The old World Trade Center was a second home for me. I worked there for 3 years at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, before taking a job 3 blocks away on Wall Street just three months before 9/11.
On the morning of that horrific day, I was walking to the subway along University Place in the East Village, in NYC. Two people were looking at the sky and pointing in such an animated way, I had to look. I saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I picked up my cell and called my former co-worker and friend Linda’s husband but it kept getting disconnected. I don’t know why I called, or what I was possibly going to say. At the time, I thought it was a small plane that hit, but that was enough to be worried for her.
Not able to get through on the phone, I took the 4 train down to Wall Street, and went to my office at 40 Wall, just blocks away. As I walked the 2 blocks from the subway to my building, I kept my eyes barely open. They burned, from all the debris and smoke filling the air. As I walked into the office, I realized this was no small plane. Co-workers were crying on the phone. People were packing up and leaving. There was a sense of panic in the air. I called my parents quickly, then I left too. I do believe the subway I got on back to Union Square was one of the last to run, if not the last. On that train, people stood paralyzed, stone-faced, some covered in soot, not sure what to say, how to react. It was surreal.
When I reached home, I learned the first tower had fallen. The day was a blur. But, I also have some vivid memories. I walked back downtown after sitting at home, not able to make a call, or help in any way. And I felt I had to go see. I remember the smoke cloud. I remember running into a former co-worker, an older gentleman named Bob, and how he calmly recounted what he’d been through for fear of upsetting me. I remember the countless hours of TV coverage, and how CNN had to broadcast out of NY1 (which would later become the first TV station I worked at).
I had worked at 2 World Trade Center on the 64th floor from 1997-2000. It was an important, life-changing job in that I met some of my best friends, and I learned a lot there. A few months earlier, I had left for a new job and ended up a few blocks away at American Express, but my heart was always in those two tall buildings.
I took pictures with Japanese tourists, marveled at how the towers were so tall they had their own zip code, and even ate at Windows on the World once.
I Christmas shopped in the shops below, and bought smoothies from the same guy every day.
The towers swayed in the wind, part of their design, a fact evident when I’d sit in a window office for a meeting. And you could always find south and north, just by looking up and spotting those 2 huge towers.
It was the TV coverage that really struck me later that day, and the days to follow. 3,000 families didn’t know where their loved ones were. They went to hospitals fully expecting to find them, but the hospitals were empty. They seemingly vanished, that was the most heartbreaking thing. Hour after hour, I’d watch local reporters stand by hospital buildings where walls of hand-made signs hung with pictures of loved ones on them, begging for information. It seemed like the most important and humbling job in the world to help reunite these people, however, it never happened. But, we didn’t know that then. I remember the TV coverage the day of, and the day after the most. When there was disbelief. When we feared 10,000 were dead. When people were walking up to live reporters and giving out their cell phone numbers on the air just in case someone had spotted their husband, their daughter, their aunt.
It wasn’t long after that I switched my career to TV journalism. It was a combination of a couple of things that led me to do that. 1 – understanding that if I could potentially die on any given day for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I didn’t want to die not ever having really lived. 2 – the economy took a hit, and I was offered a buyout at my job at American Express, so the fork in the road presented itself. 3 – I saw how crucial the reporting of stories and dissemination of information via TV journalism was, and I wanted desperately to use my best skills to be a part of it, to be a part of the greater good.
I started at the bottom, and worked my way up. It was a day that changed so many people’s lives, including mine. I know there are many more impactful stories than mine. I met or interviewed those people in the months to come. The husband who’s wife had died, and he was now raising two young girls alone, grappling with how to explain to them what happened to their mom. The friend who’s mom died that day, shaping the rest of her life. The friend who we had just rang in the New Year with, who would now never see his 30th birthday.
By the way, Linda made it out. Many of my friends did. Many of them saw the most horrific things on their escape. I’ll leave those out.
There was also a sense of community in New York City. I saw firsthand the crowds of people that would wait along the now-shuttered West Side Highway waving signs to thank the First Responders as they drove past. People who volunteered their time and money to drop off food or socks to the people who were working on the pile day after day. All of these stories humbled me, and I was honored to tell and share them.