Many of my friends know that I was in NYC on 9/11. Most know why I was there and of course that I got out before everything happened. But other than that, I have never really told my story about 9/11. It just seems so insignificant to the stories of others. I thought everyone has their story, and so many stories are worse than mine, was mine even worth telling? On the 10yr anniversary I have decided to tell my story, cause I hope it will bring me some much needed healing.
For my Dad's 50th Birthday in 2001 I surprised him with two tickets to the Michael Jackson concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. We were supposed to stay September 10th, come home the 11th. We spent the 10th driving there, checking in to our hotel and sight seeing around Time Square and the Empire State building. We couldn't go up that day due to visibility and rain and my Dad was real bummed, this being his 1st trip to NYC. I told him "tomorrow morning we can go instead to the World Trade Center. I have never been, have always wanted to go there, AND it is taller and I hear it has a better observation deck." My Dad was psyched. We went to the MJ concert that night and had an amazing time. It truly was a once in a lifetime event.
The next morning, we cancelled our plans to head to the World Trade Center due to some problems we had with the hotel during check out that delayed us a bit and a cranky boss that was adamant I get back to the office asap. I was in a bad mood and my Dad was annoyed too. We climbed into the car parked in front of Madison Square Garden with two hot Dunks and a 4hr drive ahead of us. Looked at each other and said, forget it, let's just get on the road. The time was 8:20am. It ended up being a decision that could have ultimately saved our lives. By the time we made our way through City traffic to get to the highways to head home, we were only driving about 20 minutes when the news broke in about a plane hitting the tower. My Dad and I both thought it was a small twin engine. It wasn't long before the news cut in again to report it was an American Airlines commercial plane that hit the building. Then the news came that a second commercial airliner had hit the other tower. I was terrified and confused and covering my mouth with my hands as I listened to the reports. I will never forget my Dad looking at me and saying, this is no accident, we are being attacked. Then came the report about a plane hitting The Pentagon and panic set in as we realized our entire Country was under attack, not just New York. Suddenly a news report came on that the City of Manhattan was being shut down. No one was going to be allowed in or out of the City. We didn't know what that meant for us. Were we far enough out? Was there going to be a roadblock soon? Would we have to turn around and return to the City? I was terrified of going back there.
My Dad turned to me and said, I know exactly who is behind this, Osama Bin Laden. I'll always remember that because it was the 1st time I had ever heard that name. I asked my Dad who is he??? He said "He is a Terrorist. He has access to BILLIONS of dollars, and he HATES us. NO ONE else could have had the resources to pull this off." Turned out he was right. My Dad and I realized at some point through all this, that we had told my Mother and Jimmy that we were going to the World Trade Center. We never called to tell them we changed our mind. We immediately tried calling them and could not get through cause the phone lines were overloaded. I was sobbing in my seat when the report came that a 4th plane was headed to the White House. I was wondering how many more planes there were? How long would this go on? What about my friend Greg who works in Time Square? What about my sister Lisa who works in a big Financial building in Boston??? Were they safe?
I can't imagine what it was like for my Mother and Jimmy and my siblings that morning. I will never really know what it was like for them to watch those images on the TV and to wonder if me and my Dad were at the Trade Center like we were supposed to be and if we were safe? Luckily we didn't hit a road block and we made it home to Boston safe and sound. We had a phone call go through to our family finally around Noon. I remember walking into my parent's house that afternoon and the first thing I saw was the towers on TV. One thing I am forever grateful for is that I was not around a TV when the events of that morning were unfolding. It was already so sad and terrifying for me to hear the reports on the radio during our 4.5 hour drive back to Boston. I was not prepared for the visual images when I finally saw them. I was frozen in front of the TV and unable to move. My heart was racing so hard and I literally had to close my eyes and stifle a horrible sound when I saw the replay for the 1st time of the 2nd plane hitting the South Tower. I know my Dad was heavily affected by the images on the TV too. He actually got really emotional and realized just how close we came to being there. He also realized how lucky we were that we decided to leave when we did, cause he told me "Jill, do you realize if we had gotten trapped in the City, I would have said to you, 'Let's head down there and check it out' and I know you, you would have said yes and we would have gone." (no one could have predicted the Towers would come down) He just kept saying, "I would have brought you down there, we could have been there when the buildings came down, I could have gotten you killed." He was really shaken up about it. Later that night I was laying in bed with Jimmy and a program came on one of the news channels and they were playing voice messages that people inside the tower had left for their loved ones. So much pain and panic and love and sadness and regret was pouring out of these people in these messages. Listening to these people tell their wives, children, parents, siblings, etc how much they loved them, that they wished they were better sons, or husbands, or that they hope their children will be taken care of, was literally more than I could bear that night.
The Days After
I couldn't sleep for days after. I had a hard time eating. I couldn't stop crying. I remember going to work the next day and feeling like, why are people here? Why are we working? Why aren't businesses taking the rest of the week off and letting people be with their families? I was angry. I felt like, how are people just going on with life and mundane routines and rituals? But some of my co-workers felt the opposite and felt like we honored the people who died by going on with our lives. That business as usual would show these terrorists that they did NOT win. That they can not stop us and they did not beat us. They were determined to not let them win. I understood their feelings as well. Everyone should be able to grieve and heal in their own way. I was GLUED to my TV every night from the minute I got home from work until I couldn't keep my eyes open any more. My husband held me for hours night after night while I sobbed and shook uncontrollably.
That weekend my husband and I went to a wedding, where the Bride and Groom weren't even there. Their wedding had been out of the Country and their reception was being held here in the States. Except that all international flights were grounded indefinitely. I didn't want to go. It seemed so silly to go to a wedding reception and eat a meal and salute a couple that wasn't there. But I went cause I didn't want to be away from Jimmy. I couldn't be alone. In the end it was a bad choice. I still couldn't eat much and the wine on the table was way more of a comfort for me. I ended up talking to a pregnant woman in the lobby and we cried with each other about the type of World we would have to bring our children into, and our fears for them in the future. Some friends of ours were supposed to come back to our apartment after the wedding, but I basically had a nervous breakdown in the car on the way home. Jimmy explained to our friends that I was in New York that morning and was literally this close to being at the World Trade Center and that I was really traumatized by the entire thing. They felt so horrible and were really understanding. That night I cried in my husband's arms till I passed out.
Returning to New York
It did get easier as the days went on. But it took me a while to bounce back from it. I got my photos developed from my trip to New York and couldn't even bring myself to look at them. I put them in a box. When I moved to Arizona they came with me and I put that box in the garage. (I just looked at them last week in anticipation of wanting to write this blog post. Many of them are ruined from the 10 years they sat in the box, but mostly from the 7 yrs they sat in my hot Phoenix garage.) In March of 2002, one month before I was scheduled for a business trip that would bring me back to New York City for the first time since Sept 11th, I had a huge set back. Jimmy and I came across a documentary (here) which followed first responders to the Trade Center on September 11th. This movie was narrated by Robert DeNiro and gave an unprecedented look at what it was like inside the World Trade Center. The reason it was a huge set back for me was because I remember throughout the documentary I kept hearing these extremely LOUD bangs and when they happened the ground and building would shake. It sounded like bombs exploding. I kept thinking it must be parts of the building falling or gas lines exploding or something. So I didn't think much of it. But at some point in the film the cameraman says "the loud bangs you are hearing are the bodies hitting the ground of those who are jumping out of the buildings". They fell so far and so long and picked up so much speed that by the time they hit the pavement it was like a wrecking ball smashing into concrete and it LITERALLY shook the ground and the massive building. I started shaking so bad and crying hysterically. It was a horrible noise to begin with and to know what the noise actually was really affected me. I am still haunted by it and when that documentary aired again on the 5yr anniversary of 9/11 I could not bring myself to watch it again. Mostly because I kept thinking of how many times that loud bang occurred in this film and the idea of all those people having to take that action because what was happening to them inside the building was worse than death, was very hard for me to deal with.
The following month I did take that business trip to New York. It was also my first plane flight since 9/11 and I gripped the arm rest through the entire 1 hour flight. Every bit of turbulence set my heart racing and made me very nervous. Luckily the plane was mostly empty and a flight attendant sat with me and brought me a warm towel. He was very nice and I appreciated him very much. I kept wondering how hard it must have been for him to go to work everyday on an airplane knowing what had happened on 9/11. While in New York I visited Ground Zero. This was the most amazing experience I have ever had. The destruction was massive. The progress looked like it was so slow and I wondered how long it would take to clean it up. It seemed like it would take years. I spent what seemed like forever reading the missing posters that were taped everywhere. Overtime there was no more room so they were piling up on top of one another. Then eventually they were covered with goodbye letters or photos and memorials. Letters telling loved ones how wonderful they were and how much they were missed etc. At first I felt like I was violating privacy by reading these things and looking at these photos. But then I realized, this is what their family members wanted. They wanted their loved ones remembered, honored, memorialized. They wanted people to stop and take a moment to read about this person they love so much that was tragically taken from them. It is their way of keeping their memory alive.
I took photos of Ground Zero that day but have never looked at them. Some people asked me to send them to them, but I just couldn't. It seemed like such a private personal experience to have, and I didn't really want to share it. Mostly because the photos don't do it justice and they don't show the emotion and heartache but also the LOVE the HOPE the COMMUNITY the SUPPORT the TOGETHERNESS of the people who lost someone or even just of New Yorkers who lost a piece of their City, even if they didn't know anyone personally in the Towers. It is a place I thought people needed to see for themselves and I am glad I did.
Today New York remains one of my most favorite Cities in the World. I can not wait to take my daughters there to show them Central Park, Yankee Stadium, Rockerfeller Center, Time Square, Broadway, The Empire State Building, Serendipity 3, The Statue of Liberty, and of course... the World Trade Center memorials and museum. For now, I still limit my exposure to the World Trade Center coverage on TV. It has been on for weeks and I refused to watch. I just cant keep seeing the images over and over. Last night was the first time I allowed myself to watch any coverage of 9/11 and right away I could feel my heart racing and the tears were pouring down my face. Jimmy leaned over and said, was this a bad idea to watch this before bed? Are you going to be able to sleep tonight? I told him it would be fine. My biggest priority lately seems to be shielding my children from 9/11. I don't want them to know about it yet. I was hoping Ella's class was not going to discuss it or teach about it and it doesn't appear they did. Maybe they think what I do, which is that the material is just too heavy for 4/5 year olds in Kindergarten. I know some parents have explained 9/11 to their kids or taken them to memorials and I don't judge any of them for their decisions. As parents we each have to do that when ready. I am just not ready yet. Maybe because I was so affected by that day and I don't want them affected by it just yet. I don't want them to be scared, or frightened about planes hitting buildings. I haven't even really talked with them about death at all yet, never mind the mass murder and death of 3,000 people.
I don't want them to know at this age that some adults in this world can't seem to be loving and accepting of each others differences. Not when I am working EVERYDAY of their lives to teach THEM to do JUST THAT!! Or that people can commit the most awful, destructive, violent and evil acts and try to justify it in the name of religion. I don't want them to know that people hurt each other and kill each other every day around the world fighting over whose God is the right one, or whose way of life is the right one, or whether women should be allowed to do this or that, or whether Governments should be able to dictate this or that. Their illusions about the safety and security of this World we live in will be shattered someday. They will learn the truth about how humanity can be and all the atrocities that can occur when hatred triumphs over love and acceptance. But I personally will keep them in the dark about that for as long as I can.
And today I made a donation (here) to an education based charity called Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. There are 5,000 children who lost parents on 9/11 and who qualify for scholarships from this fund through the year 2030. Currently Mamasource will donate $1 for every person who makes a $1, $5, or $10 donation to this scholarship fund through their site up to $5,000. These children have suffered unfair losses and I am proud to donate to a fund that will help some of their accomplish their dreams and goals through education.
We Will Never Forget!! RIP to everyone who perished on 9/11 and in the years following due to post traumatic stress disorder, responders/volunteers who died from inhaling debris, those who succumbed to drug/alcohol overdoses and/or suicide. The real death toll of 9/11 will never truly be known when you add in these people.
Lastly, thank you to the Men and Women who have served this Country and stayed vigil in their cause to capture and punish the people responsible for 9/11. Thank you to those in our Government both in the field and behind the scenes who work tirelessly to protect me and my Family and this Country from extremists of every kind who seek to do us harm. And thank you to the families of our soldiers who have LOST and SACRIFICED just as much as any family who lost someone on 9/11. I am truly humbled and in awe of all of you for the strength, courage and bravery that this entails.