Guest lecture

Guest lecture

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I was in New York on 9/11

September 11, 2001 started like any other day.  I was getting ready for work.  The tv was on.  I was late.  I had tons of work.  Our day was full of conference calls.  We were in the midst of this massive due diligence project involving 80 countries for our biggest client.  The deadline was only 3 weeks away.

But this was New York.  It was quite normal to get a late start.  I was watching the Today Show.  Then at 8:50: breaking news.  There was a plane crash in New York.  A plane hit the world trade center. 

At that time, I was commuting between Milwaukee (where my now husband, David, lived) and New York.  I flew back and forth every week.  So, my first thought was “chances are that there won’t be another plane crash in the near future, statistically speaking.”  So, I was somehow feeling more safe about flying.  Strangely relieved.

With that thought I left my apartment and went into the subway to midtown.  To my office.  In the elevator there was all this talk about another plane hitting the twin towers.  So, 2 planes hit the twin towers?  Yeah, right.   That they were closing all bridges.  And that we weren’t allowed off the island.  Just crazy talk.  I thought everyone was just overreacting and being overly dramatic. 

When I got to my office it slowly dawned on me.  This was not “just” a plane crash.  This was not an accident.  There were 2 planes involved.  This was done on purpose.  Incomprehensable.  Some of that crazy talk was valid.  Now what?

Well, first things first. I was working with Dutch expats and we needed to let our families in Holland know that we were all ok.  The phones were all messed up, though.  We could not call out internationally.  So trying to get in touch with Holland kept us busy for a while. 
And then the phone rang.  It was my Israeli colleague.  We had a conference call scheduled and she was wondering if it was still on.  “Have you not heard” I asked surprised.  Of course she had, but she lived in Israel.  Terror attacks were part of their reality.  Life does not stop when there has been an attack.  Work does not stop either.  Wow.

At some point some of us were in our boss’ office.  He was on the phone with the Dutch radio.  Radio 1 wanted to talk to Dutch people who were in NY witnessing the events first hand.  While we were on hold, we could hear about the incoming news streams being read in real time.  Something about that there were still 4 planes heading to New York.  This was not over yet.  But, again, no panic. 

There was something else going on.  I knew that this was very very big.  And we were right smack in the middle of it.  This was history being made and we were witnissing it first hand.  It made me feel special.  I felt important.  And that was strangely exciting.   

We went to a big conference room with a tv.  It had a view of the towers.  Far far away.  There were  lots of people there.  Also people I’d never met  before.  Then the first tower collapsed.  Oh no.  I did not expect that.  Everyone was horrified.  And then this women in the room started screaming.  Her dad worked in that tower.  Jesus. Now, this was not “exciting.”   Did this woman’s dad die?  Surely everyone had left that building, I thought.  They must have.  They had like an hour to get out. 

Later we were told to evacuate our building.  We decided to just start walking north.  It was crowded on the streets.  Most people seemed to have left their offices.  And everyone seemed to be going north.

We all walked to central park.  We did not know what was going to happen.  Were there more planes heading our way? Were there toxic chemicals in the air?  Were we going to be quarantined on the island?  Were we at war?

You’d expect panic.  But, again, there was none of that. These were just rational thoughts.  I did not feel the fear and panic.  Yet.

It was a gorgeous day with blue skies.  People in suits and brief cases were walking steadily, silently, almost serenely, in the park.   It was surreal.

We stuck together that day.  No one wanted to be alone.  We were all expats and had no family in New York.  My colleagues were my family that day.  We watched tv in a bar and later at someone’s apartment to see what was unfolding. 

I watched the world’s reaction on tv in disbelief.  I did not understand.  Why were all these people from all around the world so emotional?  It irritated me.  It felt as if they were taking away from the real victims.  They had no right to be so upset.  It was not their drama.  It was not their family in the towers.  Most of them never even been to the US, or New York.

In hindsight, I think it had to do with me trying to create distance in my mind.  The twin towers were very far away from where I worked.  I had no right to be emotional.  I was fine. 

Or, perhaps the irritation had something to do with feeling guilty for enjoying being so close to the drama.  For feeling so special.

Either way, I was not scared.  At least that is what I was telling myself.  I did not let myself go there.  I did not panic, I did not cry.  I felt very little.

I went back to my apartment alone that night and fell asleep.  Without a problem. 

The next day I just went back to the office.  What else was I going to do?  That is where my “family” was.  Of course, I’d rather go to Milwaukee.  To David.  But, I couldn’t.  There were no planes leaving New York.  No trains either.

Most of us were at the office.  At first we were just talking, but after a while we opened our computers and were looking at e-mails.  Work.  Normal. 

All of a sudden the fire alarm went off.  I panicked.  Not again.  This time I felt scared.  Real scared.  It was no longer exciting.  My heart was beating so hard. I was shaking and ran down the hall.  I yelled at my colleagues to hurry up. “Leave your stupid computers, just GO!”    I ran to the stair case and started to run down.  Forty seven floors.  And all I was thinking was “it’s our turn” ,   “we’re going to die here”  “just like them”.  Forty seven floors take a long time.  It took forever.   I was shaking and had tears in my eyes.  I just kept running down the stairs.  There was nothing I could do now. 

And then we were outside.  I made it.  We heard that the fire alarm was triggered by some idiot smoking a cigarette in his office.  Some of my colleagues just brushed this whole thing off and went back upstairs to get their laptops.  But, I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  I was not going back up there.  Never.  I was happy that I didn’t die in that staircase.  But the panic had not gone away.  I felt so unsafe.  I needed to get the hell out of there.  Out of this city.  No matter what.

I told my colleagues I was going to Milwaukee.   I felt ashamed for being so freaked out. 

Now getting out of there was not so easy.  With no planes and no trains, I decided to rent a car.  But, all car rental places had either no car left, or very long lines.  It was so frustrating.  And my panic turned into anger.  I was angry at the people behind the counter at the different car rental places.  Why were they so inefficient?  Why did no one explain what the deal was? Everything just sucked.  I hated these people.   

Tvs were on in the rental car places.  I watched these stupid people on tv saying shit like “we’re not going to let the terrorists win,  we will not leave”.  Morons, I thought.  That stupid American cheerleading attitude.   I hated them.  I hated all people.

But, I was not giving up.  And after hours of hearing no and standing in lines, I got myself a rental car.  An enormous bright yellow 4 wheel drive.   I hated those cars.  But, it was the only one left.  It costs me something like $400 per day.  But, I did not care.  I would have given everything to get out of this situation.

I stopped at my apartment to grab some stuff and started driving.  To get off the island I needed to cross the bridge.  The panic was back.   What if the bridge was the next target?  I was holding my breath, tears streaming down my face, heart beating in my throat.   

I finally made it.  I got off the island.  I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the massive smoke clouds over lower Manhattan.  What a mess.  What a horrible, horrible world.

It was a 14 hour drive.  It took me 2 days.   I felt depressed, angry, scared and alone.   It was so good to finally be in my David’s arms.  But I would never feel totally safe again.  Ever.



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