What It Felt Like Living In NYC During 9/11

My experience on Sept. 11, 2001 is not unique. I was just one of the millions living in Manhattan on that fateful morning.

I was 25-years-old at the time and had been living in New York for almost exactly two years. Shortly before the events of that strange, terrible day, I’d lost my job working for a tech company as the dot com bubble had burst wide open and the industry was in freefall. I would start my net job less than a month after 9/11, but at the time, I was just enjoying life in the big city.

Being without a job, I slept in on that beautiful Monday morning. The weather was perfect that day–a bluebird day without a cloud in the sky. That magical time in the northeast, just before fall, but after the summer heat had broken. The only thing on my agenda that day was to vote in the primary for the next Mayor of New York.

That’s one of the details that get lost about that day. It was an election day in the Big Apple. The polls opened just a couple of hours before the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Wake Up Call

Like many people around the world, I first heard the news through a phone call.

My mother called me, waking me up, and said something like, “Can you believe this?” It was about that moment when I first registered the sound of sirens outside my apartment near Second Avenue, on 44th Street.

Normally, the sound of sirens in New York is something that gets pretty easy to tune out, but I heard them, and it sounded like a lot of them.

“Believe what?” I asked, walking out of my bedroom. “Turn on your TV,” she replied. I turned on the TV in our living room, which happened to be on the Today Show, channel four (WNBC). On the screen was the image that everyone who remembers that stay still has burned in their memories. Two smoking towers. It was just after 9 a.m. and the second tower, the South Tower, had just been hit by United flight 175.

At A Loss For Words

I told my mom I’d call her back and hung up the phone. Staring at my T.V. in disbelief, I started to think about who I knew that worked downtown and who I knew that worked in the WTC.

When I first moved to New York after college, I took a temp job distributing newspapers at the World Trade Center holiday market, which was held annually on one of the bridges that passed over the streets between the World Trade and the World Financial Center. Of course, I’d also been to the observation deck at the top of the South Tower, so I knew a little about the complex.

The first person I thought of, however, didn’t work in the WTC. My roommate worked in Soho, not far from the buildings. I tried calling his cellphone, but I couldn’t get through. That would become a reoccurring theme that day–telephone communication, even landlines, so overwhelmed by call traffic.

I heard a lot of operator messages over the next few hours as I tried to reach friends.

Early Internet Technology Worked, Phones Didn’t

I turned on my computer, opening AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).

My internet connection seemed to be fine, though my roommate wasn’t on. His girlfriend was, so I sent a message asking if she’d heard from him. She had not. Even over the sterile nature of AIM, I could tell she was panicking.

My roommate was in advertising and started work later than most. I told his girlfriend he was probably stuck underground on a 4 Train somewhere well north of downtown. As it turns out, I was right, he was stuck.

The 4 Train, if you don’t know the New York subway system, runs right next to the World Trade Center site, with a stop just a block or so away on Fulton Street. Like all the downtown trains, it immediately came to a stop that day.

My roommate was on one that stopped between two stations. After an hour or so, the commuters were led out of the back of the train and had to walk on the tracks back to the nearest station.

The City And The World Changed Before Our Eyes

It was about then that the South Tower collapsed and everyone instinctively knew just how horrible this was going to be. Not long after, of course, the North Tower came down, while sketchy reports about planes heading for Washington DC surfaced.

It was reported that the Pentagon had been struck and there were even more reports about planes pointed towards the Capitol and the White House. I stepped out onto my balcony, hearing the roar of endless sirens of emergency vehicles hauling down Second Ave., and for the first time, I saw the smoke coming from downtown. The contrast of that black smoke and the blue sky is something I’ll never forget.

I don’t remember when exactly, I think around lunchtime, I got a call from a good friend, who was at work on the Upper East Side. She wasn’t sure how she was going to get home. She lived near Union Square, and with no subways running, she was facing a long walk. Worse though, most people north of Union Square weren’t even sure what downtown looked like. Were there fires? Was it smoked out?

I told my friend I would walk uptown and meet her in the 50s on Third Avenue. I had yet to leave my apartment at that point, so I put on some shoes, got my Walkman out, and tuned to 1010 WINS, the 24-hour news radio station in New York.

I walked out of my building, immediately sensing the tension and fear in the air. That’s something else that often gets overlooked. This fear turned into dread, and finally, it morphed into total sadness over the next days and weeks.

Hitting The Streets Was Scary

As I walked up on Third Avenue, I saw something else I’d never, ever forget.

Seemingly thousands of people were walking uptown. The sidewalks in Midtown are always crowded on weekdays, but on 9/11 they were absolutely packed and everyone was walking in one direction–north.

The next thing I noticed was a man in a suit, covered from head to toe in white and gray dust. He was coughing and spitting, clearly in a daze. He seemed to just be walking with no plan in mind. The only thing on his mind was getting away from downtown. It’s impossible to know what was going on in his head, but of course, I knew he must have been right there when the towers came down.

A moment later, I saw another man who looked the same way. Those are two people I often think about on the anniversary of that day, wondering whatever became of them.

Sanctuary

I met my friend, and we walked back to my apartment. Eventually, her roommate at the time, joined us there, as did my roommate, his girlfriend, and yet another friend that couldn’t get back to his place in Queens. It was really important, I realized later, that we were all together.

We, like the rest of the world, spent the rest of the day riveted by the news, watching TV, bouncing from station to station.

Eventually, my two friends decided to walk down to Union Square, and the rest of us got some dinner and continued to watch the news late into the night.

Waking Up To A New Reality

The next day was almost just as surreal. We woke up to a very different New York City.

Most of the city shut down for a couple of days, and people stayed home with their loved ones. We only ventured out to hit the neighborhood bodega to get some snacks and some drinks. The rest of the day was, again, spent in front of the TV.

Occasionally, the wind would blow just right and we would get a whiff of the enormous fire downtown, a fire that took weeks to put out. The only thing I can compare it to is a burnt clutch.

The Smell Is What Always Brings It Back

The City smelled like burnt metal for weeks.

Two weeks later, I went to a concert on the Upper West Side–the first time I’d done anything remotely fun for two weeks. During the show, by The Black Crowes, I forgot, if just for a couple of hours, the outside world. When the show ended and we emerged from the Beacon Theatre, the smell immediately hit me, and reality set back in. It was a reality we all lived with for months. It was the baseline. Everything was in context to it.

The news was a blur, from President George W. Bush making his speech on the rubble to the seemingly endless coverage of the thousands of missing people. Though, for a long time, we held out hope that somehow, at least some would be found alive by some miracle.

It always came back to the smell though.

Even today, two decades later, when I smell a burnt clutch or burnt metal, I’m transported back to New York in the fall of 2001. It’s because of that smell that I’ll never forget those we lost, and why none of us should ever forget.

We’ve ended the war in Afghanistan, but the wounds from 9/11 will never heal for millions of people. Think of those people, the survivors of the deceased and the families of the emergency responders. And not just those that died that day, but the ones that now face serious health consequences from working on that retched, burning pile of debris.

It’s a day we can never forget. It means too much to too many people.

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