On September 10, 2011 my roommate and I had driven across the Hudson River into New Jersey to go get some stuff at a Home Depot. I had been living in New York for two years for grad school, but the next day was a huge day for me. It was the day I was moving in to my first Manhattan apartment.
That night, when we were driving back from Jersey and about to enter the Lincoln Tunnel. I looked up and saw the two World Trade Center towers extending like two arms above the Manhattan skyline. I mentioned to my roommate that we still had never been to Windows on the World, a restaurant and bar on top of one of the World Trade Center towers, and that I wanted to go some time.
Of course, we would never get that opportunity.
The morning of September 11 was one of those fall days that everybody loves after a long hot summer. There was a little chill in the air, but not a cloud in the sky. Having grown up in Florida and having moved around a few times, it seems like it rained every time there was a moving truck sitting in front of our house. A perfect blue sky on my important day was a welcome change.
My roommate had to go into work that morning, so I was unloading the first load from the U-Haul by myself into our brand new Hell’s Kitchen apartment, about a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center. The apartment was also only two blocks from the West Side Highway, a road that runs the length of the island along the Hudson River.
My first clue that something was wrong were the sirens. One of the few stereotypes about New York City that is true are the sirens. You hear them all the time. You hear them so much that you tend to ignore them and tune them out.
I don’t recall how many I heard that morning before something registered. But it was probably a few running down the West Side Highway. At that point I remember thinking that there must be a big fire someplace for that many firetrucks. Then I just went back to hauling boxes.
To this day, whenever I am in New York and hear more than one siren in a short period of time, I get a little jumpy and immediately start wondering what is going on.
Back in the apartment, I plugged in a radio. I always had the radio tuned to AM 660 WFAN, which is the big sports radio station in New York. But back then, Don Imus was the morning show and often I would just leave it there until the mid-day show started.
When I first started listening to Imus, the first tower had already been hit. But at this point there was obviously a lot of confusion. The initial reports were that a small plane, possibly a Cessna, had crashed into the tower. And the feeling was that it was probably just a tragic accident.
While my new apartment did face south, there was not a direct view of the towers, so I walked down to the corner where there were already a couple of people standing. From there we could see down one of Manhattan’s many canyon of buildings and saw the fire burning out of what appeared to be a small hole in the north side of the north tower.
One of the oddities of the Manhattan skyline at the time was that it was difficult to tell just how big the Twin Towers were. They were clearly the tallest buildings, but they were also standing amongst other very tall buildings. They were big . But it was also difficult to gain a proper perspective, especially from the ground.
So when we were looking at these massive structures from the ground and from almost two miles away, the hole on the north side did not appear to be that large. So the idea that it was a small plane certainly seemed plausible. And while even a small plane would cause loss of life, it did not give us a true sense of the tragedy that was unfolding right before our eyes.
So after watching for a few minutes, I returned to my new apartment and continued to unload the truck.
I continued to listen to Imus and almost immediately they reported that the south tower had been hit. Now it was clear that the city was under attack. At this point, imus put sportscaster Warner Wolf on the air, who lived close to the World Trade Center and had a clear view of the towers from his apartment. Wolf was on the phone with Imus for what seemed like hours, and it is Wolf’s voice that is one of my lasting memories of that day.
Here is another oddity of living in New York City and Manhattan. Everybody in the New York City area refers to Manhattan as “the city.” This is obviously an arrogant title, but one that is embraced by even the “bridge and tunnel” crowd (those that live in Jersey and the other boroughs that must take a bridge or tunnel when they want to go to “the city.”)
And while there is a sense of unity being “the city,” there is also a lot of compartmentalization within the city as defined by the dozens of neighborhoods. You have heard of SoHo, and Harlem, and Little Italy, and Hell’s Kitchen. But there are dozens of others, like SpaHa (Spanish Harlem), Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, Chelsea, NoHo (NOrth of HOuston street. SoHo is SOuth of HOuston street), and Tribeca (TRIangle BElow CAnal street).
And in each of these neighborhoods is everything you could possibly ever need, from restaurants to grocery stores to bars to museums. And living or working in Manhattan (I worked in Manhattan before I was living there) meant you spent most of your time in your own neighborhood and you had a lot of pride in your neighborhood.
This leads to a bit of a rivalry amongst the neighborhoods, something that you might have seen from time-to-time if your ever watched Seinfeld. Like the time Kramer yells at Jerry, “if you don’t want to be a part of society, you might as well pack your bags and move to the Upper East Side!” Or the time Kramer packs his bags to go spend the weekend visiting his girlfriend on the Lower East Side and gets lost at the “Nexus of the Universe (1st ave. and 1st st.).
So while the World Trade Center was less than two miles away, it might as well have been in another state. The Wall Street area did not have much of a nightlife. So unless you worked on Wall Street, you didn’t go there very often.
This led a lot of New Yorkers to feel something had happened to them (the city), but it was also happening somewhere else and to other people. And as a result, there was a lot of gawking, but there were also a lot of people trying to go about their lives.
Not long after the south tower was hit, I finished unloading the small load of boxes. We weren’t going to move anything big until my roommate and some friends got off of work. So I decided to head uptown to my office at the American Museum of Natural History.
Just as I was walking into my office, I saw everybody standing around the TV and I immediately noticed that one of the towers was missing. The north tower had collapsed during my cab ride north.
Our office was on the top floor of what is about a dozen buildings that make up the museum. And being on the top floor we had easy access to the roof. We made our way up there and found a spot with a clear view.
The roof of the American Museum of Natural History is one of my great pleasures of New York City. The museum is situated along the west side of Central Park and the roof sits just above the park’s treeline offering a gorgeous view of the city’s skyline to the south and a sea of colors in the fall.
But there was a problem. We could see a lot of smoke, but we couldn’t see the south tower. Were we looking in the right direction? Was it just obscured by the smoke? The view from our roof faces southeast, so we knew the World Trade Center would be at the far right edge from our vantage point.
We all scanned our memories trying to recollect a skyline view we had all looked at a million times from this roof, and one we might have taken a little too much for granted But then the cloud of smoke started to drift away and that’s when we saw the hole in the skyline.
Both towers were now gone.
We just stood there mouths open, stunned, for what seemed like an hour, but may have only been a few minutes.
From that point on, it was chaos. Nobody knew what to do. People that didn’t live in the city wanted to get out. The rest of us just stood around. Subways were shut down. The streets were even more gridlocked than usual. People were screaming. People were crying. People just lingered in their locations not knowing what to do.
One thing I didn’t think to do was try to call my family. Remember, to most, this happened to “our city,” but there was also a sense that this happened somewhere else, a neighborhood we rarely visited and seemed farther away than it really was. So to many of us, there was never a feeling of immediate danger.
Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered much as most cell phone coverage was overloaded and unavailable for most.
But then in the early afternoon one of my aunts got a hold of me and I could immediately hear the sense of relief in her voice. She told me that everybody, including my sister and my parents, had been trying to call me for hours and had been unsuccessful. To them, my office and my apartment might as well have been across the street from the World Trade Center.
Strangely, that was really the first moment where I sat back and realized just how close I was to this tragedy.
In the aftermath of the attacks, my lasting memory is that of just how much New Yorkers rallied around each other.
My new apartment was just a block from the Javits Convention Center which was the coordinating center for relief efforts. There was a constant stream of people walking to Javits carrying bags and bags of supplies that would be needed by the relief workers. Temporary blood drives were set up all over the city and many had lines around the block.
Living in New York can be a very lonely existence. It is very easy to get lost among 20 million people, with thousands of different cultures and backgrounds, and dozens of neighborhoods and five boroughs.
But after 9/11 that changed. There was a sense of unity the city had never experienced before. People were no longer afraid to look others in the eye. People smiled at strangers and would give a soft little nod of the head.
So while that beautiful day ten years ago turned into one of the saddest days in the history of this country, I also have some fond memories of how my fellow New Yorkers responded.
I know this is way off-topic for this website, and maybe you have heard plenty of stories about what happened that day and were hoping this site would be a respite from that coverage. So thank you for indulging me and my memories for a few minutes.
We will now return you to our previous scheduled programming of kicking the Red Sox ass.