Where were you when the world changed forever?

WTC from Staten Island Ferry
World Trade Center, from Staten Island Ferry, 1999

(Author’s note: Each year near the remembrance of 9/11, I share this post as a testament to the day itself, it’s events, and the heroes and people we lost in hopes that people will share their stories as well.   Please feel free to share your story in the comments.  Thank you.  -mK)

I was sitting on my bed. Still living at home at the time, out on Staten Island, a old chap of 23 at the time, having just graduated college the year before, I was running a little late to work that morning. I was gainfully employed, had been for more than a year with About.com, who had just recently moved their offices to West 40th Street and Broadway in the Fashion District (they’ll say Times Square, I suppose it was close enough). It was before the bubble had burst, and I was working in the Marketing department as an HTML code monkey/production coodinator/slash whatever. Hey, what did I know. I was out of college, working at a dot-com in the best of times, before the bubble had burst; indeed, before America seemed to lose some of it’s swagger and idealism. Millions were made on companies with shoddy business plans and no revenue – it was an economy of hope, dreams and intentions (some better, and some worse).

That morning, I had just gotten out of the shower, about to get ready to leave for work. I lied on my bed for a quick moment of relaxation before I headed off to work, and the door knock came.

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

Half-dozing in my momentary slumber, I didn’t immediately comprehend the sentence. A plane? The World Center? What? I figured it couldn’t be real. These were the buildings I rolled by on my bus ride home from Manhattan many nights – I actually remember thinking the night before as I rolled by, in the night, what a beautiful and majestic sight they were – remember thinking about how beautiful they looked at night with all of the lights, and yes, how amazing dinner would be when I finally asked my girlfriend at the time to have dinner at Windows on the World.

I’d gotten my current job at a job fair there, had many dates with my then girlfriend there (including our first real “date”, she worked in the building that housed CUNY’s Fiterman Hall, at the time we first met, just north of the Trade Center Complex. She had since taken a job much further uptown.

We shared in gifts that I gave her from the Mall on the concourse level, and indeed, on pesky nights, enjoyed Krispy Kreme doughnuts on the ground level of Building 5 on the Church Street side of the complex. Pace was, after all, just three blocks away, and I’d spent many days near the WTC, on Vesey Street, and near the plaza where the sculpture lived. (It is called The Sphere, by Fritz Koenig and now sits in Battery Park a few miles distant from the WTC site).

September 11 is also my father’s birthday, and some informal dinner plans were being tossed about for later in the evening, usually just a little jaunt to a casual dining place for some food and the quintessential ice cream cake – long a family tradition. Birthday’s were simple but happy times.

So when I finally came too, and rolled over to turn the TV on, there it was. Undeniable proof. The trademark lattice work facade of World Trade Center Tower 1 had a gigantic hole in the side. The news reports first had it was a “small private plane” that had veered off course that had crashed into the building. The “veered off course” part of it was tangible – I mean, why else would a plane fly into a building. But it soon became very apparent that it wasn’t a small plane – no Cessna or Gulfstream could do damage like that.

Where I lived on Staten Island, was at the top of a hill, that provided a birds eye view of the proceedings. After the first plane hit, I ran outside with both my parents, and sure enough – off in the distances was the World Trade Center, the top quarter engulfed in smoke. Cars and trucks started to pull over to watch what was happening. People milled about the very quiet block. I had just run back inside to listen to more news coverage when the newscenter, completely obvilious to what was happening on screen (he was likely looking at copy and listening though an earpiece), missed the silver glint of a second plane. The second plane was banking over and turning and went into the second tower nearly at 90 degrees and, then the crash into Tower 2. We’ve all seen the images from hundreds of different angles, but the news crews at the World Trade Center, and from the studio let out a collective gasp. As did everyone outside – as both my parents and the dozen or so people who had gather outside watched did, watching the plane fly in over New Jersey as an extremely fast moving glint of silver in the distance.

Everyone instantly knew that this was no accident.

The towers burned. And burned for a long while. And inside, the stories of those who made it, and those who didn’t were playing out.  Phone calls to 911.  Phone calls and voicemails to loved ones. But no one – no one thought the towers would go down. After all, they had survived the power of a giant truck bomb in 1993. It was very much a feeling of … this is horrible, but now what. Can they put out a fire so big? How will they get up there? How many people are there?

At this point I picked up a video camera and brought it outside. I filmed for what seemed to be about 45 minutes – the contents of which I haven’t watched since. It probably shows the towers burning, and tilting – we could see in the distance that Tower 2 was starting to tilt ever so noticeably before it collapsed. And then it did. And the pictures from the dozens of media crews, the photos of the people running for their lives, on streets that just that year before I’d tred on regularly, the dust filling the air – the people covered in dust, and bloodied, just etched into my mind in a way that will never be forgotten. The most staggering of them all – the hints of people, who left with no other decision than to pick the way they wanted to pass on – jumped or were blown out of windows from ungodly heights. That, that is what to this day haunts me the most.

In the distance on Staten Island, the visual changed – but we couldn’t tell the tower was down until the news told us it was; indeed the smoke from the debris of the tower rose to some crazy heights – 10 or 20 stories at it’s highest peak. But we knew. It was just a matter of time for the other tower as well.

And then… as Mayor Giuliani continued his evacuation from World Trade Center 7 – which would later collapse in the afternoon started to summarize – the people. All of the people – who worked in the Center, who went to fight the fire – who were in the area, who were tourists. On the PATH trains. The subway trains. The enormity of the thousands of people in harms way that day. Some counts as high as 25,000. Everyone knew someone. The mental math of it all was staggering. All of these people could very well have left us. In a split second.

Staten Island went on lockdown. The ferry was shut as people ran away from the scene to get to the last boats that were leaving. All three bridges leading to Staten Island were closed. There was no way to get on or leave the island.

My girlfriend had called me after the collapse from a landline in midtown to say that she was fine, but she was stuck. I was extremely fortunate having never left the house to be home already, all links with Manhattan and the outside world had been cut and she had no way to get across the river to get home. Her boss offered to put her up in a hotel, and that was were she went for a while. She was at least safer there.

The airports were shut. First the Northeast, then after Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, the entire nation went on a groundstop. Events were happening so furiously – there was really no way to “make it stop”, and everyone panicked. Everyone was suspect, and everyone wanted it to be over. The next three hours were utter chaos. Our President was airborne to avoid attack. Our Mayor was hiding in a bunker. And everyone tried to get through to loved ones on cell phones which didn’t work – because of a combination of the fact that most of the major antennas in the region were on the World Trade Center buildings, the circuits were overloaded with people trying to get through, and the collapse of WTC 7 wiping out a large communication center.

When the heroic passengers of Flight 93 managed to fight their captors and risk their lives so they many more in Washington, D.C. would live, the first part of this drama started to wind down, replaced by the bigger drama of the fate of all of the people affected by the tragedy. At the World Trade Center. At The Pentagon. In Shanksville, PA. The first responders. All of their loved ones. The millions now stranded in New York City.

My mother, at some point in the middle of this, remembered it was my father’s birthday and feeling bad for him on this crazy day, perhaps in an attempt for some normalcy said, “We need to get your father a cake”. Unfortunately, at this point, most of the businesses on Staten Island had too been shuttered.

My girlfriend had decided to go home – not really wanting to be in the city anymore, and decided to figure out a way to get out. She ended up getting on an express bus, with a driver who was nice enough to take anyone he could find in order to get them out of the city. On that bus she stayed for hours, until finally, around 10 or 11, he was finally able to cross one of the bridges back to Staten Island, with a police escort. We were reunited around midnight, and the next two days became a blur of 24 hour news coverage with the rescue effort and the questions of who.. and why?

And as this part of the story played out over weeks and months, the deaths of 2750 people became clear and apparent and implausible and horrific and sad. I’ll never forget the rush of emergency vehicles towards the scene. Coming from everywhere imaginable. Professionals putting their own lives on the line in impossible circumstances – the bravery of these men and women were the foundation from which New York and America would eventually rebuild and recover.

The stories of the heroes of that day – first responders, civilians and ordinary people became known.
The 16 who had survived in the rubble. Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath. Jan Demczur, whose quick thinking and squeegee handle saved 4 men trapped in an elevator. Countless stories of ordinary people who found themselves put into an impossible situation. Some survived. Many more did not.

I tried to go back to work that Friday, because, after 4 days straight of news about the WTC, I was no longer scared, and I needed to fill my mind with something else. The same bus ride I took by the WTC, was now detoured to go the opposite direction. But when I came out of the Battery Tunnel that morning, right near the site, I could see the smoke still billowing on the pile (which it did for months after), and a single 8 or 10 story by 20 feet wide piece of the facade of Tower 2 sticking out of the rubble. When the bus turned left away from the site to the right, I distinctly remember a pile of crushed police cars and fire trucks and more smoke. The entire area was full of smoke.

When I emerged back on 23rd Street, every street corner had 4 cops on it. It was raining, and they all had yellow and orange slickers on. Police cars from all over America were seen for weeks afterwards. Everyone was trying however they could to help. It was a strange day at work, and most of it was spend telling stories of where we were, much like mine right here.

WTC from Staten Island Ferry

The weeks after were a strange combination for New Yorkers – tragedy and loss, shock. But determination to never let it happen again. The Dow plunged nearly 1400 points the week after the markets reopened.   No one knew what was next for New York, or even, America.  The kindness displayed by New Yorkers was unnatural – it was as if everyone looked out for everyone else. The support for the rescue workers. The amount of people who volunteered on “The Pile”. The fact that everyone really cared about everyone else again. This was an attack on OUR city, and New Yorkers just were not about to take it lying down. But the love and support of America helped more than any rugged New Yorker will ever admit. But, it helped to usher back New York to it’s place on the world stage (and on behalf of all New Yorkers, thank you).

9/11 was a watershed moment in the generation who lived through it. Some compare it to the Kennedy assassination, or John Lennon’s murder in terms of having so deep an emotional impact that people, years and years later, will be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

Tribute in Lights

Tribute in lights in 2008

Tribute in lights in 2012

(Updated: 9/10/2014 with text in red :) )

I’m nearly over 30 now. That girlfriend has gone off and married someone else (and now has a TWO adorable daughters), but we’re still good friends. I’m in a loving and wonderful relationship with my girlfriend fiancee married now, and live with a 2 cats, a chinchilla and a betta fish (RIP).  I’m back working at About.com again.  From our apartment in Queens, we can see the Tribute in Light during the week of 9/11. And we remember. We remember those we lost (now, also including my mom who first broke the 9/11 news on December 6, 2008). We remember why life can be good, and valuable and precious, and why it really is too short. We remember how we felt, and how it makes us feel now.. 7 13 years later (no, I can’t believe it’s 7 13 years later). We should never forget.  We remember by telling our stories.

Thank you for letting me share mine with you.

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17 Responses to “Where were you when the world changed forever?”

  1. coskay September 10, 2008 at 11:46 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story, it’s not an easy thing to do.
    I wasn’t in the states for 9/11 last year, and I felt out of place. I wish I were in NY tomorrow, but please know my thoughts are with everyone who was affected by the greatest tragedy of our lifetime.

  2. Matt September 10, 2008 at 11:49 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Matt. I don’t have the same story as you, but we — like so many others — share one that is similar enough…

  3. Melissa Thiessen September 11, 2008 at 4:49 am #

    It was 1 week before I moved up to Philadelphia for undergrad. My father was driving me to work at the grocery store I worked at over the summer, and we heard on the radio a plane had hit one of the towers, but no one had information or was making a big deal about it. As I sat in the break room in the back of the store, since I didn’t have my shift until later in the day, the radio kept revealing more horrifying news of the towers, the plane in Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh where my then boyfriend had just begun CMU, and the plane hitting the Pentagon, only 2 hours from my home in Richmond. I couldn’t just keep sitting there. My boyfriend’s dad occasionally worked out of the towers for his job at Phillip Morris, I was nearly sick with worry. I worked for 13 hours that day to keep myself doing something other than worrying.

    Eventually, the next day, I got a hold of my boyfriend. He was fine, his dad had not been in NYC that day. That boyfriend and I are no longer together, though we keep in touch occasionally via Facebook. My mother freaked slightly with me going to school in the middle of Philadelphia the next week, but move-in went as planned.

    I visited the WTC site 5 years ago with my then roommate on a trip to NYC. It was a humbling experience. My thoughts today are with anyone who was affected by the events of that day.

    Thank you, Matt, for sharing your story and letting us share ours.

  4. Shelley Greenberg September 11, 2008 at 8:55 am #

    I was a junior in high school in Silver Spring, MD (not far from DC). I remember I was sitting in Ms. Brinsko’s biology class. When the announcement first came over the loud speaker, no one knew quite what to think. So we nervously continued with our lesson.

    The next period was jazz singers (aka goof around time, unless we had a concert coming up). And here we had access to a TV, which we sat glued to. I remember thinking of my best friend’s older sister who had just that year started school at NYU and being worried for her (she ended up being fine).

    Then we got word about the Pentagon, and most concerning for me, that the Capitol building might be another target. My mom works for the Senate. I didn’t know this at the time, but she was actually IN the basement of the Capitol building that day, teaching a class. One thing you have to understand about the Capitol building basement is that it is literally a brick maze (I know, I worked there one summer), which only made evacuating it only more worrisome and confusing. Ultimately though, everyone got out safely.

    So that’s my story. Thank you for sharing yours Matt, and, like others said, letting us share ours.

  5. Sunny Rissland September 11, 2008 at 10:50 am #

    I was a junior in high school in Langley, Virginia (about 5 miles from downtown DC and an eighth of a mile from the CIA) at the time. I was waiting outside the school that morning for a friend to pick me up for a vocational class we took at another school, and when she pulled up she yelled out the window of her car that the first tower had been hit. We drove to class listening to the radio coverage, and once we got there all eyes were on the TV news.

    When we heard about the pentagon, all hell broke loose. My friend and a few other classmates had family who worked there. She tried calling her dad who worked in the part of the building that had been hit, and couldn’t get through. No one could get through. By the time we left to head back to school the beltway had come to a stand-still. We had to take back roads and even those were jammed. When we got back to my school the parking lots were crammed with parents trying to find their kids. I remember my mom was so scared and worried. My dad was on a flight from DC to Denver, CO that morning. I thank God he was OK.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Meg September 11, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    Thank you for sharing your story. Much love.

  7. Kieran Hawe September 11, 2008 at 12:06 pm #

    Very similar story – but I was in Connecticut. I was living at home getting ready for work and watching channel 4 when it all went down.

    3 things really stand out for me in regards to 9/11 – 1) at first it felt like the scenes on the TV were a million miles away. But, then when my friend and I went down to the beach and could see the smoke rising from the towers reality sunk in. 2) the sound of jet fighters screaming above my house all day long and 3) going to the stamford train station everyday and seeing a red dodge viper of a guy I knew worked on wall street sit there…collecting dust… for probably 6 months. Finally they towed away his car with the words “R.I.P 9/11/01″ written in the dirt on the hood of his car.

    After a couple hours my friend and I decided to get in my car and drive down to see what we can do…never even got close to Manhattan and ended up in the Bronx watching the news with 50 other people in a pizzaria. Not sure what we would have been able to do if we made it downtown but it was one of those moments where you feel you had to do something.

  8. Vanessa September 11, 2008 at 10:59 pm #

    21 and a senior in college

    “Tuesday, September 11, 2001
    8:45 AM

    A call this morning from Mike’s mom, and we turn the TV on, in time to see the third plane crashing into the 2nd World Trade Center, in time to see the first disappearing in a puff of smoke, and hear, finally, that one of the planes was an American Airlines plane hijacked from Boston. My first thought, “Thank goodness Dave and Rob don’t really fly out of Boston – They’re international…” My second thought, “But Sheila ISN’T!” I immediately get on the phone to call Sheila. Her voice is raw from crying. She is okay – at home in San Antonio. David was in Chicago about to take off, and Rob was safe at home. Thankfully, all outgoing flights have been canceled, and everyone I care about is safe.

    I hang up and start bawling into Mike’s shirt. Eventually I compose myself, temporarily. He runs to school and I call my mom, who is very concerned about me, and is thankful and relieved to hear Sheila is safe and in town. She called Robert first. His cell phone is not working, possibly because the Trade Center Tower #1 has fallen. Suddenly, the second tower collapses into a heap – a pile of dust. I start crying and mom is concerned. She tells me I may be wrong. She can’t believe the whole thing is gone – fallen into a pile of dust.

    How odd, it seems, when only the top was destroyed the whole thing would crumble. I wonder what they will build there now.
    I don’t want to go to school. I want to be with my family. I want to hug Sheila because she is still here; she is ok, thank god…

    So the Pentagon was crashed into and the State Dept. was bombed (car bomb). Shade says, “but this means war in our lifetime Ness…this is worst we’ve seen.” and I suppose he’s right. After all, we need something to boost the economy, right Mr. President? I don’t want to believe it was an “inside job.” I don’t want to believe this has happened, period.

    I’ve got to go… School starts in 30 minutes, after all.”

  9. selina September 12, 2008 at 12:30 am #

    “We remember by telling our stories,” you wrote. Thank you for such a detailed account of your experience. Indeed it was a life defining moment for us all.

  10. Diana December 8, 2008 at 4:04 pm #

    Thank you for writing this.

  11. Chandlee Bryan September 11, 2009 at 9:59 am #

    I was working as a career counselor at the University of Pennsylvania. I generally got to work at 9 or even 9:30, but that morning I arrived abnormally early.

    It was the second week of the fall semester and it was–as September always is on an Ivy League campus at the height of fall recruiting–an atmosphere of near-hysteria. I saw an average of 16 students per day for individual appointments, and was on e-mail at all hours.

    That morning, I had a noon workshop scheduled and a morning meeting with several Wall Street recruiters for 9 am. I went in early to finish my presentation slide deck.

    I was wearing bright orange silk pants. It was the first time I had worn them. The air was cool.

    When I got to work, I finished my presentation. I checked CNN just before my meeting, and learned that the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. It looked like a small hit in the initial photo. Maybe an accidental Cessna.

    In the meeting, the recruiters talked of a change in recruiting strategy: This year, they were going to expand their search to include liberal arts majors with a GPA of 3.6 or higher (as opposed to purely business undergrads). For them, it was “big deal”–and a golden opportunity for students. They were willing to look at students in two majors who had completed certain course requirements. I remember thinking it was a narrow opening–for only a handful of students. And what a luxury it was that the firm was able to send three senior leaders down to the school to tell us of this change.

    At the end of the meeting, we learned of the second plane. We said goodbye to our Wall Street friends who were heading back to New York to check on colleagues; they cancelled their presentation for that evening.

    The towers fell down. I called friends in New York. Phone lines were jammed.

    At noon, my office closed. And sent everyone home. The Director asked me if I would stay just in case anyone showed up at my workshop.

    I had over 30 students show up for my workshop– a presentation on the full-time job search process for the liberal arts student. A student told me she liked my pants. I told her, they “remind me too much of a fireball.” I asked for a minute of silence. The workshop continued on. Several students asked questions about how to get jobs on Wall Street and how to position themselves for i-banking jobs. No one wanted to talk about what was happening in New York, I stuck to my slide deck.

    I walked home. Got e-mail from a friend at Merrill who I had been thinking about all morning. Watched the coverage on CNN. And thought of all the graduates of the school where I’d work who’d been lucky enough to work in the towers. Who had earned a 3.6 or higher. And I hoped that they had been able to make it out. (Most did, but a few didn’t.)

    I never wore the pants again.

  12. Katy Kelley September 9, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Although now a Brooklynite, 9 years ago I was still living in Iowa. I was working on my thesis, up early and chatting with the head of the Communications Department at the university. His assistant rushed into his office, screaming that something was happening in New York. Internet wasn’t readily available at the time, so we joined the gathering crowd outside his office hovering around a small, rabbit-eared television.

    We saw the first tower burning, reports from the local newscaster saying a plane had gone off course. Then, within ten minutes, a second plane had hit. I felt sick, rushed out of the comms building and ran to my best friends house, who only lived a block off campus.

    She was still in bed. In Iowa, we leave our doors unlocked, so I burst in and startled her awake. We sat together on her bed, huddled under her comforter watching the towers fall. We thought the worst; World War 3, massive destruction, poison in the water…everything sensationalist media had taught us.

    We did not peel our eyes away from the news for three days.

    When classes started back up again, many of our classmates were gone. So many sensationalist families in the area had yanked their kids and gone into hiding…or…several were part of the army reserve and had gone to their bases. Their absence was a palatable remembrance of what happened.

    Now a New Yorker, I have more respect for what happened and what this city had to endure to pull together, push through and come out taking the high road. We helped each other, did not pass judgment in a sweeping arch and pulled together just like a small town would have.

  13. Ellen September 10, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    It was my sophomore year at Tech. I’d spent the night with my boyfriend Chris and we both had 9am classes that morning. We were getting ready to walk out of his door when the first plane hit. I remember standing there in his doorway watching on his small TV. We looked at one another and just thought it was a horrific accident, then proceeded to class.

    Walking down the sidewalk that morning, the Atlanta skyline was gorgeous. The Bank of America building, or the ‘pencil building’ as most people call it, is the most prominent feature of the skyline and is closest to campus. I had a fleeting thought of, “how odd and scary would it be if a plane flew into that…” Tuesday and Thursday classes are an hour and a half due to the shortened weekly schedule. I turned off my phone before heading into my Genetics class and until 10:30, I still thought that the plane flying into the WTC tower was an accident.

    Our class was dismissed and I turned on my phone to find numerous messages from frantic family members, mostly my mom. I still hadn’t seen any of the most recent footage but I remember her saying, “They’ve hit the Pentagon. Please get out of Atlanta please…you’re right around the corner from the CDC…please let me know you’re alright!”

    It took another hour to get off of campus. The traffic was terrible, classes had been cancelled. The radio announced that Atlanta was a target, mostly for the CDC, secondly for Hartsfield-Jackson and third, which I was unaware of at the time, that Tech was a research haven for DoD work. Back at Chris’ apartment, there were 10 or so of us huddled in their living room for hours watching and re-watching the footage. After an hour or so, the two of us climbed into his bed to watch from his TV. I remember crying for the first time, because we were finally alone and I didn’t have to put on a brave face. The world would never be the same; we would never be the same.

    Chris picked up the phone later that evening to call his dad. It was his birthday. I waited for 4 hours to give blood the very next day and helped process blood donations for the next month. Every year on the anniversary of September 11th Chris and I trade emails or phone calls. The recognition of extreme vulnerability in another person isn’t something you ever forget, and so you remember.

  14. Hannah E. September 11, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    I was in middle school, 7th grade, in Michigan. At that time middle schoolers didn’t have cell phones, let alone smart phones. We weren’t as connected to the world. So when it happened, I didn’t know it happened.

    Probably by 10:30 or so, a few of us noticed the teachers were acting a bit strange, especially one who I later found out had a son visiting NYC.

    We heard things like, “The World Trade Center has collapsed.” I had no idea what the World Trade Center was. In my ignorance, I thought it was the stock market or something similar.

    We got the details at lunch. Our principal came into the cafeteria and stood on the stage and in the simplest terms possible, explained what happened. What I remember the most from his talk was his repeated assurances that we were safe.

    All activities that day were canceled – sports practices and games, which for me, meant I didn’t have basketball practice.

    When I got home after school, the gravity of the situation hit me. My mom was sitting on the living room floor surrounded by laundry she was folding with the television on. I could tell she had simply been watching all day, like the rest of the nation, trying to process what had happened. That was the first time I saw the images that are forever burned into my and everyone’s mind.

    Thank goodness for Moms. She didn’t sugarcoat anything for me. She helped me understand what had happened and possibly why it was happening.

    Last year I visited New York City for the first time. During my short time there I often found myself trying to imagine the chaos and tragedy of that day. I never could do it and I never will.

    Like New York City, like the rest of the country and like most of the world, I remember.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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