The following is an essay that I wrote for an Autobiography course that I took in the Spring of 2002. It shows the level of shock and disbelief that I felt as the events unfolded on that day. This essay is dedicated to those who died, those who survived, the first responders, and our military.
I know the cliché is that it started out as an ordinary day. Actually, it was an extraordinary day, thanks to Mother Nature, who blessed us with crisp clear blue skies, a light breeze, and temperatures in the 80s. It was hard for New Yorkers to have an attitude with that kind of weather, and the kids had a great start to the school year. My house was also abuzz. Mom was planning to come that Saturday for a month-long stay, her first time back in her hometown since she relocated to Tacoma, Washington seven years ago.
The plan was for me to take the 7:45 train and ride in the back with my 15-year-old son Magezi, so that I could stop by the Farmer’s Market at the World Trade Center before I went to work. But it took a little longer for me to get ready, so I got out of the house in time for the 8:05 out of the Beach 25 Street Station. As the A train made its way through the wildlife preserve between Broad Channel and Howard Beach, I paused to watch the ducks, geese and other birds bask in the sun by Jamaica Bay. “Lord, I couldn’t ask for a better day if I made it myself,” I said.
The train still remained in the platform with its doors open when I stepped off at the Chambers Street station an hour later. I did not hear the conductor announce the usual warning to watch the closing door, nor did I hear the train rumble on to its next station stop. The conductor announced instead that “service is suspended” as I walked up the stairs. What now? I thought. A power failure? A water main break? I was glad that I had made it to my station. I heard the din of people milling around the token booth before I actually saw them, and I thought that it was strange to hear so much noise for what was just a routine transit failure. But then I noticed that these folks did not behave like inconvenienced transit riders; they weren’t standing in line for the public phone or badgering the token clerk. They just stood there.
One woman at the northwest exit was screaming and hollering louder than the rest. At first, the people who came through the turnstiles acted as if she was just another crazy person. But as I went through the turnstile myself, I saw that this tall, slim black woman in a short ‘fro seasoned with just a bit of salt was dressed just like any other office worker. She was crying, hollering and begging us, “PLEASE, DON’T GO UPSTAIRS!! A plane flew into the World Trade Center,” she said between sobs. “People are jumping from the building–”
We all looked at each other in disbelief.
“I saw two ladies hold hands and jump out the building–PLEASE! I’m begging you, PLEASE! DON’T GO UPSTAIRS!”
The same thought must have run through everyone’s mind. We can’t go back downstairs–but now we can’t go outside?! We’re sitting ducks! Some people went to the token clerk, a young African American woman with long straight hair. She’d overheard the woman, and picked up the phone midstream.
“I’m trying to get some information,” she said into her mike.
People turned away from the booth, still wondering what to do. I wondered how I was going to get to my office just a few blocks away and report to my directors. I’ve got to try and get upstairs; they know that I’m right under the World Trade Center on the train.
A tall black male transit worker wearing an orange safety vest strode through the turnstile. Immediately the crowd besieged him.
“Something has happened at the World Trade Center,” he said as he put his hands up. “We still don’t know what. We’re trying to get more information.”
A young woman stood crying over by the northeast exit. “My baby’s upstairs–my baby’s upstairs!”
I went over to her and asked, “Where’s your baby?”
“Over on Worth Street. I just dropped her off. I’ve got to get my baby!”
I knew exactly where the baby was, over at the daycare on the corner of Worth and Church Streets. “Look,” I advised, “why don’t we do this–let’s creep upstairs, pop our heads up–and if it don’t look too hellish, you go and get your baby–and I’ll go report to my office.”
The subway exit put us on the corner of Church and Chambers Streets. The World Trade Center was five blocks south. Once we got upstairs, I made myself turn around and look up at the buildings. Each tower stood with a gaping black maw, bits of flame barely licking around the edges. Papers flickered down like confetti. I choked up inside. People stood with one hand on their mouth, the other pointing toward the towers. I thought about people that I knew who worked at the World Trade Center, like Robert Ferris, our training colleague, and Robin, Annette’s husband, who worked for a federal agency. I thought about all of the people who once sat where those holes were.
I walked east down Reade Street with my cellphone in hand, frustrated that the signal wouldn’t come, and when it did, I couldn’t get a call through. I walked past the discount variety store Dee and Dee, the Langdon Flower Shop and Starbucks on the corner of Reade Street and Broadway. A steady stream of people headed north on Broadway looking straight ahead, walking hard and fast.
I work for a City agency that does the centralized payroll functions. My job is to train the human resources staff at the various City agencies in how to use the city’s payroll systems to pay their employees. My office is on the corner of Lafayette and Reade. It is an old building that is run by the City for the use of its agencies. Diagonally across the street is the Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street, with Police Plaza on the north side and the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge on the south side. One half of the agency works on the north side of the Muni Building while the other half works in my building on Lafayette Street. My first stop when I got to the office was at the 15th floor where my directors, Minnie and Annette, have their office at the very end of a long hall.
Mario and Wannetta burst out of the door, right as I turned the corner to walk down the hall.
“Leave!” Mario ordered. “It’s a terrorist attack!”
How does he know it’s the work of terrorists? I thought. I asked him where everybody was, where Minnie and Annette were.
“No one’s there,” he said without stopping. “Leave!”
I went inside anyway and, like Mario had said, the place was a ghost town. I went back down the hall to the stairs and walked to the 12th floor where my office was located. One of my trainers, Essie, was still sitting at her cubicle. She told me that a plane had hit the north tower around a quarter to nine, and they thought that it was some kind of strange accident. But then a group of staff members stood at her window and watched the second plane fly in. I told her what I saw on the street. No one had heard from Administration in the Municipal Building about what to do.
“I don’t think we should stick around,” I said. “But let me make a couple of calls while I got the phone, because the cell is out.”
I called the secretary at Transit Tech High School to confirm that Magezi had reached the school safely and to send him word that his mom was all right. I then called my 16-year-old son Kintu, who was home on break from Katharine Gibbs School. He had the television tuned to the news and gave me the latest updates. I told him that I was going to try and make my way north and get out of Manhattan.
We also discussed what to do in case Magezi got stuck at his school, which is located in the East New York section of Brooklyn. I was confident that he would make it home just fine, so long as the subway trains continued run in the outer boroughs. He could even take three buses home in a pinch. If for some reason there was no public transportation, I knew that he had a calling card, and we would hear from him. And if we couldn’t go to pick him up at the school, he could probably make his way back home with some of the other students who lived in the Rockaways. Kintu and I both felt that I would have the harder time of it, because Manhattan Island was already on lockdown.
“What about the dentist?” he asked, since he had a scheduled appointment.
“Play it by ear,” I said. “Try your best to make it over there. There shouldn’t be a problem with the bus. But it’s up to you, ’cause you know that everyone and their grandma’s gonna call once the word gets out. If you want, call the dentist and tell her your mom’s in Lower Manhattan and you’ve gotta hold it down.”
Somewhere in the conversation I began to cry. I could feel Kintu’s discomfort over the phone. We had been through hard times and sad times, but he has always known that somehow, his mother can find the blessing, that there wasn’t too much that could keep her down.
“C’mon Ma,” Kintu said. “Now you’re supposed to be the strong one.” He recalled that the last time he had known me to cry was when he had barely missed getting hit by a car, by some mere seconds.
“If you would’ve seen what I saw when I got out the subway, those two holes in the building–” I paused to wipe my eyes. “It’s bad, son…It’s very bad.”
Essie made arrangements for her six-year-old daughter Ashley to get picked up, and once we got off the phone, we went to check on the agency staff in the neighboring units. She said that her friend Elaine, who worked down the hall in CityTime, was still unaccounted for. Elaine’s co-workers were preparing to leave their office. Simon, Eileen, and her friend Mary Ellen, who had come to visit, were the only ones next door in Reconciliation. Eileen and Mary Ellen agreed to leave with us, but Simon had heard from Administration, who said that it was business as usual. He wanted to stay until 12 noon and then see what would happen.
My first impulse was to smack him silly while I cussed some sense into him, but then I thought better of it and said, “Well y’know, you can do whatever you want—but we’re gettin’ outta here!” And I don’t give two M-Fs what Administration says!
As I went to make a final check of the office on the 15th floor, Elaine stepped off the elevator. Thank God! I left her and Essie by the elevator to wait for me, but when I didn’t arrive back in time, the two of them left. Eileen and Mary Ellen were still in their office, trying to talk Simon into leaving. Within moments, his decision was made for him. A police bullhorn sounded from the street, “EVACUATE! EVACUATE!” The South Tower was about to collapse. It was just after ten in the morning.
We left our office and entered the stairwell that was now crowded with workers coming from the upper floors of the building. The solid enclosed stairwell shielded us from the sights and sounds outside. We all behaved like it was a fire drill, except for the anxious looks on people’s faces as we got closer to the ground floor. When we finally got to the lobby the dust from the collapse of the tower was gone; the sun was shining bright, the sky was crystal clear, and the streets were teeming with people who walked as fast as their feet could move them.
“Go north!” A middle-aged police officer with a long row of bars on his badge pointed for us to walk uptown. The crowds of people were steered toward Lafayette Street and away from Centre Street, another hotspot area because of the courthouses that line the street. There was no vehicular traffic at all, except for emergency vehicles. A young slim Chinese woman with a large shoulder bag and a tall pair of flip flop shoes huffed past us; everyone walked fast and hard, looking straight ahead with serious looks on their faces. Occasionally a sniffle could be heard, or someone talking on a Nextel phone to a loved one.
Eileen, Mary Ellen and I headed up Lafayette Street and later crossed over to Broadway. My right ankle was not quite healed from an aggravated ligament injury and it was really starting to hurt. Still, I kept hoofing it. Most of the people who walked with us also came from the area offices. The one exception was a tall heavyset Caucasian man with a camera in hand that was covered from head to toe in a pale orange dust. I later recognized him on TV as the photographer for the New York Post.
We walked out of Lower Manhattan and the neighborhoods of TriBeCa, SoHo and Greenwich Village, on our way towards Midtown. Every now and then we looked in the distance; the South Tower looked like a tall chimney with black smoke billowing out of the side. As we approached 23rd Street and Broadway, we heard people scream behind us and start to run in panic. We turned around and the lone smoking tower had vanished, just like it was never there to begin with. Only the bright sky remained.
“That’s it, it’s history,” I said. “Ground Zero.” It was almost 10:30.
Somehow I got a call through to Kintu. He told me that a plane had hit the Pentagon.
“Ain’t no plane hit the Pentagon,” I snapped. “The plane hit the World Trade Center!”
The three of us continued to walk until we got to West 34th Street, unsure of whether we should continue walking or to stop. We were near Penn Station and we all had to get to Queens, and wondered if we should try and wait for the Long Island Rail Road or walk over to the East Side, hike over on the 59th Street Bridge, and catch a subway train at Queens Plaza. While we thought about it, I suggested that we go find some lunch, since we needed to keep our strength.
We walked up to Tenth Avenue and spotted a gas station with a convenience store near 34th Street. It was located near an overpass that went over the huge railyard from the Long Island Railroad and the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The area had the gritty gas smell from the cars and the surrounding industry. In addition to the gas station, the avenue was lined with old tenement buildings, some with storefronts for fancy nouveau restaurants and some with storefronts of old shops and bodegas.
The gas station had a ToGo sandwich shop in addition to a grocery store. We perked up our ears as WCBS radio announced the traffic situation. The LIRR and New Jersey Transit trains were coming back up and we decided to wait for the train. The transit report also stated that subway service in the outer boroughs was still running. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that Magezi would be able to get home from school. We walked along the aisles stocked with cans and bags of chips and snacks with relative ease, but once we went to the sandwich counter to order our food, people began to arrive in ones and twos until the place began to fill up. A man came in with a briefcase in one hand and a cellphone in the other; I heard his wife screaming over the phone.
“Calm down now, calm down,” he kept telling her. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
We went over to Penn Station and ate our food in the plaza over by Kmart. I still marveled at the beautiful, crystal-clear weather that we were not able to enjoy at all. Nevertheless we were still blessed because we were able to stand out in the street and not worry about the elements. All over Seventh Avenue, near Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square, the hotels across the street from Penn Station and the entrance to Madison Square Garden, people stood and sat in stunned silence. Any talking was done in hushed, muted tones, as if inside of a house of worship. The jumbo screen over the escalator down into Penn Station in front of the Garden still flashed advertisements for the upcoming concerts and sports events. And the jumbo screen in front of Macy’s also flashed its advertisement. But the revolving door to the store was at a standstill.
As we ate in the plaza, I was able to get a call through to Nan, our retired director. Everyone had called her to account for themselves, and I was one of the last to check in. Later on I marveled that I walked past her five-floor walkup on 23rd and Lex, as well as Minnie’s apartment towers on the Lower East Side, and not once thought about knocking on their doors. My only thought was that the sun was not going to set with my sitting on Manhattan Island; I was going to leave come hell or high water.
Eileen, Mary Ellen and I finally got on the LIRR out to Jamaica Station around 2:30 in the afternoon. The Far Rockaway train had just pulled out, so I went to Parsons and Hillside to catch a Jamaica Bus back home. I got on the Q113 right when school had let out. A group of kids from Hillcrest High were carrying on a serious discussion about ‘he-said, she-said.’ Not one word was uttered about the World Trade Center.
It was almost five o’clock when I finally turned the key to my humble abode. I was so glad to see my boys. Kintu’s linebacker frame was at his usual post, hunched over the computer in the living room as he surfed the Internet; Magezi’s long legs and arms were sprawled out on his bed as he leafed through a magazine. The first thing out of my mouth was to ask them why some empty recycling bottles were on the kitchen counter–again!
“Welcome home, Ma,” I announced. “We’re glad you got home okay, we’re glad you got back in one piece!”
Kintu said that everyone who had called to ask if I was all right told him the same thing: “When your mom comes home, give her a hug.” Well, so much for that hug. I went over and wrapped my arms around Kintu’s broad shoulders; later I grabbed one of Magezi’s long arms as he came out of the kitchen, and planted a nice smacker on his face as he tried to run away.
I spent most of the night camped in front of the TV, watching the pictures of the planes fly into the Twin Towers repeat over and over. In my feeling of helplessness, I took out my bead box and began to work on a bracelet for Essie, who was due to leave the agency for a job at the Transit Authority. At one point, Magezi camped down with me. I asked him how he had learned about the attack, since his school did not have a view to the skyline.
“They came and told us,” he said in his soft bass voice.
“I got the note during second period.”
That comment got me to thinking. “So, when did you find out what happened?”
“Oh, really?!” I wheeled around. “So–you’re sitting there with this note saying, ‘Mom’s fine,’ and you’re like, oh-kaayyy–”
“Yea. Then I got to third period.”
“And it made sense.”
My phone rang off the hook with friends and relatives, and I got to hear how some of the others got out. Annette told me that her husband Robin was in D.C. when it happened, but now had to rent a car and drive back to the New York. Sharon, my other trainer, has 8-year-old twin boys that attend one of the elementary schools in the shadow of the World Trade Center. They were shepherded out to safety, but didn’t get home until after 10, covered in dust, and talking about what happened. My sister walked over the 59th Street Bridge to pick up her fourth child, Ilyaas, and his friend from Thomas Edison High School in Queens, then went home to the Bronx after escorting his friend over the bridge to Washington Heights. Ilyaas saw the whole thing from his classroom. Darlene was on the express bus, stuck on the Gowanus, and saw the second plane fly in.
Essie also told me what happened to her and Elaine when they left. They stood in the building lobby to try and wait for me, but at some point, the police came and ordered everyone out of the lobby. They stood outside of the building on the street corner near the entrance to the Municipal Credit Union, and when the North Tower collapsed, they rushed inside to escape the approaching cloud.
“It was chaos,” she said. “People just bum-rushed the door.” They were among the last people to make their way across the Brooklyn Bridge, under a haze of acrid smoke and dust.
Minnie and Annette oversee OPA’s User Services, our helpdesk for the human resources staff at the various City agencies that use the payroll system. They planned to go to work the next day to provide user support to the agencies displaced by the closing of Lower Manhattan. Other staff members responsible for distributing the city payroll were also going in, since Friday, September 14 was a payday. They were all going to meet at the security checkpoint at 14th Street, and then walk downtown to the Municipal Building location. I wanted to go and help out, but Annette was worried about my ankle.
“Stay home,” she said, “come in with the rest of the staff on Monday.”
My mother still wanted to come to New York so that she could hear and see firsthand what was happening; my sister and I felt otherwise.
“Why don’t you wait for Thanksgiving,” I advised. “Then things will be better around here.”