September 11, 2001: I was there.

September 11, 2001

I am there.

It is a Tuesday. As a graduate student in the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU, I am scheduled to go in for my student-teaching. The school is located on East 22nd street, between Madison and 3rd Avenue. Right near Gramercy Park.

Just about 2.5 miles from the World Trade Center.

I get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and gather my materials. I leave my rented room with blue walls, a tiny room on the third floor of an old Victorian house, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I hop on the D train at Beverly Rd., and take a seat near the window as I always do. There is graffiti scratched into the window of the train’s car. Maybe done with a key? Someone bored on their way into the city? On their way home from a long day? We move underground for some bit and then pop up again as the train rises to cross the East River by way of the Manhattan Bridge.

At some point the lull of the train stops. We are stopped on the bridge. I don’t make anything of it as trains often do funny things like stop for no apparent reason. But then people scream. And then the screaming people all get up out of their seats and move to the left side of the train, their faces pasted to the windows.

Just as I look up and see the smoke, a woman sitting near me, with fingertips pressed to her lips, and  utter disbelief in her voice, says, “Oh my God. That’s my office.”  Something turns inside me.

Because the memory of what I saw and the time at which I saw it is hazy, I don’t remember if both towers had been hit yet. At the very least, one was already blaze. Probably both had already been hit.

Black smoke spirals from the mercurial obelisk into the sky.

The train begins to move again. I am unnervingly uncertain of what I’ve just seen, but am feeling a nagging suspicion that something is very, very wrong. There is talk on the train of a “small” plane “accidentally” crashing into the tower and honestly, it seems plausible given the closeness of the skyscrapers to La Guardia and JFK. They share airspace. After getting off the train at my stop and walking to the school, I quickly make my way into the classroom. My friend Chris is there. We have the same Master teacher. If I remember correctly, he is finishing up his class. The bell rings and students shuffle out of the classroom into the halls. My class comes into the room. I whisper to Chris that the World Trade Center is on fire, and that a plane (or two?) has crashed there.

And then this is what I remember happening next:

The voice of the principal crackles over the PA system.
He says that the school is on lockdown.
A student takes out an electronic device of some kind that has a radio, and he/she listens.
I lean out of a classroom window trying to look downtown towards the WTC.
The student reports that the South tower has collapsed.
Chris and I look at each other.
Our Master teacher becomes hysterical talking of war and being under attack.
We try to calm her down explaining that she cannot lose it in front of the students.
The student with the radio reports that the North tower has collapsed.
I may or may not have leaned outside the window again.
I think I remember smelling smoke.
The students are confused.
We are incredulous.

At some point we are all released, and I walk the empty streets of Manhattan with Chris. There is virtually no body, no car to be seen anywhere. Manhattan is an empty movie set long since abandoned after the director has called it’s a wrap. I try a payphone on our walk back to his dorm room, but there is no dial tone. Silence on the streets, silence on the phone.

All I can think is to call Big Red who is living back in the Steel Town.  We have been dating just a year and a half at that point. I am unaware that another plane has gone down near our Steel Town.

All I can think is to call my parents and let them know I’m okay.

We walk some more. There is no train service. All transportation is shut-down, Manhattan itself is on lockdown. We make it back to Chris’ place, and I try my cellphone to no avail. Chris points out that he has internet via his cable line. I send out an email to friends asking them to call both Big Red and my parents. I find out later that someone has reached them all and let them know I’m okay.

But I am still stuck on Manhattan. But I am not scared. I just want to get home.

We watch some of the news and sometime later the city decides to reopen a select few train lines.  I am able to find one that will go to Brooklyn. Unfortunately the closest stop is still miles from where I’m living. Miles through some shady areas. I have no choice but to ride anyway.  The train is crammed with the ragged and the weary.  The train lurches to a stop somewhere in Brooklyn. I do my best to orient myself as I climb the steps out of the ground, trying to figure out in what direction I need to begin walking.  After what seems like several blocks, I am still uncertain if I’m headed in the right direction, and that is when I spot an ambulance. I knock on the window startling the two men inside. The passenger rolls down his window. I explain my situation and ask them if I’m headed in the right direction. They confirm that my instincts are right, but that I still have a long way to go. I thank them and continue.

By now it is dark and I don’t want to dillydally any longer in suspicious neighborhoods. So I walk and walk and walk some more, keeping a quick pace. And then lights began to flash: blue and red. The ambulance. They pull up beside me and tell me to get in. They take me all the way home. I thank them profusely. I don’t know if they felt sorry for me, if they knew I’d be walking through danger or what. All I know is they chose not to ignore me.

I turn the lock with my key, and go inside. 

1 comment:

Christopher Copeland said...

I remember that when the student announced that the first tower had fallen, I took it metaphorically. I remember trying to convince you that the radio guy simply meant they had been hit by the planes and and was using "fallen" dramatically to mean they had been attacked. You thought otherwise, and it is interesting to me now that even after I had seen both buildings on fire, and even after a radio announcer said the tower had fallen, there wasn't a place in my paradigm for the possibility that those buildings would actually, literally, fall down. I am pretty sure that both buildings were on fire when you were stopped on the bridge. And I remember, like you, that Linda absolutely freaked out and you and I had to be the adults in the room to the kids. And I remember walking through Union Square with you, back to my place, and the streets at Union Square were packed with people going the other way, away from the towers, because there was zero public transportation and no cabs. You and I were the only two walking south, and when we crossed 14th it was shut down, and it really did feel like a movie. We had the whole of the Washington Sq. area to ourselves, like it was an abandoned movie set. And amazingly enough, we were back at school by Thursday.