the opportunity to live a life more fulfilling than I imagined. I’m married now with a beautiful daughter and another kid on the way. I wonder what I will tell them one day, when they ask about that snowglobe in the china cabinet. What answer will I give?