Following is my personal account of the disaster in NYC in the month of September, 2001
- Elaine Walker.
It was the morning of Sept 11, 2001. After a night of insomnia, waking up numerous times throughout the night, I was struggling to fall back to sleep at 8:30am. Finally drifting off...I was then annoyed by the sound of sirens. They were driving up our street, 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with their sirens blaring and holding down their horns. Were they police cars? Ambulances? Ughh, make it stop. And why is the phone ringing off the hook? They could at least have enough decency to leave a message. (We must have been the last holdouts of the old home phone with the audible messages). I told myself they must be solicitors.
And then there was that message from Rebecca Marco, which seemed so obnoxious. "Liz, are you there? I just want to make sure you're not ... DEAD." It sounded ironic at the time, as if she was annoyed that Liz hadn't called her since she was here visiting a while back. But why does she call so early in the morning? And now why is the phone ringing AGAIN? Leave us alone! I put my pillow over my head, feeling lazy for not getting up, but I was exhausted and delirious from insomnia.
Our roommate Stephen who was working in Manhattan had called and woke Liz with the horrific news. She came into my room a slightly animated version of herself, making large gestures with her arms and giant pianist hands, but with her normal deadpan look. It was a shocked and extra-pale version of Liz, looking back at that moment, although I didn't quite grasp it at the time. She said in a loud but unpanicked voice, "WAKE UP. The World Trade Center just got attacked by planes, and the Pentagon got attacked by a plane. We're under attack. There is no more World Trade Center because it got blown up. The State Department got hit..."
"WHAT? Haha. very funny. No really, WHAT? You're joking." Liz said, "Get up and look out the window." I don't think I heard that part at first though. I thought she was doing a "War of the Worlds" gag on me. I stumbled out of bed and asked Liz to please repeat herself. I just didn't get the full string of words the first time. She repeated herself, and then it dawned on me. That would explain all the sirens, horns and phone calls. They were holding down their horns all the way down 4th Avenue to wake up the neighborhood!
I looked out the window and saw a giant black plume of smoke going straight up in the direction of the towers. Hundreds of people in suits, covering their mouths, were running out of the 4th Avenue train station with their briefcases. Trucks and flatbeds with people piled in were headed down 4th Avenue away from Manhattan. Most of them were also in suits, and all were covering their mouths with t-shirts or handkerchiefs. The strangest part is that it appeared to be snowing. We turned on the TV. Sure enough..
This is was how our very surreal day started. People continued pouring out of the subway directly across the street, all covering their mouths. I realized later that they were the lucky ones who got out of the city in a timely manner. A lot of people, including my friend, Olivia, and our roommate, Stephen, would be stuck in Manhattan for the whole day.
That chill set in (that wouldn't leave my bones for several months). TERRORISTS? WHO WAS ATTACKING US? HOLY MOLY, THE PENTAGON?! It hadn't sunk in that the World Trade Centers were gone. That just made no sense. They were gigantic.
One of us grabbed the phone and tried to call from the landline, and then from our cell phones. Nothing. It would ring, then change into a fast busy signal, then noise, but it would never connect. This was a haunting, sick feeling. Did they take out our phones on purpose or were they just being overly used? It turns out that the lines were just busy, and Sprint had many landlines taken out that were under the WTC. On the news they were asking people to not use their phones unless it was an urgent emergency. But I must say, that brief moment - that helpless feeling of not even having phone service - was overwhelming, especially so soon after waking up. All kinds of horrific thoughts raced through my head. Was this just the beginning? Was that lock still on the basement door? We had better buy a lock cutter and masks. The confusion was amplified by the lack of sleep the night before and we quickly brewed up a big pot of coffee.
As we stepped out of our apartment into the indoor stairwell we already felt the sting of the air in our throats, as if the building was on fire. We would have to cover our mouths just like everyone else. We went up onto the roof. An unimaginably large cloud of black smoke seemed to span all of Manhattan. And it rose above our heads and continued far behind us. If we didn't know better, we may have thought the entire city was on fire. We spent a while up there.
I think that is when I bought the disposable camera from the store downstairs and took some shots. I shot the smoke stream up and over my head and behind me, to capture whole scene from our point of view. Looking at the pictures now, it looks like fluffy white clouds. But in real life if was horrific. It looked as if the plume of smoke headed straight in our direction, but we thought surely that was an illusion. It wasn't. When we viewed satellite photos later we saw that it really did head straight for us from the WTC just 2.5 miles away.
While I was buying the camera I noticed many people struggling with their cell phones outside. Some of them said that they could get through one out of a hundred times. Several people waited in line in the small family owned store. They were all staring into space. I finally just said one word, like "Damn" and they all looked at me and nodded. I would have expected them to shake their heads, but they nodded, with their eyes wide open. We are all in shock. I asked the store owner if he was okay. "Mr. Choi? Mr. Choi? Are you okay?" He looked extremely preoccupied as he counted the money. "Oh, yes. I mean no, my daughter is in the city and we can't get hold of her. She is uptown though."
I brought up the idea of some of us getting into my car and driving as far away as we could, but going to Boston or Virginia didn't seem any safer. Soon, we would probably be in the safest place in the world, with the military moving in and police everywhere. We also pictured ourselves being stuck on the highway, helpless, like in so many disaster movies. A least the basement was open. It turned out we weren't the first to think of cutting the lock.
We went to breakfast up the slope and were joined by Mike and Charles and his roommate Margie from our neighborhood. Charles' girlfriend Olivia was stuck at work in Midtown Manhattan. They were in touch through the internet. Some of us had chatted online on the sixgirls.org server, the regular meeting place of the NYC-Geeks. Olivia had told Charles to close his windows because of the intense smoke that was headed our way. The air in our apartment hadn't been noticeably smoky since I had set the fans to exhaust outward to keep the rain from coming in the night before. The diner we went to, Katinas on 7th Ave/12th street was pretty full and we were lucky to get a table. There were groups of kids eating there that must have been sent home from their grade school. Katinas has a TV and it was turned up loudly. Everyone there was watching it. At some point they replayed the President's speech from the morning. He looked very pale and shaken and his voice was quivering. That did not did not give us a feeling of confidence.
We went back home and spent a lot of time alternating between watching the television, and going up to the roof to see the smoke shifting and trying to get a glimpse of whatever would be left of the towers. I couldn't believe that they would just be gone completely. Our friends went to Smokey's Bar across the street to get a beer. Smokey's is owned by a local Brooklyn fireman, and many firemen hang out at Smokey's regularly. At this point we had no idea if Jeff, the bar owner, and Joe, Liz's recent-x-boyfriend who was a fireman, were okay. At the very least, we were sure they were having some intense experiences. Liz wanted to avoid Smokey's and the chance to find out that our fireman friends have died. (We later found out they were fine, but tragically, Joe lost 30 of his firehouse mates. He had gotten relieved just minutes before the disaster, due to his injured back.)
Liz and I stayed home, taking turns writing email to let our family and friends know we were okay. We checked the basement lock again to make sure we could get in. Since we were still so confused and petrified about the situation we just wanted to make sure we had a place to go if something even more devastating were to happen. Liz said she was stocked up on food just in case. I can't believe we actually thought we may need to retreat to the basement.
The day was a blur but at some point our roommate Stephen came home looking dazed and completely devastated. His eyes were glazed over as he told us about his day. He had seen some of the destruction from outdoors as was traveling from the subway to his to work. He stayed there for a while watching the news and sending email, and then just walked downtown as far as he could go. He wanted to do something to help, and he tried to give blood. He was turned down since the blood banks were currently full and he was asked to put his name on a list. This really upset him, as he had just wanted to feel like he was helping.
Eventually we ended up at our other local hangout, Harry Bollens bar. Liz, Stephen and I were joined by our friends, Mike and Mojo. The mood in the bar was very strange. Although it was solemn, people were trying to find reasons to laugh, to break the monotony and keep from going crazy. It seems like everyone there was getting drunk. What else were we going to do? We had gotten tired of typing on the computer and watching the news, and we had no telephone access. I'm sure most of the other people were feeing the same way. In the bar they eventually turned the TV down so it was just music, and it was easier to deal with that way.
Liz and I tried to comfort Stephen as he expressed his disappointment about not being able to help. I think what the officials want is for people to clear the city and stay out of the way. Volunteers had already come out in hoards to donate food and clothes and money. The blood banks are full. New Yorkers have come together. Billy Idol came on the jukebox, and for once in my life I didn't raise my fist and crimp my lip and sing along. It was too important for Liz and I to give Stephen a ZIA hug. I eventually sat down again at a little round table with Mike and Mojo when a fight was about to break out in he bar. A man from the Army and another from the Air Force were arguing over who was "really" at the Gulf War. The Army man thought that being "in the sky" did not count as much as being on the ground. The two large men moved towards each other through the people. They had been yelling across the bar.
I got up and made my way through. Mike tried to stand in front of me, but I knew that all the Army man need was a small female voice to whisper "Thousands of people died today. NYC blew up. And you're going to fight this guy now?" His face melted and he put his head down. He then stuck out his arm in front of him, a gestures to show that he wanted to shake the other man's hand. Other's didn't realize this, and thought he wanted to go outside and opened the door for him. He forced his way towards the other man and they shook hands. Then they started hugging each other! I clapped.. clapped...and then the entire bar erupted with applause. This is a scene out of a bad cheesy movie. Somehow it was entirely appropriate for this day. Shortly thereafter "We are the Champions" came over the jukebox and people's fists went into the air! This called for another drink... and another...
We came home very late, and our friend Mike was going to stay with us. The subways were open, but much too frightening to take into the city. I myself could not bear to lie down or go to sleep. I went up to the roof just one more time, just by myself. The sky straight overhead was so clear it was unbelievable. The wind must have shifted! The crescent moon was beautiful and the stars were shining brightly. Military planes were like moving stars going overhead. I was very restless and wide-awake, and probably still slightly in shock. I'm not sure what came over me then, but I went downstairs and grabbed Liz out of bed and said, "Come quick! It might not be there when you come up. Hurry!" She sleepily came up the stairs and I pointed at the Moon and said, "Look! It's still there! And there's Mars!" "Yes, Elaine, the Moon is still there. That's Mars? I can see it!" It was so sweet of Liz to go along with me. I saw a shooting star up above. Shooting stars look different than military plane lights. Shooting stars are meteorites that streak across a small part of the sky and fade out as they streak. They appear to go faster across the sky than the military planes. "Look Liz, did you see that? A shooting star!" Liz didn't see the shooting star, but I sure did, and I made a wish.
Liz went downstairs, and a few minutes later I did the same cruel trick to Mike, pulling him out of his almost-slumber. "Hurry, Mike, it might not be there anymore!" ... "Look! It's still there!" ... "Yes, Elaine, the Moon is still there. I'm going back to sleep." He still doesn't believe that I saw a shooting star when I was up there with Liz. He thinks I just saw a plane. The fact is, we saw a lot of planes, and I later stayed up on the rooftop to count the planes. But I also saw one shooting star. They aren't that rare. I've seen countless numbers of shooting stars in my lifetime. All anyone has to do is to gaze up at the sky every now and then, and they will streak by.
Mike went back downstairs and I stayed up on the roof to count the military planes. I was quickly preoccupied by the "suspicious looking characters" who were going in and out of the subway station. A lone man in black with a briefcase came from a side street, looking all around, and hurried into the station. There didn't seem to be anyone around except a policeman who was on the other side of the station. I thought maybe he wasn't guarding the station properly. I went downstairs and across the street. I saw another man jogging with a baby carriage and crossing the street with it, carelessly, and into the station. I went into the station behind him. That didn't look like a baby...just blankets. The man went through the turnstile. I asked the policeman who was now in doors, "You don't think it looks suspicious to bring that baby carriage into the subway at this hour? I don't think that was a baby." The policeman looked at me like I had two heads. "That man is on his way to work. It's 6am." 6 o'clock in the morning? Goodness, I've been up all night and I'm becoming irrational. I was just going to innocently count airplanes to pass the time while I had insomnia, and here I am at he subway station across the street, questioning this policeman about security. At that point, I was embarrassed and went back across the street and went to bed. I really was just feeling an awful paranoia about anthrax or other biological weapons that could be released in the subway. Mike had said that there was once a test, with some sort of marker chemical, and the chemical that was released had spread throughout the entire NYC subway system within a couple of hours. How could these people be brave enough to take the train?
Well, apparently millions of people are; the ones who are able to go back to work in the city, and most are taking the trains. Besides, the bridges seem pretty scary too, especially after finding out that the George Washington bridge may have been targeted to be blown up. Wednesday was supposed to be the first day of lab time for my lab monitors at NYU. Although I'm done with my masters, I'm just working there a bit longer to finish scheduling the monitor shifts and training the new Chief Lab Monitor for the Music Tech Department. Of course all schools are closed today, and maybe for the rest of the week.
Wednesday was a blur. It's hard to remember, except that we spent most of the day alternating between watching the news, and running onto the roof every time we heard that another building had collapsed. The phones still didn't work, except I did manage again to leave a message for my brother in Phoenix. He had left a message for me too. I took a nap on my bed loft for a while, but didn't actually sleep. I felt two low rumbles, and knew it wasn't the subway that runs underground near us. It was building number five collapsing. Upstairs once again, it just looked like a new puff of smoke. Of course, these were nowhere near as big and black as the original "cloud of death". We went to Harry's again tonight, and the feeling there was different this time. There wasn't the immediate crazed feeling there was on the 11th. Tonight we were more calm and somber. We went over to Smokey's Bar after one beer and found out that our immediate firemen friends were okay. Of course many of their co-workers were not.
Thursday we all heard from our fellow NYC-geek, John, who is organizing a trek into the city to bring internet access to the displaced folks at Chelsea Pier. For most of the day Liz and I had anxiety over what would be he least risky way to travel - through the subway, or by car. Most of the bridges were still closed, but we could take the 59th street Queensboro Bridge. John and Mike came by, but Liz decided to stay behind because she finally had her dad on the phone. We would call her from the city if we had success and then she could join us. I brought my two laptops and some extension cables and power strips. It was quite treacherous, even just getting to the bridge. By the time we got to the bridge, I had already forgotten my fears. We were over the bridge before I even remembered I was supposed to be scared.
It was almost a mistake driving into the city. The traffic was extremely congested; way more than normal. Police were at every other intersection guiding traffic. There were New Jersey police to help with the overflow and we saw other branches of the military guiding traffic as well. They would tell us to go, then suddenly change their mind as sirens blared again and a few more emergency vehicles would zoom by. The air was so smelly and stinging our throats so we turned on the air conditioner and rolled up the windows. At least once every minute I had to dodge emergency and military vehicles. At one point I accidentally cut off a HumV. "Woops, sorry!" And then two civilian soldiers were in a Lexus. "Nice car!" We must have seen hundreds upon hundreds of emergency vehicles as we made our way from 59th to 14th.
John needed to get to 11th Street, but 14th is the limit. I parked on 14th and waited for Mike and John to get computer equipment from 11th Street. The air was bad but tolerable. I tried making calls from my cell phone as I waited, but only managed to get through to two people in Phoenix. Other calls wouldn't go through. I finally got that crazy "Welcome to Verizon" message that I had heard about. I use Sprint. They had made a made a deal on Tuesday, so Verizon could take overflow calls.
By the time we had everything together and drove to Chelsea Pier, it was around 9pm. They turned us down flat. Even if they were allowed to let us in, they would have had to claim ownership of our computer gear. The man, who claimed to be in charge of the Red Cross communications stuff, said something about not letting internet communications come and go from that building for security reasons. I didn't understand that. We thought of going to Alt.coffee and setting up additional computers. John takes care of the computer network there and they are letting people use the computers for free during this crisis. There was no hope of parking anywhere and we were stuck on 14th street for a very long time. We finally gave up since it was getting so late and we were tired of breathing fumes. The drive home was treacherous as well, and we felt bad that we failed miserably on our mission. It was really just a bad idea to drive in the city at all during that time.
Friday I woke up at 3:30pm. It was the day of doing laundry. That's about all I did; laundry and some email. Not very eventful. A day of nothingness. That's really just all I knew how to do that day.
Saturday morning the phone was ringing and ringing. Several people wanted to know if our space meeting was still on. No, it wasn't. The voices on the other end of the phone seemed disappointed in me for canceling it. Well, NYU was closed most of the week and how could I possibly bother the room booking lady the day before the meeting to give us a room? She's not even supposed to give us rooms. I had postponed the meeting until September 29th since we're playing a ZIA show in Boston next Saturday. I suppose I could have found a restaurant to hold the meeting in...or something. But the fact is, I'm just tired. I have little energy to do anything, and the phone doesn't even call the 212 area code, so that makes it hard to call the city, and the cell phone barely works. Ugh. I was hoping they weren't too disappointed in me. They saw me as their great space leader and I was not good for anything.
I finally managed to get through to my friend James when my parents called from London on the other line. I almost didn't answer it because I had put James on hold a couple of times already, but I did at the last second, and was so thrilled to hear my mom and dad's voice. They're flying to Atlanta tomorrow, spending the night there and then flying to El Paso the next day. It's unsettling to picture them on a plane!
Liz had printed out a "shopping list" of items that she found on the internet that the city still needed, like medical supplies, toothpaste, etc. We got what we could from Rite Aid and went into the city to the Salvation Army. They turned us down because they had no more storage space, and sent us to Union Square who also turned us down. At Union Square there were more candles and people than anyone would believe. The posters of the "missing" are everywhere you go. Liz and I went to the nearest firehouse who took our bags of supplies with open arms. They offered us cupcakes that kids had made them and said they were "up to here in cupcakes" and they were going to have to throw them out. The cupcakes were so cute and obviously made by kids, with heavily colored frosting and m&m's. Liz gave the fireman a hug, and I joined in for a big "ZIA hug". Liz's fireman friend, Joe, had told her to give the men hugs at the firehouses.
When we left the firehouse, it was time for me to meet up with Mike in Union Square and we were going uptown to meet some "pro-space friends" at the Oak Bar in the Park Plaza Hotel. However, I noticed a woman hunched over in a fetal position, her long hair draping down wildly, and one of her legs sticking out in funny way. I nudged her and she slurred some incomprehensible words. Liz and I stood her up. She was 25 and apparently hadn't slept in two days, but we could tell she was on some kind of drugs. Her face was bruised. I called an ambulance, although hesitantly, since the ambulances are needed for the tragedy at ground zero. When I mentioned to the girl that help was coming, she broke away from us and stumbled into the subway. She had told Liz when I was on the phone that she was taking the Q train, so we figured she knew where she was going. Liz ran down after her but didn't find her. I called and cancelled the ambulance.
Mike had met up with us and we walked back over to Union Square. Liz went home and Mike and I joined our friends at the Oak Bar, drinking red wine instead of our usual champagne. We went to a very expensive French restaurant, and had a nice time there. As usual, our space friends paid for us. I had introduced Mike to them and he's been reconfiguring their website since then. Mike and I went back to Union Square and spent a couple of hours there after dinner and it was getting late...I think 2am or so. Union Square was very solemn, and frankly, quite depressing for me. We were lighting candles, and even had tried to buy some of our own to replenish some of the wilted candles. All we could find in the stores at this point were magic birthday candles. They didn't work out quite as well as I thought they would, but came in handy for lighting other candles! I just felt so numb, as if I was going through the motions and watching a movie. Hippies were sitting lotus style, playing acoustic guitars, forming drum circles and singing. Some of them were chanting peace mantras. War is not the answer! Some God fearing folks were there as well, preaching loudly. I am not a hippy and not a religious person, and began to feel so numb it really bothered me. Oh boy, that bothered me.
I finally broke down in tears and Mike gave me a nice big hug as I finally had a much needed cry. "I don't belong here at Union Square. It's not helping. My whole meaning in life is a lost cause. We are never getting into space!!!" Mike begged to differ and tried to comfort me. On that note, I went down into the subway and back home. At some point I punched a wall or two, and a table with my fist. That felt good! In fact, this small act of aggression towards household furniture is the only real good stress reliever I've had so far. I think that I have figured out partially why I've been feeling so numb, so guilty, and so BAD in general. I'm more angry than sad, and just didn't realize it. So, going through the motions of trying to be sad was just making me feel more detached. I need to feel my ANGER. That's the only way I can get through the rest of this night. I finally went to sleep at 7:30am after venting this point to my good friend Pascal via email.
Today I did Liz's laundry, and she is cooking dinner for me, Stephen and another friend of hers. This is just one more day of rest and recovery before we try to make our lives as normal as possible on Monday.
Sept 11-16, 2001
Brooklyn, New York, USA