A mile from Ground Zero, my story about 9/11

Seasons come and seasons go and a painful but necessary part of the change of season from summer to fall now includes remembering 9/11. The calendar doesn’t need to tell me 9/11 is approaching. All I have to do is turn on the TV and look at the guide which is now filled with shows like, “The Day The Towers Fell” and “Inside 9/11” among many others. It’s been this way for several years now.

Just as soon as I turn on the TV I turn it off. The pulse quickens, the memory rewinds.

No one has to tell me to never forget. I will never forget because I was there that day, a mile from Ground Zero.

For the month prior to 9/11 I had called a one-bedroom 5th floor walk-up at Third and 75th home. Unlike my old studio apartment the new place had room for visitors, like my mother who had taken the train down from upstate to visit me the week before for Labor Day to celebrate my 27th birthday. She had wanted to go down to the World Trade Center and tour the observation deck, maybe grab a drink at Windows on the World. I talked her out of it saying no, way too touristy.

I regret that now. I denied her the chance to visit something that just one week later would exist only in pictures, TV news footage and our memories.

Many of us in New York or Washington have written about how blue the sky was that morning and it really was. A cold front had come through during the overnight sweeping away the stagnant heat and humidity that hung in the air, making me sweat on my brief walk home from the subway the night before, leaving in its place that blue sky and the kind of cool, crisp day that tells you fall is on the way. Little did anyone know another front would come crashing through that morning, one that would permanently reshape not only our skyline but also our collective consciousness.

Not that I expected to take in pumpkin spice or anything nice fall had to offer that year. A few weeks prior I had started a training program at one of the Wall Street banks that is also no longer with us. The first part of the program took place in a classroom on the 14th floor of a building in Times Square where we relearned the accounting we were required to take the first year of business school. There were about 40 of us, plucked from Harvard, Columbia, Wharton, sentenced to windowless cubicles to work 80 hours a week.

Except for me. I came from none of those places so if they were going to work 80 hours a week, then I was going to work 100 to prove I belonged there. So when the date of our accounting exam was set for the night of September 10, I studied crazy hard, just to be sure. We were reminded failing the exam constituted grounds for termination and that warning rang loud and clear in the worsening economic environment that year as the tech IPO machine for which we were hired to service was grinding to a halt.

The next morning I woke up at 7 as usual, dressed in a blue, stretchy button down shirt that was in at the time with a skirt and black sandal pumps and headed out to the door to the subway. I can’t tell you what I wore yesterday but I remember what I wore that day 15 years ago. Class started at 9 and I got there around 8:50 or so. First on the agenda that morning was reviewing the answer key from our exam the night before.

Right away the normally quiet classroom descended into chaos over the solution to one of the problem sets which comprised one-third of the points. I think it was a pension accounting problem or tax loss carryforwards maybe but honestly I don’t remember exactly because 15 minutes later debits and credits just didn’t matter anymore. I do remember choking on the acrid but free coffee and siding with my Ivy League friends, insisting our professor turned bank consultant instructor was wrong and this duel went on for several minutes.

In this pre-smartphone era the banks issued all of us cell phones and pagers on day 1 right along with our company IDs.  Since we weren’t yet staffed on anything those pagers served one purpose: to occupy us during class. We got CNN news alerts on everything ranging from Yankees scores to Mariah Carey’s meltdown.

Instantaneously all 40 pagers buzzed and those who weren’t arguing at that moment checked, then nervously whispered and looked around to see if the rest of us were checking. I grabbed mine and it read, “Breaking news, small plane crashes into World Trade Center.” By this time all the distractions were getting to be too much so it was decided we should take a 15 minute break.

We wandered out into the common area that was against a large floor to ceiling window and looked out down Seventh Avenue. Not that far in the distance we could all see high in the sky where the blue sky ended and black smoke began. All the while our pagers continued to go off, and each subsequent page become more dire, commercial plane hits World Trade Center, second plane hits World Trade Center.

A woman from the bank came over and told us class was over for the day but stay where we were, two others from human resources were walking over from HQ to talk to us and would be there in about 10 minutes. I think maybe it was just after 9:30.

We went back into the classroom and one of the recruiters and her assistant spoke. They confirmed what we already knew, that a major terrorist attack was in progress in our great city. The subway as well as the bridges and tunnels were closed so they wanted to help those who lived outside of Manhattan. No one knew if the office would be closed the next day or the day after but we were told to keep our pagers on they would let us know once a plan was in place. I started to wonder if we would have an office to go back to at all.

Lastly, and I will never forget this, our program coordinator spoke. She said that given our location in Times Square our safety was at risk so we needed to leave now.

Oddly enough I didn’t panic. Maybe I was so used to being in fire drill mode from my job that the ability to manage through a crisis naturally spilled over into the rest of my life. Walking out was a very different experience that day. Sirens replaced the typical gridlock both in the street and in the sidewalks. Some people gathered in front of TVs in office lobbys or storefronts staring at the destruction downtown.

I knew I had to walk home which was several avenues east and 35 blocks north. I was determined but my strappy Cole Haans were not as a heel broke off so when I saw an available cab I hailed it. I climbed in and the driver had on a very staticky 1010 WINS. He asked me if I knew what was going on and if I were okay and I calmly and truthfully said yes. I could tell through his broken English how shaken he was. Maybe I should have taken over the wheel.

We made it up to about 57th Street when he turned his face to me and screamed what was being reported on the radio, “The tower has collapsed, the tower has collapsed!” That was the moment Two World Trade went down. I told him that we were fine and that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t know if that were true because the tallest building in the country had just succumbed to evil taking God knows how many down with it but I knew that was my best hope for calming him down which I felt compelled to do.

I decided then to get out of the cab at Park Avenue and 59th and walk the rest of the way home. I thought maybe his cab would be better served getting closer to the site to help others get to safer ground uptown, that is, if he could keep it together that long.

Once home I tried to make some phone calls as we were advised to do back in Times Square, to get in touch with family to tell them we were okay. I was able to dodge the “all circuits are busy” message in about one in five attempts. A couple of friends came to my apartment and we started drawing up mental lists of everyone we knew downtown and how we could try to get in touch with them. With the sound of  fighter jets in the background we made more phone calls but in some cases we didn’t get any answers. Not for a while anyway.

While I survived that day, for the first time in my young life I realized that I could perish instantly. It could happen in a second, hour, today, tomorrow or even a year or two from now. No one knew when the sky would fall again.

Even with that thought I remained strangely calm, at least until the next afternoon when a couple of things happened. One was the wind shifted bringing all of that smoke uptown. I had never smelled smoke like that before, the smoke of airplane parts and jet fuel, of dry wall, of steel beams, of office papers and family pictures and most unfortunately, the people in those pictures, on those planes, all commingled together into the cloud of death and destruction, all drifting up Third  Avenue.

Also the next day while tuning into nonstop coverage I heard the phrase “estimated over three thousand” for the first time and knew what that meant. That’s when the tears came. That’s when the loss became real. All of those people. I thought of all of those people who had maybe minutes earlier walked off the elevator, ready to start the workday. All of those people who were logging on, checking email, going through voice mail, pulling up their calendars, a lunch meeting maybe, or a late morning conference call to prepare for. They were logging onto their mornings only to so abruptly and unexpectedly log out of life an hour later when the planes hit and the towers came crashing down.

I was doing pretty much the same thing as all those office workers.  But I got to live. Why? Because I happened to be doing it 60 blocks uptown? It didn’t make sense and it didn’t seem fair. None of it was fair. None of it was okay.

While my coworkers were with me and were all safe as were my close friends, it didn’t take more than one degree of separation to know someone who died downtown. Two days later we were called back to work but for the following two or three weeks hearing someone say they had to step away from the office for a few hours became code for saying they were going to another memorial service.

Those like me in the city that day who lived hour to hour those first few days wondering what was going to happen next breathed a sigh of relief when we could go day to day and we were still okay. It was like that for a while though. I stopped watching the 24/7 news cycle and started sleeping with VH-1 Classic on in the background and disabled the breaking news feature on my pager.

In a way, the sky kept falling. In early November there was another plane crash in Queens plus every other day it seemed like a new anthrax-laced letter surfaced in midtown. I had wanted very very badly to work hard, to keep my mind off of these thoughts but the staffing calls never came. Deal flow became nonexistent and it seemed like the holiday slowdown occurred three months early that year. Adding to the anxiety, layoff rumors started and we wondered if the next phone call would be from our staffer or from HR. Indeed several of my classmates were let go.

It wasn’t until the new year when I settled into a new normal with the rest of the city. In Grand Central Terminal where I passed through each day the missing persons signs were eventually taken down and replaced with “If you see something, say something” PSAs. I realized the sky was probably not going to fall today or even tomorrow.

9/11 will be another Sunday for most of us, maybe marked by at moment of silence at 8:46 but otherwise filled with normalcy, the start of the NFL season, going out to brunch, getting ready for the workweek. The fact we can now go on and live a somewhat normal existence after the horror of 9/11 is testament to the power of time and healing and how all that is good in humanity should and does prevail in the world.

Sometimes though even after all of these years from time to time there are triggers that bring it all back. When I first moved out here we lived in Elmhurst which is maybe 15 minutes from O’Hare. Often my townhouse was in the takeoff path and when it was those planes flew so low and rumbled so loudly just like those fighter jets that circled my New York apartment. Of course, there is the anniversary itself.

I debated whether or not I should share my story since I was a mile from Ground Zero. In fact, I avoided it while many others rushed down wanting to help. But what could I have done? I was not a trained first responder so my good intentions would have been in the way. Others did, including a coworker of another banker friend who worked on Barclay Street. As he evacuated his office he grabbed his EMT bag and ran back to World Trade to help others get out. With his help many did but sadly he did not get out in time. When I think of his selfless, ultimate sacrifice and for the nearly three thousand others who also gave all I feel guilty and that my story is not worthy.

But then I think about our pledge, our national duty to never forget in much the same way we have pledged to never forget about Pearl Harbor Day which I learned about from my grandparents, who were not in Hawaii, but in New York. So yes, my story does have a place, especially for my own young children who will only know 9/11 from books, maybe (but hopefully not) all of those TV specials, a brief talk in school and stories like mine and others who were there that day, wherever they were, whether it was here in Chicago, elsewhere in the country, the Pentagon, Ground Zero or even someone like me a mile from Ground Zero.

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Here is a post on 11 ways you can remember 9/11.

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Tags: finance, New York

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