My Husband's 9/11 Story

He said I could print it here, and it's long. And it's worth it. Here's my version.


One thing was how, around 11 in the morning, there was absolutely no traffic on the streets. Another thing was the smoke, at first a gigantic plume and then sort of everywhere. And the feeling of despair, loneliness and helplessness. And then the days, weeks and then months of flyers, posters, pictures, almost all with a face or a family photo, always with the same message: “believed to have been in the World Trade Center on 9/11, someone said they saw him being taken away in an ambulance, please call if you have seen him.”

Just thinking about how beautiful it was that morning in Maplewood, New Jersey makes me tear up, the stunningly gorgeous prelude to a universally sickening day. Seven years ago, Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

I lived in northern New Jersey, about 15 miles west/southwest of Manhattan. Lovely two-story colonial, a very short drive to the New Jersey Transit station, a nearly four year-old preschooler attending the Weekday Nursery School in South Orange, a nine-month old baby girl, and a wonderful wife trying very hard after only one year of my working for a large New York City law firm to deal with practically being a single parent, given the type of hours I was working. From the Maplewood train station, I had about a 35-40 minute ride into New York Penn Station (“NYP” as abbreviated by NJ Transit), and then depending on how I felt, the weather, or the shoes I was wearing, either a 14 block walk uptown to 1585 Broadway, at the northern end of Times Square, or a short, two-stop ride on the 1 or 9 train to 49th and Broadway.

I basically had two real choices for the commute – either an 8:25 train or an 8:50 train. There were earlier trains, all known as the MidTOWN DIRECT on the Morris & Essex line, but it really didn’t matter too much because regardless of how early I got to work I was going to be there until midnight or later. And the nice thing about being a lawyer in New York was that nobody really cared what time you got there, as long as it was before 10 and as long as you acknowledged that there was no quitting time, just convenient stopping points that you could take advantage of to decide to leave. For whatever reason that morning, I left home around 8:30 and drove to the station to catch the 8:50 train. Kissed the wife and girls good-bye and took off into the just-getting-cooler late summer morning.

The train station was uneventful, bought a bottle of diet Coke from Joyce at the coffee stand, put it in my soft leather briefcase, and assumed a standing position at where I hoped one of the train doors would stop, briefcase on the asphalt between my feet, New York Times in hand, waiting for the train. How stupid I was all those years to be spending so much time – so much time – waiting for a train.

The train only made a few stops before NYP – South Orange, Orange, Brick Church, Newark Broad Street, and then the long stretch across the Passaic River, the Newark marshes, past the still-under-construction Secaucus transfer station, and then if lucky a smooth trip under the Hudson River into New York City. If unlucky, you’d sit and wait while an Amtrak train or two passed by, since Amtrak owned the tracks and got priority use.

Shortly after leaving Broad Street, the train tracks run sort of parallel to the New Jersey Turnpike, and then along 495, leading cars to the Lincoln tunnel. The train car was not too crowded (another attraction of the 8:50), with only a few people standing near the doors as the train barreled toward Manhattan. It would have been about 9:05 in the morning. The mood was normal, some people buried in their papers, some trying to catch some more sleep, others engaged in animated conversations. I recognized a few “regulars” from Maplewood, nothing unusual. One guy had his headphones in, listening to what faintly sounded like a sports show on the radio.

Just a couple of minutes past Broad Street, I looked out the window to the north and noticed traffic was stopped heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel. No biggie. Then I noticed that traffic was stopped on purpose, and people were standing on the south side of the road, shading their eyes and looking south toward the bay or lower Manhattan. Tons of people, pulled off to the side of the road. Traffic in the main flow was fine.

At that moment, the guy seated across from me, his cell phone rang. He answered it quickly. He listened, his face turned white (well, he was a white guy but his face got even more white), and then he stood up and abruptly bent over to look out the window on the right side of the train car. He said “Oh my God,” and sat down and folded his phone. I seriously thought he was having a heart attack, he was sweating so bad and shaking. Uncharacteristically for the morning commute, I leaned over and said, “hey, are you okay? Do you need some water or some air?” He said “no, that was my wife and she said the radio is saying that a small airplane had hit into the World Trade Center, and that another plane in the area did the same thing.” I said “huh?” – how does one plane crash into a building, let alone two planes. I said to him “one plane is an accident but two planes, that’s terrorism.”

The guy with the headphones (who I frequently ran into several times in the next three years and whose face always reminded me of that day) turned his radio dial quick and was listening intently. He took a few seconds, took out his earphones and told me and the other guy that 1010 WINS was saying that a plane had crashed into one of the towers, but that they were getting reports that two planes had crashed.

I looked back out the window to the left, saw all the people staring south, and then stood up and bent over to look south. The day was so clear: I saw two gigantic candlesticks, the tops in flame, and a huge plume of black smoke rising from each, merging somewhere before Staten Island. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I said, both towers are burning. That’s impossible. I said, that’s not an accident, that is terrorism.

(Short explanation: I had first visited NYC in June 1988, and returned in September 1989 and lived in New York until July 1991. I returned to NYC in August 1995 and eventually lived in the NYC metro area until April 2004. So, I had missed the 1993 WTC bombing, but had intently followed the news stories and so I knew that terrorists already had tried once to take down the towers.)

I reached into my pocket for my cell phone, dangit! My wife and I only had one cell phone at the time (and that had only come after a lot of discussion about the fact that we’d never get rid of it if we got it). We didn’t think two were necessary, just one for me to have to take to work and to call if a train was late or I needed to make a personal call. My wife had the phone because she needed it that night and knew I wouldn’t be home in time.

For a few moments everything happened slowly. The dude listening to the radio, the other guy sweating and trying to call his wife back, the people pulled off the interstate, and the rest of the people on the train oblivious to what was happening. The enormity of it took what seemed like a long time to sink in. And then it hit me: New York City was under attack by terrorists and we were going there! I thought about where to find the conductor, whether to go up to the engineer, and see what they thought about us going to New York with a disaster taking place. And all those people who didn’t know what was going on, laughing, talking sports, sleeping – you idiots – what should we do? I thought several times about pulling the emergency brake – yeah, that would have been a story, but maybe I’d get away with it and the train could turn around and go back to Newark. (You know it’s a big deal if someone prefers to go to Newark instead of New York, that’s pure desperation, reserved only for true emergencies.)

I didn’t pull the cord. We started under the river. I started praying, but I didn’t even know what to pray for. I didn’t know if this was a one-time deal, if the danger was over, if I was going to be able to get back on a train and go back home once I got to NYP, or if I should just go to my office. I actually thought about how much trouble I might get in at work if I didn’t show up. Imagine.

When we got to NYP, at around 9:18 or 9:20, that decision had been made for me. They were announcing that all commuter train traffic in and out of Penn Station was stopped. There were TVs on all around Penn Station, all broadcasting New York One (the NYC all news station). It was hard to hear, but it was clear that planes had hit into each of the towers.

I thought I’d better just get to my office, call my wife, and sit it out. I also thought that the last place I should be in an emergency was on a subway train, so I decided to walk even though it was a bad shoe day.

Surfacing to street level, I was amazed that foot traffic was virtually stopped, everyone looking south at what even from 3.5 miles away was clearly a major disaster. Police, fire trucks, and ambulances were all racing south, even on streets that were one-way north. I walked north past 34th Street, 35th, 36th, 37th, stopping every so often to turn around and look downtown. I didn’t know what to think – I was there, just a few miles away, but I also felt far removed from it all. Today I regret that not once did I have the thought that maybe somehow I should go downtown and see if I could help. Not once.

By the time I reached Times Square, 42nd Street, it was just too weird. It was too quiet, there were too few people on the street, and there was none of the usual commotion. I stopped in the middle of Times Square, about 80% empty, and watched the big screen across the street, no sound but it had subtitles. They were discussing the plane crashes, and showing a picture of the site of the crash. I couldn’t quite tell what angle they were shooting from because it didn’t look too familiar and the smoke was too white. Several times I looked downtown to the giant candles and their black smoke, and became more confused. I wondered if they were shooting from Staten Island toward Manhattan, or maybe from Jersey City? All of a sudden the words caught up with the video, and it wasn’t New York City at all – they were showing footage of the Pentagon, what the heck, the Pentagon? The announcers were saying a plane had hit the Pentagon? What? How in the heck? And then they were saying that they had received word that a bomb had just gone off at the State Department? Another. “what?”

And then I suddenly became very conscious of where I was – smack dab in the middle of Times freaking Square, in the middle of New York City, the largest city in the United States. I entertained a quick thought, “if I were a terrorist and wanted to kill people, I would crash a plant into Times Square. Maybe even first after creating a diversion downtown.” I turned and began to jog toward my office building a half-dozen blocks away.

I finally got to my building, the Morgan Stanley building (it’s the one you see all the time on TV commercials and TV shows and movies, with the three electronic tickers across the front of the building, all moving at different speeds). My law firm was sandwiched on about 10 floors in the middle of the building between all the Morgan Stanley people. I walked inside the lobby, pulled out my ID and swipe card, and headed toward the turnstiles by the elevators. I didn’t get ten steps across the lobby when a security guard told me I had to leave. I showed him my ID and told him I worked there and needed to go to my office, but he said the building was being evacuated and that everyone had to get out NOW. Well, I had another selfish thought, what the hell am I supposed to do now? I don’t have my cell phone, I can’t go to my office, I’m wearing bad shoes, and I can’t leave Manhattan. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was not just commuter trains that had been stopped – all car and train traffic into and out of Manhattan had been stopped. The bridges were closed, the tunnels were closed. I really was stuck.)

I wandered west on 47th Street, where I ran into a co-worker. I told him they had closed the building and I was going to go try to find a pay phone. He said he had been in the office, had left to get coffee, and was going to try to get back in. I never found out if he did, or if he just went home. I walked across 8th Avenue to a bar on the corner, where people were crowded inside watching the news on TV. I watched a bit, saw what the chaos was and decided I better try to call my wife. There were two payphones on the corner (remember those?). I of course had no change, but I had a calling card. But that just meant more numbers to dial and more numbers to screw up, as the day progressed. Several times I got a fast busy and couldn’t get a line, and so I’d wait, let someone else try, and then try again. Nobody was getting through. I kept trying to figure out if I had the phone numbers of any friends who worked in the city that I could call and maybe go crash at their office for a bit, but realized all my contacts were on my computer at work (no Blackberry at that time). The one number I had was for my friend Robin, who worked a few blocks away. Surely I could go hang with her if I could get a hold of her. I tried several times, no luck. Tried my home number in Jersey, no luck. Tried the cell phone, no luck. Tried Robin again and it rang. Her secretary picked up, I explained I was a friend of Robin’s and asked if I could talk to her. She said that Robin had decided to work from home on Long Island today and wasn’t in the office. I asked the secretary her name and she said Valerie. I said, “Valerie, I know you have no idea who I am, but I am a friend of Robin’s and worked with her for two years. I can’t get a hold of my wife, I don’t have a cell phone, and it took me about 40 minutes to get a hold of anybody, and you’re it. Would you mind, if I gave you my home number, calling my wife and telling her I’m fine and I’ll be home as soon as I can?” She said of course she would. And she did. I wish I would have saved that tape recording of her voice on my answering machine as a reminder of the kindness showed to me that day in my desperation. (My wife didn’t get that message for an hour or two after it was left, but she DID get it.)

I went back to the bar, got a diet Coke (free, courtesy of the barkeep), and tried to decide what to do. I couldn’t remember where exactly any of my other friends worked, let alone their numbers. I finally remembered where one worked, but when I went to the building about five blocks away, the building, like mine, was locked down. Nobody was going in.

I finally convinced myself to think rationally and logically. I was stranded. I was diabetic and eventually would have to have some food, although if worse came to worse I could survive for days and have no problem. So that was basically a non-factor, although I had to convince myself of that. I only had about twenty dollars on me, and if things were bad – no electricity and bad phone lines – we might be a in cash-only society for a few days. I had no place to go, but knew if I hung outside my friend’s building, I’d eventually see him (although an hour and a half of waiting later that afternoon proved that theory a bit unworkable).

I went to the ATM and got out $300 in cash. Good. I stopped and grabbed lunch at a pizzeria when I realized that for some reason the stores were closing. Whey were the stores closing? I had, and still have, no idea. Places like Duane Reade and CVS that were open 24 hours were closed. McDonalds were closed. So I had lunch while I could, and then found a deli where I stocked up on a box of granola bars.

I finally decided to walk uptown to Cornell University Medical College (CUMC), where my wife had worked for three years when I was in law school, to see if her old boss was there (and who had shown us unbelievable kindness and generosity over those years), and see if I could just hang out in the lab. I had begun my walking (bad shoes, remember) at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, already had re-traced my steps several times back to that payphone, and was on about 8th Avenue and 49th Street when I had this idea. CUMC is on 66th Street and York Avenue, on the Upper East Side. I was on the West side. I cut through Central Park.

The barren streets still get me. That and masses of people that occasionally appeared, walking uptown in the middle of the street. And the fighter jets – I don’t know if they were F-16s or F-15s, but they flew low across the city several times that day, scaring the beejesus out of me each time – crazy me for thinking that perhaps more planes were on their way to crash into buildings.

I got to CUMC and by a stroke of fortune – and acting like I knew exactly where I was going and who I was going to see – the security guard let me in with my ID and signing a log-in sheet. Lucky indeed. The PA kept breaking in, announcing that all employees and visitors were being encouraged to go to a certain location in NY Hospital next door to give blood because they were expecting a deluge of emergency and severe trauma cases any moment. (Those trauma cases never came, at least nowhere near the expected volume. There weren’t that many injuries. Everyone was dead.)

I got upstairs and luckily Bill was there and welcomed me in. He had no idea what was going on outside, at least the magnitude of it, and seemed content to just be doing lab work. He said he’d sent everyone else home.

At that time, I had no idea the towers had fallen, although certainly they had by the time I was walking from West side to Upper East side. The prospect never even crossed my mind, and there were so few people that I passed that I didn’t even overhear it.

Bill let me use the computer in his office, but the internet was not working. He let me use the phone and I tried my wife, no luck on either home or cell phone. I decided to call my mom in Utah. It was about 1 pm by now. She was bawling when I called, before I called, actually. Although she knew I worked in Times Square, she had become convinced during that morning that I worked in the World Trade Center. She said the towers had collapsed. I said no way, she said she was watching it on TV. I asked her to try my wife and to keep trying, and also to call my siblings and tell them I was fine.

Another sidetrack. Here is the text of an email message I received from my older brother in Utah on September 11, 2001 at 8:22 a.m. Utah time, with the subject line “are you okay??”:

Considering the chaos in NY, just want to make sure you are OK.

Hopefully some communications lines are open. I'll pass on any status you can give me to family.

God bless....

Jeff

Here is one from my other older brother, who lived in Texas but was in California on business at the time, dated September 11, 2001:

I have offered prayers of gratitude for your safety and protection during the horrifying events of today. There was high anxiety this morning until we heard that you had been able to contact [your wife]. As for me, I'm stranded in Anaheim, CA for the near term. I was scheduled to be here until Friday anyway, but who knows if travel will be back in order to get me home even then. [My wife] is quite shaken, but she is thinking clearly and is being very strong. I wish I was there with her, but she has a good support structure. [My company] is making arrangements for individuals to return based on their personal needs. They are sending single parents and moms home first, some by Grayhound busses. Some people on my team are too freaked out to fly, so they want to go back by ground. My priority is lower, but I can stay at the hotel as long as necessary and could even go stay with [my high school friend]. Hopefully the nation's travel infrastructure will be back in order by this weekend.

I'm anxious to talk to you about what you saw, heard, and felt. I assume you will be home tomorrow. I will try to call sometime.

In case you need or want to chat with me, here are the ways to contact me:

Cell:

Pager:

With love and gratitude,

Shawn

Here is an email I received from one of my best friends, with whom I hadn’t had much recent contact, on September 11 at about 11:00 in the morning, from Minnesota:

I couldn't help but think of you at this time. What a sad day. I hope that you are alright and that your family is fine. I feel like that I am worlds away, and at the same time, I am

scared. I can't imagine how you feel right now. I lost several professional friends today. They worked for Tradespark and CantorFitzgerald in the top 10 floors of the 1st building hit. Fortunately, my best professional friend left NYC for a Westcoast trip.

I apologize for writing now, under such dire circumstances. My prayers are with you and your family. Please, let me know that you are safe.

Love your long, lost buddy.

Nate

Here is another from a former co-worker who was in Denver, sent a few days later:

Hi. I'm not sure if you're back in your office, but I just wanted to drop you a line and find out how you're doing. The pictures that continue to come from New York are simply unbelievable. I feel so much sorrow, and the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming too. It must be sheer agony to have to see New York right now. Please know that I'm thinking of you, and you will be in my thoughts especially tomorrow during our national day of prayer and mourning.

Love,

Simone

Yes, I still have those emails, saved in my archives. Interestingly to me now, I was still shaken enough five weeks later to write the following email to my parents, siblings, and best friends, seeking their advice. This was dated October 17, 2001:

“Am I completely stupid continuing to work smack in the middle of New York friggin' City every day? I need some perspective here.” By the way, I stayed until April 2004 so I got over it somewhat.

Anyway, back to the events. I stayed at the lab for a while, then started trying to figure out how to get home. I eventually was able to contact my wife and talked to her several times. She was attempting to relay messages to me from other friends in the city who lived in Maplewood and South Orange, some of whom had heard that the NY water ferry was open, and another who was going to walk across a bridge and have someone pick him up. I could never contact any of them when she gave me their numbers. At one point I had been given an address of an office building and after I walked a mile to get there, there was no such address and it was a residential area. So I walked back.

Around 5:45 or so I heard people saying that the NJ Transit trains were to start running at 6 pm, so I half-ran to Penn Station to see. I wasn’t the only one. It was the worst I’ve ever seen it. Crowded does not begin to describe it, and all of us, to a person, was exhausted emotionally, physically and spiritually. Fortunately kindness ruled the day. I managed to find a spot near the “big board” and around 6-ish they announced that a train was boarding to New Jersey. It was not the MidTOWN Direct, and it was NOT on the Morris & Essex line, but I wanted out of NYC, and the stairs were right next to where I was standing, so I went down to the train. I figured I’d figure out what to do in NJ when I got there. The train was packed, worse I’ve ever seen, but the doors eventually closed, we made it out of the station, under the Hudson, and eventually stopped in Newark, at Newark’s Penn Station (yes, Newark has a Penn Station and so does every other major East coast city).

I got off the train, and figured I was about 15-20 blocks from the Broad Street station, and that I could walk (even though it was getting dark and I wasn’t terribly excited about walking alone in Newark for 15 blocks in the dark, even if people were being nice in a national tragedy). I stopped at a payphone to call my wife, who said a neighbor was coming to Penn Station in Newark to pick me up and here was his cell phone number and I should just wait in the normal pickup spot for passengers and he’d be there soon.

I sighed with relief and began walking toward the front of the station. Just then everyone started shouting and telling everyone to get out, get out, get out. They wouldn’t even let us stay in front of the building, we had to go across the street by the Marriott. There were cops and fire trucks everywhere, and transit cops, and they were saying someone had called in a bomb threat to Newark Penn Station. Would it never end?

Because of the hoohah, my neighbor couldn’t find me. I kept trying to walk back to the station area but kept getting shooed away. I eventually found a payphone about six blocks from the station, called home, called my neighbor and tried to describe where I was. He finally found me. I wasn’t hard to spot. He took me home. I collapsed in my wife’s arms and held her for a long time. I held my daughters. I cried.

And then I wanted to watch TV – even though I had been there, I had missed a ton of information. I had very little details although I knew what had happened. There was no way in hell I was going to work the next day, and in fact the city was for all intents and purposes shut down until the weekend anyway, so I stayed up all night watching CNN and MSNBC. It was horrifying to see, finally, what all the world had been seeing all day and to realize I was there.

Spent several somber days with my family, went back to the City and to work on Monday the 17th. There were army guys with machine guns at New York Penn station. I was creeped out. Didn’t feel safer. Work wasn’t too productive. We all had a lot of stories to tell and heartache to share. Not long after that, within a few days, we got a memo from the chair of the firm, who informed us essentially that he had decided our mourning was over, the firm was losing money, and we needed to start billing again. Callous bastard. I left that firm 8 weeks later, actually went to work at my friend Robin’s firm, where I got to see my angel Valerie every day for the next two and a half years. And I thanked her for her kindness on 9/11 frequently.



15 comments:

Melanie said...

Those that were physically there were given insight that I could only see on tv...I can't imagine. I am so grateful to hear his story and walk in his shoes for that moment in time. I will never forget! Thank you..God Bless

Paul and Megan Hawkes said...

I cried through that story. What a awful feeling, to be so helpless and alone in such a tragic time. God blessed you and your family that day with safety. Thank you for sharing.

Cheryl Lage said...

What an amazing recounting of a perspective all of us watching could scarcely imagine.

We'll never forget that day, and I appreciate your husband's (and your) generosity in taking the time to share the incredible details of that day from his point of view.

Tiaras & Tantrums said...

thanks for sharing - still so surreal!

April said...

I had to struggle not to cry through that as I am sitting at the office. I think all of us, no matter, where we were, will remember where we were at that moment that fateful day. I remember how beautiful of a day it was (I live in CT) with the sun shining, the air slightly cooler...the sky so blue...

Thank you both so much for sharing your accounts of that horrible day seven years ago.

Jaime said...

I am so glad you guys were ok.
This was absolutely heartbreaking for me and I am so far away. I can't even imagine having been that close to everything.
Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

anti-supermom said...

I'm so grateful that your family wsa okay, what an amazing story for you to share. I know that there are thousands of stories out there similar to yours and your husbands, but blogging makes me feel like I 'know' you and well, the post is just touching.

Thanks for sharing~

Steph said...

Wow! I have tears...
I'm glad you were all safe.
Thank you so much for sharing.

Paul and Megan Hawkes said...

I hope you don't mind that I linked both your and your husband's story on my blog. Thanks again for sharing.

Mama Zen said...

Thank you for sharing this!

Kaye Butler said...

I'm speechless.

Laurie said...

I am glad that your husband shared this with all of us. It gives a perspective that the television was unable to give. I am just glad that everything worked out the way it did for you all and that you are all safe.

Mikki said...

Well, I'm just reiterating what others have said, but truly...thanks for sharing your husbands perspective. I can't even begin to imagine what you guys went through that day, but reading it from your husbands view makes it a little more personal. I'm so glad your family was safe, and heartbroken still for those who lost someone that day.

Melissa said...

Thank you for writing, and for sharing with us.... my oh my...

Wendy_P_in_NJ said...

Interesting that I knew you both and we were all here in NJ at the same time, and that's the first I'm hearing of Boyd's experience. Makes me want to write mine, for posterity. I told an abbreviated version to my boys yesterday morning. They were barely 2 and 10 months at the time--but they were there. Some details are so crystal clear, others murky. We waited a long time for daddy to get home. Like you, he was in midtown so not in danger, but we couldn't know that at the time. Unlike your wife, I couldn't muster the energy to leave the house that day.

Thanks for sharing.

P.S. what's with the wierdness on the dates of comments. They say 2008, and one even says Sept. 19th--today is the 13th!


Oh my heck! I was featured. And it didn't hurt or anything!



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