A 9/11 memorial in front of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center. Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
When the first plane hit, I was in a ride-share van going down the FDR Drive on the East Side of Manhattan.
- The first thing I noticed was paper. The most ordinary, yet extraordinary, stream of glittery paper — photocopies, memos, restaurant menus, the stuff that was always on your desk in the early aughts — falling from the sky in a hideously gorgeous plume.
We all thought it was an accident. At the corner of Water Street and Beekman, my ride-share van came to a gridlock halt, and we dispersed for the cavernous buildings where we made our livings.
- A guy sweeping the street in front of One State Street Plaza, where I worked on the 26th floor, told me that a small plane had accidentally hit one of the towers, but it was all O.K.
It was not.
After I got upstairs, I gathered with colleagues at at the window where we normally congregated to watch the Yankees' victory parade on lower Broadway.
- There, I saw the second plane veer crazily around the 2nd tower and bash itself deliberately into that building, extinguishing untold lives and creating another sudden inferno in what had been a placid lovely late-summer view.
We gasped and fled.
Everyone immediately understood that people were flying airplanes into buildings. And we were standing in such a building.
- Instinctively we raced to the elevators, which was clearly a bad idea from an emergency management POV. Everyone I saw from that point on had the exact same ashen grimace that radiated abject fear.
I called my mom from the pay phone at a McDonald's across the street — we didn't all have cellphones then — to say that I was OK and would walk home (which was about seven miles). After that, all the phone service went down in lower Manhattan.
- As I passed the New York Stock Exchange, I thought, "I hope they don't hit it next while I'm standing here."
- The gridlocked cars on the street, windows open in the warm sunlight, were all blaring news radio 1010 WINS, from which I learned that the Pentagon had been hit, as well as something else about Pennsylvania.
- As I walked north toward my home and my young children, I knew I would have to pass close to the Empire State Building and the United Nations and wondered, "What do I do?"
The towers fell as I walked through City Hall Park, a modest greenspace next to this city's homely municipal buildings.
- I watched the Twin Towers collapse into a heap of rubble. It only took an instant. It looked like the cascading of the tiers of a wedding cake.
- This killed a lot of people. (The death toll at the World Trade Center was 2,753.)
- Some I knew: Banking analysts whom I used to interview for articles; a classmate from high school.
- Each and every firefighter who braved forward on the emergency vehicles whose sirens I heard blaring through the gridlock died that day after entering the buildings to save people.
The funerals would continue for weeks and feel omnipresent. My mind pictures the firefighters who survived, standing at attention to mourn their colleagues, their faces crumpled in a visage of unmanageable grief.
- I stopped at a bodega to buy water, and the line was already out the door. New Yorkers instinctively know how and when to hoard things.
- I saved my dusty, filthy "9/11 shoes" for years — the ones I wore when I walked home.
When I reached my apartment, the normally quiet neurosurgeon who lived next door was standing in the hallway, traumatized. "I just saw people jump to their death," he said over and over. "People were jumping out of buildings!"
It's been 19 years, the calendar tells me. It feels like yesterday.