The Monday evening before 9-11 in 2001, I was in my north Jersey office, ready to take the reverse commute home to New York City. In my backpack was a blender cover from Oster. It was a gimmicky invitation that had been sent out to the press—”come to our Manhattan event and get the rest of the blender.” The card that came with the cover had some cutesy copy: “We’ve blown our top!” Little did I know, that same copy would become so chillingly prescient, courtesy of 9-11’s heartless perpetrators.
My bus circled the helix feeding into the Lincoln Tunnel and, as I always did, I took the time to enjoy viewing the famed skyline. My head turned left to right, ending with a glimpse of the Twin Towers. It was the last time I saw New York City’s perfect profile. Poof.
A phone call from a dear friend in Brooklyn woke me up in my apartment the following day. “Hey, turn on your TV. A plane just rammed into the World Trade Center,” she said. I thought to myself, “Those darned air traffic controllers, they ought to pay attention.”
When I switched on the TV, I realized it wasn’t that simple. Within a few minutes, another plane hit the other tower, then I heard that a commercial plane crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania; also, the Pentagon was under attack. I truly feared we were in the middle of a third World War. What to do? I called my parents to let them know I was alright. They said, “Please take good care of yourself, and try to get out of New York. God bless.”
I received another call, and this time it was from my mentor. “Get out of the city,” he said, “Now.” He invited me to stay with his family where he said it was safe. I packed my duffle bag and was ready to go, but the local radio broadcasters cautioned that all the surrounding bridges and tunnels would be closed. I was stuck in my New York apartment. I stepped out briefly, only to take my mind off the horrible scenes of the attacks that kept replaying on TV. I dropped by the Korean-owned taco place nearby, which served the best fresh tortilla chips with sour cream. The servers there seemed oblivious to the world outside as they went about work. This was a welcome respite for me.
In the weeks that followed 9-11, whenever a firetruck drove past crowds of people in the city, they would break into thunderous applause
For the rest of the day, I was glued to the television. It was all so painful, but I couldn’t look elsewhere. My fellow New Yorkers and I, along with the rest of the country, were seeing things we had never seen before. The stuff nightmares are made of. Remember the photos of the end-of-war mushroom cloud that you saw only in antiquated copies of Life and Time magazine? As the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground, we witnessed something similar to that, but this time, it was in our own backyard.
I did make my way out of New York, but it was the following day, on the 12th. I took the PATH, then a connecting train to get to my New Jersey office and meet up with my mentor and his family. I recall that public transportation in both states was free at the time.
When our offices reopened a few days later, I remember everyone trying to guess how many human beings perished at the World Trade Center. Tens of thousands, they said. I didn’t make a guess; I was more interested in what the big-hearted firemen of New York showed the world, to make sure others lived. Many of our NYFD heroes walked up more than a hundred flights of stairs, each with about 100 pounds of gear, didn’t they? To their deaths! They are my heroes forever.
In the weeks that followed 9-11, whenever a firetruck drove past crowds of people in the city, they would break into thunderous applause. The funerals of the firefighters, policemen, and other first-responders were covered night after night after night in the news. Walls and building facades all over the city were covered with home-made flyers, made by desperate family members of those who went missing from the carnage in Ground Zero.
On 9-11, close to 3,000 innocent people were killed in the attacks, 2,606 in the World Trade Center, and many thousands more were injured. As someone put it, it was more than anyone could ever bear.