NEW JERSEY – My eyes begin to burn and tear, and all I see through the smoke are the embers. It’s difficult to breathe in here…the air is thick and I’m feeling this overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia. I try to push the metal away, which is weighing heavy and hot on my skin, but I can’t seem to free myself. All I see is the glow of the small fires surrounding me and feel oppressed from the heat. It is becoming harder and harder to breathe…
I gasp and sit up in bed, looking around my bedroom, the stickiness of sweat remaining from my nightmare.
I grab the remote next to me, and flick on the television.
The same pile of twisted metal that continues to haunts my dreams is pictured on TV. One of the same reporters stares into the camera and tells us the same thing…they are still searching, still hoping…as they stand in front of this smoldering mass. My eyes well with tears.
I feel the kick of new life stirring inside my belly, reminding me that there is a glimmer of hope left in this strange new world that only arrived a couple of weeks prior on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
The world is surreal though, strange and bleak.
Who would have thought something so evil and drastic could have occurred in only a few moments?
The World Trade Center and I have had a connection since the beginning of my life. Born in the same city around the same era, the Twin Towers had always been a part of my life. From the moment I was driven from the hospital to my very first home on the border of the Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods, to their very end, they were a part of my heart.
I remember my first time viewing the buildings up close and personal. I had never seen anything so massive in my whole life. There is a family photo with my brother and I in front of them, which my father took as a perspective by looking up at us and the buildings, as we smiled down at him. It’s an interesting perspective to view these two smiling children eyeing up this modern marvel up close. I was in awe of their incredible size.
The first actual walk through that I remember was when I was about 16, and was touring with a bunch of French students. We ascended to the very top, though we were unable to view the city from outside that day. I remember the elevator system and it’s complexities, taking one elevator to the next, on different mezzanines.
From New Jersey, the towers were always a part of my view, whether I was staying frequently with relatives in North Arlington and could view them quietly twinkling at night from my bedroom window, to my view of the twin skyscrapers every time I entered and exited the city. As a young adult in my early 20s, I commenced my employment there. I worked midtown though each day, these buildings greeted me. As the bus I rode entered the Lincoln Tunnel, the sunshine rose and reflected on the glass from the morning sun. At night, the windows glowed with lights inside of the many offices housed in the towers.
As we would leave the city, I often wondered who could still be in their offices there, close to nearly 7 p.m. those nights…it reminded me of the adage, “The city never sleeps.”
Occasionally, there would be special events and concerts advertised near the World Trade Center area at lunchtime. I thought it would always be fun to go, but never did, because the timing would have been so difficult for me to return to midtown…I always wanted to though. I thought it would be lovely to just sit there at lunch and relax for a few moments…to me it sounded like oasis in the bustling city.
When I was moved to our office near Jersey City, I had wonderful views of the Towers when I would hit Route 280, and even better on the Turnpike. Soon, I moved my employ to Morris County, and I thought I would miss my twin friends…however about 20 miles away, they were visible from Route 80 in Parsippany and then from my office.
I was fascinated that on a clear day I could look out the giant windows and see their magnificent tops. They would literally rise into the clouds. There was another vantage point in the same town, which offered an even better view, higher up from my office. I wondered if those there could see where we were too. What a view that must have been…it always made my heart skip a beat from the end that I was on, marveling that New York City seemed so touchable.
I left work for maternity leave on September 7, 2001, after receiving clearance from my doctor to do so with complications from my gestational diabetes and now shaky blood pressure (which had always been on the low side). I had planned to originally stay until Friday, September 14, but was having too many health complications nag at me, so we all felt that rest was best. That night, I went in for a labor check, which resulted in my being sent home and told I required more rest. In retrospect, I was glad this visit was not a few days later, as the hospital I was brought to, was later designated a trauma unit, though about 20 miles from NYC…however, they later learned they would not need the hospital for trauma victims, when the mission turned from rescue to recovery.
However, I had one outing planned on September 11…to have lunch with two of the ladies I had worked with and who retired. We planned to meet at the Lafayette House.
That morning I puttered around in my pajamas, and planned to dress around 11 for lunch. One of my friends from college sent me an email around 8:30 a.m. and I responded back. It was just casual conversation, asking how I was feeling, and I asked her some questions, wishing her a great day. She worked at Lehman Brothers in the World Trade Center complex.
Little did I realize as I hit the “send” button what kind of a day my friend was truly having.
And little did I know that a louder and lower flying plane was up to something. As living in an area where arriving flights often used Sussex County as its flight path, I was used to the sound of the planes. When I would fly, I thought it fascinating that I would see Lake Mohawk from the aircraft before we’d land, either at Newark or JFK.
Later, this plane would be identified as United Airlines Flight 175, which originated from Boston, and was destined for Los Angeles. It was the second plane to hit, which careened into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.
My take on planes that seem to be flying low, has never been the same. I have felt jumpy about them since.
The silence in the skies a few days later would be deafening, as all commercial and recreational planes were grounded, and the only sound were the fighter jets and other military aircraft cruising.
As I sent the email to my friend at Lehman, she had previously witnessed the sound, and feeling of a terrible crash, and looked to see what it was. At that point, she later told me, they exited her building, as there appeared to be a fire drill. She expected to return and left her items inside of her desk, including her apartment keys. As many later would, even on television, she would witnessed as Flight 175 made its way into the Tower. Not knowing what was happening, and believing the city to be under attack with bombs, she began to flee the scene.
I called Sprint to pay my phone bill and then decided I would sit and watch some television on the recliner until it was time to get ready. Strangely, the operator at sprint was eerily quiet, and seemed sad, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. When I plopped myself into the chair and switched on the TV, in spite of the glorious weather that day, I was receiving no television reception on Channel 7, where I planned to watch Regis and Kelly. I switched to Channel 4, and the same thing happened. Maybe a cable issue?
As it turned out, those channels were temporarily knocked out, as their reception came from the large antennae atop one of the Towers.
I selected Channel 2, and my eyes were met with an unforgettable sight and report…a breaking news broadcast that planes had flown into both Towers. The towers were aflame and smoke was billowing from them. I sat fixated, not sure how to process this surreal news.
And at the time, my mind was thinking that everyone must be safely evacuating…I don’t know why I was considering that…I guess one doesn’t want to process insurmountable tragedy and just assume everything will be alright…
The reality of course was different…some dying within the building, others jumping, others escaping…
The second greatest horror was witnessing the buildings fall on television. What a strange reality to watch these buildings be gone. I remember the news anchor, a female, gasping in shock as it did, and noting how strange it was they were now gone…and how the skyline would never be the same.
My phone rang and it was one of the two ladies I was scheduled for lunch with. She asked if I would mind to reschedule. The one who was calling me, her daughter-in-law was headed for business in Denver, when her plane was grounded in Michigan. She was worried sick. As it turned out, her daughter-in-law and three others rented a car together, getting the last one at the airport, and drove back to New Jersey together. The other woman ended up very upset, as she worried about friends who she had worked with at American Express at the World Trade Center.
Who could concentrate on lunch at a time like this?
I phoned my office and spoke to the woman who was temping for me. They were all stunned and uncertain. As we were on the phone, I asked her if they were able to see anything…all she saw was grey smoke billowing on the horizon, where the Twin Towers had been.
While we were on the phone, the Vice-President of Sales exited his office. He had heard that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. He returned a few minutes later to tell us of the crash in Shanksville, PA.
The news, of what we all now were being told, was an act of terrorism, grew graver and graver. No one knew how many were dead, and how much more destruction could be next.
My phone didn’t stop ringing, with concerned friends and relatives. Everyone checking on everyone else to be sure they were alright, concerned with the possibility someone may have been near New York.
I connected with my grandfather and his wife, who had difficulties all day reaching my aunt. She lived in Brooklyn, and when we were at events for her family, the Towers were always a familiar site.
My friend, I could not reach either. The phone service was intermittent throughout the day. No one knew if anyone else was safe.
It was about 6 p.m. when we located my aunt, who was home, and the call had previously been unable to connect. Now I was the one finally able to connect with her. But she had watched the Towers burn, and then collapse. Years later, charred pieces of paper, including an envelope with the return address for the World Trade Center, blew into her Brooklyn backyard.
My friend was harder to reach and the phones sometime worked. Later, around 8 p.m., I connected with her. She told me of her horrendous story…running…afraid that there were bombs being dropped. Should they jump into the East River? Her shoes were gone, lost along the way…and she cried all the way uptown.
A musician on the street saw her, and reassured her, “Don’t cry sister, it’s going to be OK,” although the closer she neared her apartment uptown, the less people seemed to notice the disheveled people arriving there.
She didn’t have her bag, since that was back in the building, thinking it was just a fire drill and was required to find her boyfriend, who she was unable to track down, and retrieve a key through him for her apartment.
Later, her building was one of the ones condemned, and she was laid off after 9/11, requiring a new start to her career.
The stories started pouring in, from those I knew, and those I heard on the news. A friend, whose husband missed his train but would normally be in the Towers around the time the attacks happened. Another friend (and both of these girls were also pregnant) whose husband watched the first fiery tower and then saw the second plane, the one that flew over my home, hit the Tower. He was on the last train to head home, as smoke came billowing through the PATH Tunnel from New York. All he kept repeating to her when he made it home to Wayne, which took hours, was how messed up it all was.
More stories would evolve later as friends talked…a friend of a friend died while working at Windows on the World. Recently when her death was announced, I learned in a New York Times article that Joan Rivers joked to a reporter after 9/11 about meeting at “Windows on the Ground” for lunch and was then told to “grow up” when this person took offense. I took offense and refused to write any kind of tribute about her, in light of this mockery on death. One person on my Facebook Page learned of this and grew very offended, stating my timing was lacking decorum. What decorum, I asked, did Joan Rivers show for the deaths that day in the city where she was also born? It’s a personal decision and while I expressed my sympathies, I did express that Robin Williams deserved the tribute…and even more, the tributes I write annually about 9/11…those people deserve my attention. It would be a slap in the face to a friend I have since made, and his daughter…his wife and her mother lost her life as a police officer in the Towers that day. My sympathies go to the victims above all.
I felt helpless and wished there was something I could assist with. I was in no condition. I learned of one plight, which was to help rescue pets trapped in homes in Battery Park City, where evacuations took place. I gave to the organization that was mobilizing that effort.
Later, the story of fellow New Jerseyan Lisa Beamer would touch my heart, and her husband Todd’s bravery. He was one of the passengers who plunged the plane to the ground, storming the cockpit and fighting the terrorists over Shanksville, PA. Lisa was a mother and pregnant as I was, when she received a call from a telephone operator, also named Lisa, passing on a message from Todd, telling her how much he loved her. At first, Lisa thought it a prank, until the operator recounted the entire story of Todd calling her from the plane to alert of the attack, hoping she’d tell authorities and telling her that they planned to take the plane down. After delivering the message for his wife, and saying the Lord’s Prayer together, he told her he was going. She heard, “Let’s Roll,” from Todd, and then after some commotion, the line went dead.
Watching the two Lisas meet one another on Oprah gave me goosebumps.
In 2002, I raised funds for the Todd Beamer Foundation with a business that I owned, giving a portion of my sales to the foundation.
I relive 9/11 each year personally and professionally. Personally, my memories are still raw. I sat next to the 9/11 Memorial at Sussex County Community College the other day and told the story about Todd, bursting into tears.
I have interviewed many who were there, and retold stories of others including several residents from Jefferson. One was an elevator operator in the Towers. Another Jefferson story in particular has never left me…I interviewed a man who worked at an adjacent building in the World Trade Center, who worked on heating and air conditioning in his building. That day, he heard and felt the explosions. When he made it to the roof of his building, there was an airplane seat, with only a torso remaining. It was evident to belong to a woman, based on the manicured hands, which were zip-tied, and clutching her purse. Still strapped to her seat, she was evidently a flight attendant, based on her uniform. He removed her purse and delivered it to authorities, to ensure her remains could be properly identified.
As I attend these services every year, I am honored to be able to help others tell their stories. Some have told me it is relieving to tell them…they have been through so much. The weight is rough on me too, and I need time to decompress too after, as learning of all the sadness breaks my heart, which is evidenced in this photo taken of me, as I am praying and crying at a service in 2012.
On My Mind: I pray for our country and our citizens…may we never forget the victims of that horrendous day and always honor and remember their lives.
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