The following post is included with permission from a friend of mine who is now in the UK. A PhD epidemiologist, she has a split US/UK citizenship courtesy of her parents:
I worked very near the World Trade Center, from April 2000 to the anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 2001.
On September 11, 2001, I was running late for work because I had gone to vote in the Mayoral primaries: the turnout was huge and long lines meant I was riding the subway later than usual. I was underground when the first plane hit. The subway stopped between stations and the announcement said there had been an explosion at Cortland St. I thought a water main must have burst. After a few minutes, really not long at all, they told us if we wanted Manhattan, we had to get out of the subway at 14th St. I realized I’d have to walk the rest of the way to work (the subway was being diverted to Brooklyn – this line never went to Brooklyn) . To get to work I would simply walk towards the Twin Towers.
Upon emerging from the subway I did what every NY’er does: I looked up to find the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center to get my sense of direction. I had just turned to walk south marvelling at the glistening beauty of the blue sky that morning and puzzling over the odd “cloud” surrounding one of the towers. At that moment, a new “cloud” emerged from the other tower: a vivid orange “cloud.” Clouds aren’t orange…what on earth was happening…..and what was that oddly shaped “shadow” in the first tower? It was the entry wound from the first plane….
I was suddenly aware of cars and taxis parked along the sides of the roads, everyone was standing and listening to car radios blaring the news. Emergency vehicles and the mayor in his motorcade swept past…
I got to work, asked my secretary for any news he had heard while turning on my computer anxious to get the latest information. A very short time later, someone ran past my office and said “its down, its down” “What is down?”, I asked. “The building, it has fallen down.” was the hurried reply.
We all congregated in a colleague’s office. I had always been envious of that office. It had a truly spectacular view of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. That was the last day I ever envied that view, I never looked out of that window again without a terrible sadness.
I saw people jumping and simply falling out of the building. The desperation, the hopelessness resulting from such a decision was ghastly. . simply beyond anything imaginable.
I saw the second building collapse: it hovered and then fell in on itself seemingly in slow motion. In televised repeats, it always seems faster than the way it happened as I watched it in real time…..
The man standing next to me in the crowded office after the tower hit the ground said “I felt our building shake when it collapsed.” I turned to him and said, “I’m shaking and I can’t differentiate between my own shaking and our building shaking.”
Shortly after that, we were all gathered together and told to try to get home. It was barely mid-day. I told my work-friends to come to my apartment if they couldn’t get out of Manhattan to their own homes. I gave them my phone numbers and my address (in case the telephone systems were still down) and told them to just come if they needed to do so.
I called my mother in England. Exactly 24 hours previously, she had flown out of JFK to return to England after going to the US Open (tennis) tournament with me. After dozens of attempts, I finally got through. She wasn’t at home, so I left a message. I was OK, I was going home. I didn’t know if she would be able to call me or if I would be able to call her because the phones weren’t working reliably. I told her not to worry, I was OK. I told her I loved her.
Just before I left my office, my phone rang, it was a dear friend, Nina, calling from the other side of the US “Dear God, Mary, please tell me you are on a business trip!” was the rush of words tumbling through my cell phone. I told her I was not on a trip, I was in NY, I was OK and heading home.
I walked home, approx 5 miles, in heels. Any buses that passed were being kept exclusively for the elderly, disabled and the refugees from the Twin Towers. The subway system had been closed down completely.
I walked with work colleagues who were going to try to get trains from Grand Central Station to CT and Westchester. There was an incredible silence that I didn’t think was possible to achieve in NYC…. No one talked, no one shouted, no one blew their horns. Everyone just moved in silence.
The silent crowds parted like waves whenever an ash-covered survivor passed. They always appeared alone, never in groups or pairs. We tried to reach out to help and could smell the shock emitting from the entire being of the ghostly presence. We would try to help but just left the silent person to make his/her way home to his/her family…We were there watching, reaching out when we were needed but respecting their space.
We walked past the old house in the East 20s off 3rd Avenue. It belongs to some dear friends of mine and dates to at least 1789, an original NY farmhouse. I asked my colleagues how this little white house could still be standing after more than 200 years following what we had just seen….
Before going up to my apartment on the 32nd floor, I stopped at the supermarket. What would happen if friends arrived at my door and I didn’t have enough food? The supermarket was packed and food was flying – or had already flown – off the shelves. The lines to pay wound through the store. There was more silence. The woman in front of me in the line looked at my shopping basket: a gallon of milk, huge chicken ready to roast and everything else I had gathered to provide nourishing sustenance. “You don’t have water,” she said to me kindly. “That’s OK, thanks, I can use tap water” and I explained I was shopping in case I had non-Manhattanites round needing shelter. “Get yourself some bottled water,” she encouraged, “you don’t know if something will happen to the water supply. I’ll watch your shopping and place in the line.” From that day to this, I have always kept some bottled water in my home.
I struggled home with my purchases, throwing the stuff into my fridge.
Then I dug out my nursing license and ran over to NY Hospital, 2 blocks away. Went to the main reception desk and said I was here in case they needed extra workers. The woman at the main reception desk was so grateful and didn’t have to ask me to see anyone else, she knew what they needed. She took my landline and cell numbers and said at the moment they were adequately staffed but it was likely that they would need me sometime in the middle of the night, they would call me.
I went home.
No stress-relieving glass of wine for me…what would happen if they called me and I had consumed a glass of wine? NO, I needed to keep my head together.
I turned on the news.
I looked out of my window and I could see the smoke heading my way. In a few minutes I had to shut my window because the smell made me feel physically ill. I realized this was what Germany smelled like during the war, it is like nothing else I have ever smelled nor ever want to ever again.
I sat in front of the tv with tears silently falling down my face.
Throughout the following hours, I kept checking my phones to make sure I had dial tones. Eventually I went to bed and somehow slept a little. In the morning I woke up not quite knowing where I was and then checked my phones for the millionth time to make sure I had dial tones. Why hadn’t my phone rung? Why didn’t the hospital call me in?
Then I realized…..the need for extra staffing did not exist…..
The next day, I started to get used to the circling Air Force jets. It became a security blanket that I could see from my apartment windows. Keeping us safe….. NY’ers gradually got used to their presence and we were united in our gratitude to see them there.
September 12, was strange, hollow and extremely sad. This wasn’t a nightmare we could wake up from, this was reality. I really don’t remember much from that day besides the cover of the NY Times waiting, as always, right outside my door and the non-stop news. As my office was in the area of NYC that had been sealed off (and remained so for the rest of the week), there was no work to go to. I walked over to NY Hospital to see if there really was no need for my nursing skills.
The fires continued to burn and the wind continued to carry the smell my way.
In the middle of the night between September 12 and 13, there was a massive thunder and lightening storm. I’ll never know how long it had been going on before I woke up but one crack of thunder was right over my building. I woke up and didn’t move. I knew it was a thunderstorm, it was, wasn’t it?? I crept to my large wall of windows in my living room and perched myself on the window sill to make certain. Minutes passed and after several rolls of thunder and multiple bolts of lightening, I decided to go back to bed. The storm must have been going on for a while before I actually woke up because my sheets were drenched with perspiration.
The next week, my office reopened. Traveling to work every bus stop, subway stop, anywhere possible, were thousands of signs listing missing loved ones: “have you seen?”…. “last known to be working on x, y or z floor”….”please call.” All these young, vibrant, happy faces on xeroxed pages with loved ones on the other end of phone numbers longing for word to end the hell they were in. You had to stop, say a prayer and try to take in the enormity of the situation.
It was not uncommon to see well-dressed people simply walking down the street with tears quietly streaming down their faces. This was not weakness or anything other than a natural by-product of what had happened to us. To this day, I get annoyed when someone who wasn’t there tries to suggest that we were over-reacting or panicking.
My apartment building was diagonally across the road from Sotheby’s at (East) 72nd St and York Avenue. From the roof of my building I had once been able to see the Twin Towers. From my apartment windows I looked down to the Chrysler Building thirty blocks away. Across the road from my building was an express bus stop to the Financial Center. Needless to say, a lot of people in my building worked down there because it was such a great commute. Stunningly, not one person in the 38 floors of my apartment building died on September 11 but my zip code, 10021, suffered the greatest loss of life.
As I mentioned at the start of this, my job came to an end on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The economy was not good prior to September 11 but subsequently had only become worse. The pharmaceutical company who had been my client was cutting back on their advertising and marketing spend and my job was over. I had a new offer elsewhere but I had been ABD (all but dissertation) and close to completing my PhD at Columbia since 1995 but never got any further….work always got in the way. Friends would ask “when are you going to finish?” Until the morning of September 11, I always smiled and replied “Sometime before I die.” I realized it was time to finish it, I could no longer use that reply. In late November or early December, I called my mentor and asked if he would chair my committee, I was ready to finish. Throwing myself into my dissertation in January 2002 was an amazing experience. Researching and writing my dissertation was one of the most rewarding times I’ve ever had, I loved every minute of it – I know, reading this you must think I’m very odd. I defended my opus on April 29, 2003 and graduated the next month. Of course it was hard, don’t get me wrong. I had a committee of 5 amazingly brilliant professors and they pushed me every step of the way and I loved every minute. At the end of my defense they made me promise to get it published because they felt it had value for others. Maybe one day I’ll find the right publisher….
My first visit to the World Trade Center site was on my birthday in January 2002. My mother had come over for Christmas, as she always did, and she wanted to go. Although I had been back to work a few days after that frightful day and was there until my job ended, I had never gone over to “the pile” as the FDNY called it. But that day, my mother and I went together. As we got closer and closer, that silence descended …. I have been back a number of times. Now that I’m not living in NYC, I usually go if I’m back in the city. I always say a prayer and spend several quiet moments.
To this day, if I see a large plane flying lower than I think it should, hairs on the back of my neck go up and I find myself scanning the skies….
NYC has never been quite the same since. It was months and months and months before that NY “humm” came back, it might have been more than a year but I remember when it finally returned. There is a friendliness about NY’ers, a kindness towards strangers that was brought to life that day and has never really left. In the wake of the horrors, NY’ers always waved and smiled at passing firefighters and when they were not racing off to save others, we always thanked them.
I think that one day I shall go back to live there……NYC is my birthplace and is, and always will be, my home no matter where I am.
Mary Bussell, PhD
12 September 2011