Monday, September 11, 2017

This Day Sixteen Years Ago

Annamaria on Monday, September 11th

I have never written it down before.

It was an early day for me, that glorious September morning—a seven-thirty appointment at the gym, physical therapy for a torn rotator cuff.  It seemed a painful way to have to start such a lovely day.  Little did I know.

Plus One, the private gym that David and I belonged to, was downtown—a big single-room space, just about a perfect square with a twenty-five foot ceiling.  By 9 AM, I was lying on a mat on the balcony, icing after my session, waiting for the pain to subside.  Down on the gym floor a few people were working out with their trainers, chatting quietly while they did their reps or running on the treadmills, which faced a big TV screen.

I was trying to relax, reminding myself of what my father had said on the phone the evening before, in answer to my complaint about the pain.  “Any therapy worthy of the name is painful, Sweetie.”

Suddenly, the gym went strangely silent.  I stood up and looked down over the railing.   A group of six or seven people—trainers in black and white Plus-One t-shirts and black shorts, clients in various colors of Spandex or baggy cotton—were gathered in silence near the treadmills, looking up at the TV screen.  The sound was off as usual.  The image was of smoke pouring out of the one of the towers of the World Trade Center—a plume drifting toward Brooklyn, dark against the beautiful blue sky.  I shed my icepack and joined those gazing at it.

“What happened?”

“A plane hit it?”

“On a day like today?”

“They think it was a small plane,” someone called out from inside the tiny corner office.

“How awful!”  It might have been me who said that.

Then the other plane hit the other tower.

“It’s terrorism,” I said.  Maybe not exactly out loud.

Without showering, I got dressed.  The battery was going dead on my tiny portable radio.  Cell phone service was already out.   I begged a crack at the landline from the gym’s staff.  There was no dial tone.  I could not reach my daughter.  I told myself she was with her children.  She was okay.

With the radio to my ear, I walked a block toward Broadway.     The entrance to the subway was already barricaded and guarded.  Just under a mile to the south, smoke was billowing in the sky.  People were streaming up Broadway, weeping, terrified, uncomprehending.  A pudgy guy in an ill-fitting light grey suit asked it he could listen to the radio.  I handed it to him.  “There is only CBS,” I said.  “The battery is very low.”  He took it and put it to his ear.

A fire engine that said “Valley Stream Fire Department” on its side went screeching down Broadway.  All the way from Valley Stream, Long Island already?


Two tall African-American women came to me, tears running down their faces.  “People are jumping from the roof,” one of them choked out.

“That’s not possible,” I said.

“They are,” the other woman insisted.  “What’s he saying,” she demanded of the man in grey, pointing to the radio.

He shook his head and handed it back to me.  “He’s not making much sense.”

Then there came a loud cracking and rumbling sound.  We turned to look toward it.   One of the buildings was collapsing.  Each floor on top of the one below.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom. Boom.  “We’re losing it!  We’re losing it,” the voice on radio was screaming into my ear.  A dense grey cloud was roaring in our direction up Broadway.  We turned and ran with the rest of the people.

Somewhere around Houston Street, my cell phone rang.  It was David.  He had talked to our daughter.  She was safe at home with her babies.  He had told her to stay in the house.  Her husband was on his way to her.  “We need you here,” he said.  “The employees don’t know what to do.”

 I was the CEO of Clark-Mackain, a small direct marketing company that he owned along with his partner Lorrie.  Straight up Broadway.   As I passed Grace Church at 10th Street, the bell was ringing, mournfully, like a death toll in some medieval village.

In the office at Fifth and 20th, the computers were still online—such as the Internet was in those days.  David had sent someone to buy a portable TV, but not much was coming through on it.  Tom, the Financial Manager, was waiting for me to find out what I knew.  He needed to go and rescue his wife who worked below the Trade Center on Water Street and was seven months pregnant.  I told him about the barricades I had passed, guarded by policemen carrying rifles.  “I’ll find a way through,” he said and took off.

 The rest of us huddled in the conference room.  Rob was worried about his father who had worked in the WTC.  They lived on Staten Island.  There was no way to get to the ferry.  Martha’s husband George was driving down from the Bronx to pick up her and anyone else he could help on their way north.  Except for George’s car, for us, walking was the only way to get around Manhattan.  I told them all that David and I would take in anyone who could not get home.  They took down our address and home phone number.  Many started to leave.

I looked into Carrie’s eyes.  A recent college grad, she had moved out of her parents’ house in Connecticut just ten days before.   I sat down next to her and took her hand.  “I want to go home,” she said.  She did not have to tell me what “home” meant at that moment.  No trains running.  No way home for her.

“Come with me,” I said.  “You can help me get some food prepared if any of these folks wind up coming to David and me for the night.  You’ll be there first, so you’ll get a proper bed and your own bathroom.”  Her rather wan smile said yes.

Rob went back to his computer one more time to see if he could get any information about his father.  Emails were coming in to all of us from all over the country, from all over the world.  On the website of some news outlet—I don’t remember which—Rob saw a picture of people escaping by running over the Brooklyn Bridge.  And there among them, his father’s face!  He headed out, sure he would find his dad at a cousin’s house in Brooklyn.

Once Carrie and I had braved the crowd at the grocery store, we walked home west on 11th Street.  There along the south façade of St. Vincent’s Hospital—the nearest to WTC and the designated place to bring the wounded—was a long line of people waiting to donate blood.  There was a volunteer at the end of the queue, telling new arrivals that the hospital could not take more donors—only those with rare blood types.  He directed others to the Red Cross installation further uptown.  As we passed those waiting in the sun to give their blood, we encountered other people coming toward us.  They had gone to the deli to get snacks and juice for the people waiting in the line.   A little further along, we met a young guy who had gone to the drugstore and gotten sunblock.  He was doling it out to the blood donors to protect them while they waited their turn.

None of those people at the hospital had been instructed to go there to give blood, or to care for the people waiting to do so.  They had just shown up.  They had figured out what was needed, and they went and did it.

Taped to the lampposts all around my neighborhood was a typed message.  I wish I had a copy of the real thing.  I had wanted to take one, but I left them in place for others to read.

The message was to this effect:

Dear Fellow New Yorkers, our precious city has been attacked by people who seek to terrify us.  They likely chose our city because it represents everything the terrorists abhor.  New York is a symbol, all over the world, of freedom.  It always has and always will welcome every sort of person who wants an opportunity to become all they can be.

The attackers want us to be terrified.  But they have picked the wrong people.  Many, if not most of us have come to New York from other safer, easier, less challenging places.    We came here because we are willing to take risks to be who we are and who we want to be.  We need to mourn our dead.  But let’s also show those who wish to destroy us who they are dealing with.  A people who refused to be cowed.  We are New Yorkers.  Let them see our mettle.

And we did!


  1. You captured the essence of that day brilliantly. Bravo, Sis. And amen.

  2. Very moving, Annamaria. And that spirit is why America will survive. Even the current disasters.

    1. Hank you, Michael. Humanist that I am, I believe in the goodness of ordinary people. With all the disasters and trials, I think most people have hearts capable of empathy and courage.

  3. Beautiful words, Annamaria. Even for those of us who were not there, 9/11 is one of those life-changing events that you always remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news.

    1. Zoe, you are right. It took me until to relive those moments in print, but the images are indelible.

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you, Jerry. The people around me were so brave and determined. There was such beauty in the ugliest day of my life.

  5. "Time heals all wounds," they say. Deeper wounds take more time, but this one is beginning to recede a bit. Still painful when so clearly and lovingly (not the event, the response to it) rendered. Thank you, AmA.

    1. EvKa, the amount of love and caring and courage that poured forth that day overwhelmed the hatred, nasty as it was. It's why the terrorists will never win. They do their dastardly worst, and ordinary people--with no axe to grind--come forward instinctively with love and aid.

  6. Spent 9/11/17 in Jordan - an island of civil stability in an insane part of the world. Your account from near ground 0 conveys a beautiful range of images in the midst of horror, a calm resolve in the midst of terror.

    1. Thank you, Michael. Those on our side, for peace and reconciliation, are legion. Even with all their weapons, the others will not win. I only wish the price were not so harsh. Blessings to you and your work.

  7. It has always puzzled me why the world over it takes events like this bring out the best in people. It is almost as though we each have a reservoir of helpfulness, but are reluctant to let it just trickle out on an ongoing basis. It seems that we need something major to open the valve.


    1. Stan, you and I are often opposites when it comes to assessing our fellow humans. This is one of those times. I think it takes a huge catastrophe to elicit an enormous outpouring that attracts media attention. On any given day though, a major percentage of human race is reaching out to help someone they
      know to be in need. Sometimes it's a kindness to a friend--as you offered me when my brother was dying. Sometimes it's a volunteer who mans a suicide hotline, trying to keep strangers in distress alive. Sometimes it's simple, tiny acts of random kindness--like the tall people who help me wrangle my carry-on into the overhead bin, or my taking one end of the stroller to help a mother up the subway stairs. Kindness and compassion are all around us every day. The news does not report it because it is too common to be newsworthy.

  8. Truly one of those events that you remember exactly where you were when it happened. I was at work in the Docklands area of London on the day. If only we would all come together and not wait for disaster or terror to bring out the humanity that is truly in each and everyone of us.

    1. Leye, It's hard to see it on TV, but there is a a lot of love in the world. next time you are in an airport, which the people saying hello or goodbye to their loved ones. We need to keep increasing that warmth.

  9. WOW. This moved me to tears. Your city is strong, resilient, and beautiful, and you are too. Thank you for sharing, despite the pain that I know these memories have.

    1. Susan, thank you for your kind words. I was surprised myself at how often I had to stop while writing. Images I had not called on before come out and were tough. But I do think it's a milestone that I was determined to get it down and send it out.