The Day The World Changed

Published by The Weekend Australian
September 15-16 2001
by Alison Summers

My husband and I work from our home, a Greenwich Village brownstone. Our morning routine used to look somewhat like this:

Alarm clock rings at 6.30. Husband gets up to shower and make coffee. Wife tries to pull two sons 10 and 14 into acceptable shape to walk out the door at 7.15. The younger child climbs into a little yellow school bus which stops outside our front door, (I never tell him how cute this looks to me, his Australian mother) the elder walks a couple of blocks to a much bigger school bus. Both head off to different parts of Brooklyn, Charley’s yellow bus over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn Heights, Sam’s bus through the Battery Tunnel to Dyker Heights. Husband and wife go to their respective work spaces in the house, and start writing for the day.

With this schedule, there is no reason for me to be inside the World Trade Center just as a commercial jet hits Building Two at 8.48 a. m, September 11th, 2001.

There was a hitch in the usual schedule. There are always hitches in the usual schedule.  A new bus company had taken over the route to Brooklyn Heights, and it was proving massively inefficient. Charley had arrived an hour late for his first day of school, and Tuesday 11th, his second, would apparently would be no different. I promised over breakfast I’d take him to school myself, on the subway.  We left the house at 7.15 am

And so at 7.30 a. m, my younger son and I, were hurtling along in a crowded #2 downtown express train, headed towards Brooklyn Heights.

“Mom, you won’t forget my assignment book from Staples?” asks Charley peering up anxiously from his seat.  Swaying while I tightly grip the pole in front of him, I mouth “no.” We rattle underneath the East River and come up at the first stop in Brooklyn. “Your school’s so close to Manhattan,” I remark as we exit the turnstiles.  But my son, maybe just gloomy about “back to school week,” appears not to hear me.

The school was close to Manhattan; in fact, an hour later, middle-school students who watched from their classroom windows, were urging their friends over, to see how low that plane was flying near the Twin Towers. “It was just like a movie” is a phrase I’ve heard from almost everyone who witnessed the catastrophic event. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After dropping Charley off, I boarded an even more crowded train back to Manhattan. I decide en route, to extend the break with routine, and attend to some errands before sitting down at my desk. It all sounds so normal this, doesn’t it? For me, it’s at once terribly familiar, and removed. It’s another person’s life, maybe my twin sister whose yellow bus arrived on time that morning to whisk her son to school. She prefers not to do her errands until the afternoon, and she didn’t hear the screaming inside the building, or have to run for her life along with hundreds of others.  She’s my lost self.  We all have lost selves here in New York City. They live on the other side of Tuesday.  They don’t tune into CNN every day, listening for news of the dead and disappeared, or hoping to hear some reassurances by Mayor Guiliani that things will not get any worse, and with that renewed determination and self-control, we will survive this ordeal, the worst chapter in Manhattan history.

I change at Chambers St. to the local#1/9 subway train, and travel one stop south, to the Cortlandt Street station underneath the World Trade Center.  It’s a trip I’ve made perhaps hundreds of times during our 11 years in New York City.

It’s still early, around 8.05 am, as I push the ancient turnstile to exit the station.  I’ve planned to squeeze in a few errands before starting work. These will include purchasing short-sleeve shirts and navy pants for Sam, whose school requires a dress code, and buying Charley’s assignment book, for there is a Staples store in the area. I have $60 but since my bank is in the building, I’ll just get more cash as I need it. In fact on this luminous morning in lower Manhattan. Everything I need seems conveniently located within this area.

The WTC was more than the symbol that made it such an attractive so target for terrorist organizations. For many Manhattan families, it was a favorite destination. On weekends, our boys used to traipse up and down escalators, through the World Financial Center, past the Winter Garden, and down towards the Regal Cinema. There could be a blizzard outside those huge glass windows, and the kids would feel safe and sound inside.

There were weddings, concerts and flower shows, regularly in the nearby Winter Garden. I bought books at Borders, soaps and aromatherapy products from the Body Shop, and gifts from Godiva Chocolates, etcetera. The WTC represented the southernmost border in our family’s imaginary map of neighborhood. The department store Century 21 was situated directly across from the WTC Plaza.

Many employees put in workaholic hours at the WT., so Century 21 obligingly opened at 7:45 a.m. to encourage a spot of retail therapy before breakfast. In TV footage, you may have seen the store: blackened, damaged, debris from the WTC strewn over its broad roof, and the windows blown in.

As I enter the three story department store, there are no ominous signs. The floors gleam, the doormen greet customers, and lights are bright as the store buzzes quietly about its business. I can hear a vacuum cleaner whining on another floor above me. It’s a good time to shop; hardly any customers in line at the registers.

I pass men examining ties and shirts, then women discussing skincare products.   Later I am to wonder about those neatly dressed men and women. Did they work in the number 1 building across the street? Did they leave the store, before I did? Are they still alive?

However, I’m feeling a quiet sense of accomplishment as I quit the store 20 minutes later. Three other customers leave the store simultaneously, also carrying distinctive red and white bags. We spill out the side door into Cortland Street. The others walk north, but I go south, intending to return to the WTC.

‘Beautiful day,’ I remember my eyes squinting, while I stood in brilliant sunshine, waiting to cross Church Street. I was facing the World Trade Center Plaza, but I could not have told you which was North Tower or South Tower. I never could tell the twins apart because like many New Yorkers I was unsure whether I should be looking uptown or downtown when I designated them. Besides, the difference between them was about as interesting to me then as the difference between my left and right shoulder blades.

I wished I’d brought my sunglasses. It was around 8.35 am. 70 degrees, gorgeous, with not a cloud in the sky. ‘Not a day to be inside, not if you can avoid it’, I recall thinking, in some daft sing song way. The lights changed, and I crossed the street, dodging the crowd.

I headed towards building #1, regretting that on this glorious Tuesday morning, I couldn’t find a reason to spend the rest of the day outdoors. After shopping, I always walked back to the WTC this way. Past the Krispy Creme Donut store, the HSBC, Borders.

When the other Alison enters the first tower; sometimes she’ll wander into Borders for a quick look at the new fiction table; she always takes cash from the ATM next door, because it’s “so convenient.” I could do this in my sleep: she takes the escalator downstairs, picks up her NY Times from the Indian man who owns the newsagency, and she heads to the 1/9 subway station. The twin boards the train uptown, puts her shopping bag under her seat, and opens her newspaper. In 15 minutes, she’s home. It’s a pleasant shopping routine that has worked well for her in the past.

I confess to never thinking that there were thousands of people in the tower above. I think about them now, we all do of course. Study their faces on posters nailed by the families to streetlamps, or in the ever-growing gallery of photographs published in the tabloid newspapers. But until Tuesday, I had never imagined them at their desks; or smoking surreptitious cigarettes in the john, or waiting their turn at the photocopier.   Some would have applied makeup in the bathroom that morning, others were consuming bagels and coffee, someone had a paper jam in the fax machine. On this sunlit morning in September, maybe someone was sharing photos from their summer vacation, while others in the office had already activated their computers and now peered at the screen. The fact is, real lives – miraculous and ordinary and oh so fragile – were in progress above me, and yet those lives had been as hidden from comprehension as a host of heavenly angels on high.

Here I am then, looking up at a perfect blue sky. My imagination is not wandering to heaven or celestial beings, nor is it yet regarding the sky as Manhattan airspace in need of protection. And I doubt it would be able to assimilate the information that a commercial jet hijacked by terrorists, is fast approaching the building ahead of me, intent on its total destruction in approximately five minutes.

I walk briskly in that direction, hoping that I can get home to my desk by 9: 15, and urging that course of action upon myself. No browsing at Borders today. As I march purposefully towards the appointed target, I am joined by others, walking fast in a diagonal direction from nearby streets. The New Yorkers converge, we press ourselves close together, form tight phalanxes, and in an orderly manner, we pour through rapidly revolving doors, and central heavy swinging ones, into building #1.

I stop at the bank. I line up behind one person. When it’s my turn, I pull out my ATM card.  I’ll need a bit more cash for grocery shopping later in the day, I think.

At Tourneau’s, the jewellery store on the level below, Peter had recently bought a watch.  I’d coveted it, and he’d lent it to me. Now it is strapped to my wrist, as I check the time: 8: 44.

The time is also printed on the receipt which, on a hunch, just now I pulled from my wallet where it lay amidst the unspent cash. I feel a grim satisfaction that 8;44 still belongs to me; and cannot be hijacked. But I digress again. Trying to avoid the Big Bang, Alison?

I remember a couple of calls I have to make. I’d promised someone I’d fax a treatment around 9.30. Thoughts of lying in the sunshine have faded inside. The building   In fact I’m anxious to get to my office.

I dodge into place on the crowded escalator, and descend further into the building.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be on the train in two minutes, home in 15, at the computer in 20. The door marked “1/9 uptown”, is in the main concourse. I stop at the newsstand. I hand over my money, with a glance at the headlines of my folded newspaper. I remember being disappointed they’re not more interesting.

The masses of people crisscrossing the floor of this Grand Concourse have an  almost hypnotic quality. They leap gracefully as they come into view on the steeply ascending escalators from the New Jersey Path Train. But they move fast, so fast. Stop at your peril; don’t bother with eye contact, move out of the way! Their shoes race lightly over the concourse floor, their eyes are fixed ahead, their bodies lean forwards in the effort to ascend upwards to their offices by nine o’clock.

There is reason to hope that all of them survived. By virtue of not reaching the bank of elevators, of not being early that day, of “cutting it fine.” And now I join them. I thrust my newspaper into my shopping bag, focus my mind, choose my trajectory, plunge diagonally through the crowd towards the door which reads “1/9 uptown.”             And it was at that moment, that the familiar routines which make up Daily Life, blew apart, making it impossible for any of us to reassemble them in quite the same way again.

I am just thinking “dammit, I forgot Staples”, when it happens. A horrifying sound fills the vast concourse.  Everyone freezes in their tracks.

There’s nothing natural about the sound. It’s not thunder; it’s not an earthquake. It is the bursting and ripping of a massive explosion. It’s come from somewhere high inside the building, though the vibration of it is also inside my head. The building shivers in response.  In that second, I hold my breath. We all hold our breath. Then it’s pandemonium. I hear some screaming. Below this floor, is the underground car park where different terrorists planted their bomb in 1993. So, it should surprise no-one that we shared one collective thought, ‘bomb’, and one collective goal, ‘run’.

But I think you know a terrorist attack when you hear it, and we are in the midst of one.  The knowledge is writ on every frightened face whirling past, considering escape routes.

The first instinct is to get the hell out of the building, to escape before Death can reach out His hand and grasp us.  Heads rotate, as we all decide which exit to run to.  Then I see something so intimidating, it chills me to the bone.

The doorway at the end, leading to the outside Plaza, has filled with a huge wall of smoke. I can only liken witnessing this phenomenon, to what a Japanese villager might feel, staring horrified up at a tsunami. Mind you, we can’t know what this means, but in the same instant, the enormous wave of smoke rushes forwards with an engulfing sound, and we flee, like the frightened villager before the tidal wave. Whether the force propelling it is the “bomb”, or whether it is chemical gases, we can’t know, but there is a sense of direct danger, as though the “bomb” has assumed this ghostly presence, and had arrived to hunt us down.

There is no option except to throw ourselves as far as we can, out of the direct path of the ghostly tsunami. Some people’s faces stream with tears, but everyone is running fast, an army in panicked retreat from a greater and more terrifying force. We turn the nearest corner, past the Coach store. No-one pushes or shoves, we run as one person to find the nearest exit.

There is no hysteria. I remember that I myself felt quite clear-headed. Perhaps there is no time for fear; this is survival, pure and simple. Frightened shop assistants run out of doorways, calling “what’s happening?” and receiving no answers, join our swelling ranks. Ahead I saw a security guard emerge in confusion from a doorway. I don’t know what might be waiting for us outside, so I stop for a moment to ask if there was a place for us to shelter. I had been figuring that after the 1993 bomb, there would be some pretty major security measures. The young man looked at me with scared eyes: “I don’t know, this is my first day, what’s happening?” I called out “bomb” as I returned to the ranks of the running.

I think of that poor rookie occasionally. I’ll never know whether he survived.  Was he one of the guards on the stairs telling people it was safe to return to their offices, just before the building collapsed?

There were no human aggression on the ground. No-one pushed or shoved anyone else, instead we ran as one to find the nearest exit. I remember that I felt quite clear-headed. Nor was there any time for fear; this was survival, pure and simple.

It must have been running on adrenaline. My body just did what it had to do,  rising to the occasion like the athlete’s body it wasn’t. I don’t remember my heart pounding, but I was running so hard that my calves and shoulders would be sore days later.

I remember my thoughts clearly. There were only two ways my situation could resolve itself: I would die, or I would not die. For whatever reason, dying didn’t frighten me. But I wanted more than anything else to help Peter raise our boys and so I formed a two part prayer to my Higher Power, which I repeated over and over as I ran through the World Trade Center.

Please let us make it out of the building;

Please let me bring up my boys

Once we made it outside, most of us continued our walk/run away from the building. Looking back I could see the burning upper stories, but I had no satisfactory explanation. The area was covered in ash and burned paper. People watched stunned, anguished, horrified. I didn’t know what they had seen, I didn’t think of a plane in the sky, I thought of a bomb in the building.

There were no police or firefighters yet, though I could hear sirens. The streets were filthy. I didn’t expect more than one explosion, but on the other hand I wasn’t going to stick around this area: Wall Street, World Financial Center, the whole landscape seemed less safe than what lay north: Canal Street and lower Broadway, pretty low rent addresses, bereft of any universal symbolism.

Like most of the others, I presume, I walked rapidly up north on Broadway.  I marched with an army of strangers, huge numbers of whom were on cellphones. You could tell those who’d been near the explosion because their faces and hair were full of ash, like mine. I thought of Armageddon. It felt like the end of the world

There wasn’t a vacant public phone anywhere. Everyone wanted to reach their loved ones. I had decided to stop when I got to my friend Bebe’s apartment building, on Broadway opposite City Hall. It felt far enough away from the disaster area. I wanted a hug, a cup of tea, and to use her phone to reach Peter.

I rang her bell. She answered “Alison?” surprised to see my face on the video monitor   “Bebe” – I began. Then there was a second explosion in the sky behind me.  It sounded like a bomb had fallen from high. I wondered if we were being bombed by planes. I couldn’t see either tower from this angle. People were running past screaming, and I joined them, running. I wasn’t taking any more chances. I had been spared. I was going to raise my boys. I ran all the way home.

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