On that bright, clear Sept. 11, 2001, morning, I was in our office cafeteria at IBM getting coffee when the cafeteria manager came out and said that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. My first thought was of the plane that hit the Empire State Building so many years ago and how the crash today was another tragic accident.
By the time I returned to my desk, my co-workers told me it was the North Tower that was hit and that the South Tower had also been struck. I then knew that these strikes were not accidents; something terrible and horrific was happening.
“Who could hate us so much?”
Little did I know the horror and devastation wasn’t over, that the Pentagon was targeted by these terrorists and that another plane would go down in a quiet field in Shanksville, Pa. I did the only thing I could: pray.
When I could think clearly, my first concern was for my son whose office was at 30 Rockefeller Center, and my husband who was at a class in Manhattan. Were they safe? Would they be able to leave Manhattan? I couldn’t reach them by phone because the circuits were either down or busy. I was scared and worried sick.
At 12:01 p.m., I received an email from my son:
“Mom, I’m at work. The phone circuits are busy so I can’t call out right now. All transportation into and out of the city has been stopped. We are sitting in a conference room waiting out the situation. I love you. Paul.” He and his staff were able to leave later in the afternoon.
My husband left the city on one of the last trains out of Grand Central. He called me from home to let me know he was safe and waiting for me to come home. I could finally breathe easier.
Soon after, Dennis, our vice president, called me into his office:
“Please go to each staff member and quietly tell them to pack up and go home.”
The stillness and disbelief was palpable. No one spoke. We were in shock.
A few weeks later, my dear friend, Joey, returned to New York from Louisiana where he’d been caring for his terminally ill dad. His apartment was a block from Union Square, which became the unofficial center for public mourning. It was from there that he sent me a heart-breaking email:
“No matter what anyone has read in the papers or seen on television, it is even harder to fathom in person. My flight back took us directly over the site—flood lights illuminating the billowing smoke coming from a huge black hole in the ground. Then, it really became true. I had tears in my eyes as I thought:
‘What have they done to my city?’”
He continued: “At Union Square, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of candles burning and on every possible surface there were colored papers with pictures of lost people and telephone numbers to call in case you had any information about them. There seemed to never be less than a thousand people gathering in that park—some speaking, some singing, some just there because they couldn’t bear it alone. Everyone seemed to know someone who was killed or missing in that attack: a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter or friend. I knew the city would never really return to normal—we had truly lost our innocence.”
At the end of September, Joey returned to Louisiana for his dad’s funeral. Before he left, he went to Union Square. Somehow it made it easier for him to be with all those folks who were also mourning.
My son-in-law was a police officer with NYPD—he’s now a detective—and worked traffic and crowd control during the weeks after 9/11. He wouldn’t speak about or discuss the tragedy with anyone. One evening at dinner, Art asked him directly what his thoughts and feelings were.
“I will remember the sights, sounds and smells for the rest of my life,” he quietly answered.
We, too, will never forget.
This column originally appeared in The Somers Record on Sept. 13, 2012.