Many years ago, I visited the World Trade Center for the first time. It was in February, but I don’t remember if it was very cold. I had always dreamed of visiting on one of my many trips into Manhattan from Queens, where I’ve lived my whole life. I walked around in awe, amazed at what I saw. I badly regretted that this was my first trip.
Because by the time I got to the corner of Vesey and Church for the first time, it was 2002, and the towers were only a memory. I never stood beneath them in their glory. I only stood among them in their remnants. Scattered around lower Manhattan, those remnants coated the flowers and tattered photos of victims whose faces, looking like Wanted posters in a western ghost town, stared at me from the fences to which they were affixed. They seemed to be urging me to comprehend the magnitude of where I was and what had happened to my beloved New York City.
But I couldn’t. I walked the streets with my dad, endlessly repeating a derivative of a certain phrase: “I can’t imagine what it was like here that day. I can’t imagine how it must have been.” In my mind’s eye, I saw the endless CNN loop of people running away from the crumbling towers, their actions showing desperation for survival, shock and confusion at the hell surrounding them. Standing in lower Manhattan for the first time since the attacks, I could almost hear those people fleeing, screaming in a primal response to the unthinkable happening right in front of them. I could almost hear the rumbling of the towers collapsing.
And yet, I still couldn’t fathom what happened on September 11, 2001.
The day started off as any other for me. I was a senior in high school, in the final months of my four year routine of riding the Q30 bus to school.
It was an absolutely gorgeous late summer Tuesday. In New York City, it was a primary election day, so the familiar blue diamond shaped “Vote Here! Vota Aqui!” signs were hanging all around my school. What I remember most, however, is the sky. It was a perfect blue: cloudless, rich, inspirational. An ideal azure.
“There’s a fire at the World Trade Center.” My principal was speaking through the public address system. “Anyone whose parents work at the World Trade Center, go to any department office and call them right now.”
Mr. Tannenbaum, my math teacher, asked if anyone needed to go. No one did, so we proceeded.
Just like that.
Meanwhile, I wondered to myself why a silly fire was impetus for such an announcement, especially at such a big building like the Twin Towers. What, was the whole damn place on fire? There’s no way it could be, I figured.
By the time we were walking to the next period, wild rumors were flying in the halls. “Did you hear? A plane hit the Twin Towers!” I wondered how that could happen. It must have lost control, or there must have been some kind of failure. I was incredulous.
I was ignorant.
Because, by the time my friend told me a plane had hit a tower, the reality was, both towers were already gone.
Mere miles away from school, an apocalyptic scene was playing out, the likes of which none of us in our infantile 17-year old minds could have ever conceived.
As a high school freshman, I had a teacher by the name of Dan Smith. He taught creative writing, a class which on the surface seemed brutal, but I actually enjoyed it. Mr. Smith was an interesting man, and he became the teacher with whom I bonded easiest that year. He appreciated the way I wrote about my heritage, built me up as a writer, and I came to trust him.
Two years later, as a junior newly aware there was an elective option for journalism, I found myself back in his class. He was assuming the title of faculty consultant for our newspaper, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see him there on the first day of school. He remembered my face, but not my name. That would change. I collaborated often with a friend to write our articles, but Mr. Smith saw something in my own writing that he wanted to cultivate. He arranged for me to attend department meetings, sit-downs with the principal, and a high school journalism workshop with the state commissioner of education. I worked the phones for funding. If he had anything to do with it, I was going to be a journalist. I loved the idea, and by my senior year of high school, I was the editor in charge of the front page and charged with writing our weekly editorials.
Leaders was the physical education service organization I belonged to from my first year in high school. I was tight with the teachers and had many friends in the class. We were excited to see each other on the morning of September 11, and since we weren’t yet dressing for activities, we all had a chance to just hang out on the bleachers.
Conversation hardly focused on the tragedy that was befalling our country. We simply didn’t know. In an era where kids with cell phones were considered oddities, the news had not yet filtered down to us about what exactly was going on. So we offhandedly asked each other, “Did you hear?” and said the usual high school kid things – “Man, that’s crazy.”
And that was that. Just a blip on the conversational radar. We had no clue.
Throughout fourth period P.E. that day, my thoughts led me to realize that, even though I wasn’t aware of the extent of the news, we were 1) experiencing an important news story (how often does a plane hit a building, especially one like the World Trade Center?) and 2) I wanted to be the one to write the story for our school newspaper.
But before the bell rang to signify the end of fourth period, new rumors had started to circulate. More and more people said two planes hit the towers. They said the towers had fallen. They said it was terrorism. I didn’t know what to believe. None of that seemed possible or plausible. I denied any of those possibilities and wondered, “Why would a pilot do that?” and “How could buildings like that fall?” and “What are the chances of this?”
I bolted down to the journalism office as fast as I could.
Big bad insensitive budding journalist I was, I burst into the journalism office with little to say to Mr. Smith other than, “This is my story, I’m writing it.” I sat down in front of a computer to start researching my story and went first to CNN’s web site. There, the main image was a photo shot from a helicopter of both twin towers ablaze, looking like cigars planted in the ground. This was the moment when I realized we weren’t in a movie, and that this was real life. All at once, the magnitude of the situation – my city under attack – hit me. Hard.
I put up a brief fight against the tears that were building in my eyes, and almost immediately started to wail and sob uncontrollably.
Mr. Smith came over to console me. No longer was I the gung ho journalist. Now, I was just another awkward high school senior who couldn’t understand anything. I told Mr. Smith I had to leave, that I couldn’t write the story. I walked down the hall to the physical education office, where all the teachers knew me, and where I knew I would wind up staying without returning to class that day.
Still trying to process what was happening, I can recall that at this point, there was nothing else to discuss except the attacks. I remember one teacher remarking, “This is like Pearl Harbor. We’re at war.”
As I learned the Pentagon was hit, too, and that other D.C. buildings were presumed to be targets, I was staggered by an overwhelming feeling of disbelief. This was simply something I could have never prepared myself for. My country was thrown into a war on its own soil and my city was in flames. My whole life was changing forever. There was no simple answer to the simple question, “How can this be happening?”
I sat around the phys ed office in a bit of a daze for a while, repeatedly trying to track down my mother (at the time an administrator at a high school in Brooklyn). The phones were totally out of whack – landlines and cells – so it took a while. When I reached her, she suggested I ask a trusted teacher to drive me home. She also said she hadn’t yet spoken to my father.
After that trusted teacher, Mrs. Chan, dropped me off by my house, I went inside, alone, and turned on the tv to watch the news. As a senior applying to colleges with journalism as my major, I was utterly fascinated by the magnitude of the news of the day. The first video I saw on tv looked like a horror movie: an ambulance blaring through lower Manhattan, papers and dust all over, people helping each other walk, some with hacking coughs, all looking haggard.
I was on the phone with my mother letting her know I was home, standing in front of the tv, when out of nowhere, a video from afar showed the first plane fly into the building. Here, I lost it again. I distinctly remember screaming into the phone, incredulous, angered, horrified, “THEY JUST FLEW A PLANE INTO THE BUILDING!” She couldn’t understand my screaming, and I wound up screaming it louder.
With the exception of my father, I spoke on the phone with pretty much every member of my family the rest of the afternoon: my aunt, my cousins, my sister (who was away at school), everyone of my grandparents. We were all in disbelief and found comfort in sharing this sentiment with each other.
I kept the television on, so much so that I can close my eyes now and see the videos playing over and over the way they did that afternoon.
One image remains singed in my mind as the most ironic and unjust. I mentioned the gorgeous sky we were blessed with that day. In one video of the attacks, shot from the Jersey side, the plane entered the screen from the left, shakily gliding across that sky, slammed into the tower, lodged itself and burst into flames. At the exact moment of impact, a flock of birds flew from the opposite side, crossing between the towers and the camera. I thought to myself, “How can birds still fly while this horror is happening?”
That no one had spoken to my father was unnerving for everyone. He happened to be in Albany that day, but his office is merely blocks from the World Trade Center, firmly in the war zone that was. Even though we knew he wasn’t downtown, we had no reason to believe Albany wouldn’t be subject to its own insanity. He had no cell phone.
His 9/11 story is a serendipitous one, thankfully. Had he been in his office that day, there is no telling what might have happened. At best, he would be one of the thousands who, in the absence of public transportation and because of road closures, literally walked home from Manhattan across the bridges. At worst, who knows?
When my dad finally came home that evening, I practically fell on him. “This has been the worst day of my life,” I told him. I was hurting as a New Yorker and American, but thank goodness no one in my family was harmed. He empathized and came in, strained, like the rest of us.
The television remained on CNN all night, and we watched 7 World Trade fall late that evening. No matter how many times they replayed the attacks, the buildings pancaking, the ambulance racing through the wreckage, it didn’t make it any more real. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be real. But it was. We were beginning to adjust to a new reality in our world.
New York City schools were closed on September 12. I lived at the time in a highly residential area, and it was normally quiet. But when I went out that day, it was eerily quiet. No one in the street was talking. No music played from open car windows. The cars on the road seemed to be silent.
I collected every newspaper and pored through them, horrified and fascinated by the wraparound sections that contained pictures of the impact, of people hanging from the tower windows, and of people in flames jumping or falling to their deaths.
I bought an American flag, embarrassed to have to do so, feeling like a fake patriot. The lady at the store apologized that they weren’t free.
Schools reopened on September 13. My dad’s department was thrown into disarray as the entire Manhattan office was off limits due to its location south of Canal Street (a rather significant chunk of the financial district). He was home that morning. I stepped outside, prepared to walk to the bus like I had so many times before. But as I was walking down the huge hill from our house to the bus stop, I couldn’t reconcile what was happening. The wind overnight had blown the smell from Ground Zero all the way over to eastern Queens. We described it as “acrid”. It smelled tart, pungent. I knew I was smelling the towers and the dead. I didn’t want to be outside. I didn’t want to be at school. I walked home and for the first time in my life, got no argument when I said, “I’m staying home today.”
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, came that weekend, and we planned to spend part of our worship at our cousins’ temple in New Jersey. This was a doubly difficult experience. First, this was the first time I would see the skyline in its horrible new form. Until then, I loved looking to my left as we crossed the Whitestone or Throgs Neck Bridge and seeing the skyline, progressing north from the World Trade Center to the Empire State Building to the Chrysler Building. This time, the World Trade Center was replaced by a plume of smoke.
Second, the mother of one of my cousins’ good friends, a Port Authority police officer, responded to the attacks and had not been found in the rubble. While some were holding out hope, the outlook became grimmer with each passing hour. The family was at the temple. All I can remember is my mother’s cousin turning around, seeing them, and crying.
Four days before the attacks, my sister and I had tickets for Michael Jackson’s 40th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, where we sat ridiculously close to the stage, less than 30 rows behind Michael and his parents, Elizabeth Taylor, and Macaulay Culkin. When I got these tickets, I was flabbergasted. Not only was he one of my favorite artists of all time, the fact that he was even playing a concert – after his self-imposed exile from the United States – was just too much to handle. Couple this with the fact that his brothers would all appear at the show: I knew it would be a memorable night.
It was. In addition to Michael Jackson and the Jacksons performing, Whitney Houston, Usher, Destiny’s Child, Ray Charles, N*Sync, Britney Spears, Liza Minelli, and Aaron Neville were all there – just to name a few of the bigger names. When Michael’s set began, flame exploded from the stage, and I screamed in hysteria, just like all those kids you see in the concert footage (only difference being I didn’t pass out).
But the night was memorable for another reason. My sister and I somehow found ourselves in the bowels of the Garden on our way out. We walked right by Paul Shaffer and Susan Sarandon on our way to the exit. When we got outside, we were struck, only briefly, by the beauty of those gorgeous towers, gleaming silently, unaware of the fate that would meet them by the next week. I took special note of them, as they always inspired awe in me.
We rushed back underground to make our train. With a somewhat stubborn glance, I looked back over my shoulder to see the towers before we descended the stairs.
That was the last time I ever saw them.
When I visit the site of the World Trade Center now – I try not to call it “Ground Zero” – I always feel a mix of emotions. It’s impossible not to.
Most people who pass by there do so without a glance toward the progress – to them, it’s just another construction site in a metropolis that is still being built.
Some people pose in front of the progressing Freedom Tower, strike poses, and smile. This angers me to no end. Yes, tourists are an absolutely vital part of New York’s economy, but there’s something sacrilegious about smiling and mugging for the camera on the spot where so many people were killed and so many lives altered irreversibly. Are these the same people who talk loudly at the Vietnam Memorial while others walk in silent weeps running their hands along the granite names?
Money-minded types hawk their wares, still trying to milk the tragedy for every last nickel. They wave their poorly written books in our faces, and shamelessly promote their cheaply made trinkets. Never in their pitch do they seem to indicate that owning one will make you a better American, New Yorker, human being. They are motivated solely by the sale.
When I visit this space, my music comes out of my ears and I see no need to speak much, even if I’m with a friend. I allow myself to be alone with my thoughts. Even ten years after visiting Ground Zero, I can still sense the screams, the horror, the insanity, the death. I take pictures because I have to, even if I look at them once and never again. I look toward the sky, where now the Freedom Tower is assuming its place in the NY skyline, and try to envision the twin towers meeting all the way up there. I sit on the brick wall that surrounds the cemetery across the street. I sit and think, reflect, remember.
In much the same way it was unfathomable to me on 9/11/01, as it was when I first visited in February, 2002, as it is every time I head over the bridge, I have a hard time believing it has been 10 years since the attacks. In so many ways, 9/11 has defined my pride as a New Yorker. (That’s not to say I didn’t think it was the greatest place in the world beforehand).
After the attacks, it seemed like the whole world went from criticizing New Yorkers for their rudeness to adoring us just for being us. On the streets of Manhattan shortly after the attacks – after my terrifying first time riding the train or subway since 9/11 – my mom dropped her watch. A man handed it to her, and I thought, “So this is what New York is like now?”
At this point, by and large, we have regained our hardened edge, and most of the stereotypes people have about us still prove to be true. However, there will always be something different about New York, even as a long awaited memorial opens and the Freedom Tower ascends to its 1,776 feet.
I think sometimes about those birds, flying through the picture as the world seemingly entered into apocalypse behind them. The sky was so stunning, and the birds were so oblivious. For them, life was going to go on. They were birds, they needed to get somewhere, and they were flying there. The towers were falling, but the world was still spinning.
And I think that’s important to remember. Our towers are gone, but New York is still here. The tragedy did not stop our world from spinning. Ten years later, we continue to fly.
Freedom Tower, August 21, 2011
Ten Years On: The Story I Couldn't Write by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at photomatt7.wordpress.com.
Freedom Tower, August 21, 2011 by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at photomatt7.files.wordpress.com.