Twelve years ago, at 8:46 AM, I was walking down Church Street to my freelance job at Moody’s Investors Service, one block north of the World Trade Center, when the sound of a low-flying plane caught my attention.
It was over the West Side Highway when I noticed it, and I wondered “who’s buzzing the city at this hour?” Several seconds later, it was close enough for me to notice an American Airlines logo on the tail. Instinctively, I knew that a passenger plane did not belong in that air space.
I watched a few more seconds as it lined up with the World Trade Center. As it kept getting closer, I thought, now why doesn’t that pilot turn? And before I knew it, I was saying, “turn. Turn! TURN!!!”
The plane cocked its wings to the right and hit the building. There was a fireball, and then I saw papers blow out of the building into the air. I do not remember the sound.
I was yelling and the half dozen other people on the street were yelling “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
I contemplated returning home, but thought, “no, it’s an accident,” so I kept walking to work.
By the time I got to Moody’s, eight blocks south, a crowd had gathered in the entrance at 99 Church. Now, I was staring up at the North tower. I’d never looked at it from that perspective before. In fact, the previous day, I’d enjoyed lunch outside in the plaza. It was my new favorite lunch spot: open and breezy. Clear blue skies. Warm. Perfect.
On September 11, I looked up to see people leaning out the windows high in the north tower. Within minutes, someone in the crowd screamed and I glimpsed stick figures falling. They were so small, just tumbling through the air. I considered for a moment that here I was safe on the ground, and yet I could see people leaning out the upper windows of the tower and they weren’t safe. I’m afraid of heights and could not imagine anyone staring out those windows, hanging out those windows, jumping. It was incomprehensible how close their terror was to my safe spot, there on the street.
We could see each other. I still can’t get over that.
I heard a woman next to me say that it was a terrorist attack, and I thought, no. Had to have been an accident. Almost instantaneously, a fireball blew out the side of the south tower. I’d seen the first plane hit from Church and Franklin, but the south tower now loomed directly overhead.
I recall seeing steel beams blow out of the side of the building like a spray of water. (I later learned that debris from the attack had landed on Moody’s roof, making a hole in it.) People screamed and ran. I drew back into the doorway of the building. I expected to see planes flying in next, dropping bombs. I waited a few moments until the crowd had dispersed and started walking. I never looked back.
Where was my sister, Karen? She worked at WTC, for U.S. Customs. Was she in one of those towers?
I headed uptown and people were in a daze. I saw shoes abandoned on the sidewalk, like a war zone. Further north, I saw a toddler walking and said to her mother, “put your baby in the stroller and get the hell out of here.”
She swore at me.
Sometime, further north, I tripped over a curb and fell. People kindly helped me up. I limped home, still not looking behind me. I kept calling my sister Karen’s cellphone. She did not answer.
I walked a jagged course uptown. Along Broadway, taxicabs were pulled over to the side of the street, radios broadcasting the news, people gathered around.
I reached my home on Tenth Street, I don’t recall the time, and called Karen again. Finally she picked up. She’d been working in one of the smaller towers and was safely home. It was only then that I turned on the news and saw the towers had fallen. I suddenly realized that they were falling as I walked home. I could have turned and watched, but I was unaware.
It was a monstrous, strange thought. I changed my shoes and walked the three blocks down to Washington Square. I walked to the south side of the park, and looked right down Laguardia Place, to where the towers were always visible and saw they were gone.
Only then, I cried.