A Decade Later, We Still Have Each Other
The writer is a proofreader and copy editor with The Pilot.
In the months after Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, the more I tried to block the events of that day out of my memory, the clearer they seemed to become.
Ten years later, whenever I'm asked about it, vivid images, sounds and conversations flash through my mind as randomly and disjointedly as a slide show I cannot control.
But when the "slide show" stops flashing, I am grateful that no matter how jarring the memories are - how they resurrect feelings of fear and confusion and anger and sorrow - they have good endings. So many other people cannot say the same.
I remember the spectacular weather that morning, so welcome in New York City in late summer - crisp, glorious, good-to-be-alive weather that made me wish my morning walk from Penn Station to my Times Square office building were longer than just 10 blocks.
At that time, I was the managing editor of a women's golf magazine, a small "niche" publication that had recently been acquired by a large (and flashy) media conglomerate. Earlier that summer, our offices had been relocated from a relatively quiet corner of Park Avenue South to a hectic (and flashy) street at the southern end of Times Square.
We were a small but experienced -editorial staff, used to long hours, hard work and tight budgets, which I was reminded of as I passed by the glass-walled conference room.
I remember the group of people staring at the TV monitor just inside the reception area, at what looked like an action movie trailer: a skyscraper engulfed in flames, with the giant words "BREAKING NEWS" flitting across the bottom of the screen. I remember feeling annoyed: Did the "kids" from the marketing department ever do any work, or were they paid to watch TV?
And most of all, I remember the sound of my editor-in-chief, Leslie, sobbing and screaming into the telephone, and the sight of her ever-stoic assistant, Candida, standing in the doorway, hands on her hips, delivering bits of information as emotionlessly as if they were items on a meeting agenda.
"Leslie's parents called from Vermont," Candida said. "A plane flew into the World Trade Center. They saw it on the news. They want to know if Jim is OK. Jim isn't answering his phone. The news is on in the conference room."
Leslie and her husband, Jim - an investment banker who worked at 7 World Trade Center - had celebrated their second wedding anniversary three weeks earlier. Their first child was due in 10 days. Her parents, back in her (and Jim's) hometown of Barre, Vt., had seen the initial news reports and called Leslie immediately. Now, watching her sobbing into one phone while frantically redialing her husband on another line, I remember thinking, "She's going to go into labor. Right now."
She didn't. Instead, over the sounds of her sobbing we could hear cries and shouts and gasps coming from the -conference room. In a blur, the three of us bolted down the hallway. Live on CNN, the second plane had just hit the second tower.
Too Numb to Understand
If there is such a thing as quiet pandemonium, it enveloped our small office group huddled together in the conference room that morning. Too numb, too confused to make any sense of what was transpiring on the screen, we watched with our mouths agape, each unfolding event more horrific and bizarre than the previous.
The Pentagon hit. Plane down in Pennsylvania. The South tower - gone. North tower - gone. Bridges, -tunnels: closed. Transit, -airports: down. Communications systems: maxed out. Was the world at war? Was the U.S. at war? Or was New York City at war? Were we all going to die in our office buildings?
Fortunately, Leslie's hysteria had abated to the point where we were able to convince her that Jim's building had not been hit; that Jim was no fool and would have gotten the hell out of the World Trade Center complex at the first signs of danger, that he'd be in touch with her as soon as he could get to a working phone line; and that this was NOT the time to go into early labor and expect an ambulance to be available.
Our prayers were answered. Just minutes after the North tower -collapsed, at about 10:30, an email message popped up on Leslie's computer screen.
"I'm safe. Get out of midtown. Go home. Go now."
Jim had texted her from what she had recently described to us as "a new toy he absolutely has to have. A BlackBerry." To this day, we'll never know where he found wireless service that morning. And Leslie, of course, did not go home. She emailed him back: "I'm waiting for you here. I love you."
Later that week, she would tell me that, safely home in their East Side apartment later that -afternoon, arms around each other, they watched on the news as Jim's office building, 7 World Trade Center, collapsed in less than a minute. They sobbed together.
'Thought I Was a Widow'
My images don't end with Leslie and Jim. Just as vivid is the conversation I had with my friend Liz, whose husband, Rob, worked in the North tower. Normally, Rob arrived at his office at 8:30. But thanks (literally) to a -subway delay that morning, it was 9 o'clock before his E train pulled into the -massive Chambers Street/ World Trade Center subway complex.
The North tower had been struck 15 minutes -earlier, and police were already at work guiding people away from the underground complex and onto the streets.
"For four hours, I thought I was a widow," Liz said when she called me that night to see if I had gotten home OK. Rob, who at age 29 had been recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was using a cane for balance, was part of the throng of people being herded away from the escalators to the staircases until a police officer saw him and escorted him to one of the escalators, where he safely alighted to the street.
With his labored walking, it took him four hours to get far enough uptown to find working cell service and contact Liz. Four hours after that, having walked all the way up to and over the 59th Street Bridge to Queens, Rob was spotted by a limo driver who stopped, picked him up and delivered him safely home to his wife, toddler son and infant daughter.
Rob lost more than 25 of his co-workers that day, including the head of his own department, communications. Fittingly, and poignantly, at the family's request, he wrote the eulogy for her memorial service. He and Liz also told me they often wondered - and prayed - that the police officer who had helped him get out of the subway station had made it out himself. They'll never know.
'Deep, Rumbling Boom'
My friend Maritza also called me that night to see if I'd gotten home OK. It had taken her husband, Charles, all day and half the evening to get from lower Manhattan to their home in Connecticut. Sept. 11 had also been primary day in New York, and he had been at the board of elections office on Broadway, five blocks north of the Trade Center, since 7 a.m. It wasn't until the South tower collapsed that the orders to evacuate lower Manhattan began, and by the time Charles made it out of the elections office building, the North tower was also down.
"I never heard a sound like that in my life," Charles told me. "A long, deep, rumbling boom. It sounded like it would never end. The ground was shaking."
Covered in soot and ash, he joined hundreds of other shell-shocked evacuees on the slow, gritty trek uptown, and had made it as far up to the Gramercy Park area - a good 40 blocks or so - when he ducked into an Irish pub and asked the bartender if he could use the restroom. What a sight he must have been: a dignified 70-something businessman in a summerweight three-piece suit, coated from head to foot in ash.
The bartender jerked his thumb in the direction of the loo and asked him what he was drinking. "Thanks," Charles said. "I just need to use the restroom." He came back from the bathroom to find a water glass filled with Scotch on the bar, the bottle of Dewar's alongside it. He'd never been in that bar before, had never met that bartender - yet the only Scotch he drank was Dewar's. He reached for his wallet.
"No, sir," the bartender told him. "You need this."
It was only then that he noticed other people sitting at the bar gazing at the -television, and at him. He pulled up a barstool and held up his glass. So did everyone else; then they came over and asked him if he was all right. He will never forget those faces.
Leslie and Jim's son, Angus, will celebrate his 10th birthday next week. He's the proud big brother of two adorable little sisters. The family still lives in, and loves, Manhattan. Liz and Rob moved to the 'burbs a few years ago. Rob is head of communications for a new company, and he has been successful in managing his MS. Maritza and Charles have seen their son graduate from college and begin a career in engineering; they're adjusting to being new empty-nesters. We still have each other, too. We will never forget that.
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