Featured image: One World Trade Center rises from the ashes of Ground Zero. This photo was taken on September 28, 2012. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the Northeast. Two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York City, another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and another plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Thousands of lives were lost that day, and an entire nation mourned.
For those who lived through this experience, we know where we were when we heard the news. Some were far away, but the events unfolding felt as though they were happening near home. For others who were close, the world was surreal. Wherever we were, we struggled to understand why someone would do this. We still wonder. And we remember.
So, today, I’m remembering by writing our story. At that time, we lived in the Northeast. We moved to New York City from Seattle so that my husband could change careers. After settling on Staten Island in January 2000, I accepted a technical writing job at a dot-com in Lower Manhattan—one of the early cloud computing companies. The company closed in May 2001, near the end of the dot-com crash in the city. I found another job in Newton, Massachusetts, three weeks before 9/11. My husband was updating his finance credentials at New York University, so we kept our apartment on Staten Island and I came home on the weekends.
On the morning of September 11, the weather was perfect in Massachusetts: sunny, in the 60s, with a breeze tickling the maple leaves. While waiting for the bus to take me from the Newton Center T (subway) station to the office, I wished that this beautiful weather would last forever. I looked forward to my first autumn there and seeing those vibrant colors for which New England is famous.
After arriving at the office, I stopped at the graphic designer’s desk to talk to her about some drawings for a project. She looked worried and distracted as she searched for something on the Internet. The 404 message, meaning that the website she wanted to read couldn’t be found, persisted. She continued trying while I watched.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“My boyfriend called,” she said. “He said that two planes just hit the World Trade Center. I’m trying to find some more information about it.”
“Yes, it’s true…no joke. He’s at home, watching the news. Two jet planes flew into the World Trade Center and exploded. The towers are on fire now.”
She continued searching for websites where we could read about the crashes while I tried to mentally process the news. None of the sites responded because of the heavy Internet traffic.
Then my phone rang. It was my husband.
“I’m OK,” he said.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at Battery Park,” he said. “Two planes hit the World Trade Center. The tops of the towers are on fire. The police have barricades set up here and won’t allow us to go anywhere.”
He paused. “We can see the smoke from here.” (Battery Park is one-half mile south of the World Trade Center.)
I couldn’t hear any background noise while my husband continued to talk. It was quiet…eerily quiet.
“I took the ferry to Manhattan and stopped at the barber shop next door to the ferry terminal to get a haircut,” he said. “When I left, the towers were on fire, and someone said that two planes struck the buildings. The police told us to go to Battery Park and wait.”
He paused. “I was on my way to a class in one of the towers and decided to get a haircut at the last minute.”
“That haircut probably saved your life,” I said.
He didn’t respond.
“Is the ferry running? Can you go home?”
“It’s still running, but they’re talking about shutting it down.”
“Please take the next one home. And call me when you’re home.”
The Staten Island Ferry passes the Statue of Liberty. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
By then, the news spread throughout the office, and everyone searched the web for more information about the planes flying into the World Trade Center. Then we heard that another plane crashed into the Pentagon and caught fire, followed quickly by a plane crash in Pennsylvania. We continued searching for details, but the Internet traffic was so heavy that all of the news sites were crashing. Some news sites shut down because their networks couldn’t handle the traffic.
An IT (Information Technology) department employee found a TV and hooked it up in the kitchen so that we could watch the news reports. By then, it was noon, and both towers at the World Trade Center had collapsed from the intense heat of the fires from the jet fuel.
When I saw the first video clip of the towers collapsing on a WBZ Boston news update, I panicked. Where was my husband now? I hadn’t heard from him since he said he would take the ferry home to Staten Island. I tried calling him, but the calls wouldn’t go through.
Emails from former co-workers in Manhattan started filling my inbox with reports that they were OK. Many were on their way to their new jobs that day and were delayed for various reasons: Something happened at home, the bus or subway was late, and some weren’t feeling well. If they followed their usual schedules, they would have been inside the World Trade Center, somewhere nearby, or in one of the subways affected by the crashes. Two people were out of town on business, so their flights to New York were cancelled.
A co-worker knew someone who worked near the towers and saw people jumping from the windows. I can’t begin to imagine how traumatic that would have been.
Three hours later, my husband called again. “I took the last ferry from Manhattan,” he said. “It left at 1:30. The police shut down the ferry after that until further notice.”
When I returned to my room that night, I tuned into NPR and listened to the reports. I was glued to the radio, yearning for more information about how and why this happened. Whenever I wasn’t at the office, I listened to the radio as more details slowly unfolded.
I returned to Staten Island for the weekend three days after the attacks. The police shut down Penn Station, so I took Amtrak to Newark, New Jersey, and my husband picked me up. On the way home, we could see the dark smoke billowing through the skyline across the Hudson River. We could also see the smoke from our apartment, which was 5.2 miles by ferry from Manhattan. When the wind shifted in our direction, we could even smell the smoke. The burning rubber smell reminded us of a giant electrical fire. When the winds were intense, the smell would be so strong in our apartment that we had to drive to the southern end of the island for relief.
The night I returned home, my husband told me that he was in Battery Park when the towers collapsed. He described the scene. “There was so much smoke and debris, it was like being outside at night with no lights on.”
The next day, we learned the ferry was in operation again, so we went to Manhattan. When we arrived, most of Lower Manhattan was off-limits. We could walk only in designated areas, walkways set up by the police that reminded me of a maze. Dust and ash were everywhere. Water trucks roamed the streets constantly, spraying the streets to subdue the dust clouds. The air reeked of burning rubber.
We walked to the site of the towers, now called Ground Zero. From the walkways two blocks away, we could see piles of mangled steel and crumbled concrete covered in dust and ash through the narrow skyscraper tunnels. Some of the piles were up to six stories high. Dozens of onlookers stood around us, with the police watching us. We all reacted differently, but shared the shock of standing in front of this horrible scene. Some, like us, couldn’t say anything. Others snapped pictures, while others muttered, “Oh, my God,” or “I can’t believe this.”
I didn’t bring my camera, which is unusual for me. I couldn’t. I felt that taking pictures would be disrespectful for the thousands of people who were still buried under the massive rubble.
The police didn’t pressure us to leave. They allowed us to stay as long as we wanted, to look and grieve. The police seemed to be in as much shock as we were.
We stood there for an hour, staring at the scene in silence. Then we returned to the ferry terminal. About a block away, we saw a fire truck parked behind a barricade. A firefighter sat on the step on the passenger side, slumped with his elbows on his knees and his head hidden in his hands. Pictures children colored with thank-you messages were taped to the passenger side of the truck, covering almost every inch of available space. I wanted to say something to the firefighter but couldn’t find any words to express how I felt. I could have said “thank you,” but the words wouldn’t come.
We continued walking to the ferry terminal in silence. Our silence continued during the ferry ride to Staten Island and the taxi ride from the ferry terminal to our apartment. And we didn’t talk much the rest of the day. When we did, we said nothing about the towers. It wasn’t necessary, because we could see and smell the smoke.
The effects continued for months after that, and we saw a lot from our apartment. The fires continued to burn. The smoke finally faded but the fires burned deep underground. Even then, we could smell the burning rubber sometimes when the wind shifted in our direction. Barges carried rubble non-stop from Ground Zero to the Staten Island landfill, the staging area where workers carefully sifted through the debris to find clues and body parts. Orange police rafts escorted the barges to the landfill and back to Ground Zero.
A barge carries debris from Ground Zero to the Staten Island landfill on September 15, 2001. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
At the Catholic church across the street, the funerals for the victims seemed like an assembly line. As soon as one funeral ended, another one began. We lost count of how many funerals were held each day. This routine continued for weeks. It was a new normal, so we didn’t notice when the activity slowed. Maybe we were still in shock.
We didn’t talk about our feelings surrounding 9/11. My husband gave me news updates during our weekday phone conversations or during my trips home on the weekends.
Two years later, my husband moved to Massachusetts and continued studying there. One night, I overheard him practicing a speech for a class the next day. He began the story of his morning in Manhattan on 9/11—describing the weather and the peacefulness before the planes struck the Twin Towers. He stopped rehearsing after that, so I didn’t hear the rest of his speech.
When he returned from class the next day, I asked about his speech. “It went well,” he said, “but everyone was down after I finished.”
We never talked about 9/11 again. But we remember.
Postcards September 11th Memorial honors fallen Staten Island residents
Staten Island also remembers the 275 residents who died in the attacks with the Postcards September 11th Memorial on the Esplanade in the St. George neighborhood. The memorial, which overlooks the harbor, resembles two postcards and has a granite plaque for each resident with the name, birthdate, and employer. The memorial is located next door to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at St. George and across the street from the Richmond County Bank Ballpark. If you drive to Staten Island, pay parking is available at the ferry terminal and the ballpark.
The Postcards September 11th Memorial on Staten Island’s Esplanade with a view of Lower Manhattan in the fog (photo by Cheryl Landes)