Monday, September 12, 2011

Ten Years and One Day:
My Story of September 11, 2001

September 12, 2011 - ten years and one day after the terrorist attacks on America. I rose for work this morning after a long weekend of avoiding the bombardment of TV tributes and memorials to the tenth anniversary of the attacks. A part of me doesn't want to remember. I don't want to be reminded of the atrocities of that day. I don't want to acknowledge the fear that sits in the back of my mind as I take the train to work, cross over the Manhattan Bridge, and walk past the Empire State Building. I don't want to think that history can repeat itself. Yet to forget is to remain in ignorance and cast aside the memories of the men and women who died that horrible day. I don't want to remember, but I can't forget.

You may have read many stories over the years about September 11, 2001. Now, I'd like to tell you mine...

I was seventeen years old, a senior in high school. I lived with my aunt, a woman you've read about in this blog and who I call Auntie N. My mother had died less than two years earlier.

The morning was beautiful as I recall. Clear skies and a crisp breeze that promised Autumn was on its way. I sat in class sleepy, struggling to pay attention. I enjoyed school. I was a straight-A student, but mornings were always rough. With my head leaning against my fist, my eyes slanted to the doorway where my best friend, *Lynn, had suddenly burst into the room. She whispered to the teacher and motioned for me to come follow her.

Oh God, I thought. What fresh hell is this. Although, I'm sure my thoughts weren't quite that poetic. After everything I'd been through over the last two years with my mother's death and the nightmare of a family court case, the poetry seemed appropriate.

"Tina," Lynn said as she dragged me into the hall. "Something's happened."

I gathered that from her bursting into the classroom. But, the fact that she called me "Tina" caused a coldness to spread from my stomach through my body. She always called me "Teena Bean" or "Beanie" or "Tee", never my name, never "Tina".

"What's going on?" I half whispered afraid of asking. Whatever she was about to tell me was going to be loud enough.

"My friend has a cell phone that gets news on it." (This would have been especially cool to hear considering cell phones were the newest technology at the time - beepers or pagers still claiming mass market teen appeal - but not today. ) "A plane hit the World Trade Center. Doesn't Auntie N work there?"

"A plane ...Yes, she works there ... Oh my God, my grandma!" I didn't say anything else. The news started to spread through the school. Students and teachers alike were ushering into the hallways in droves. I grabbed Lynn and ran for the exit. "We've got to go. We've got to get to her." Half my heart meant her as in *Auntie N, but my brain knew that the her meant by grandmother.

Lynn followed without question as I knew she would. When she first heard the news, her first thought was of me. That's the type of person she was - and still is - a person who thinks of others first and herself last.

The run from the school to the nearest pay phone felt like an eternity. But, as my lungs nearly burst from the early morning exertion, I scrambled in my pocket for change and dialed my grandmother's number. "Hello, grandma?" I said between gasps.

"Tina? Oh my God. Please, Tina."

My grandmother's frantic sobs had me petrified. I never felt so far away and so helpless, though I didn't let her know it. "Listen to me. Have you heard from her? Have you heard from Auntie N?"

"No. There's nothing. I can't find her. Please. I can't lose her. I can't lose another daughter."

It took another few seconds, precious seconds, for her to calm down enough so I could speak again. "Ok. It's going to be okay. Where's grandpa?"

"He went to get *MJ. Please. I can't."

The strain made her voice high-pitched and frail. My grandmother, my strong capable independent grandmother, sounded weak and I was over an hour away by bus. "I'm coming. I'm coming right now. Just sit down. Leave the phone lines open. I'll be there as fast as I can."

I hung up. Lynn's eyes looked far bluer than normal, fear and determination crystallized them. "We have to get there."

As we raced for the bus stop, angels sent a taxi cab rolling down the street. I hardly believed it. Hell, I didn't even see it until Lynn practically jumped in front of it. The driver's face showed stunned disbelief as he listened to the radio and saw two crazy teenaged girls in front of his cab. Yet, he stopped for us. And without a dime in our pockets to pay him, he took us the thirty minute drive - cutting our time in half - to my grandmother's house. When I tried to tell him to wait so I could go into the house and get some money, he just smiled sadly and said, "It's alright." I would have cried right then, but I didn't have the time. "Thank you," I muttered as my lips trembled. He drove away and we bolted into the house.

My grandfather hadn't returned with *MJ yet, and my grandmother sat stiffly on the kitchen chair staring between the phone and the TV. "Another plane hit," she said. I've heard of people feeling numb. I'd felt numb after my mother died. But, I'd never heard anyone sound numb until then. "They say it's an attack."

"Have you heard from her? Has she called?" I went to my grandmother's side, patting her shoulder awkwardly.

"No. Nothing."

My grandmother was so small. I never noticed it before. I reached an inch over five feet at around eleven years old and stopped growing. I had a good four inches in height on her for the past six years, but she always seemed bigger to me. At that moment, however, I towered over her and it made me sick.

"It's going to be fine. She's okay. I know it." I didn't know it. I didn't have a clue. Lynn sat in the kitchen quietly observing us, lending comfort and support as she always did. Some time later my grandfather returned with MJ - my then nine year old cousin. MJ was a fun loving and trouble-making kid, but he sat in silence in the living room from the second he stepped through the door. My grandfather took the fourth - and last - chair at the kitchen table.

Hours passed. I couldn't say how long, but eventually the phone rang. We'd been sitting quietly so long, staring at the horrific images on TV that the abrupt ringing startled all of us. My grandmother jumped up first. "Hello?" she said. Then, relief and an "Oh my God" passed her lips. Auntie N was alive.

Talk, chatter, inane babbling took up the remaining hours. The oppressive silence no longer bared down on us.

Auntie N had worked at 7 World Trade, the building across from the Twin Towers. When the first plane hit, she'd raced out of the building with the rest of her colleagues. They walked in a blind daze a block or so, when the second plane hit. She saw it collide with the tower. Panic set in and people began to race away from the buildings. But, no one got very far when the first tower came tumbling down. As the debris raced along the street like a cloud of death, a man pushed her against a wall and covered her. We still don't know the stranger's name, but our family is forever thankful to him.

The next few hours, the city came to a halt. Buses, trains, cars all stood still like motionless sentinels. Auntie N walked toward the Brooklyn Bridge, her high heels gone, clothes and hair covered in soot. When she finally made it into downtown Brooklyn, she caught a ride to the south end toward our family. I went with my uncle - Auntie N's brother - to pick her up.

The sight of her covered in dirt, haggard and beaten down by the trial she'd been through, broke my heart. Yet, the swell of relief that bubbled inside me upon seeing her alive, burst. We didn't hug. We didn't speak. Instead, I tucked her in the back of the car and sat next to her holding her hand.

It would take two years before she'd set foot in Manhattan again, but she lived. When so many others died that day, our family was lucky. I will never forget how many families were not, including a friend of my husband (then boyfriend). His name was Charlie. He worked as a chef at Windows on the World, the beautiful glass restaurant that sat at the top of the North Tower. He went into work early and never came home.

For all the loved ones that never came home, for the families that still grieve, for the heroic men and women who ran toward danger so others could run from it, I promise that I will always, no matter how painful, remember.

*All names have been changed.

8 comments :

  1. I'm so grateful that your aunt came home to you that day.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I'm so glad that your family was okay.

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  3. Tina, such a powerful story. I'm so glad that your aunt survived and that you had your grandparents to wait by your side.

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  4. I know it's a painful memory but it's one I'm glad you shared.

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  5. What a wonderful story. I'm so glad your aunt survived.

    Also, I gave you an award over at my blog if you'd like to check it out!

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story. It made me cry. The thing that really makes me emotional is how kind people were to each other at that time. Like the cab driver or the man on the street that thought to help your aunt. Thanks again for sharing.

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  7. Thanks everyone for your kind words and support!

    And Kate, thank you for the blog award. :)

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  8. This made me cry. Thanks for sharing, Tina. It's good to remember.

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