I try to avoid images of 9/11. Whenever I come across pictures of the smoky downtown streets, breathless firefighters gulping down water before continuing their recovery efforts, or the towers themselves still standing, I feel an unrelenting grip on my stomach. So it is with apprehension that I approach the tenth anniversary, a story that the media is beginning to feature.
I am lucky I didn’t lose anyone personally. I can’t imagine the suffering family and friends have had to endure. Still, I experienced a different type of loss. The collapse of the World Trade Center was undoubtedly tough for any American to witness, but New York City is my hometown —as much a part of me as any limb on my body. Like Broadway, good pizza, and Central Park, the Twin Towers were one of the so many things that make New York what it is — a city unlike any other I’ve ever visited. Growing up, whenever I flew into one of the area’s airports, or returned back to Manhattan by car, I’d keep an eye out for the tall silver buildings. When the first one fell, the downtown skyline that I knew like the lines on my palm was no more. I wondered how I would mark my return home in the future.
In 2001, I had just moved back to New York after college and was spending my summer working as a preschool teacher. I knew it was an interim job because a friend and I had a made a Stoli-Raspberry-induced promise to move back to London, the city where we first became friends during our junior year. The plan was already in motion: on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, my phone rang for an interview with a small British non-profit.
About twenty minutes in, the shrill of sirens began. But such noises are commonplace in New York so I didn’t think much of the loud wailing. It seemed like just another morning.
When the interview concluded, I joined my mother in our living room. Horns blared down West End Avenue so I looked out the window. A procession of ambulances, police cars, and fire engines — red and blue stripes that moved so fast each emergency vehicle blurred into the next — thundered down the normally subdued street. It was like nothing I’d seen before.
Then the phone rang. My mom picked it up and put it down just as quick.
“Turn on the TV,” she said seriously. And I did.
There, before our eyes, stood tower one with a gaping hole like a smoking mouth. My mom and I said little, our brains weighing whether this was an accident or not. We needn’t wonder long. Something moved in the corner of the screen. Before I could ask out loud what it was we had our answer. The city I had lived in all of my life was under attack.
I don’t have a continuous memory of the next few hours. Moments that I do remember: My mom, her eyes glued to the TV, telling me to stay home even though I worked only seven blocks away; sitting in a multi-stalled toddler bathroom secretly listening to the radio while my three-year-old charges napped; washing their cots alone after nap time, grateful I could stop pretending it was just another day for the kids’ sake; watching ash-covered men and women in business suits walk by the first floor windows my classroom looked out on to.
Later in the day, after the rumors of car bombs and as many as a dozen more missing flights were found to be false, I took my four remaining students to a playground across the street. While they hung on monkey bars and ran around until they got dizzy, I looked at the sky, now empty except for the tall plume of smoke that lifted off the bottom of Manhattan. I remember thinking that outside of what was going on downtown the day was as perfect as they get in New York — with the late summer temperatures I wished for during the steamy months of July and August. But I knew that day would be unforgettable in the worst way possible. I wouldn’t be the same and neither would my city.
By nightfall New York was still, anxious, and waiting for news on friends, family, the future. On my way home, I longed to feel a warm dusty breeze shoot through subway grates by a passing train. I heard only the clip-clops of the soles of the shoes of my compatriots. Everyone was walking — to their own apartments or those of coworkers and old friends. There was no getting out of Manhattan; and I wonder how many would have left if they could. New Yorkers are the most loyal residents I know.
For weeks after the city’s pulse was faint. Around Columbus Circle, just 15 blocks from my mom’s apartment, one of many of the tributes to the missing sprung up. There was hope at first, but as the candles faded so did the feeling that the thousands of faces I passed on the way to work in the morning were alive. The hum of airplanes descending towards JFK was replaced by the bone-rattling roar of military fighter jets patrolling the sky. Even into October my mom and I passed families in dark clothing heading out to a victim’s funeral, streaming out of our building single file like the fire engines that had raced downtown. For quite some time, when the wind blew north my neighborhood smelled like an electrical fire. We didn’t ask where it was coming from. We knew.
Five weeks after the attacks I moved to London to start the very job I’d been interviewed for that day. I briefly considered declining the offer but decided that fear would not prevent me from changing my plans. Yet I couldn’t sidestep fear altogether. Even now I am the first one out when an alarm sounds in my office building. Recently, when the Blue Angels flew over my apartment, I had to talk myself out of renting a car and fleeing Seattle, the city where I live now. I don’t think about that day often but in an instant — through conversation or after a whiff of burnt rubber and burning gasoline — I live it again.
Many I know who witnessed 9/11 have their own rituals to mark each passing year. One friend walks the Brooklyn Bridge with her aunt, another grabs a sandwich at her corner deli and eats it on the stoop of her old building even though she’s since moved neighborhoods. I watch the names and ages of the victims tick across the bottom of my TV screen for as long as I can until the small moments of my own life — breakfast, work, meetings — force me to turn it off.