Nine Years Later: My Story

On September 11, 2001, I woke up like it was any other day.  Little did I know the the entire world would change within the next few hours.  I’ve never lived in New York City and have only visited the city a few dozen times in my lifetime.  Growing up, my family was hesitant to visit the big scary city that was only a couple hours from where we lived in NJ.  Even now, as an adult, my mother still warns me to keep my wallet in my front pocket when I go to the city.

In 2001, I was working at Toy Kingdom in Flemington, NJ.  It was a job that required me to unload trucks, stock shelves, run a register, mop floors, wrap presents (I can still curl ribbon better than anyone else I know…), and other menial tasks.  Basically your standard crappy part-time job.  I was starting at 9AM that day, so when my older brother called me to tell me that the first plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was on my way out the door.  I dashed back into our living room to see if it was on the news.  I remember looking down at the TV and seeing the smoke rising from the North Tower.  I still remember trying to wrap my head around the scope of what had happened as I looked down at the knotty, amber-colored hardwood floor beneath my feet.

I couldn’t be late for work, so after watching for a few moments, I ran out to my car and sped to work.  When I arrived, I unlocked the door to the store, turned on the lights and rounded the store and storage basement as I quickly went through our opening routine.  A few minutes later, I was back upstairs, behind the register counter.  It was against the rules, but I switched our store’s TVs from the security video split-screen to CNN.  When my manager arrived (late), she didn’t complain.  We spent most of the morning watching as the events of the day unfolded.

I was surprised by each and every customer that came into the store that morning.  Why was anyone buying toys on a day like that?  For me, it felt like the beginning of the apocalypse; not a time to be shopping for overpriced junk.  And something that I will never forget was the attitude of some of our customers.  “Oh God, why is that on the TVs?”  “Ugh, I’ve had enough of that already!”  And other similar sentiments.  It was the self-righteous attitude of the central NJ upper class housewife.  I wonder if they felt the same way after so many people died that day.  Their attitudes made me ashamed that we are the same species.

We closed the store that afternoon once the slow stream of customers became nonexistent.  For something like the next 30 hours straight, I watched CNN and the other cable news networks.  I shared a bedroom with my younger brother at the time, and when he went to sleep, I merely put on my headphones.  I remember succumbing to my sorrow and exhaustion at some point during the night, and just quietly sobbing by myself.  Sometime earlier in the day, I had popped in a VHS tape and hit record — ultimately filling about 5 tapes with news coverage.  I still have those tapes, but I’ve never watched them.  I don’t think I could.

I didn’t personally know anyone that died that day, but something changed inside me.  I used to love violent thrillers and war movies.  But since that day, I find it hard to watch people realistically ‘die’ on camera.  When I drive near an airport, low planes flying overhead make me nervous; it’s no longer cool to seem them so close.  And every time I see someone falling from a high building, bridge or airplane in a movie or television show, I remember seeing people jump from the upper floors of the towers in attempt to escape the smoke and their certain deaths.  I suck in a quick breath, and just try (usually unsuccessfully) to force that awful image from my mind.

Years earlier, an English teacher had told my class to map out the significant things that had happened in our lifetime as part of a writing exercise.  Births, deaths, divorces, happy moments.  My life had always been pretty boring, and I didn’t have many marks on my personal time line.  The September 11th attacks became the first major mark on my line.  Even nine years later, I still have trouble wrapping my head around what happened.

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9 thoughts on “Nine Years Later: My Story”

  1. That’s an amazing, heart-wrenching, heartfelt, and beautifully-written story, Adam.

    I was in Killington, VT that day. Lotus used to offer an extra 2 weeks of vacation at the 10-year-anniversary mark which they referred to as a “sabbatical”. I chose to take my sabbatical by attending a “hiking spa” in Vermont — they made us get up at 6 in the morning, fed us a high-fiber low-fat diet, and then made us spend half the day hiking in the Green Moutnains and the other half doing yoga, water aerobics, or other uncomfortable things.

    9/11 was the first day of my “sabbatical”. Since we left for our hike very early, none of us heard the news until after we got back from the hike for lunch. I remember going up to my room to take a shower and the phone was ringing — Lisa was on the line with a sound of panic in her voice and it took me a while to even grasp what she was telling me. By this time the towers had fallen. I turned on the TV and saw the horror unfold.

    At lunch we found out that one of the staff had a husband who worked in the towers. She hadn’t been able to reach him on his cell and had left to drive to NYC to try to find out whether he was still alive (he was, as we found out later). Two of the guests were already packing to leave because they were in similar situations.

    After lunch and before that afternoon’s exercise session, I was back in the room again and the phone rang — it was Lisa on the phone — her mother had just been diagnosed with lung cancer (she’s still alive). It was obvious to me that I needed to call off my two week hiking spa and drive back to Boston to be with Lisa. It didn’t feel right to even continue. Lisa insisted I had to stay (as soon as I got back to Boston 2 weeks later, we drove to Akron — Lisa’s mother wouldn’t let us fly — so Lisa could be with her mother for the surgery). 9/11 definitely put a pall over the whole time there, though. Everybody was very subdued and with the news coverage it was what all of us mostly talked about. I don’t know how different my experience was from what it would have been if I had just been working my regular job that day and for the two weeks after — if I had had less time to contemplate it. Because of the solitude one feels when hiking — even in groups — it was a great deal on my mind.

    And I agree with you — when I saw “V for Vendetta” I simply couldn’t enjoy the ending one bit. Blowing up a buliding did not seem entertaining to me.

  2. Well, I was still working at the same place but we were in the midst of a strike. Not my bargaining unit, I still had to go to work but the striking workers were only letting one car every 5-10 min. through the blockade so we were all backed up for several blocks and we would get out of our cars and wander around talking and some people had the radios on in their cars to kill time.

    I first heard a plane hit the tower and I thought for sure it was some kind of a freaky accident. I mean weird shit can happen. We were all kind of like “What the hell?” and then when the second plane hit we knew something was up and then when the towers collapsed I remember thinking that couldn’t really be true. All of a sudden cars were zooming through the picket line as they opened it. I work for the government so we needed our people in there to deal with the situation as best we could from our end.

    Once we all got inside every TV in every conference room and big bosses office was on to CNN. People who weren’t involved in addressing the crisis just kind of wandered around in a daze, going into conference rooms and watching what happened over and over. It was a very quiet day.

    I’m sure my experience as a non-American was slightly different than for others, and probably unlike anything I can imagine for people who lived in or near NYC. We watched hours and hours of coverage, but at the time the kidlet was only 6 so I didn’t want to have the TV on 24/7 but I think I was just stunned, kind of numb.

    I have to admit when I see a low flying plane near a building, I always kind of visualize what it would look like if it hit. How would it compare to how that plane looked hitting the tower. Planes are big, it looked so small. I can’t help it, the image just pops in my head.

  3. My mother woke me up in the middle of the day, after one of the towers had collapsed. What she was telling me did not make sense. I turned on the TV and started to learn about the situation.

    Living about 20 miles from NYC, it felt like things hit close to home. I had actually been there. I didn’t like feeling so confused and helpless. I felt violated. I was angry, but I also knew that the nature of global terrorism was complex, and that I didn’t have a great understanding of it. I thought back to when I had considered joining the Marines in high school. At the time the recruiter turned me off, too much shallow macho ego stroking. But now I was reconsidering. My company could not have managed without me (the primary software developer), so I didn’t consider this for too long. I wondered if I would be drafted. Memories from Vietnam movies came through my mind. This event could really change my life.

    I went to work that afternoon, as I had to be there to supervise a high school intern we had working for us at the time. I remember feeling distracted and confused the whole day.

    I saw the planes hit the buildings on the news. After a few days I made an effort to avoid seeing it anymore. I had seen it too many times. I heard that from the mountain above my office you could see the smoke columns. I never went to look. I didn’t want to see it.

    For years I was very nervous about traveling on the train to NYC. I knew it would be a target. I don’t think I would say that I feel safe now, so much as I have become used to being a target. I never liked airplanes, and hated flying. After 9/11 I actually took a train to Florida once, just to avoid flying. I have since flown, and hate it more than I used to. I know the security procedures still have huge vulnerabilities. I hate having to trust my life to a flawed system. When I was younger I had little panic attacks at night when a plane sounded out of the ordinary. As a child I was worried about nuclear bombs. Shortly after 9/11 those little panic attacks became more frequent. Fortunately that has faded.

    I think I am mostly OK now. But, that is a complicated thing to ponder. I wish some things had turned out differently.

    I am sorry for all people who have ever had to suffer from the results of senseless violence.

  4. I was in an 8:30 college class up in Binghamton when we heard the World Trade Center was “bombed”. Class was cancelled, but we went to lunch at the dining hall and proceeded with our day before checking out the news since we figured the event was more in line with the 1993 bombing (which was still significant, but not enough to make us race for the television). It wasn’t until we got back to our rooms at about 9-9:30 that we first saw the news and see the scope of what really happened. Later that day I had to go to work a the local grocery store and I was furious at having to deal with such an annoying job and with such annoying people on a day like that day.

    I also didn’t know anyone who personally died in the towers that day. But 5 years later, I got a job at a construction company rebuilding the World Trade Center. It took me about a year of working there before I actually donned a hard hat and vest and walked the site, but I was able to walk around with a project manager who worked on the original twin towers and he personally took me around and showed me all the sites, which was a great experience, especially for someone who had previously been stuck in the office all the time. It’s nice being involved with rebuilding the WTC, but sad to see all the pettiness of the government agencies and all the red tape that makes it difficult to get anything done. But I’m glad to be a part of it.

  5. What a horrible day that was. The images of the towers and the people jumping – I think I’ll never get them out of my brain. I felt the same way when seeing the Challenger explode. Stunned and sickened.

  6. I was in school, and the administrators decided not to tell us, so I didn’t actually find out until after 2pm, when I got home.
    I first HEARD about it from my very big-mouthed friend Karissa. I left the building and walked towards my bus. Karissa had her head out the window of her bus and was screaming “Terrorists attacked New York City!” repeatedly. My bus driver was tight-lipped and told us all to go be with our families when we got home.
    From Neptune, NJ, you could actually see the smoke in the sky.

  7. Chris’ comment reminded me that I too had been in the towers before. As a tourist, I had gone up to the top of both the Empire State Building and of both of the Towers over the yeras. Amongst the many horrible thoughts that flashed through my head during and after that horrible day was imagining what it must have been like to be a tourist, visiting New York, taking in the view, and just to be unlucky enough to be on the observation floor that morning. Or to be having breakfast in one of the restaurants up there. Or just to be someone who got to work early and was just doing their job.

    Today I was talking to a friend in England about today — I was telling him about how my father grew up in Coventry, which was blitzed and firebombed by the Luftwaffe during WWII (and for which Dresden was the allies’ retaliation). The beautiful Cathedral of Coventry, which had dominated the landscape for miles around for many centuries, was almost utterly destroyed. My father was in Coventry the night of the blitz — he was 14 or 15 I think — and watched his school burn down.

    There is a modern cathedral next to the site of the original (my grandfather, who had founded a company that used to make the wood parts for British cars — dashboards and stuff — donated the wood for its altar etc) but the ruins of the original gothic cathedral are still standing: the nave open to the sky, the cross on the altar now burnt-out charcoal.

    There is a plaque in the ruins — it says “Father, Forgive”. It was put there after the war. Although I am not religious person, I find that sentiment beautiful. It is similar to the sentiments expressed at the ground zero memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    As I was telling my friend this, he and I both realized how appropriate it was that I was mentioning this on today of all days. It reminded me how sad I am that this country lost so much of the good will that the rest of the world felt towards us in the aftermath of 9/11 — good will that we could and should have built on instead of squandering in Iraq and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The one silver lining that had come out of those attacks was the outpouring of sympathy from virtually the entire world (even Iran) and the fact that *everybody* saw the attacks not just as attacks against the USA, but against humanity (which they were). As we hear about pastors planning Koran-burning parties and Fox News fanning the flames of hatred over the planned Islamic Center in New York, I keep hoping that the sentiments of that plaque in Coventry — erected by a people who had suffered terribly at man’s inhumanity to man — will be taken to heart by more people.

  8. Nice post dude. I was mystified by how people were able to go about their normal, every day lives that morning as well, and I was in lower manhattan! I saw people stopping at delis to buy coffee and bagels; spoiled NYU brats talked about how they should go smoke weed in the streets because the cops were too busy to worry about them; most shocking of all though was that once the subway started running again that afternoon, someone actually told me to SMILE as I walked down the steps toward the train. Can you effing believe that?

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