I’ve been watching the TODAY show broadcast of the events as they took place eight years ago. A day as blue and clear as this one is dank and rainy. I’ve actually not seen this broadcast before. I wasn’t home to see it, which I typically would have been.
But that day was Primary Day and I had signed up to be a poll-watcher for the Board of Elections. I reported to a location in a church hall in SoHo about twenty blocks (approximately one mile) north of the World Trade Center. Around 7am when I went out for coffee, I looked up at the twin towers glinting in the bright morning sun. They never were favorite buildings the way the Chrysler and Seagram Buildings are, but they were beautiful that morning I remember thinking.
Sitting around, drinking coffee, reading the paper, I waited to my name to be called and sent to a polling place in Manhattan. Instead someone said that planes had crashed into the WTC. I stood in Sullivan Street and watched in shock and horror. The towers were on fire and billowing smoke. Incredible! I didn’t know what else to do, so I went back inside to wait. Stupid, as I think now. Next someone said that a tower had fallen. I went back out and the north tower, stood still burning, an enormous cloud behind it.
“The south tower must be in that cloud,” I thought. It was so hard to wrap my mind around the fact that that was all that was left of the tower. I went back inside again somewhat robotically. An announcement told us that the Primary was postponed, a priest prayed briefly before we were dismissed with the news that the subway system was shut down. One woman grumbled that the priest’s prayer was Christian and not ecumenical. I wanted to slap her but refrained.
Instead I took my things, felt grateful that I was wearing sneakers and set out north for a very long walk home. As I went up West Broadway past many, many people out on the street. One man was painting the scene. Others had cameras. It was surreal. I keep turning around and looking at the smoking tower. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Sudden screams. I turned again in time to see the north tower’s collapse. I just went back to walking north in the streets which were either full of people not cars or else there was gridlock. In the whole six mile route which I covered in a remarkable 90 minutes, stopped only twice for lights. I just kept walking.
At home I turned on the tv and called my sisters. Both were shocked to learn I was anywhere near downtown. My Arizona grandnieces were in tears, hysterically watching the news, worried about me.
How quiet the city was in the days following. No planes in the sky. Little traffic on the streets, the entrances to the island blocked. Dump trucks full of sand were parked on East End Avenue to protect Gracie Mansion, the official Mayoral residence. And on one night, I was walking my dog when suddenly a long caravan of plows and dump trucks appeared all headed to Ground Zero. I watched them go by, seemingly endlessly, sadly thinking about their task of digging out the rubble.
I think that was night when the wind shifted and for the first and only time, that Thursday, the smell assaulted my nose. It came in through my open living area window. I had never smelled anything so acrid and horrible. I knew instantly it was from the WTC and it was horrendous even six miles away.
In the first day the neighborhood became papered with MISSING flyers. They were posted on street corners and bus shelters and store windows. Missing, missing, missing. So many missing. Flowers and candles appeared in tree wells in honor of the lost. So many neighbors never coming home again.
My fire station lost NINE firefighters. Nine! In one day! Their photos are posted in frames and every year neighbors leave flowers and candles. My neighborhood is dotted with plaques and engraved stones naming individuals lost that day. They are everywhere.
I read that an Afghani restaurant down in the 20s was suffering misplaced blame and I deliberately went to have lunch there in support of yet more innocent victims. It happened to be nearby the armory serving as a place for the relatives of the missing.
There even more missing flyers were plastered on walls. Just one after the other. The grief was palpable.
And uptown any encounter always began with a query—did you lose someone? Do you know someone who is lost? Where were you on Tuesday morning?
Friday night was the candlelight vigil. New Yorkers were encouraged to sit on their stoops or outside their highrise with candles to honor the thousands who perished. Sobering to look up and down the block and see so many people in hushed conversation, little lights flickering.
And all over the city flags bloomed. On buildings, from windows, decals on buses. The American flag was everywhere.
And for days after the attacks I think I must have been in shock because I didn’t cry. Not until the moment, Saturday I think it was, when on television I heard the Queen’s band strike up the Star Spangled Banner. Very touching.
I watch the footage of the burning tower, the plane's collision and fireball, the first collapse and then the second, all of it still seems unreal to me now as it did then. I've heard others say that the events appeared as if it were a movie. And that's how it felt to me then. A horror film. Even with my own eyes seeing it, feeling it at the time. Still so unreal. Oh, how I wish it were.