September 11: Thirteen Years Later

The Tribute in Light to remember September 11, 2001. (Photo by David Shankbone)

In the weeks and months after 9/11, I started seeing bumper stickers that said “Never Forget” and I couldn’t imagine why we needed be reminded. How could anyone possibly forget that day?

The Tribute in Light to remember September 11, 2001. (Photo by David Shankbone)
The Tribute in Light to remember September 11, 2001. (Photo by David Shankbone)

But we do forget.

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For a long time afterward, I thought about the losses of 9/11 every day. Every day.

On each anniversary, I would use my work computer to stream NBC New York’s live coverage of the memorial so that I could listen to it while working at my day job. I felt I owed it to those who lost their lives, and their families. Not only would I remember them each day, but that I would particularly honor them every year by making sure to listen to their names as they were called out during the service—especially my two high school friends who lost their lives as Cantor Fitzgerald employees, Adele and Nicky. But over time, jobs changed, and I lost that ability to stream the annual memorial. And slowly, over more time, the memories of the day started to slip away from me.

Life has positively shifted for me since September 11, 2001. All my plays have been produced since then, not before. Relocation, marriage, job promotions, job changes, a better financial situation, a beautiful home. I consider myself lucky and am grateful for my life. I take nothing for granted, and I pay it forward or give back however I can. But each year as we get closer to the anniversary, I realize that I no longer keep the promise to myself that I would think of those we lost on 9/11 every day. I only occasionally think of them now.

I recently thought about them when the 9/11 Museum was unveiled. I was sad to see a gift shop had opened on such sacred ground.

I recently thought of them at my job, when we were required to attend a mandatory emergency procedures meeting to instruct us how to evacuate from our four-story building, and I spent the entire meeting reliving how I evacuated from the 42nd floor of a midtown office building that day.

I thought of them this morning prior to writing this, thanks to the clear blue sky. Though not the same vivid blue sky of that day, which was a particular color blue that I’ve never seen since and will never see again.

Other than those few recent occurrences, I no longer think of them every day.

A few years after 9/11, I spent time taking notes on my experience from that day. Not necessarily to share—though I will reshare it here from my old blog that I no longer use—but to use as a record for myself of what happened, because over time I know that memories get hazy. Writing it down was my best way of never forgetting.

World Trade Center in the clouds

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Left my apartment earlier than usual because it was the mayoral primary.
Normally I left at 9:00 but that morning I left at 8:40.
Normally I would have heard about the first plane on the news.
But I was already gone.
Walked to the voting place and the weather was incredible.
Clean crisp air, blue skies, not a single cloud.
Thinking it was similar to a Norway day.
When the first plane hit I was in the voting booth.
Pulling the lever for Mark Green.
Had no idea what was happening downtown.
The voting poll place was on Broadway near my 86th Street subway entrance.
Darted down the stairs and the train came right away.
The train was empty and quiet.
Reading American Theatre magazine.
Got off at 50th Street and started walking south on Broadway.
Was thinking how I would be leaving NYC for good in two months.
In July I had taken a voluntary severance package.
The record company I worked for was merging with a rival.
In November my lease was expiring.
I would be starting a new journey somewhere else.
Emergency services vehicle came screaming down Broadway.
Lights and sirens going, but it was the speed that caught my attention.
Watched him fly by me, south.
At that point can’t see the towers from Broadway.
And then I wasn’t looking up when I could have seen them.
Arrived at 1540 Broadway.
Elevator lobby was empty.
Maybe this is a big vacation week.
But why?
We’re past Labor Day.
Had the elevator to myself and got off at the 8th floor cafeteria.
Needed my yogurt parfait and coffee.
Usually crowded in the cafeteria, but there was nobody there.
Felt like it was a holiday that nobody told me about.
Cashier didn’t say anything.
Back on the way to my floor, and the 8th floor cafeteria elevator lobby is empty.
Now I’m really wondering.
Got on the elevator to the 42nd floor.
As the doors were closing, coworker Brenda ran up to elevator.
She stopped the doors by cutting her arm through them.
– I’m coming up to your floor!
– Okay.
Me and her riding alone.
– I’ll get a better view from where you sit.
– Of what?
– Plane crash in the towers!
– Wow.
Thinking probably a small Cessna.
Couldn’t imagine how, on such a clear morning.
Expressed it to 42nd floor.
That never happens.
Now it’s almost 9:30.
Elevator doors opened and Brenda ran ahead of me to the main conference room.
It was adjacent to my cubicle.
I walked by our receptionist.
She was on the phone and crying.
I’m puzzled.
As I passed her she looked in my eyes and slowly shook her head No.
Placed on my desk my yogurt parfait and coffee, placed my bag in my drawer.
Walked into the conference room and saw both towers burning.
The law firm where I previously worked is directly across the street from the towers.
I still have friends and family who work there.
Picked up the conference room phone and called Maureen’s work phone at the firm.
No answer.
No operator picking up either.
Tried again.
No answer.
Asked Brenda what time it happened.
– 8:45 and then 9:00.
Knew that Maureen was on her way to work at that point.
She wouldn’t have arrived yet.
She would still be on the bus on the Gowanus Expressway.
The law firm hours began at 9:30.
Used the conference room phone again to call my parents in New Hampshire.
They had retired there.
My dad answered.
– We’re watching it on tv.
– I’m watching it out the window.
– I saw the second plane hit on tv. Bastards.
– How are they going to rescue all those people on the top floors?
– I don’t think they can.
– Maybe they can use a helicopter.
– There’s too much smoke.
– The top floors look like they’re going to slide off. Like a drunk tiered cake.
– Yeah, I’m afraid of that too.
The concept of losing the top section of the tower is incomprehensible to me.
– Should I stay in my building or leave? Am I safe?
– They’ve done what they wanted to do. You’re probably okay to stay.
– Alright. I’ll call you again later.
Went to a coworker’s office where people were gathering.
He had a television.
His windows faced the towers.
Peter Jennings was on the tv.
My eyes darted between the tv image and real image out the window.
Brain trying to comprehend it all.
Feeling panic.
Top of north tower leaning even more like a tiered cake about to slide its top.
I didn’t want to witness that.
The towers meant everything to me.
Since I was kid, and could see their tops from my bedroom window in Staten Island.
But only in winter, when the leaves were off the trees.
Every night they beckoned me to live a life in Manhattan.
Which I did.
Peter Jennings says a plane has just hit the Pentagon.
Office panic.
None of us felt safe any longer.
Especially on the 42nd floor of an office building in the heart of Times Square.
We all fled.
Ran to my desk, called Michele one floor below.
– I’m leaving.
– Me too. They hit the Pentagon. Meet me on 41.
Hung up with her, and boss Bill called.
– Get out of the building, now.
– We’re all leaving.
– Go home and call me when you get there.
Grabbed my bag, left the parfait yogurt and coffee.
Elevator or stairs?
Elevator is faster.
But if something happens, I’m stuck.
Elevator or stairs?
How long will it take to descend 42 flights by foot?
Elevator or stairs?
I just want to get out of here.
I get on the elevator with eight other people.
I press 41 to pick up Michele.
We stop at 41 and a guy and girl get on.
She’s crying.
I’m repeatedly pushing the Open Door button while I wait for Michele.
She’s not here yet.
Others are repeatedly pushing the Ground Floor button.
I’m repeatedly pushing the Open Door button.
Panic, stress, tension.
– Stop. I’m waiting for Michele.
– We want to get to the street.
Finally Michele arrives and slips into the elevator.
We all ride in silence 41 floors to the street.
Except for the crying girl.
When the doors open in the lobby we all run out.
Some go out the main entrance on 45th Street.
Michele and I go out the back entrance on 46th Street.
We start jogging north to our apartment buildings.
All the office buildings in Times Square are emptying onto Broadway.
Hundreds of people are heading north.
In the bright sun with blue sky and no clouds.
Michele and I don’t speak.
Out of breath.
Now we’re briskly walking north.
With everyone else.
A business woman hails a cab.
He pulls over to pick her up.
She opens the door, looks at the driver, closes the door and steps away.
She puts her arm out to hail a different cab.
As the first cab pulls away, I see the driver.
He’s wearing a turban.
Does she know something I don’t yet know.
We continue walking north.
Michele wants me to stay at her and David’s apartment in the West 60s.
But I have to get home to West 85th.
Giuliani closed the bridges and tunnels.
Which means my cousins can’t get home to Brooklyn.
They’ll need to make their way to my apartment.
And I have two cats.
So I need to get home.
We part at her apartment.
I keep walking north.
I take out my cell phone to call my parents again.
My first cell phone.
Just purchased it earlier that year.
But I can’t get a satellite signal.
The satellites are jammed.
I can’t call my parents to tell them where I am.
I keep walking north.
When I get home I pick up my land line phone.
No dial tone.
All the land lines are jammed.
I throw the phone across the room.
I can’t contact anyone.
I turn on the tv.
Both towers have fallen.
The first tower fell when I had turned my back to my coworker’s window and fled.
I didn’t know it fell.
That’s why the girl on the elevator was crying.
I didn’t know.
I’m grateful I didn’t have to see it happen out the window.
The second tower fell while I was walking home.
I didn’t know any of this until I turned on my tv.
Staring at images I can’t comprehend.
My city has been attacked.
My hometown has been attacked.
I sit and stare.
My land line phone rings.
I jump to answer.
It’s Siobhan.
She lives further north than me in Washington Heights.
– I’m stopping by your apartment, it’s less of a walk for me right now.
– Since you have phone service, please call my parents, tell them I’m home.
– I will.
A few minutes later my door buzzer rings.
It’s Sheila, as I expected.
She needed a place to take refuge.
She couldn’t get back to Brooklyn.
We sit staring at the tv.
My door buzzer rang again.
It’s Kathy, as I expected.
Also needs refuge, also can’t get back to Brooklyn.
We all sit staring at the tv.
Door buzzer rang again.
This time Siobhan.
We’re all catatonic staring at the tv.
Giuliani press conference.
His complexion is ashen gray.
With a green hue.
– Everyone get to your nearest Red Cross and donate blood.
We file out of my apartment and walk to 66th and Amsterdam.
The Red Cross Center.
As we approached, there were thousands of people congregating.
A mob scene.
It was emotional.
All of us wanting to do something.
Guy on a bullhorn.
– We have too many people.
– Please come back another day.
Is he serious?
– We cannot accommodate you right now.
But we want to help.
– Go next door and fill out forms. We’ll call you when we can accommodate you.
We file into an auditorium.
We’re handed forms.
Sheila has a pen we’ll share.
We sit down to work on the forms.
The lights go out.
My heart sank.
This is it.
They’ve reached my neighborhood now.
The lights flicker on.
Still hear crying.
It was just a power dip.
City services are overtaxed since the attack.
Everyone is on edge.
We finish and hand in the forms.
We head back to my apartment.
The sky is full of F-14 fighter jets.
They’re screaming up and down the Manhattan sky.
They’re very loud.
I’ve never seen them in my hometown’s sky before.
I don’t feel safe.
Back at my apartment.
Giuliani opens the bridges and tunnels.
Everyone can go home now.
Now I’m alone with my two cats.
Still can’t get my cell phone to work.
Or my land line.
This was back in the day of dial-up AOL.
I try the dial-up repeatedly for hours.
I finally get a connection.
There are emails from everyone asking where I am.
Everyone is worried.
Even people I hadn’t heard from in years.
I reply to all that I’m fine.
I refuse to sign off AOL so that I’ll stay connected.
It was my only mode of communication for those first few days.
That night it was warm, my windows were open.
Then the stench began.
Burning metal, debris, thousands of bodies.
Wafting northward up Manhattan.
Through my window.
Through everyone’s windows.
Couldn’t see the stench on tv.
Couldn’t hear the stench on the radio.
Only knew the stench if you were there.
It was unbearable.
I closed my 100-year-old windows.
The stench still came through.
I wrapped a dish towel over my nose.
The stench still came through.
There was no way to hide from it.
I never slept that night.
I watched tv all night.
Rumors of this-building or that-building about to fall.
One rumor involved my previous office building.
One Liberty Plaza.
Home of the law firm.
I kept hearing it was about to fall.
It never did.
It still stands today.
My friends still work there.
The next day, Wednesday, the city was closed for business.
Nobody went to work.
I didn’t eat or sleep.
I kept staring at the tv and emailing friends and family.
The next day, Thursday, we all went back to work.
My yogurt parfait and coffee were still sitting on my desk from Tuesday.
Stress and tension all morning in the office.
I receive a phone call from a theatre company in the midwest.
– Hey, we still haven’t received the CDs that we asked to be shipped.
Is this guy serious?
– Our show opens this week and we really need those CDs.
He’s clueless.
I can’t deal with him.
I transfer him to boss Bill.
Bill subtly explains that we’ll change it to a rush order.
But that most of the city services are overloaded.
Including the post office.
And we’re all preoccupied.
– My friend—turn on the news.
Later that morning a company vice president walks around.
Announces that the Viacom building across the street has a bomb threat.
I go to the window and look down at the street.
The Viacom building is emptying.
Hundreds of people fleeing onto Broadway again.
I tell Bill I’m leaving.
And that I’m not coming back until Monday.
I walk home again because I don’t trust the subway safety.
I try calling my parents but can’t get through.
I get through to my brother and tell him I’m walking home again.
– Times Square bomb threat.
He asks that I keep them updated if I can.
I go home and stare at the tv and email friends and family.
That night my door buzzer rings.
It’s Michele.
– David and I are escaping to the Berkshires this weekend.
– Pack your things, you’re coming with us. We have a room reserved up there.
– Hurry up, he’s waiting in the car out front.
– I can’t go.
– Why not?
– I’m not leaving my cats here alone.
– They’ll be fine.
– What if Giuliani closes the bridges and tunnels again?
– Then we’ll get to stay up there longer.
– I need to be able to feed my cats.
– They’ll be fine.
– If I can’t take them with me, I’m not going.
She leaves.
I see on tv the crowds of people flocking on West Street.
They’re holding signs of support for the rescuers.
They’re applauding the trucks and buses as they travel in and out of Ground Zero.
I’m compelled to join them.
I take the subway and stand at West Street near Bank Street.
The crowd isn’t large.
It’s very late at night.
The Ground Zero Glow is lighting up the downtown sky.
Trucks, city buses and school buses ride up and down West Street.
Filled with firemen, cops, EMTs, other rescuers.
I applaud and cheer every truck and bus in each direction.
One guy’s expression haunts me.
A fireman, helmet on, riding the bus toward Ground Zero.
He’s staring out the window.
His eyes are hollow.
He seems lost.
Like he’s lost all his friends.
He probably has.
I can still see his face.
That Saturday I have to travel to Staten Island.
Family party.
Who wants to party?
But it’s a birthday for toddler twins who don’t know anything.
I ride the # 1 subway to the South Ferry station.
But the final destination is now Franklin Street, four stops earlier.
The subway line is destroyed south of Franklin Street.
I exit to the street and I’m greeted with twisted metal.
I’ve been looking at this on tv for the last few days.
Now I’m a few blocks from it.
It’s cordoned-off and the cops are directing me to walk east to Broadway.
I stand staring at the twisted metal for a long time.
And inhaling the stench.
I wish I had a face mask.
I head to Broadway and walk south to the ferry.
At each side street I stop to stare at twisted metal.
Hundreds of people taking photographs.
I stop again at my previous office building.
The law firm.
The building is closed.
But still standing.
The Brooks Brothers store on the ground floor is coated in white chalk substance.
Expensive shirts and jackets are covered in the debris of metal and concrete.
Thousands of bodies are lying in this twisted metal that I’m staring at.
It’s still burning.
I can smell all of it.
I finish walking south and board the ferry.
I stand on the back of the boat as it pulls away.
As the ferry gets further into the bay, white smoke is still overtaking the sky.
But my skyline is gone.
The towers no longer anchor my skyline.
My empty skyline is adrift in smoke.
As a kid, my skyline’s towers called me like a beacon to their home.
And I followed.
Then before I could leave that home, the towers left me.

World Trade Center from Staten Island Ferry
U.S. National Archives photo, May 1973: On the Staten Island Ferry, Looking Back Toward the Skyline of Lower Manhattan. To the Left of the Cluster of Buldings Are the Towers of the World Trade Center



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