This is a re-post of my September 11 experience.
This week I've found myself spending brief moments reflecting on the unfolding events of September 11. Thoughts that leave me as overcome with emotion as they have every year for the past 10 years. You see, my ordinary life almost wasn't.
My trip to New York started out like most other adventures I took at that time in my life. I was 25, single, and had enough disposable income that when someone suggested a trip, I didn't hesitate. A friend of mine was accompanying some of her family members to the City and I decided to join them at the last minute.
We had a fabulous trip. We saw show after show after show. We ate great food; acted like goofy tourists; visited and took pictures at every landmark; even posed with a sleeping man on the subway; you name it, this family made EVERYTHING fun.
After nearly a week, enjoying everything New York had to offer, we were scheduled to fly home Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Because our flight wasn't leaving until that evening, our plans were to take all nine of us on a double-decker bus tour through the city - heaven help the rest of the tourists on that bus!
Late Saturday night, I'd heard the news that Suzie, the matriarch of the group, had changed our reservation. She felt strongly about switching this bus tour from Tuesday morning to Sunday morning.
This small prompting made my quiet, ordinary life possible.
You see, at 7:00 am Sunday, September 9, 2001 we were on a big red bus, playing every bit the part of lighthearted tourists enjoying the sights and sounds of the City.
By 8:15 am we were walking up to this building:
I was awe struck by it's height, and snapped this photo just as we entered the building.
By 8:40 that morning, we were up in the observation deck viewing the curvature of the earth.
And looking at a tiny Statue of Liberty (it's in the lower right of the photograph).
After our visit to the World Trade Center - Twin Towers, we hopped on a ferry and headed to Liberty Island to visit the Statue of Liberty.
The Manhattan skyline was magnificent from Liberty Island.
We finished out tour of the City, in good spirits - none the wiser that the choice we made was so significant.
Monday, September 10, 2001 my friend and I caught an early train to visit my sister living in Queens, NY. The 45 minute train ride was uneventful and, in hindsight, the last possible opportunity I'd have to get off the island of Manhattan for the next week.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
I woke up in my hotel room at the Marriott Marquis in the middle of Times Square. I was sharing a room with my friend and two of her sisters. We weren't in any rush to get packed, and before I even got out of bed, we got a call from someone in our group in the adjacent room telling us to turn on the news. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.
Watching the news footage replay the first plane plow right into the building, all I could think was "how could that pilot have POSSIBLY missed seeing that building?!" The Twin Towers extended so far above every other building it seemed hard to fathom it was an accident.
Still bewildered, watching the live footage, a chilling image shot across the screen and slammed right into the second Tower. My heart sank. There was no way this was a random accident. I sat up in bed and thought to myself, "If I need to evacuate, I need to get my stuff together and be ready." I jumped in the shower, dressed and very methodically started packing my bags.
It's funny, you never really know how you will react in a crisis. As a child my dad would take us on survival camping trips in the wilderness. We learned things like - pack only what you need, I.D., cash, etc.; layer your clothing, you can use your jacket as a pillow, blanket, etc.; most of all, don't panic.
So, I did just that. I packed a small bag of essentials in case we needed to evacuate and I couldn't take anything with me. I packed a bigger bag with other items that would be nice to have (assuming I could take it with me), and finally my large suitcase was filled with souvenirs and non-essential items.
At some point my friend grabbed me by my shoulders, shook me and asked, "why aren't you freaking out? Why are you so calm?!" To the contrary, I was scared. I was worried. I didn't know what was happening, and suddenly I realized I was stuck in a city unfamiliar to me and I was a long way from home.
There was a lot of confusion about what had just happened. The news hadn't confirmed a terrorist attack, so a couple of us headed down to the street to see what was happening. People were standing in Times Square watching the news coverage, talking to each other trying to figure out what was going on.
We headed South on Broadway in the direction of the Trade Towers. Our hotel was about 3.5 miles from Ground Zero. At first things didn't seem too out of the ordinary, most likely because Times Square is filled with so many tourists. As we got closer to Ground Zero, things started to change a bit. All the foot Traffic was only moving in one direction. The opposite of ours. In the days prior, the roads appeared to be in a perpetual traffic jam, and there was an abundance of yellow taxi's. This morning, the roads were quite empty, and there wasn't a taxi to be found (I'm not sure I saw one again for about 3-4 more days).
As we got closer we noticed a HUGE plume of smoke appear above the buildings ahead of us. We, of course had no idea what was happening. It was the first tower falling.
By the time we reached Duane Street (about 1/2 mile from Ground Zero) this is what we saw:
The ash started settling and accumulating on everything. It was falling like snow flurries. Reams of loose paper twisted and tumbled as the breeze blew them through the streets.
At this point, I decided to turn back. The streets were vacant, the stench in the air was horrendous, and I really didn't "need" to go any closer to see what was happening. A few blocks back city buses were picking people up and dropping them off in Midtown around 52nd Street. Then they'd circle around and pick up another load of passengers and repeat the process of moving people out of the Downtown area.
I hopped on one of these buses and for the first time realized the magnitude of what had just happened. Looking around, the bus was filled with businessmen and women. Some were quiet, crying, and covered in ash. Others were frantically dialing friends and family to see if they were "ok" or if they'd "made it out." One man broke down and started to quietly sob as he couldn't get through to whomever he was dialing. In that moment, I realized I was just a tourist. This was their life. They had been attacked in their city, in their place of work, in their own backyard.
It was on this bus that I learned the first tower had fallen.
Stepping off the bus was sensory overload. The stench in the air was stifling. I had a hard time catching my breath. The air smelled as if I was caught in a huge chemical campfire. Ash was floating in the air like snow flurries. The sounds of the city had been replaced with sirens. Lots and lots of sirens. Shops were closed and people were no longer jovial. Their faces were filled with expressions of confusion, anger, anxiousness, you name it.
I made my way back to the hotel. By this time, US Marshals had taken over securing the building. There was a line to enter the hotel. They had closed all but one entrance into and out of the building. We were not allowed back in unless we had a room key, photo identification, and our names matched the list of hotel guests.
My friend's mom had the forethought to call and let the front desk know we wouldn't be checking out that day. We were lucky. So many people were without a place to stay. The Island was blocked off. No one was allowed to leave and no one was allowed on the Island.
Back in my room, I was glued to the news coverage. By this time both towers had fallen, and it was confirmed as a terrorist attack. Everyone was on edge. The hotel emptied the parking garage for fear of a car bomb. Precautions were being taken all over the City for the same reason.
Planes were grounded. We had no idea when we were going home.
That night, US Marshals knocked on our hotel door, checked out our room, names, and identification. We gladly obliged.
At some point that afternoon my friend pulled a receipt from her purchase at "The Top of the World" in the gift shop at the World Trade Center. There was a time stamp.
Had we taken our bus tour on Tuesday like we'd originally planned, we would have been in the observation deck at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers.
We were instantly humbled and grateful to be alive.
The next morning, Wednesday, September 12, 2001 we were still in shock from the horror of the previous day. We ventured out to the street. Everything was closed. Not a moving vehicle to be seen. It was a ghost town. Pigeons were j-walking.
Make-shift signs had gone up all over the city. These were hanging in Times Square. They read "Pray for Family and Victims" "God Bless America" "Freedom Will Be Defended."
By that evening food places started opening up again, and people took to the streets. A number of people staked out street corners calling everyone to repentance and preaching the impending apocalypse. I think most of us just wanted to feel some sort of connection to humanity. We'd been attacked, locked down in our hotels, and isolated.
As a testament to New York, there wasn't any looting. No violence. People were courteous and considerate of others. By nightfall Times Square was as sea of little American flags. I wish I had taken a picture. The scene will forever be burned in my memory.
We were a country in mourning. Yet, united we stood. Regardless how you feel about George W. Bush, his remarks that day were what we needed and longed to hear. He remained calm and resolved. Like a father ready to stand and defend his American family.
The rest of the week was filled with unknowns. When would we be able to go home? How are we going to get there? We'd looked into Amtrak or renting a car, moving van, anything to get us closer to our loved ones, but nothing was available.
Finally, word came that a few Domestic flights would be allowed to leave JFK.
Late Saturday (early Sunday morning) we were "wheels up" on one of the first flights out of New York. It was quite possibly the most frightening flight I've ever taken. Everyone was on edge.
Through the entire ordeal, I felt a calming inner peace. It wasn't until I got home and fell into my bed did I finally break down. My life had been spared. It was divine intervention that I, along with my travel companions, were not in those Towers that morning.
As my life has unfolded these past 10 years, I've often thought about the things that never would have been. I met and married the love of my life. I have two (almost three) beautiful babies. I've lived in a number of different states and cities. I've traveled. I've worked.
I'm so grateful for the "tender mercies" of the Lord. I'm grateful for my ordinary life. I'm grateful Suzie was in tune with, and acted upon her "prompting" to change our plans. The saying "what a difference a day makes" was never more true.
I will NEVER forget.
God Bless America!