September 11: Five Blocks from Hell


For the past five years, New York has unofficially slowed itself in memory of 9/11. Today is the sixth anniversary, and I guess that means the statue of limitations on the unofficial city-wide (and nationwide) period of mourning has lifted. I have a plethora of invites in my Inbox for major parties tonight. (Yes, I'm going.) Nobody's moaned that hip-hop has staged a battle on this date. It seems we've moved past the attack.

The recovery may be over (although there's still a big hole where the towers once stood), but I wouldn't feel right not acknowledging the day somehow. Though thankfully, I didn't lose any family or friends that morning, I did lose something else: a sense of safety

I work near Ground Zero. Every now and again, the wind blows a certain way and I can smell the metal-death stench that lingered in that section of the city for months. Sometimes fire trucks blare down the street and I get a flashback to that day and tense up. Every time there's a loud boom in the city, I get all panicky and instinctively run to the nearest window to see what's been hit. A lot of people here still do that. I am not alone.

Everyone who lives or lived in New York that day has a 9/11 story. This is mine:

I lived across from the New York Stock Exchange, which is like 5 blocks away from WTC. My BF called to wake me up for my internship and while I was on the phone with him, there was this big boom. The building shook, all the car alarms went off. I was like “wtf?!” There was always a bunch of noise going on in that area. There used to be parades and events outside my building for the NYSE workers almost every day. But I'd never heard anything like that before. I figured it had something to do with the parades.

I talked to the BF a little while longer, then called down to the front desk to ask when they were coming to fix my tub that was stopped up (someone was supposed to come up the night before). The attendant told me it wouldn’t be anytime soon because a plane had just flown into one of the twin towers. I turn on the TV like, “oh sh--! That’s what the BOOM was!” I see the tower burn on TV and I watch the second plane run into the second tower.


I grab my camera and run eleven flights down to get outside. (I was in journalism school. It made since at the time.) I’m running up to Broadway and I see people coming away from the towers and everyone just looks blank. There was a woman wailing in the street and someone (a co-worker, I think) was trying to console her. I remember her 'cause she was the only person with any emotion. I get to Broadway (3 blocks away, tops) and everyone is just standing in the street, on the sidewalks, looking up at the buildings. The police, tourists, workers, everyone. They are all just staring silently. Some guy starts saying that the buildings are going to fall and people start yelling at him. People are really mad at the suggestion, like they’re about to fight him, literally. I take a bunch of pics and I run out of film (pre-digital days).

I run back to my apartment to get more film. As soon as i get upstairs, the first building falls. My building is shaking and I'm scared. I hide under my roommate’s bed (it was up on blocks) and I scream “what is going on?! what is going on?!" at the top of my lungs. I’m staring at the TV and all I can see is smoke and dust. The newcasters are trying to stay calm but I can hear the fear in their voices. I see the building 5 blocks away is now dust.

When everything settles, I get from under the bed. The room is filled with this weird-like smoke because the windows were open (beautiful day.) I stick my hand out the window and spread my fingers. the air is so thick with beige-ivory powder that I can’t see my hand anymore. It can't be healthy to breathe this. I shut all the windows.

I watch CNN until right after the second building falls, then I go out again with the camera and a bunch of film. I walk around for a couple hours taking pictures. Everyone is in a daze. There are inches of debris covering the streets. Pieces of paper singed at the corners lay like seashells on a beach. Phones are left hanging from when callers ran without time to hang them up, or they were shaken off their perch. Police officers are crowded around another phone bank trying to call loved ones to say they are okay. They are stunned too. I get to the Brooklyn Bridge and watch the mass exodus from the city. No one is coming in. I wish I could leave with them. but I live in the middle of this confusion.

When i get back to the apartment, there are 43 messages on me and the roommate's answering machine. Everyone is in varying states of hysteria that we are not answering the phone. I thank God she is out of town. Every morning on her way to class, she would stop by the Krispy Kreme for a doughnut and coffee. She would have been in there when the first plane hit.

I listen to all the messages and realize my parents haven’t called. The phone won’t let me dial out on the first try, so I just sit on the couch and watch TV again. I am covered in soot. (I can’t shower because of the tub.) I sit on the futon and turn to CNN, watching them tell me about the chaos that is happening outside of my window. Then I see that DC has been attacked. (My dad is there.) Newscasters are running wild with unsubstantiated reports: explosions at embassies,  the White House, the Pentagon,  the Lincoln memorial. the monument. all of downtown DC. I hear that all planes have been grounded nationwide. No one has said it on air, but that's when I realize we have been attacked.

And that’s when I freak out. It finally dawns on me to call my mother (had to search for a phone card since cell phones are down where I am.) She’s in Detroit where she’s visiting her parents. I call and call and I finally get through. She answers and I blurt, “Mommy, mommy, i’m ok.” And she’s all, “uh, why wouldn’t you be?” My grandmother was very sick that morning and my mom never got around to turning on the news. I tell her to turn on the TV, any channel. She does.

Mommy tells me I have to get out of my apartment. I have to get home to DC. The picture the news is showing is of Lower Manhattan as a ball of smoke and I am sitting in the middle of it. I tell her DC has been attacked too (technically, the Pentagon is in VA, but it's right on the DC border.) I haven’t heard from my father. I can't get home. They've closed off all the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan. I don't have anywhere to go. I have to stay here for now. She gets off with me to track down my Dad wherever he is in downtown DC.

I stay in the house watching CNN. The building cut off the gas. I found this out when I tried to cook, and then someone comes to tell me the power is going to be cut. The phone rings and it's a voice I don't recognize when I answer. It's my friend "Kaye's" line sister. Kaye can't call me because she is in hysterics that she has not heard from me. She thinks the worst. the LS convinces me to walk to Union Square to stay with Kaye. I cannot stay downtown, she insists. Mr. Ex also gets through and tells me I can’t stay where I am, I should come Uptown and stay with him.

I pack and start my trek to Union Square. People are looking at me funny. I remember that I am covered in beige-ivory soot.

I crash in Kaye's apartment for a few hours. We go out to Union Square and everyone just looks lost. There's a circle of people gathered around 2 men arguing. They are debating if this was a home grown attack like Oklahoma City or outsiders. And if outsiders, who?

Eventually, I take the train Uptown 'cause I want to be as far away from Manhattan as possible. I don't feel safe.

The next morning when the city opens the tunnels, I buy an Amtrak ticket to Maryland. I want to be as far away from New York as possible. I listen to Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" on my CD player. I look out the window when we approach Newark. The downtown view of the city I love is still covered in smoke.

I have no idea when I'll be able to come back.

Fast forward to a couple weeks later…

i develop the film from my camera. the first roll of film is half shots of lower manhattan and the twin towers from Sept. 08, 2001 when me and my BF went to see the Statue of Liberty. I stood on the top deck of the ferry and took a bunch of pics cause it was such a beautiful view and I'd never seen it in all it's glory before. The second half of the roll is the towers--with big gaping holes--burning.