Where were you on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?
I was in the concourse level of Rockefeller Center in New York City, taking money from an ATM machine. I have an ATM receipt with a time of 8:46 a.m. – the exact time the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I then went and bought a coffee and a muffin. I still struggle with the idea that all over the country, similar mundane tasks were being performed at the same time our world was changing.
I was working as a journalist for The Associated Press then. Unaware of what had just happened in Lower Manhattan, I took the elevator upstairs for my 9 a.m. editing shift in 50 Rock, about 4 miles north of the World Trade Center. Minutes after I arrived, the second plane hit the South Tower and it became clear this was no accident.
My bosses sent me down a floor to the New York City bureau, which was in desperate need of reporters. I did nothing brave or even noteworthy that day. I just sat at a desk, answered phones, monitored TV reports and took dictation from reporters in the field. I had plenty of friends who worked downtown. I convinced myself that since none of them actually worked inside the Trade Center, they were all OK. Thank goodness that turned out to be true.
I remember talking repeatedly to a reporter who was at a hospital or triage center that expected to receive some of the expected hundreds of injured workers from the WTC and nearby. Very few injured arrived.
When I wasn’t taking notes from other reporters, I was in charge of updating our stories on the status of public transit and commuter trains. I remember at the time thinking it seemed like such a silly story to worry about in the wake of what was happening in Lower Manhattan. But of course residents were desperate to get home to their loved ones, and in a city like Manhattan, you usually do that by bus, train or subway.
Soon after it was clear that it was a terrorist attack, I called my mother in central Illinois. She was an hour behind and still sleeping, so I left a message on her answering machine. I don’t know my exact words, but it was something like, “Mom. When you wake up, you’re going to see that something terrible has happened in New York City. I just want you to know that I’m OK and I'm safe and likely staying in the AP office. But I’m going to be very busy today and I probably won’t get to call you again. I love you.”
I’m surprised I was able to leave such an authoritative message, but the mood in the newsroom while somber, was full of adrenaline. There was no room for crying to your mom.
I talked to my husband several times that day, of course, but I think I kept calm with him, too. My husband and I lived in New Jersey, about 20 miles west of Manhattan, and so I took a New Jersey Transit commuter train into and out of the city each day.
By that night, New Jersey Transit was running again – an amazing feat, I think now. But I was worried that if I went home the night of Sept. 11, I’d have trouble getting back into Manhattan for work the next morning, and of course every pair of hands was needed.
So I worked until about midnight and then headed to stay with some college friends who lived in the neighborhood of Chelsea, about 2 1/2 miles north of the World Trade Center.
It was only after I got on the subway, after leaving work, that I left myself cry. I was able to ride south – how amazing the subway was running! – and then had to walk the final few blocks because their home was near the area barricaded off to all but the most vital services. I remember having to stop and tell a police officer where I was going and why. He was subdued and polite. So was I.
Once I reached the comfort of my friends’ apartment – guys I had known for nearly a decade at that point – I truly broke down. We watched television coverage together and I couldn’t stop crying. Deep, heavy sobs. I remember apologizing for crying and of course my friends telling me not to – that they felt like crying, too. Looking back, I’m amazed at that I felt like I needed to apologize for crying.
I slept a few hours, borrowed one of my friend's sweaters and headed back into work. The subway made its usual rattle and clank, of course, but inside no one said a word. I saw a tough-looking, older man -- dressed for blue-collar work -- reading one of the papers. He put it down with a sigh and then covered his eyes with his palms and started crying.
The city that day was eerily quiet as well, like a scene out of a movie about an Armageddon or massive plague. There was hardly anyone on the streets or subway and nearly all the stores in Manhattan were closed. By Thursday, people were out again, but as I recounted in an email to friends that “everyone was walking around with these zombie-like, blank expressions, and the city was still so oddly quiet.”
Every day and night, on the way from my commuter train to work, I would pass paper signs hung up on store windows and lights posts. Pictured on them were the “Missing,” usually men and women last seen on the top floors of the WTC towers. The photos were heartbreaking. Men in football jerseys or carrying babies, women in bridesmaid dresses or standing in their kitchens. Each one had a phone number to call. Just in case. I ached for those families.
“I guess the only positive thing I've noted is the amazing strength and kindness and courage and calm that New Yorkers have shown during this ordeal,” I wrote to my friends on Sept. 14. “The firefighters and rescue workers still at the scene -- this morning in a cold, pouring rain -- are obviously amazing. And I've noticed lots of small kindnesses too, strangers taking the time to comfort each other, conductors on trains being so helpful and a lot less honking horns and cars playing chicken with pedestrians than normal.”
The next few weeks were a blur. It was easy to find a seat on my normally packed commuter trains. I worked tons of hours, of course, and within about 10 days, I was down at the WTC site, accompanied by a photographer. We got much closer to Ground Zero than we expected, and I was overwhelmed at the amount of heat still coming off the massive pile of rubble. The heat on my face felt like I had opened an oven door.
Looking through my emails from that time, I realize how much I struggled with my emotions and actions and wondered if what I was feeling and doing was “correct.” Sad, angry, depressed – those seemed expected.
But was it OK to feel grateful? Grateful none of my friends were killed? Grateful that I had a wonderful husband and cozy apartment in New Jersey to go home to every night?
What about tired? Was it OK to admit I was exhausted from working so much, often surrounded by co-workers I’d barely met?
How about worried? Suddenly it was quite easily to spot a potential terror target every day. I wrote in an email to friends: “I'm safe and sound -- physically, if not emotionally. I could have easily given in and had a panic attack as I walked down Sixth Avenue yesterday, thinking that my biggest fear in New York used to be having my wallet stolen or inadvertently getting on an express subway and now I'm worried about someone blowing up the McDonald's as I walk by it. That was followed by my seeing a suspicious-looking police officer with a large black bag. My logic told me I was being paranoid. Then my logic told me nothing is logical anymore.”
Still, letting myself experience this anxiety sometimes seemed almost luxurious, an emotion we shouldn’t indulge in when there was work to be done, a city to be propped up, so many families who were grieving. Admitting my anxiety felt like I was “letting the terrorists win.”
Was it OK to feel eager? I was eager to take a planned trip home in late September. Eager to hug my mom and dad and sisters, my in-laws and best friends. But how could I think about a vacation when so many people had died?
Was it OK to do things we’d done before, just as we’d done them before? One morning I broke down putting on makeup. It seemed so selfish (or pointless?) to put on makeup in a world where something like that could happen.
Now when I took back at Sept. 11, through the lens of 10 years, I experience many of those emotions again: Grief, anger, sadness, confusion, anxiety.
What I try to focus on, however, is the countless moments of joy I’ve been able to experience since then. I truly aim to be grateful for every moment I have with my husband, our daughter, our families and friends. Sometimes our house is a mess. Sometimes money is tight. Sometimes we're tired. Sometimes we eat out too many times in a week. Sometimes we’re stressed. Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.
But that is time we have had together that those poor people who died in the Pentagon, in the World Trade Center and on the planes on Sept. 11, 2001, had brutally stolen from them.
I can’t say that I’m successful all of the time, or even most of the time. I get frustrated and distracted and sometimes I veer off course and lose sight of what truly matters to me.
But I think I’ll use this 10th anniversary of that unimaginable tragedy to renew my commitment to being grateful. Want to join me?