Where were you when the world changed forever?

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WTC from Staten Island Ferry
World Trade Center, from Staten Island Ferry, 1999. Photo by the author.

(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

Update: 9/11/2019

I’m 40 now. That girlfriend has gone off and married someone else (and now has a TWO adorable daughters), but we’re still friends. I’m married to my best friend now too, and we live with a dog and 2 cats, and we live north of NYC now. I came back to work at, and have since left About.com again.
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.. 18 years later. We should never forget. We remember by telling our stories.

Thank you for letting me share mine with you.