Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fifteen Years Later


Tomorrow, September 11, 2016, is the 15th Anniversary of a day none of our generation will ever forget.  Five years ago, a New York City-based newspaper asked that I be part of its 9/11 10th year commemorative issue and write about where I was that Tuesday morning.  Here is what I wrote, and what I shall never forget. 

I like it over here by the United Nations.  Beekman Place is different from other New York City streets; it’s more like a quiet, residential private road in an elegant European city.  My walk to my office is down First Avenue overlooking the East River and alongside the gardens and flags of the UN.  It gives me a few daily moments of serenity and escape from the often out of control state of my life as a lawyer here.

I need this walk today.  The sky is so blue and clear, except for the few smoke-like clouds on the downtown horizon.  I’m up by the UN General Assembly Building when I call my friend Panos to find out how his date went last night.  He’s frantic and says he can’t talk.  He’s waiting for his mother to call him from Greece.  I ask if everything is OK.  He says she’ll be worried when she hears that his office was struck by a plane.  I must have misunderstood him.  He works in the World Trade Center.  He says his office building is burning and he has to get off the phone.

Those are not clouds on the horizon, it’s smoke.

I tell him to get out of the building.  He says it’s not necessary.  He’s okay.  His date kept him out late and he’s still at home.  He’ll go to work in the afternoon, after the fire is out.  He hangs up.

How could a plane have hit the World Trade Center on a day as clear as this one?  Something must have happened to the pilot.  I hear sirens everywhere and move a little faster toward my office.  By the time I get upstairs everyone is looking out the windows on the south side of our building.  It has an unobstructed view of the Towers.  Now they’re both burning.  I’m told a second plane hit the second Tower.  We all know what that means—even before learning about the Pentagon.  Someone tells me a plane hit Pittsburgh, my hometown.  I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  I call my daughter, she lives in Greenwich Village.  She’s frightened.  We all are.  I tell her to keep calm. My son is in Cincinnati, I’m sure he’s safe but I can’t reach him.

We’re all glued to the big screen TV in my law firm’s main conference room.  The first tower begins to fall and we turn en masse from the television to look out our windows as it crumbles to the ground before our eyes.  It’s surreal, it can’t be happening.  But it happens again.  Not a word is said while we watch the second tower fall.   We are at war.  But with whom?

My mind can’t fix on what all this means.  I focus on a rumor that there’s an imminent biological anthrax attack and race to the pharmacy for enough antibiotic for my daughter.  That’s something I can do.  Again, I think, my son is in Cincinnati.  He’s safe there.

When I moved to NYC in 1969 my first job was blocks away from the Trade Center site.  The Towers were in the midst of construction and I saw them every morning across the Brooklyn Bridge as I’d head to work.  In August 1974 I watched Philippe Petit do his high wire walk between them, and three years later glimpsed at mountain climber George Willig scale one in the wind.  Even after moving my office uptown they were always in view from my window.  They spanned my career as a lawyer in NYC.  I can’t believe they’re gone.

The City is in shock.  Lines of thousands of refugees from downtown are trekking up Third Avenue toward home or simply to somewhere other than where they were.  No one is talking.  The smell is everywhere, acrid and bitter.  There seems to be grey dust on the shoes of every cop and will be for days.

I stop at a restaurant halfway between my office and home.  It’s Greek and run by a friend.   It’s the only place I can think of to go.  There is no one at home and I can’t get downtown to my daughter.  She’s fine.  Panos comes in.   I try making a joke about his date from last night.  I say he should marry her, she saved his life.  It’s not that funny.

A half dozen or so young men and women of about the age I was when I started working in NYC are sitting quietly at a table along the front windows.  A cell phone rings—one of the few that must be working—and one of the women answers.  She’s a dark haired girl.  She listens, shuts her phone and starts sobbing.  She says something to the others; they hug each other and cry.


It’s after midnight by the time I head home.  My cell phone rings on the way.  It’s a friend from Capri in Italy.  He’s been trying to reach me all day to see if I’m okay.  I hang up and continue home.  I’m tearing.  Friendship like his is what life’s all about.  Family and friends are what matter.

A week later I drive to my farm, get in my pickup and head to Pittsburgh to visit my brother and sister-in-law.  I decide not to go back to NYC but drive south, toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I’ve never been there before, but it just seems the place to be.  I have to drive by Washington, DC to get there.  It’s only when I see the first sign for DC that I realize I’ve made an unconscious pilgrimage past the three sites of the 9/11 massacre—NYC, Western PA, DC.

Duck, NC is chilly in the off-season and the ocean is wild.  I lock myself in a hotel room overlooking the sea and complete my first novel.  I’m driven to make something good come out of all of this bad.  A week later I drive back to NYC.  I’m on the Jersey Turnpike heading north and close to the City, but I can’t tell where it begins.  Its southern landmark is gone.  This world is insane.

A few years later I give up my life in NYC and move to the Aegean island of Mykonos to pursue my dream of writing mysteries exploring the heart and soul of Greece.   There is no reason to wait any longer.  Is there?



  1. VERY touching story, Jeff, thanks for writing it and sharing it.

    But one thing I take away from your story is this: through the darkest of clouds come rays of sunshine.

    1. Thanks, EvKa. I'm glad you saw rays of sunshine as a take-away, though I honestly didn't see them at the time I wrote the piece. Sadly, from the way our world has digressed and unravelled since--and as a direct result of--9/11, finding rays of sunshine is becoming more difficult each day as our world seems inexorably drawn to the dark side.

  2. What a story! I remember that day and the days that followed. Signs were up all over my neighborhood of missing loved ones, asking if people had seen them. Then appeals to adopt pets who had been left behind.
    It was so sad.
    But people were helping each other in all kinds of ways. A friend donated blood. People in the streets bonded to each other.
    All of us cried for days every time the news came on and the reality hit.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. You reminded me of an element of my life at the time that I'd left out of the story. Back then, I owned one of the hottest bar-restaurants in NYC, Chez Essaada--located in the heart of the East Village, below Union Square, and across town from the Towers. I remember taking the Lexington Avenue Express to Union Square the first night it was running again, and coming up into the park at Union Square--the closest park-like area to the 9/11 site.

      Plywood sheets seemed everywhere, plastered with photos alongside messages pleading for word on a missing friend or loved one. Hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers milled around or sat on the ground sharing various states of shock; all looking for some answer, some bit of hope, some understanding of what had just happened to their lives.

      I don't recall how much time I spent there that evening, but the emotions and decisions triggered by those moments remain with me to this day.

  3. "Its southern landmark is gone." We'd often drive from DC to Connecticut to visit family and my girls would always exclaim "The Twin Towers!" when they came into view. Our landmark was and is gone, a smoking void replaced it for years. Somehow the Freedom Tower doesn't have the same feel.

    1. I know just what you mean Shari. In fact, I've never been back to the site since the day the Towers fell. I know I should, but I just can't bring myself to go...Only once, a month or so after they fell, I was down in the area on business and my taxi drove by the site. I couldn't bring myself to do more than glance at it.

    2. My brother, I have been trying all day to read your post. I saw it early this morning and glanced at the pictures and closed it. As one who lived it too, I can't bring myself to look more closely than a fast glance at the photos you posted. I just came right to the comments after I saw your words above in an email notice. I can't even come close to reliving that day. Even after all these years. And I have never visited the site. I want to, but like you I can't force myself down there. My father's words about war: "I tried all my life to forget, Sweetie, but I never could." Forgetting is beyond even imagining.

    3. I never fully appreciated before that day how so many from a generation preceding ours shared your father's sense of how some things are beyond forgiving.

  4. Your line about the refugees caught my attention. It is interesting to think how the country rallied to help our own when they were refugees fleeing an area that had been attacked but how we seem to fear helping other refugees who are also fleeing from war. I agree, Sept. 11, like Nov. 22, is a day that no one in our generation will likely ever forget.

    1. November 22 I remember. September 11 I lived. Both changed our world in dramatic ways we never saw coming.

  5. It was a day that for once I am glad I didn't know where our son was. I watched the buildings come down while on an elliptical machine at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. in a state of shock. We knew he was in New York, going through training that week for his job at Morgan Stanley, but had no idea he was on the 63rd floor of the South Tower until I got home and listed to my message from him, telling me that he got out alive. Thank God for the training he received in fire drills at Allderdice High School. When he saw the fire balls from the North Tower, he immediately started down the stairs, even though they told him to come back, that it wasn't their building. He reached the 39th floor when the South Tower got hit and he related he thought he would not make it. He said that the cement stairs felt like rubber, and there was so much smoke and confusion with the firemen going up the stairway and the many others going down. As it turns out he got out fifteen minutes before the building imploded. September 11th will always be a day of sadness for us because of all those innocent people that lost their lives, but also a day of remembrance of how lucky we are to still have our son!

    1. Thankfully, God was watching out for your son that day. Another miracle amid the mind-numbing tragedies many will never come to terms with.