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9-11 remembered: A look back on darker days

Part I

 

September 11, 2001 — Having overslept that morning, I hurried to get ready for work without turning on the radio or slowing down to have breakfast. It must have been close to nine o’clock when I came downstairs in the lobby of our apartment building, where I found a group of people excitedly talking about an airplane that had flown into the World Trade Center, a terrible accident that caused a major fire in one of the tall buildings downtown.  

On the street outside, fire engines and police sirens were screaming past our building on the corner of 22nd Street and Second Avenue — their alarm was much louder and continued much longer, compared to ordinary calamities, such as a traffic accident or a fire. They did not stop for streetlights, but urgently headed downtown.

Having not had the time to listen to the news at home I noticed that everyone else, heading for the subway, listened to their cellphones or transistor radios. But I was late and kept on running to the station. Down below my train had just arrived, so without further ado I got onto the crowded train where nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until I got to Grand Central Station, my stop, where the atmosphere was tense again with grim-looking people listening to their phones. A young man told me that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and rumors were flying that it wasn’t an accident but a terrorist attack. On the corner of 5th and 42nd I joined a large crowd, everyone dressed for work was frozen in their tracks, staring down Fifth Avenue. All the way at the tip of Manhattan huge looming clouds of smoke filled the streets and billowed up into the sky. On our corner, fire engines, ambulances and police cars raced past us to get downtown, their headlights blinking, their sirens screaming. 

In our office on the 42nd floor of the Grace Building, I found everyone huddled around radios, ashen faced, unbelieving. Rumors were flying and we were frightened and in shock, unable to think about the work that was waiting for us. 

Looking out of our office windows, facing north toward Central Park, the view was serene — the September sun was shining from a clear blue sky without a cloud in sight. Below us Rockefeller Center, the skating rink and St. Patrick’s Cathedral stood in a city that seemed to get ready for a regular workday. But below on the streets and avenues the sirens kept on coming, screaming as they headed south. 

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At 10:30 my friend and colleague Ellen and I walked to the south-looking side of our floor where the City University of New York has its administrative offices. The view from their windows is spectacular on a normal day. Across the street you look down on Bryant Park and the Public Library. 

Behind the immediate view you see the Empire State Building and behind it the dip of the lower buildings of Chelsea and Greenwich Village glittering in the sunlight, behind these low-build areas you could see the skyscrapers of the financial district in the far distance. But on this morning the far view was enveloped in smoke, big black clouds rose higher than the tallest buildings and then slanted in the wind toward the East River and Brooklyn Heights.

As we stood looking out, I remember describing where my husband, Jon, had his office, just to the right of the elegant spire of the Woolworth Building. To the right of Jon’s office building the two towers of the World Trade Center were still standing but they were badly damaged and burning, the flames of their fires clearly visible on 42nd Street. 

I remember being so grateful that Jon was in Germany for business and that he was not at work. As we were silently looking out at the burning buildings I feared that we were witnessing the start of World War III — and then the North Tower just imploded in front of our eyes. It fell into itself and was gone within seconds. 

And, while we stared in dead silence and disbelief to the void that had been left we learned that the Pentagon had been hit and that there was still one hijacked airplane in the sky. 

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At noon all of us had left our offices to try to get home. For many it was going to be a long slog because the bridges and tunnels had been closed to traffic and the subways were not working. There was no panic and even in the streets below, New Yorkers were just walking, purposefully, in the direction of their homes. For me it was an easy walk home to 22nd Street — I headed downtown against the tide of the walkers who were coming from offices and neighborhoods that were closer to the disaster area. People were quiet, there was no obvious panic, they mostly were in shock as they were heading home. The mood reminded me of a “Stille Ommegang,” a Dutch term, meaning “walkabout,” a memorial procession through residential neighborhoods. 

The last “Ommegang” I had participated in was one in Baarn, the Netherlands, when I was 13 years old. I walked then to commemorate the fallen of WWII, including the deaths of my father and the fathers and mothers of my schoolmates. 

While I was heading downtown on Third Avenue, the sirens kept screaming and traffic cops were everywhere to facilitate passage of emergency vehicles going south. Every now and then a car passed us going north, out of the disaster area, covered in fine, grey dust. On my way home I bought some emergency supplies: bread and milk for me and cat food for our cats, Peppercorn and Woolly Bear. I did not need much since I was alone.  

All through the remainder of September 11 and deep into the night the sirens kept coming, passing and then disappearing on the street outside our apartment building and on my television screen within. I sat frozen and in silence for hours watching our television, unable to cry, yet barely able to look, and yet, wanting to see it all before me.  

Miraculously, Jon called and his voice was a small token of normalcy — he was safe, he had telephoned my family in Holland, and all knew that we were OK. When I finally went to bed my last thoughts were with the staff in the many hospitals located near our building: Beth Israel, Cabrini, Bellevue and New York University Medical Center. It was reassuring to know that they were standing ready to take care of the survivors.

 

Sia Arnason has a masters degree in geriatric social work. She was employed as co-director of the Institute on Law and Rights of Older Adults at the Brookdale Center on Aging of Hunter College, working at the Grace Building on 42nd street, at the time of 9/11. She wrote about that event a day or two after it happened for her family in the Netherlands. She recently came across the essay while cleaning out her files earlier this year, and offered to share it here with The Millerton News.