I had 20 minutes to kill before I met the girls on the 43rd floor for breakfast; so without a moment's hesitation, like a little homing pigeon, I limped up the last subway step at Cortland Street, tossed my cell phone back into my jacket pocket and took off for Century 21 to do some window shopping. This would be the first time since my knee replacement surgery that I was getting involved with the New York crowds at their fiercest; the morning rush hour. I was already back in the "don't invade my personal space" attitude from my trip downtown on the subway. The only extra points my cane got me wasn't a seat, but a new way to protect myself from being crushed against the poles in the subway car. This was the part of the workday I didn't miss, and today with my cane I felt very vulnerable and exposed. I can't believe I said yes to breakfast.
I hated coming back to the Towers and it was only a week since I went off the crutches and onto the cane. Maybe I could kill "two birds with one stone". I could see my Port Authority workmates and we could complain about the eggs being too runny and I could make my way back uptown to get to vote in the Democratic Primary. This part was such civic bullshit, but I never missed pulling down that lever. I certainly couldn't miss our once a year breakfast; it was our ritual. Even if one of us were a step from the grave, we showed up. It was a promise extracted from each other eight years ago while we lay face down on the 43rd floor Cafeteria of Tower One while smoke was filling up the room.
Just thinking about the attack in '93, I couldn't help but shiver. The feeling of fear came back to me as if it were happening today. It had been my first day back to work after a ten day hiatus during which I'd had arthroscopic knee surgery. My surgeon said I could go back to work for half-days, but his explicit instructions had been, "Take it easy, don't walk too much and avoid steps for the next few weeks."
I had worked on the 61st Floor of Tower One, to get there you needed to get on the express elevator, then change on the 43rd floor for the local to 61 and then walk about 150 yards to my office. I'd been so glad to be back, even if it was only for half-days. I'd been in the middle of two major projects; I had tried to finish the paperwork in the hospital—not a good idea. These were projects involving air traffic controllers and I was on major pain killers. I had decided in a moment of clarity that any decisions or conclusions should wait until I returned to the office; or at least until I was down to the "Advil level" of drug intake.
I'd been on the phone making lunch plans when the building first shook and made an eerie hollow sound. Carol ran in my office. "Did you hear that?" She yelled.
"Of course I did, what the hell?" I had not only heard the noise, but it had echoed like a ping pong ball in my head. I felt as if my ear drums had exploded, or that my brain was about to leak out of my inner ear and down my lobe.
Trying to recall the horror of that day back then was painful; first the explosions, then the shaking and swaying back and forth of the building. In what seemed like a fraction of a second, I had seen smoke billowing in the office and it was starting to cover the entire floor. The scariest part had been the smell of the smoke; it was like someone had left out old rotten meat in a room full of electric wires and burnt out hair dryers with strands of hair still sticking onto the fan. It was all melting into each other. I smelled that stench as I had hobbled down every one of those 61 flights of stairs.
We got trapped on the 44th floor. We had managed to walk down the north staircase from the 61st floor but there were no lights in the stairwell and too many people in front of us were screaming and falling down steps. The smoke was getting thicker; breathing was getting harder; it was impossible to go down any further. We had forced the door open at the 43rd floor and blindly pushed our way into the cafeteria. We were trapped there as well, it seemed like everybody else had the same idea; to try and take a breath without choking and figure out what to do next. The smoke was even worse here than it was in the stairwell; it was a dark thick brown cloud and you couldn't see more than three or four inches in front of you. My eyes were starting to burn and tear. People were shouting,"Break a window", others yelling, "We can't breathe". I was lying on the floor trying to inhale anything that resembled clean air with not much success. Just as people in the cafeteria started to panic, the firemen broke through the doors and the exodus down the south stairs began.
God, were we all lucky to have come out alive; so lucky that those imbecile terrorists put the bombs in the wrong part of the garage and the buildings still stood.
I can't believe that eight years have passed. The '93 bombing had indelibly touched all our lives. Some of us lived in fear and others in nightmares. Some of the staff never returned to the Towers. Others pretended that everything was OK, most went through their own healing process. Me, I smiled, put on a brave face and lived in pain. The mistake I had made was thinking the pain was just physical.
"Lady, don't block the stairs," some financial "wunderkind" asshole said as he pushed by me with enough energy to force me to lean on my cane to stay upright.
"Okay, back to the present, B," I told myself, resisting an urge to smack the schmuck with my cane and tell him to go to hell. I was on my 7th knee surgery since that day eight years ago and just out of the hospital six weeks; fresh off my crutches and on a fancy cane with its slender, imitation pearl handle and ebony wood stain. I couldn't stand the hospital issue kind, very boring, metallic and thick, even though it was sturdier.
Time to window shop, I looked up to see if I had the light. These days I can't trust that I could outrun or out-mouth a car. I started to cross the street, but got distracted by a loud noise overhead. I glanced up and saw something that couldn't register with my consciousness, but made perfect sense in my gut. My whole body went cold and stiff; I couldn't hear, see or feel. The only sense that was operational was my sense of smell. The air surrounding me was filled with oil fumes, noxious gases and the stink of burning flesh. Then the horrible odor came back, it smacked me in the face and invaded every cell in my body. That same stench of eight years ago had returned and was living in my nostrils. Someone ran by me and almost knocked me down. Someone else yelled. "The plane, it just went into the tower."
I leaned against something or someone and jerked my head all the way up. I didn't quite believe what I was seeing; I don't think any of us could fathom what we were looking at. We just stood there, frozen in our tracks; staring upward toward the massive flames shooting out from where the plane had gone in moments before. The back of my neck was damp; my stomach was turned inside out, like I had just gone over the first hill on the Cyclone at Coney Island. Something in me was pushing to get out. My insides were screaming; it came up as a guttural moan. I kept on squinting, trying to make out why the figures were coming from the windows. They looked like stick figures or something out of an "Adventure" comic book, like a flying Superman! That's when I realized I was watching dozens of people flinging themselves out the window to escape the flames. They were splattering on the sidewalk only a few yards away from me. I couldn't do anything but stare, I was lost in their screams and death cries. It was surreal; they were jumping, no, they were being pushed out by the flames surrounding them, forcing them out of the windows. They floated and then slammed into the pavement with a sharp thud or fell quietly, piled one on top of each other.
I heard sirens; shouting and screaming all around me. I pulled my eyes from the piles of people lying flat on the sidewalk and became aware of what was going on around me. At the corner there were several paramedics helping people who were streaming out of the building. I needed to be doing something or I would become one of the screamers. I offered my help, being a former "first responder". I got lost in trying to calm people down, trying to get their breathing back to normal. People were still screaming, yelling that another plane had crashed into the second tower. I had no time to even look up, I couldn't look up; if I did it would be over for me, I would be lost to myself this time. I couldn't believe it was happening all over again. Someone called my name; I turned around and saw Susan, one of the managers I had worked with from the Aviation Department, running over to me. She grabbed me and we held onto each other so hard I could feel the pressure of her nails pushing into my skin; but we wouldn't let go.
The ground around us started to shake, we heard rumbling. It felt like Godzilla was walking right in front of us. Like a B horror movie people were running wildly, screaming, "Run for your lives". They were coming from all over; out of buildings, from stores, running on the sidewalks and into the streets with absolute wild panic in their faces. Not even knowing where they were running to. It was mass chaos. A man hit against us so hard, he knocked the cane out of my hand. I realized I couldn't bend down to pick it up or I would be thrown to the ground. Sue reached down to grab it and got trampled by several people. I grasped her hand to help her up, but got pushed away by a throng of people. I couldn't even turn around. I yelled out her name. I thought I heard her say, "head towards the water, the tower is falling," but I wasn't sure. I tried to catch my bearings. I had been on Cortlandt Street across from Tower One and I know I had been moved up towards Broad Street, I could barely make out the Stock Exchange Building. I tried to calm myself, but all around me was the smell of fear and death, and it seemed as if the buildings themselves were breathing hard and crying.
I had to get out of here; all the buildings could topple at any moment. But I was frozen in place; this was not eight years ago, this time I could die. I needed to get the hell out of there, but my legs felt like rubber and my knee was hot and swollen and ready to burst.
As I looked back toward the tower, I could see people rushing up the block, all screaming, "The building's collapsing, run." Following them was a cloud of black smoke moving through the buildings and enveloping everything it touched. In a fraction of a second I couldn't even see the figures running up the block, all I could see was smoke surrounding me. I was getting knocked about by elbows, arms and other body parts; I pushed my way over to the wall of the Stock Exchange to get out of the line of fire.
I was having trouble breathing. In '93, I was sure that it wasn't my time to die. Now I wasn't certain, I was overcome with terror. I thought my insides might bust out through my body and any control I had would disappear. I was so alone and afraid. When I was six, my older brothers left me on a bench at the Metropolitan Oval in the Bronx and said they would be right back, only they didn't come back. I got so scared. I cried and wet my pants. Standing on Broad Street I felt just like that little girl lost.
My eyes were burning, I squinted a few times to try to tear them up and wash them out. No good, it felt as if someone put a lit match in my eye sockets. I put my fingers up to wipe them, I could feel thick gunk on my fingers as I touched my eyes. I wiped my hands on my shirt. Throngs of people that I could barely make out were running past me. I could see bulky pieces of beige cement encased in orange flames flying by, hitting people and knocking them down. I couldn't stand there; I would be trampled to death or hit by whatever those missiles were flinging through the air. I had to get out of there. I don't even know how I moved, even on my messed up knee and no cane, I moved like I was on the last leg of a relay race. I galloped down Broad Street terrified but not knowing what else to do. Someone pushed past me and I almost fell, but managed to steady myself. Right behind, two more people elbowed me and I got pushed out of the street against a building.
I could feel two arms pulling me out of the street and a gravelly voice that said "It's OK, I've got you." I let my body go limp against this strong body and together we leaned against a store door, breathing life into each other's faces. As we stood there the air around us became still, people who had been running past us felt the silence as well and stopped to listen.
Godzilla moved again. we heard more rumbling; the ground under us shook and I felt both our bodies shake, not just from fear, but from the trembling of the streets. We stood there holding onto each other as we saw bodies, entangled with smoke and flames running by. The smoke was even more intense, pieces of concrete whizzed by as if being thrown by ballplayers throwing strikes at the figures on the street.
"I think the second tower just came down," my lifeline said. "We need to get out of here, can you walk?"
"Yes, I'm OK." My rubber body seemed to take on a life of its own. "We should head toward Water Street; we need to get away from these buildings."
We headed down Broad Street, still not able to see more than a few inches in front of us. The shroud of smoke was still hanging heavy in the streets. There didn't seem to be flaming missiles raining down on us anymore. I was still having trouble breathing, so was my lifeline partner. We could hear others in the vicinity coughing and wheezing as well. As we continued to walk, the veil of smoke was slowly lifting around us. We could start to see beyond our own bodies. I saw other people walking; with us, next to us, in front of us and behind us. We all looked alike; dirty faces, disheveled clothes, some bloody, some limping, others being carried; all moving homewards with distress, mourning and determination written on our faces.
As we turned the corner, I could see the exodus of humanity walking beside us. It seemed liked there were thousands of us. As we got closer to the Brooklyn Bridge, the black smoke had turned to a light mist, you could still feel it and touch it, but it was no longer threatening or menacing. But I knew what it had done, I could still smell it. It was permanently etched inside my soul.
My lifeline partner stopped as we neared the Bridge; "Are you OK by yourself? I live in Brooklyn and I need to cross over."
"I'm fine, you go on" There were no more words to say. We just held each other's hands and then he was gone. I can still feel his touch to this day.
My zombified body had no pain. I walked another few miles to the East Village where people were standing on the sidewalks and were handing us water bottles, food, tissues, pushing them into our hands. As I continued uptown I met others walking with me. With some I had conversations, with others silence and still others, touching.
I left the crowd, turned onto 10th Street and went over to Broadway. I saw my building and went in. I said something to the doorman, I think I asked him for my extra set of keys and walked down the hall toward the elevator. He asked me how I felt. I had no feelings; I was totally numb. The only thought that passed through my mind was that I wasn't going to vote in the primaries today.