At first glance a visitor to New York City might think that the memories of September 11th 2001 are only contained at the official 9/11 Memorial, two beautiful acre-sized pools with the names of each and every life lost on that day along their rims, and an elaborately detailed museum that could take an entire day to walk through. These are located at the base of the new One World Trade Center, or “Freedom Tower,” a stunning 104-story structure that was built taller and stronger than the original Twin Towers. It dominates the sky over downtown New York, standing at exactly 1,776 feet, matching the same year our Declaration Of Independence was signed.
As incredible of a tribute as the memorial is, I have discovered this is not the only place New York City keeps its memories.
What has proved to be the greatest reminder of 9/11 that I’ve experienced so far are the people who survived.
This collection of retellings started with a conversation with a new coworker as we were on our way to have lunch not far from the Freedom Tower. I suggested that we get our lunch to-go and eat it sitting at the benches near the pools at the memorial site because it was a nice day out. She began walking quickly past the area, so I followed.
“I’m not going over there,” she said sharply. “I never will.”
I pressed further and she told me why, hesitantly at first. I gained a new understanding of what it was actually like on that day, an understanding that I could never get from watching a documentary or reading a news story, or even remembering what I saw that morning on television from Southern California. As I’ve spoken with more long time residents of the city, the topic has always come up. Sometimes organically and sometimes, if I feel it’s appropriate, I simply ask.
Again and again, New Yorkers told me their survival stories. Eventually, I started writing them down. Some of them are sad, or disturbing, or heartbreaking. Most of them are all of this. In the past, most of the accounts I’d heard from survivors of 9/11 were those collected in the immediate days and months that followed the actual event. What struck me about the stories I personally heard is that even though they are being told 16 years later, the memories for these people are just as vivid as the day they happened. I have not included anyone’s name, mostly because the firefighters I spoke with asked me not to, and also because these stories are so gut-wrenching and personal that I felt it best to keep them anonymous. Here they are, starting with my coworker’s recount as she hurried me past the memorial she just couldn’t bear to enter:
“I’m in a trauma survivor’s group. It’s because of 9/11, because of the things I saw.I remember looking up, it was like a movie. I thought, ‘oh they are making a movie.'”
She glances up at the freedom tower and looks away quickly, her tone suddenly becoming more focused and intense, as though she needs to get past this next bit of information in a hurry.
“I saw paper flying out of the windows of the first tower. I thought it was weird that they would be throwing paper out the windows. But the paper was falling quickly, and that’s when I realized it wasn’t paper at all. It was people, and they were jumping to their deaths. That’s when I ran.”
Where did you go?
“I don’t know. Just away from it. Everyone was just standing there watching, and I wanted to get away. A woman saw me running and I must have looked like something else, because she grabbed me and told me to come into her apartment and I did. And I stayed there and went to sleep. I think I was in shock. I don’t know who she was and I never saw her again.”
Where did you go when you left?
“I walked home. You couldn’t see the street anymore; there was dust and ash everywhere. And the whole city was empty, like a ghost town.”
I was in jersey, just across the river. I was on my way into Manhattan and they shut all the trains down. My dad called me and asked if I was ok. I didn’t know what had happened so I told him that of course I was ok. When I came out of the train and looked across at Manhattan I could see it.”
“Well, nothing. Where the towers had been, there was nothing there anymore, just smoke.”
What did you do then?
“There was nothing you could do, really. You just had to wait. No one could get in or out of Manhattan. Here’s what I remember most: where I was, in jersey, they had set up a medical aid area. It was big, took up all the grass in Liberty State Park. And I went over there with the rescue workers and they were waiting for victims to be brought over. They were preparing for a lot of people.”
(She just looks at me, stares. As if we both understood that the story was over.)
And? Did you help with the medical aid?
“And? Well, nobody came. There were no victims. There was no one left. What I remember most about that day was the silence on that grass. We just stood there waiting for hours. Nobody came. And that’s when I knew– no one was left.”
“I was here, in the city. I didn’t know what else to do in the days that followed. All we knew to do was go help. That’s a New Yorker for you. Anyway, I went over to what they were calling ‘the pile’ at the time, to pass out food to the rescue workers.”
What did it look like?
“Like Armageddon. You thought the world was over. It was parts of buildings inside of buildings, destruction everywhere. And the smell. I will never forget that smell.”
So you passed out food?
“I did. It was from Denny’s. They provided it. And I remember at one point just looking around at everything and I just started crying hysterically, it was just too much. And this fireman comes up and he tells me it’s going to be ok, it’s ok. And he hugged me. And I remember my face pressed against his dirty yellow jacket, and how big and strong I thought he seemed in that moment. But then he went down there with the rest of the firefighters into the pile of concrete and smoke, and he was standing with a group of them, and I looked down there at them against all that destruction and awfulness they all suddenly looked so small. We all did. It felt helpless.”
“I became a lieutenant for the fire department on September 7th that year. I was just starting at [a station near the towers] the following week. I wasn’t on duty that day, but I came in later. We all did. Everyone worked 24-hour shifts to try to dig people out at first. You started to see pretty quickly that no one was left. They said that we were there to retrieve bodies, but there weren’t any bodies left. I’m glad that all of our equipment was electronically inventoried by 2001.”
Why is that?
“The strongest part of our equipment at that time were our leather boots, so those were the only parts of our guys that we would find, the only things that weren’t completely destroyed. Just boots, with ankles and feet in them. We identified who’s they were by the serial numbers on the boots. That’s how I knew which friend I was pulling out of the pile.”
Did you find anyone alive?
“No. The American media kept putting images up of us carrying stretchers out of the pile with American flags over them, making it look like we were finding bodies. But what you didn’t see was that we would put the stretcher in the rig and take the flag off and all there was underneath were black trash bags with body parts in them.”
I was a student at NYU. I remember looking down 7th avenue and seeing them fall, then a big cloud came and I thought we were going to be swallowed up. I ran.”
Where did you go?
“Out. I needed to tell my parents that I was ok, that’s all I kept thinking. I need to get to my mom and Dad. I was this college student who was so grown-up. I knew everything, you know? But on that day, and for a while after that, I was just a kid who needed her mom and Dad.”
Did September 11th change you as a fireman, or how you look at the job?
“As a firefighter, you know that you could go to work one day and not come home. That’s just a part of the job. But for 3,000 innocent civilians who were just going to work on a Tuesday, or on a plane returning home to their families to die like that? That makes me angry. All those innocent people dying on a normal Tuesday morning. That’s what I always think about. I still cant believe it.”
“I worked in tower 2, for a catering company. I also worked at a Starbucks in there. I remember being on the 44th floor when the first plane hit tower one, at my manager coming in as I was counting the till. He was screaming ‘we need to evacuate! A plane hit the other tower, evacuate now! evacuate!’”
It was stupid, but I went down one level to where my locker was and got my pocketbook and my purse. My hands were shaking trying to open the locker. My coworker and I tried to take the elevator but they had already stopped them, so we ran down 43 flights of stairs. My legs were never the same after that. We finally got outside and I turned to look over my shoulder and the first tower was falling, right behind me. I grabbed my coworker and we ran faster. I looked down and I saw that we were running through shoes, and briefcases, and paper, and pocketbooks—all over the ground. And the smell, you could smell the bodies. I was still holding my pocketbook and my purse and we just ran, all the way to the subway.”
Was the train running?
“Yes. I just rode it all the way to the end of the line in Queens. And as I got off, there was an announcement: ‘ALL TRAIN SERVICE HAS BEEN SUSPENDED.’ I have never heard that, before or since. I called my mother, and as soon as I heard her voice I lost it, started crying and didn’t stop for weeks. 5 years later, I was hit by a car and badly injured. Now I know I have lots of lives because I’ve almost died twice, and the first time was in that tower on 9/11.”
“I will never forget the smell.”
What did it smell like?
‘I don’t want to say, and its too hard to explain anyway.”
(I thanked this firefighter for talking to me, and for answering my questions the best he could. He seemed shy when I initially approached him about the topic, and even though every firefighter in the station had told me that he was the one I should talk to, he was hesitant to provide any details. I shook his hand and turned to walk away. It was then that I heard him speak softly.)
‘When it rains down here you can still smell it. You wouldn’t know what it is unless you were here when it happened, but I know. Everytime it rains I can smell it.”
I wasn’t there on September 11th 2001, or I guess now that I live in New York City I can say that I wasn’t here. I’ve written pieces about it in the past, mostly about where I was in life when the attack occurred and the impact the event had on me at the time.
Still, even though I felt such heavy emotions in connection with 9/11, I am aware of the fact that I watched the terror unfold on a television screen, set in a place that I barely knew anything about. To ruminate on something that seemed so far away when it happened is one thing, like remembering a horror film you saw and afterward you had to convince yourself that the people were just actors, the monsters weren’t real, and everything that scared you was only the result of special effects, just so you could sleep at night.
But living here in New York City with the people who actually survived, and working just a few blocks from where the Twin Towers stood before they came crashing down on that terrible day—that is another thing all together.
I realized through talking to these people that I had a grave misunderstanding of how the people of New York City still felt about 9/11. I was under the impression when I arrived 5 months ago that 16 years was so long that people must be “over it.” That new Yorkers were known for being so thick skinned, they had picked themselves up by their bootstraps and moved on from the horror. And in many ways, this is true. They have managed to go on living. They still go to work, and get married, and laugh and cry and love. However, they do it while carrying something with them that the people who watched 9/11 on television from far away don’t. They carry an image of carnage, of survival, of loss, and of the human condition that most of us will never know anything about. These survivors walk around with the knowledge that it is possible for you to be going to work one beautiful September day, and suddenly have to run for your life as you watch 3,000 innocent people be killed right in front of you. This has changed them in a much more profound way than I could have ever imagined. Not one survivor that I have spoken to so far has been to the 9/11 memorial, and they all say that they never will. It’s too much, they tell me, to walk amongst that kind of reminder of the day you lived and so many others didn’t.
I will go down there today to visit the memorial. I will participate in whatever events happen for the anniversary of 9/11. I will watch the lights in the pools be turned on that shine so bright it is rumored you can see them from space. I will listen to the names of each victim being read aloud, and as members tearfully tell stories about their departed loved ones. I will do it for the people who can’t bear to, for those that carry 9/11 with them every day and go on living anyway. I figure it’s the least I can do, to never forget as well.