I thought about not writing this post because I don’t want to read it. I have spent the last 10 years burying every emotion, ignoring every image, and suppressing every memory because I just can not deal.
It was a time of bottomless sorrow. No question about that. Although I must say, of all the unimaginable things to come out of that sunny September day (and the weeks, months, and years that followed) came one important realization: I now believe in guardian angels.
Call it fate, faith, whatever you will, I am thankful for several interventions that changed the course of events that day. Here's how the universe said, it’s not your time...
Several days prior to the attacks, an executive at my company was scheduled to attend a conference. He was to be a guest speaker at a breakfast being held on Sept 11th at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 106 & 107th floors of the World Trade Center, Tower 1.
I had a good relationship with the publication sponsoring the breakfast, and I had been in contact with the event organizer via phone and email several times to coordinate the details. My boss, another colleague, and I were determining which of us would attend the event with this executive, when a scheduling conflict arose. He decided last-minute to cancel his appearance, making it unnecessary for any of us to go.
I can't even remember what the excuse was, but everyone who did attend, including the woman I was emailing with, lost their lives that day.
I was living in Pine Brook at the time, and left for work that Tuesday like I did every morning. I would drive to Hoboken, park my car in a lot, and take the PATH train across the river to my office in lower Manhattan -- about 8 blocks from the WTC.
I was about to turn on to Changebride Road, the main street that ran through my town, when a woman flagged me down. Never in my 20+ years of living there had someone stopped me, but there she was, needing help. She said she was a teacher at one of the elementary schools in town. Her car had broken down (though there was no car in sight), and she wondered if I could give her a lift to school. Taking her clear across town would have made me very late for work, so I offered her my cell phone instead to contact her principal, or AAA, or her husband for help. She made a quick call and we parted ways.
The whole exchange took less than 10 minutes, but I know the time I spent with this stranger on a street corner in the middle of nowhere saved both my life and my dad’s. Here’s why…
I was running late after stopping for the schoolteacher, eventually pulling into the lot in Hoboken around 8:45am. I should have already been on the train, so I quickly paid the parking attendant. My back was to the city, as I simultaneously heard an explosive sound and saw an expression cross her face that made me afraid to turn around.
Past the train station, I had a clear view of lower Manhattan. One of the Twin Towers was billowing with grey smoke. My dad worked in Tower 1, on the 25th floor. I panicked and immediately called him. He told me they felt a pretty good jolt but they were alright. He said they’d been instructed to “stay put” and then the phone cut out.
I tried re-dialing but it was no use. The lines were all jammed, and would remain that way for hours. I saw a crowd gathering by the entrance to the trains, and I made my way over to a policeman so I could hear his radio. It was then that I watched the second plane fly directly into the left side of the second building, disappearing into a puff of fiery smoke. It was about 9am. I remember someone in the crowd grabbed my hand and cried, “Oh no, not again.”
Completely frantic and realizing no one was getting in or out of the city, I ultimately left to be with my mom. I was in a fog, driving past the Meadowlands on Route 3 about an hour later when Peter Jennings’ voice on the radio told me the first tower had come down. I nearly ran my car into the barricade in the median. I was home with my mother and my brother, glued to the TV, when we saw the second tower fall at 10:30am. No one had heard from my father since he told me he planned to stay put. We all feared the worst. My brother collapsed into a ball on the living room floor. I ran to the kitchen to vomit in the sink.
Sometime after 12:30pm, the phone rang. It was my dad, from a pay phone. I can remember screaming to the operator that yes, we would accept the charges of his collect call. He sounded disoriented, and had no idea the towers had fallen. Apparently, he had been assisting the first responders to pass out wet rags for people to cover their faces and was in the lobby helping to direct people away from seeing the carnage left by people who jumped 100 stories out of sheer desperation. Then, he suddenly left and headed south towards the Staten Island Ferry. He knew I worked on Water Street, but he wasn’t sure in which building, so he went door to door looking for me.
Our call earlier had been disconnected before I could tell him I never made it across the river that morning. He just assumed I had. His need to find me is what drove him away from that scene in the nick of time and undoubtedly saved his life.
Several hours after we heard my dad was ok, he arrived at my aunt’s apartment at 65th and Madison. With no way to get in or out of the city, and all streets shut down, he walked the 5 miles, covered in ashes. A dear friend of mine worked in Tower 2 of the WTC at the time. Her company occupied some of the highest floors in the building, putting her above the point of impact and seemingly sealing her fate.
I can remember being too afraid to know the truth, but I gathered up my courage to give her a call. It rang and rang, then went to voicemail. I had a sick pit in my stomach. Around 5pm that evening, my phone rang again. It was my friend. She would later learn that her colleagues made a life-changing decision to leave when they did. The group that went down in the elevator with her -- in the 15 minutes between the first and second hit -- were saved. The others were among her nearly 200 co-workers who never made it out.
FACE IN A CROWD
Thousands of stories surfaced over the next few days. It took a full week for the city to open up again. The following Tuesday, I boarded a ferry, bound for lower Manhattan because the PATH trains were nonexistent. The boat was jam-packed, but totally silent, as we rode across the Hudson, utterly shell-shocked.
The smoke and soot still hung in the air, coating every surface. A burnt smell stung my nose. Tears were streaming down my face as we pulled into the dock. Along the shoreline, I could see dozens of armed guards, dressed in camo and carrying assault weapons. A tank was there to greet us. It would stay like that every day, for months. It was more than I could handle. This wasn't New York. It was a warzone.
As I stepped off the boat, a familiar face appeared. It was my boss. No, he was more than that -- he was a wonderful friend who came down to the ferry to escort me to the office. It turned out my mother had called him to let him know how upset I was. Ordinarily, I would have been humiliated by that, but these weren’t ordinary times. I was a petrified 28 year old girl. I will never forget his kindness that day, especially when I later learned that his partner had been sick, but he dropped everything to help me. He is an angel on earth, and still has a special place in my heart.
Divine intervention changed the course of our lives, and countless others, that day. I personally knew 10 people who were not as fortunate.
Every year, I go out of my way to avoid the retrospectives. I'm just not that strong. Besides, I don't need to watch a recap of that unthinkable day -- all I need to do is close my eyes and see it unfold. This year, I decided to avoid the city altogether and set up camp with my brother, sister-in-law, and the munchkins up in CT.
We'll spend the day at the zoo, celebrate life, and count our many blessings. Here's hoping you can too.
tags: city life, family, jersey, politics