Remembering 9/11 from an NYC apartment
A New York City resident describes her memories from that day
“Get up! Get up!” Brian was shaking my arm violently. “Someone’s bombed the World Trade Center!”
I struggled to sit up in bed, wondering what time it was. I blinked at the clock. It was 8:47 a.m. One glimpse of the fear in my husband’s eyes jolted me fully awake.
“You have to come see what’s happening!”
I jumped out of bed and followed him out to the terrace of our 24th-floor apartment. Thick black smoke was boiling up from the north tower of the World Trade Center, six blocks away. The column of smoke stretched as wide as the building itself and rose high in the bright blue sky before being swept away by the wind.
“It must be a bomb, Christina.” Brian was talking so fast that I could barely understand him. “I bet someone snuck a suitcase bomb into the World Trade Center. I was sitting at my computer preparing for my upcoming job interviews when I heard a loud blast, then felt the vibration. You know how it feels when you’re at a stop sign and the car next to you is playing really loud music and you can feel the bass thumping?”
He hit his fist against his chest to demonstrate.
“Let’s turn on the TV,” I said in shock and confusion, hurrying back inside.
I clicked on the TV and heard a newscaster say, “We have a breaking news story to tell you about. Little information is available, but it appears a plane has hit one of the twin towers.”
“So, it wasn’t a bomb,” Brian said. “It was a small plane. How the heck did a plane fly into the tower?”
We raced back out to the terrace where we had a bird’s-eye view of the city. The north tower was still burning. Emergency vehicles raced down the West Side Highway toward the World Trade Center—lights flashing, sirens blaring. It was almost 9 a.m., I thought. Thousands of people are already at work. All those people, all those people! They’re dying!
Suddenly, something caught my eye. Looking over my right shoulder, I saw a plane flying so low and so close that I wondered whether I would be able to see passengers looking out of its windows. With a thunderous, deafening roar, the jet swooped like a hawk between the buildings in front of us.
I screamed in terror as I watched the plane bank to the left until its wings were at about 8 and 2 o’clock.
We felt, rather than saw, the impact. One moment we were standing on the terrace, and the next we were lying on our backs in the middle of the living room floor.
We felt, rather than saw, the impact.
I sat up and realized that Brian was speaking to me. I could hear his voice, but my ears were ringing, and his words were distant and jumbled. I tried to focus.
“Let’s get out of here—hurry!”
I was still wearing my nightgown. Running out to the hallway, I froze, remembering the rule never to take elevators in an emergency. “Let’s take the stairs,” I yelled.
Voices echoed in the staircase as we raced down the 24 flights with Brian carrying Gabriel, our 40-lb Boston terrier. Outside, paper and scraps floated through the air. Hundreds of people filled the streets, racing away from the burning buildings. Men rushed by wearing suits and ties. Women wore blazers and skirts. Many wore socks with no shoes. Most people looked more bewildered than frightened, but a few appeared truly panicked—rushing blindly through the streets, unaware of anyone or anything else. Throngs of people were running across the West Side Highway, rushing directly into traffic, dodging cars, leaping over cement dividers. I had never seen anyone try to cross this major highway against traffic. Now, hundreds were.
We joined the crowds and crossed the West Side Highway, headed toward the only way out—Battery Park, just south of us at the tip of Manhattan.
At the edge of the park, with nowhere else to go, people stopped running or collapsed with exhaustion. I felt a sense of relief; surely the worst was over. We stood gasping for breath and turned around. For the first time since we left our apartment, we could see both towers clearly. From the street level, the towers appeared even taller and more formidable. Long columns of black smoke from each tower rose a quarter mile high, until they merged and drifted east. The ominous mass floated across the sky, carrying with it a strange smell of paint thinner, burning plastic, and rubber.
I felt a need to find something familiar, something constant.
“Honey, do you have a phone? I want to try to call mom.”
“I left them in the apartment,” Brian said, looking dismayed. “I forgot them.”
“Briaaannnnnn,” I wailed. “How could you forget our phones?”
“We were in a hurry, Christina!” Then he added, more gently, “You forgot a few things too.”
I looked down at my nightgown. “Oh yeah,” I said sheepishly, ashamed of how I had just snapped at my husband.
Here I am getting on his case, and—hello—I left my phone, purse, and even my shoes!
One man suddenly yelled, “I just found out that a plane hit the Pentagon in D.C.!”
Brian and I looked at each other in shock.
People started shouting. “We’re at war!” “We’re being attacked!”
Rumors flew from every direction.
“A plane went down in Times Square!”
“One hit the United Nations!”
“A plane is on its way to take down the Statue of Liberty!”
“Oh my God, Brian,” I said, fighting a rising sense of fear and despair.
“Let’s get away from this crowd,” Brian said quietly. He pointed south toward the water, and we started walking.
This was the route I usually took with Gabriel in the mornings, past the Korean War monument and the Mariners’ Memorial on Pier A. Neither one of us said much, but my mind was racing.
Is every landmark getting attacked? Is anywhere safe? Will anything be left of Manhattan? What about the rest of the country?
At the water’s edge, we sat on a bench facing the harbor with our backs to the burning towers and panicked crowds. Only a handful of people had made it this far across the park, and we were relieved to have a quiet space to collect ourselves. I stared at the Statue of Liberty, praying that I wouldn’t see a plane crash into it.
Am I still asleep? Is this just a nightmare?
I fought the temptation to turn and see what was happening to the twin towers. It felt almost immoral to watch. Voyeuristic. But I couldn’t stop imagining what was happening. As a New York City tour guide, I led countless tours to the iconic towers, taking hundreds of visitors up to the observation deck atop the south tower, where on a clear day you could see up to 50 miles away.
As a New York City tour guide, I led countless tours to the iconic towers.
I’d gather the group together, “Here are some fun facts about the twin towers: They cost $1 billion to create. The buildings encompass 12 million square feet of office space. The observation deck receives 1.8 million visitors a year—as many as 10,000 per day. Each floor is the equivalent of one acre. The complex houses more than 430 companies from 28 countries. In total, 47,000 people work here.”
Forty-seven-thousand people. How many are at work today when the planes hit? Are they trapped? How many have died? Were there any tour groups on the observation deck?
I couldn’t bring myself to look at the burning buildings. It felt like watching someone drown when you don’t know how to swim. All you can do is stand at the water’s edge while they call for help.
There was another reason I couldn’t look, which frightened me even more. I felt an overwhelming sense of evil. Watching the towers burn was like looking directly into the face of a sinister force. It made my skin crawl.
Suddenly, the ground began to shake violently, and I froze, terrified. A thunderous noise filled my already aching ears.
“Brian, a tower is coming down!”
If the tower fell lengthwise, we’d be right in its path, and everyone knew it.
Jumping up, we strained to see the towers but from this new vantage point by the water we saw only trees and smoke.
The crowd in the park erupted into pandemonium and scattered like a flock of sheep across the lawn. People ran in every direction, dodging trees, hurdling over bushes, and catapulting over railings. The park had become a giant obstacle course.
Several women wearing uniforms darted past us. I recognized their short-sleeved brown dresses with white collars and white cuffs: They were chambermaids from the Marriott Hotel at World Trade Center 3.
A businessman in a tattered expensive suit sprinted past me, clutching his briefcase, his face contorted with agony. A woman with a German shepherd on a long leash rushed past, while another woman running in the opposite direction ran into the leash and flipped over it, landing hard on the ground. The dog owner paused to see if she was hurt.
A man ran past us to the harbor and leapt over the banister at the edge of the park, apparently getting ready to dive into the deep water.
Tugging on Brian’s shirt, I asked, “Hey, what do you think? Could we swim it?”
We looked across New York Harbor. Staten Island was in the distance, but New Jersey, Governor’s Island, and Brooklyn seemed closer.
“Governor’s Island is probably a mile away,” Brian said. “I’m not sure we could swim that far.”
“You’re right. Let’s not try it.”
But seeing the man getting ready to swim away jolted me out of my stupor. Panic shot through me. “Brian! We need to get out of here!”
Brian grabbed my hand, and we ran west along the river until he suddenly veered north. I followed closely, but I could see no one else was running this direction. Alarm bells went off in my mind, but I finally realized where he was taking us—the old Castle Clinton. Brian stopped at the northwest side of the fort. We hugged its circular stone wall, trying to catch our breath. Gabriel flopped on the ground, panting. Only then did I realize how exhausted I was.
Deep breaths, girl, take deep breaths. Get ahold of yourself. You need to think straight. There’s got to be something we can do to get out of this madness.
But every time I tried to take a deep breath, I inhaled soot and began to cough. The sickening scent of something electrical burning filled my nostrils, and the cries of people near us filled my ears. People ran in every direction. As far as I could see, Brian and I were the only ones standing still. We turned toward each other. I searched his face but could not tell what he was thinking. Nothing in our 18 months of marriage had prepared us for this.
“Brian, is this it? Are we going to die?”
He hesitated, then looked me in the eye. “I don’t know. Maybe,” he said.
As we stood there in the shadow of the fort, Brian took my hands and began praying aloud: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done …”
As he recited the Lord’s Prayer, I began my own silent entreaty.
Is this how my life ends? Who is listening to my prayers? I haven’t been faithful to God, why would he be faithful to me now? If I die, why would I get accepted into God’s kingdom, when I didn’t care about Him when I was alive? I never took the time to get to know him. I’ve been too busy thinking about myself. Please, God, I’m only 31 years old!
I opened my eyes. My dream city was now a hellscape.