September 11: I Was There
On the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I wanted to share my memories and photos from the day as I watched the towers collapse from the tip of City Hall Park in Manhattan.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I decided to sleep in. Like so many other early college mornings, I rolled over when my alarm clock sounded. I could pick up my contact lenses after class.
My contacts were waiting for me at a Lens Crafters in the mall beneath the World Trade Center. I was 17 years old and living in a dorm in downtown Manhattan—less than 1,500 feet away.
The first plane crashed into the north tower about an hour after my alarm first when off. I woke up when my bed shook. I laid there for a moment trying to figure out if I had dreamt the vibrations. I tried to drift back to sleep. When the second plane hit the south tower, I knew I was awake—and I knew I had felt the room shake.
I called over to my roommate Alex and asked if she had felt anything. She was only half awake.
“It’s probably just an earthquake; go back to bed,” she said.
It took me a moment to process her words. Then, it dawned on me: If it was an earthquake, the last place on earth I wanted to be was on the 16th floor of a building.
I turned on the television to see if the news had any answers. I remember staring at the screen in disbelief for a moment before bolting out of my room and into our floor’s lounge. I pressed my face up against the glass and stared out at the two towers burning.
I remember running back to my room and shaking Alex from her sleep. I told her that the World Trade Center was on fire, and she had to get up now.
When we approached City Hall Park, hundreds of people were standing in the street staring upwards. We stood there for a moment with the crowd, and I decided I needed a camera.
I ran over to a Duane Reade pharmacy across the park. All the regular, disposable cameras were already sold out. I guess a lot of other people had the same idea.
There was one underwater camera still hanging from its peg. I bought it and ran back out to the street where a few police officers were trying to keep people back.
I walked out to the tip of City Hall Park and started to take some pictures. I could hear people in the crowd theorizing about what happened. No one seemed to know why it happened or who was responsible.
When the first tower fell, the first thing I remember hearing was a rumble. It sounded like a loud creaking noise at first, and people started to scream. The second sound was more like a long, deep groan. I could see the top of the building tilt slightly to its left, and then it started to come down.
I stood there, at the tip of the park, taking photos while everyone around me ran away. It felt so surreal. I kept wondering when I would see a giant monster creep around the corner like in the movies. I couldn’t process that this was reality.
I remember Alex tugging on my arm and screaming at me that we had to go. The crowd rushed past us.
The giant cloud of dust and debris weaved through the city streets like spilled water runs swirls objects on a table. I just stood there staring at it.
Alex tugged harder at my arm. She made it clear that staying put was no longer an option. I felt her jerk my arm, and I began to run.
We ran down the street and back into the lobby of our dorm. Almost immediately after we got inside, a dark cloud rushed past the entrance, and the sky turned black.
I remember thinking how strange it was that it was dark outside in the middle of the morning.
We stood there stunned for a few moments. Then, most people started to cry. Alex held tightly onto my hand.
After what felt like a few minutes, the sky began to clear. I remember feeling relieved. Then the building shook and the lights flickered. I could hear a loud rumbling, and the sky went dark again. It sounded like everyone in the lobby screamed at the same time. It was deafening.
It felt so unreal to me—like I was having an out-of-body experience. It’s like I was watching the events of my own life from a sideline. I knew I was there, in a lobby in downtown Manhattan, but it suddenly didn’t feel like I was anywhere.
I remember walking around outside after the sky had cleared. The streets were covered with gray ash and debris. There were pages from books, briefcases and shoes littered throughout the streets. The shoes were the hardest to look at.
I kept telling myself that if I lost a shoe running, I wouldn’t stop to find it. I wanted to believe the people who put on those shoes that morning were still alive somewhere.
I picked up part of a manual. I flipped through the burnt pages, and I couldn’t believe it was in my hands. I was holding part of book that had been up in the towers only hours earlier. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was dreaming.
Eventually, I made my way to a friend’s house in Brooklyn for the night. My parents lived about an hour north of the city, and transportation from Manhattan was too chaotic for me to try to get home that night. A friend drove me to my parents' house the next day, and I spent the rest of the week with my family glued to the television.
It was strange to go back to classes the next week. It felt awkward returning to a routine when so much was obviously different.
Lower Manhattan was closed off to cars, and the police set up checkpoints where you had to prove you had business below Canal Street. The Trinity Church across from City Hall Park was covered with missing person fliers, candles and memorials.
I remember people cried a lot in the weeks after. Everyone you met would share their story about where they were and if they knew anyone who died or was still missing.
I tried, but I just couldn't cry.
I felt numb about the attacks, and I felt numb about everything else in my life.
Weeks passed, and I still couldn’t shake the feeling I was dreaming. I felt like I was going crazy, or perhaps I had always been crazy and just never knew it. One night in early October, I found myself out wandering the streets of lower Manhattan alone.
Like so many nights since the attacks, I couldn’t sleep.
I walked down to the makeshift barricades on Vesey Street. I don’t know what got into me, but I slipped through a crack in the barricade and made my way down to ground zero.
I stood in the shadows across from the entrance to the Borders that used to stand at the edge of the World Trade Center. After a few moments, I stepped out to the edge of the sidewalk.
A cop approached me from across the street. I hadn’t seen him, and I don’t think he saw me until I stepped into the glow cast by the floodlights. We both stood there for a few moments, not saying anything.
I spoke first. I told him there used to be a Lens Crafters in that building. I was supposed to go there to pick up my contacts after a run I was supposed to take on the West Side Highway on Sept. 11, but I overslept.
I started to tell him how I woke up when my bed shook, but my voice cracked. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I’d been trying to cry for weeks, but now, in front of a complete stranger, I fought them back. I tried to keep talking while squeezing my eyes shut, but the first of thousands of tiny drops starting pouring down my face.
When the tears subsided, I just felt embarrassed.
The cop said to take all the time I needed. When I was ready to go, he’d walk me out. When I stepped back through the barrier, it felt I was waking up from a long, strange dream. Things didn’t feel so hazy anymore.
In the years since Sept. 11, I’ve learned that what was bothering me had a name: dissociation. It’s a common response to what we perceive as a serious threat. We "go someplace else” because where we are feels too frightening to stay.
My reaction was normal given the circumstances, but at the time I thought my lack of emotion made me some kind of heartless monster.
The most important lesson I learned from Sept. 11 is that when tragedy strikes on any scale, there is no correct way to feel about it. We all grieve in our own way.