My Story – Being at Ground Zero on 9/11
by 9/11 Memorial
September 10, 2011 – Boca Raton, Florida
As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I find myself being constantly reminded of the terrible attacks of that day. The media is not helping, showing non-stop graphic material depicting the tragic events. Part of the therapeutic process for victims that have had post traumatic stress disorder is to share their experience with others. Thus, here is my story of that tragic day.
In August 2001, my wife, son and I moved to Battery Park City, New York. For those of you who don’t know where this is; it is located in lower Manhattan and was created by land reclamation on the Hudson River using 1.2 million cubic yards of soil and rocks excavated during the construction of the World Trade Center. Having previously lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we moved here to put my son Mika, then aged 5 into kindergarten at PS89, one of the best public schools in the city.
Our new 7th floor two bedroom apartment was located in South Battery Park on the Hudson River, a few blocks south of the World Trade Center, with beautiful views of the south tower and a partial view of the north tower.
Schools had started the first week of September and my son was starting to get settled in his kindergarten class. His school was located in North Battery Park, a convenient 15 minute walk from our apartment, past the World Trade Center.
The Day that Changed the World
On Tuesday morning September 11, 2001 my wife took our son to school which started at 8:30am.. She helped him get settled in his class and then left the school to walk home along the west side highway. As she was approaching the north tower she noticed an airplane flying very low above her. Before she could even fathom why the plane was flying so low it flew directly into the north tower. Standing in shock and disbelief in what she had just witnessed, debris from the building started to fall around her. Her instinct was to immediately go back to the school and get my son. She returned to the school and entered the classroom to find the teacher frantically trying to cover the windows with paper so the kids couldn’t see the tragedy that was occurring directly in view from their classroom. My wife helped the teacher cover the windows and then left with my son. Looking at the chaos that started to ensue she decided not to walk past the Trade Center and instead walked north in the opposite direction up the west side highway towards the Greenwich Village and Chelsea neighborhoods of Manhattan.
I was in our apartment asleep from working late the previous night. I was awoken to the sound of the sirens from emergency vehicles. I got up and went to our living room to see what was going on. I saw many fire engines and police vehicles traveling north on the west side highway and then looked up at the trade towers to see smoke billowing from the north tower. At first sight I presumed it was a fire in the building. As I was standing at the window trying to figure out what was going on I heard a loud roar directly over our building and then a sudden explosion that sounded like a massive pop. Directly in my view I saw a massive hole in the south tower and millions of papers floating out from the point of impact. Then I saw fire and tons of smoke. Due to the extreme speed of the aircraft and our apartment being so close to the south tower I was not able to see that it was an aircraft. The first thing that came to my mind was that it was a missile attack, perhaps with chemical weapons, and then I thought of my wife and son. I immediately reached for my cell phone and called my wife. Her phone started to ring in the kitchen. She had left her purse and phone at home.
My primary concern at this stage was to find my wife and son. I was hoping that they would both still be at the school. I took my bicycle and started to head towards the school using the walkway along the Hudson River. Thousands of people had started to evacuate the buildings and it became difficult to ride my bike so I got off and started to push it. As I got to the Battery Park City Marina located directly adjacent to the WTC, I saw hundreds of lady’s shoes on the ground. At the time I didn’t realize that the reason for this was when the second plane hit, they were so close that they just left their shoes and ran away.. Passing the Marina I was able to get back on my bike and reach the school. When I arrived at the school I went to my son’s classroom to find it empty. I asked one of the many frantic teachers and parents where the kids were and was told they had relocated all the children to the auditorium. I found my sons school teacher and asked about my wife and son. She told me that my wife was the first parent to pick up their child and that she had left a while ago.
Thinking that my wife and son were heading back to our apartment or were at the apartment I decided to go back to our apartment. This time I was going to try and avoid the Marina. I went as far as I could along the west side highway toward the north tower until I reached an area where the police had blocked the road and were diverting people north and back to the marina. I remember standing at this point looking up at the towers in disbelief thinking how are they going to stop this. I also remember the faces of the FDNY firefighters passing through and thought about the tremendous task they had in putting out the fires in not only one but two buildings. As I stood there watching the north tower I noticed debris starting to fall from the area of the fire and smoke. As the debris started to get closer to the ground I suddenly realized that it wasn’t debris that was falling but were rather people jumping from the building. As I realized this I heard a woman scream “Oh my God they are jumping”.
Not wanting to witness anymore of this horrific event I continued my journey back to the apartment going through the marina again. When I reached the marina area I saw the FDNY cutting the guard rails along the Hudson so that Ferries could evacuate the thousands of people fleeing the area. I was forced again to get off my bike and push it through the crowds. As I passed the marina I got back on my bike and continued to ride back to my apartment building. I had just turned onto our street when I heard what sounded like millions of ceramic tiles being crushed and people shouting the tower is falling. Before I could even look around to see what was going on I got hit by the massive cloud of dust from the collapse of the south tower. Then in the cloud of darkness that pursued my adrenalin pushed me about 100 feet to the entry of our building. I scrambled into the entryway to find our doorman with a large bottle of water from the dispenser, pouring water onto our heads to remove the dust. I entered the lobby of the building to see people crying and lying on the floor frantic as to what had just occurred. The power was out and only the emergency lights were on. I searched the lobby for my wife and son but they weren’t there. My only hope at this stage was that they were in the apartment. I went to the emergency stair well and sprinted up seven floors to my floor, ran down the hall way and opened the apartment door.
The weather on September 11, 2001, happened to be amazing. For this reason I had left the windows to our apartment open. When I opened the apartment door and burst in, it was dark and full of dust. I shouted my wife and sons names and heard nothing. Realizing that they were not there I collapsed onto the floor in tears thinking the worst had happened to them.
In the meantime my wife had reached Greenwich Village and was standing with the hundreds of other people watching the towers burn from afar. She started to speak to a lady about what was going on and said she didn’t know what to do as she had left her bag and phone at home. The lady in the true 911 New Yorker fashion told my wife to come back to her apartment around the corner and stay as long as she needed. When my wife got to her apartment this Angel put on cartoon videos for my son and let my wife use her phone to try and contact me.
Shortly after my collapse on to the floor in our apartment my phone rang, it was my father calling from Florida. I was hysterical and explained that I couldn’t find Sila and Mika. He also became hysterical and was crying on the phone. Not at all like my father who is usually very unemotional. Then the call got cut off. A few minutes later my wife called. I was still hysterical and she repeatedly told me that she and our son were okay. She gave me their address and phone number and I made it my mission to get to them as soon as possible.
Shortly afterwards the dust dissipated from the apartment and I had a clear view of what had occurred. The South tower was gone and the north tower was still standing. The wind on this day was blowing east and pushed the dust toward Brooklyn over lower Manhattan’s Financial District. I started to gather a few things to take with me in a backpack. When I finished packing my bag I witnessed the North Tower collapse. The thought of how many thousands of people just died in that instance was very present. As I was getting ready to leave I heard a hard banging on our apartment door and shouting in the hallway. It was the FDNY evacuating the building. Their concern was a bomb scare relating the Jewish Museum on our street and the possibility of a gas explosion from the gas lines in the area being exposed. We were told to convene in the lobby and were to be evacuated to New Jersey via ferry from the front of our building. New Jersey no way. I was going to get to my wife and son no matter what.
I explained to the doorman of the building my predicament and he let me hide out in the office until we were the last two people in the building. When the NYPD and FDNY personal were gone I put a tea shirt around my face to breathe through the dust, put my backpack on and proceeded south on my bike towards the Battery Park ferry. I then cut into the financial district which was still dark from the dust blowing over it. It was like the scene from a doomsday movie. Black FBI and NYPD vehicles everywhere. As I turned onto Wall Street I was stopped by a policeman who screamed “Hey you on the bike stop”. I stopped and he asked me what the fuck did I think I was doing. I explained to him that I was evacuating and going to Greenwich Village to get my wife and son. He told me ” You are lucky I didn’t fucking shoot you” and then let me leave. I rode towards the Brooklyn Bridge to see hundreds of thousands of people walking over it. No vehicles at all. Then the Williamsburg Bridge, the same thing.
I finally arrived at the building where my wife and son were. I met and thanked the lady that helped them. She let me clean up and change my dusty clothes. I then called a friend of mine who lived in nearby Soho and asked him if I could come to his apartment as I had nowhere to go. We thanked the lady again and started the walk toward Soho. On the way we passed by the now closed Saint Vincent’s Hospital. This was the main triage hospital for the injured yet I recall there was hardly any activity, just hundreds of people waiting outside.
We arrived at my friend’s apartment and he had the television on. It was around 12:30pm and this was the first time that I learned what had actually happened. The attack on the pentagon, the Pennsylvania crash etc. My wife and I then started to call family and friends to let them know we were ok. I called my cousin who lived on the Upper East Side some 90 blocks from where we were. He had left the city as soon as he saw the attacks in the morning to stay with friends in Connecticut. I asked him if we could use his apartment as we had nowhere to stay. He said it would be no problem however the challenge now would be how to get to his apartment as all public transportation and transportation in general had stopped in the city. We couldn’t walk 90 blocks with a 5 year old.
We then ventured out to Canal Street and asked the police how we could get to the Upper East Side. They told us that that they heard that the 4, 5 &6 subway lines were to be resumed at 9pm that evening starting at Canal Street. This was perfect as it would take us directly to the Upper East Side.
At 9pm we boarded the first train to resume service at Canal Street. You would think that at this point this chaotic day had come to an end. At the next stop a young man got onto the train looking very much disorientated. He asked an elderly gentleman sitting across from us what day it was. The elderly man looked kind of mystified at the question and then answered Tuesday. A few seconds later the elderly man’s face went bright red and he started to gasp for breath. He then collapsed on the seating bench in cardiac arrest.
At the next stop I jumped off the train and shouted to the conductor for help. The conductor shouted back that we should proceed to the next stop which was Grand Central station. I shouted back that we can’t wait as the man was dying. The conductor then kept the train at the station and notified the emergency authorities. About 15 minutes later the EMT’s arrived and tried to resuscitate the man to no avail. They put his body on a gurney covered him with a sheet and wheeled him away whilst we sat in horror and watched this.
Shortly thereafter the train resumed service and we safely arrived at my cousin’s apartment. I took a long hot shower and then went to bed ending the craziest day that I have ever had in my life.
Now, I realize that there were many people that had far more traumatic experiences than I and am thankful to be alive and with my family.
To cut a long story short we ended up moving back to our apartment a few weeks later and then moved to Florida six months after that.
I would like to express my sincere condolences to the families of the victims of 911 especially considering the eve of the tenth anniversary. I would also like to thank the FDNY and NYPD for being such heroes on that day.
Lastly I would like to thank the American Red Cross, United Way and the American people for being there for the victims and their families.
God Bless America.
911 – Never Forget.