When I woke on September 11, 2001, I faced what I regarded as the world’s most tedious commute, from my home in Brooklyn Heights to The Journal of Commerce’s Newark, N.J., office — a walk, a subway ride, another walk, a ride on a train across New Jersey’s industry-scarred wetlands, and another much longer walk through litter-scattered urban decay. The magazine had moved to the site only a few months before after 10 years on the 27th floor of 2 World Trade Center.
It was a glorious day, with a cloudless, electric blue sky, and the first scent of fall in the air.
So, as I mounted the steps to street level at the Park Place subway station on my way to the World Trade Center PATH station around 8:45 a.m., late as usual, I allowed myself to give in to childlike delight at the astonishing display of confetti that had mysteriously appeared in the air. Then I emerged into the street and saw, way above me, the angry, smoking face in the side of the World Trade Center Tower One.
The confetti, of course, was paper, blown out into the morning air by an explosion I had just missed. The streets were crowded, but nobody seemed to know what had happened. I heard someone mention a plane, but that seemed implausible. I didn’t know then what we all know now — that the ragged mouth of fire was beginning a long, cruel narrative that would lead to thousands of deaths, the collapse of an entire ZIP code’s worth of buildings, two wars and a global shockwave of paranoia and loathing that would roil the next decade and beyond. As I resumed my walk to the PATH station, the burning was so high up, it didn’t feel as if it had anything to do with those of us on the street. If I move quickly, I thought, I can get through and away.
But as I walked, the scene changed. A dark flood of people emerged from beneath both towers, evacuating in a surprisingly dense and orderly way. Above, the scale of the burning hole was clearer, scary in scope, and I could see huge flames licking its edges. “Look, someone’s waving a white flag. They’re alive!” cried a woman next to me on the street. Then I saw someone jump, tiny as a doll, a thousand feet up, tumbling through the air. And I screamed. Or someone screamed. Or everyone screamed.
I told myself that I should leave, now, or have nightmares about this for years. I turned to head back to the subway and, just at that moment, a colossal explosion roared with an intensity that squeezed my eyeballs and pounded my chest. I saw a fireball coming toward me and — surprising myself — instinctively ran toward it because I could shelter from the ensuing rain of debris in the lee of the buildings on the cross street. I don’t know how close I came to being hit by anything.
Much of what followed is blurred. There was the single enormous explosion, a great bellow of implacable hatred. Nothing else mattered. I think I ran. I know I cried. Somehow, I found myself in Chinatown, joining a long line for a pay phone because I knew my husband would be frantic to know if I was alive. I must have looked traumatized, because a woman in front of me regarded me with shock and immediately campaigned to have me pushed to the front of the line. I called my husband. I tried to tell him what I saw, but couldn’t.
I began the long walk home; in the final few yards to my house, a young, dark-skinned man walking a few paces ahead was accosted by a middle-aged white woman. “It’s YOU people who did this,” she shouted. “You immigrants! Go back to where you came from!” Everything else about that day sounds horrible, and it was, but this was almost too much to bear.
For me, there were sleepless nights and panic attacks for a long time, even as over the years I developed a well-honed narrative about what happened that day. And sometimes, half-asleep, I would find myself walking through the old World Trade Center offices, where I had spent six years working. I still dream I’m in the office at 2 World Trade Center. I had some of my happiest times there, where even only a quarter way up that tower, it felt like I was hanging over the city, watching the weather come in from hundreds of miles away, across New York harbor. In high winds, the building used to creak and sway like a schooner, and the speed of the elevators knocked the breath out of me for the first few weeks. It all seemed precarious and yet, at the same time, thrilling. Now that the memories of that terrible day are jostling for position with all the other important events in my life, what stays in my mind is that flood of people coming out of the towers — orderly, polite, helping one another.
Later, I read about the extraordinary efforts people made to ensure their co-workers got out safe; many of them died in the process. We noted the million little acts of kindness that happened that day because it was an extraordinary day, but I believe they’re going on all the time and we simply don’t feel the need to gather them into a compelling narrative. Truth is, we are answering the hatred that went out on that September morning with our own acts of compassion and humor and tolerance and grace that together are loud enough to drown it out.
Helen Atkinson is a New York-based public relations consultant, writer and former reporter at The Journal of Commerce. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.