The belly of the plane was the color of salmon, shiny, pink and smooth. Close enough to touch. This is impossible. I’m on the 8th floor of a building in SOHO. How is this possible? An emergency landing in Manhattan?
The noise of the jet had called us to the South-facing kitchen window. Formerly a Seattleite, I was accustomed to loud jets once a year during SeaFair.
I didn’t know the Blue Angels were in town? I thought.
Mystified, we raced to the window in the living room. This afforded us a direct view of the twin towers, two isolated silver columns against a clear blue sky. The plane’s wings banked left, then right, leveled, and then the nose tore a gaping black hole into the tower before our eyes.
What am I seeing? The hole, now billowing smoke, was the shape of the plane – which was now inside the building and surely nothing more than a mass of molten steel. I calculated the number of lives lost on the plane, which just moments ago was pulsing with molecules of life. The lives on the plane; gone. The lives on the floors destroyed by the plane’s impact; gone. The lives on the floors above the plane – for surely there was no way out for them; gone. I said a prayer; Leave. If you are in the other building, or the lower floors, leave. Get out while you can. The top of the building burned like ashes on a cigarette, grey and black smoke rising into the sky. The building itself looked to be made of cardboard, broken windows waving like paper. The black, billowing plumes were grotesque against the beautiful early autumn sky.
“That wasn’t an accident.” Andrea said. “That was a target.” She’s right. Bull’s eye.
Only twenty minutes before, we had been working out the schedule confusion- since I had showed up mistakenly on this Tuesday morning when I wasn’t scheduled, if I stayed until 9, she would pay me for an hour. For the rest of my life, I would wonder why it had worked this way. Why had I been confused? Why had I needlessly shown up this morning? Why was I destined to be on lower Broadway with a direct view of the Twin Towers just a short distance away, and forced to witness this nightmare?
I could hear screaming outside. I crossed to the fire escape on the West facing windows. Looking out, I could see people standing on their roof-decks, screaming helplessly, watching helplessly. I looked down and watched a man casually making his way North on Mercer street, still oblivious to the horror above and behind him in the downtown sky.
I called my parents, waking them a little before 6AM in Seattle.
“Nina, what’s wrong?” Mom asked, instinct telling her I would only call this early in an emergency.
“I just saw a plane fly into a Twin Tower. I just saw a plane fly into a building.” My words echoed in the space in front of me and in my own ears. All day, every word I said sounded hollow and meaningless and wrong. I can’t say “I,” I have to say “we.” If I say “I” it sounds like I think I’m the only one going through this. Say “we.” That way you are not alone. I feel alone.
The rest of this conversation is a blur. I’m sure they turned on the news, seeing early images of what I was watching with my own eyes. Promising to call back, I quickly dialed Les’ number. Voice mail.
“I don’t know what’s happening. Are you still on the train? Call me. I just watched a plane fly into one of the Twin Towers. It’s horrible, call me as soon as you get this.” He would never get the message – it disappeared into the wireless ether. He was on his way to work, thankfully, uptown at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He called a few minutes later asking “Do you know what’s going on? They’re lining up gurneys in the hallways?” All the area hospitals were ready for the masses of injured and dying who would never arrive.
By now, we saw a second explosion in the other tower. Surely a bomb planted earlier. This was organized and planned. We heard other explosions (apparently gas mains exploding) around us. I remember ducking, trying to get low, thinking the city was under attack from above. I pictured bombers flying overhead.
Andrea’s photographic assistant arrived, knowing something was happening but not knowing what. He and I stepped out on the fire escape and watched the two towers smolder in the Southern sky. I think he took a picture of me, documenting the moment. When we asked Andrea if she was going to take pictures since she was well equipped as a professional photographer, she declined – saying she felt it was in poor taste. As we stared South, we saw bodies flying, floating, falling. I watched someone wearing a red shirt and blue pants tumble through the sky, preferring to believe I was watching just more debris –more paper, furniture, office supplies.
“Those are bodies. People are jumping for their lives.” Andrea observed.
The world shook, and before our eyes, a building collapsed. The screams around us grew louder, we were all helpless as we watched an entire world change. That’s when I stopped praying. There was no God. How could there be a God who would let this happen?
Marty came home with Lula and Sam, he had been walking them to school when he heard from someone about the attack. Then their other assistant arrived; we had been worried, knowing she was on a train coming from Brooklyn. Then their accountant, Barbra came over, and their SOHO loft apartment became the gathering place for their people – friends and family surrounding them. I was with them, but I wasn’t there. I walked around like a ghost, surrounded by the strangers I worked for, feeling like an orphan. I was their nanny, but it’s always confusing when you’re off the clock – who’s in charge? I saw Lula standing alone in the middle of the room and picked her up in a lame attempt to distract her. I made some calls, I sent some emails, but as the minutes ticked by, I was unknowingly disappearing from my own life.
Eventually, both towers tumbled into piles of ash and smoke, each rumble illiciting a horrified “Oh My God.” For a while before they were gone completely, I thought their remains looked like a soaring brown gothic cathedral reaching towards the sky.
We went for a walk to Little Italy. Crossing Broadway, I looked south at the wall of smoke that had become Canal street. Phantoms walked out of the grey veil, covered in soot and ashes and remains, a silent and somber march of retreat, their eyes empty. A black woman dusted with grey, wearing only one shoe. I have to do something for her. There’s nothing to be done for her.
We found a bar and watched the news unfold on a TV screen. Other friends of Marty and Andrea’s joined us, sharing the photos they had taken a few hours before and had already developed. I didn’t need to see pictures of something I had only just witnessed, and had still not digested. Everything I had seen just hours earlier was a lump in my throat that wouldn’t go down and wouldn’t come up. I decided Andrea had been right about not taking pictures. A few of us discussed getting in line to donate blood, but by now we knew there was no reason – there were no survivors.
The day flew by, I don’t remember talking. The attacks on the Pentagon confirmed for Marty that we were at war. Finally, I heard from Les – the trains were running, and he was able to get home to the East Village. He had to show his ID to get to his house – a requirement for anyone to pass below 14th street. Since I was walking up from below Houston, I could get to his house on 5th street easily. It wasn’t until he opened his door and I collapsed into his arms that I felt human, alive and safe.
In the days following, we were glued to each other and the news. I remember the first night I wanted to hug Ashleigh Bamfield as she climbed through the wreckage and interviewed volunteers. If I turned away from the news, I would miss something vital. On the second night, in an attempt to break up the insanity, Les put on an Oasis DVD and my dreams to this day are haunted by What’s the Story Morning Glory and Wonderwall. For the next week if I did manage to sleep for an hour or two, I would wake with a start, screaming, then return to the news.
When we left the apartment, we saw tanks lined up on Houston street. The volunteers and fire fighters driving in droves to what was now being called Ground Zero were cheered for by people standing vigil on their path, handing out water bottles. The air was thick with ash, reminding me of Oregon in my childhood after Mt. St. Helens erupted. We worried like everyone about the air we were breathing, our throats stinging and sore from swallowing and inhaling ashes.
The inevitable happened; we had to return to work. I watched desperately as Les walked to his up-town bound train. I wasn’t ready, and would never be ready to be without him. When the time came for me to find my new normal, the trains were eerie and empty. There were no panhandlers, and if you happened to bump into another person, you looked them in the eye and sincerely apologized, asking if they were alright. The streets were plastered with pictures of the missing. Everywhere you looked, someone’s smiling father, mother or child desperately looked back, wondering if you had seen them. People gathered wherever they could; surrounding a T.V. set on top of a car, an extension cord stretching into a store. Around candles in Washington Square park. Every public space was packed with people leaning on one another. Strangers made eye contact with each other, and asked “are you ok?”
I didn’t cry for days. When I was forced to return to my own apartment in Inwood, I felt like I was leaving the city, and walked through a neighborhood where seemingly nothing had happened, nothing had changed. At home watching the news on my crappy T.V., pounding it to get the picture back, my roommate forced me out of the house for air. I walked two blocks to a church, sat down and sobbed. A part of me hoped a priest or someone would hear me and comfort me, and when that didn’t happen, I took it as a further sign that there was no God. That was just an idea we invented to feel better at times like this, and it didn’t work.
Time moved forward and days passed, weeks, months, and life continued to evolve, with or without my consent. I protested the war, I protested against Bush’s re-election. I poured my heart into changing the world, one petition, one forwarded email, one protest at a time. I tried to control my environment. I withdrew from friendships and life. I became a zombie, more or less, walking from home to work, to home, chain smoking, eating and drinking. Any ambition, creative endeavor or passion was gone from my life. I knew vaguely that I suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome, but I sought no help, believing that my experience didn’t warrant help – for I didn’t lose a loved one, and wasn’t a first-responder or a volunteer. I didn’t understand that this feeling was also indicative of PTSD.
Les and I eventually married and began practicing Buddhism, and by building up my inner life, this practice has helped me to build an outer one as well. While in many ways I’m still stuck, I finally have faith again in a power greater than myself. I am building new friendships and repairing old ones. And though I still don’t have an explanation for what I saw, why I had to see it or experience it first hand, I have at least learned the value of human life, mine especially. As I wake up bit by bit, ten years later, I gratefully realize it’s not too late to reconstruct something precious in the empty space 9/11 created.