KNEELING TOWARDS MECCA: My experience downtown 9/11

You know,  for eight of the past ten years I had been in fog of sorts. Unable to plan ahead. Unable to make long-term goals. Unable to believe that there IS a future. The bad part is that it's not like "me" and the good part is - hey, I live more in the moment now.

Yet, I always feel shocked when doctors refer to me as a 9/11 survivor or worse, a 9/11 victim. It's beyond embarrassing, really. I wasn't in the building or under the building or anywhere near the building. I was 11 blocks away, standing on the intersection of Church and Leonard Streets with dozens of other people - frozen. Transfixed. Oddly unafraid. Or so afraid, I couldn't even feel it.

I've never written about my experience there because ... ah, who the hell knows. I just never have. Now, after so much time has passed that day remains as vivid and startling clear as the day it happened. So I'm going to try to describe what I saw and felt for whomever wants to know. I kinda have to do this for myself. Please share with me your experience, no matter how near or far. They are all profound.

A little background. After 25 years in Manhattan, I had just moved back to NJ but relocated my miniscule video production company to a miniscule office in a building crammed with other miniscule companies on Broadway & Franklin Streets.

I had no income for three months because that's how long it took me  to effect both moves on crutches (surprise ACL surgery) and it was past imperative that I get back to the business of making money or my 13 year old company wouldn't make it through the end of the year.

So I planned an elaborate launch party with wine, cheese and a whole slew of short films & videos to screen for my prospective clients on a brand new HUGE television that took up most of the office. The year was 2001, and the date for the launch was set for the afternoon and evening of ... September 11.

To put the finishing touches on everything, I made the fateful decision to forgo sleeping in my comfy NJ apartment, and rough it on the office futon overnight with my little Yorkie, Samantha. I worked into the night, and zonked out. Early the next morning the office phone rang. It was my friend Libby calling from Jersey.

"Fran. Something weird is happening at the World Trade Center. A plane flew into it."

"Jeez, that IS weird."

"No, wait, two planes flew into it?" she asked, turning to someone else at her office. Then back to me,  "TWO planes flew into it. You better get out of there. This is bad. Really bad."

"Um. Okay." I was still groggy. The office has no real window and it's pitch black day or night.

I threw on some clothes, grabbed my purse and my little dog and ran down the hall to wake up the artist I knew who was illegally living in his studio. I knocked and after awhile he groggily opened the door. (It seems creative people tend to be groggy in the mornings.)

I said, "Two planes flew into the World Trade Center, we gotta get out of here."

"You're kidding." he said. He turned on his ancient TV set and adjusted the tin-foiled rabbit ears until we were able to see that iconic image of the two towers afire. We stood there. "Holy shit."

We better get out of here.  But we both knew we weren't about to run out the door and run uptown. Like any fire or twister or act of God, we wanted to get a closer look first.

As we opened the front door of our office building, we found ourselves in a stream of ashen office workers carrying briefcases, not running yet but definitely walking purposefully uptown. No one seemed scared. Just determined. It reminded me of a scene in THX 1138 when Duvall opens his cubicle door and is sucked into the stream of humanity and carried along with it.

But the artist and I weren't headed uptown to safety. We wanted to see it. So we slowly threaded our way across the throng and hung a right onto Franklin, walking the one block to that intersection. There were a bunch of people collecting on the corner like us, looking kind of excited and kind of scared. Everybody was on their cells trying to get a connection or with radios to their ears hoping for some news, any news.

I remember getting to the corner and turning my head to look down the street and was stunned at the sight. It was SO close, like I could touch it, almost. It was an unobstructed view, right straight to the towers which loomed above us. That's what's different for me when I see most of the photos of the towers. They're usually taken from above, but for us on the street corner our sight was from below, looking up.

The World Trade Center looked ... odd with two fiery planes biting into it. They stuck out at weird angles, it seemed to me. Jet planes shouldn't be in buildings. How could TWO huge planes be stuck in a building? My mind was trying to take it in. One little plane could mean a malfunction or some unfortunate pilot error - two passenger jets was just wacky. Was it some MAJOR air traffic control error?

Over and over this image kept flashing into my mind. A woman is sitting down at her desk with a hot cup of coffee and a donut wondering if she should eat it - and suddenly a huge jet flies in her window, and kills her. This image haunts me to this day. The innocence of the morning annihilated by the impossible. The inability to rely on the next moment, I suppose.

Around me were plenty of people - some from nearby office buildings and some from downtown. You could tell the downtown people because they were a little gray and dusty. The rest of us were just kind of bewildered. There was definite adrenalin pumping all around - people yelling out whatever tidbits of news they were able to get.

As we stood there, fire-trucks, ambulances, police cars where whizzing by us, sirens blaring. It was heartening to see so many people rushing to help. It made me proud of my city. I looked up and stared at the towers until noticed something that confused me.

"What are all those things falling off it everywhere?" I asked those standing next to me. No one said anything.

"What are all those little things bouncing off the side?" I asked again. Nobody would answer me.

A well-dressed manager-type woman near me who'd been fiddling with her radio called out, "They got the Pentagon!"

It was those words that ratcheted everything up from the surreal to the possible.  "They got the Pentagon" meant there was a "they" and it meant we were under attack. A HUGE attack. When you attack the Pentagon it can only mean one thing ... World War III.

I looked up to see if bomber planes were flying over us. Were bombs going to start dropping on us from above? Were MORE planes going to fly into buildings?  What was next?

I think, on an emotional level, what was happening was SO big and I got SO scared - that it cancelled itself out. It's like when I fly, I never get scared. It's like - if the plane is going down - it's going down.  I have no control over it so why even worry?

And there was another thing. That adrenaline was still pumping and now it had turned into a thrill at being a part of something sooo big. Being a part of history. We were IN it.

Next to me was a tall young black man, very hip, with his camouflage pants and doo rag. He was on the cell phone with someone who he was talking to intently as he stared at the towers. Was he reporting this to his friends uptown or in another part of the country? I hadn't even thought to call anyone. I hadn't thought to do anything.

I just stood there, holding my purse over my shoulder and 4 lb little dog in my arms, transfixed. "How horrible" was all I could think. Those people in the planes had to be dead. The people closest to the crash site. The people above the planes.

I knew my artist friend was next to me but I didn't connect with him at all. I don't think anyone was connecting. We were just looking.

And then, as I stared, an even stranger thing was happening. The tower started to look like it was wavering, you know, shimmering in the sun like you sometimes see on a steamy hot day. It seemed to undulate for a crazy second and then ... it just dropped down, disappearing into a huge mushrooming cloud of ash.

All of us on the corner screamed. I remember actually stepping behind the artist to try to block my view, like I would in the movies when a scary part was on. Except I never took my eyes off the blue sky that was there where the tower had once been.

My mind and heart went on overload - the horror was multiplying. I couldn't stop thinking of all the layers of people who were being killed in that very moment.

I kept repeating, to myself, "Oh my God, on top of all the people still stuck inside, all the people who thought they got out, all the people who went in to save them, all the people in all the fire trucks and police cars that whizzed by 5 minutes before with their sirens blaring.  On top of EVERYONE."

People around me were screaming and sobbing. But it was the young guy next to me on the cell phone who broke me.

He kept screaming loudly, "NO, NO, NO, NO," over and over again into the phone as he dropped to his knees on the street.  And as he kneeled, facing the towers like Mecca, I suddenly knew who he'd been talking to. His hand with the cell phone in it now hung by his side.

I suddenly pictured his girlfriend or wife: He had been staying with her, keeping her company as she attempted to make her way down one of the smoke-filled staircases. His voice was the only way he could protect her and lead her to safety. To be on the phone with a loved one in the building at that moment in time was unfathomable to me. My heart just kept breaking again and again.

No matter what iconic photos have emerged since that day, it is this image of that powerful young man brought to his knees, blindly screaming "NO" that will always be September 11th to me.

As the big white cloud where the tower once stood grew bigger, it formed itself into a shape and, like a Godzilla, this greyish monster of smoke, ash and debris lumbered towards us. It was a few stories high, filling Church Street, and was gaining speed.

Suddenly there was a different kind of scream from the people around me - still one of horror but now mixed with fear for your life. I couldn't believe this was happening, it really did look like it does in the movies, with people running away, tripping over themselves, helping the ones who had fallen, briefcases and high heels were strewn about the street.

But, oddly, I wasn't afraid. I was frozen staring at it, I somehow, rightly, deduced it wouldn't reach us - it would dissipate. We were safe. But the people, oh, the people underneath.

I wanted so desperately to run forward through the smoke and help.  Start pulling the people out, dragging them to safety. But I felt entirely powerless. Helpless. This was too, too big and I didn't believe there was any safety anymore. I would be useless.

Yet I couldn't run. I couldn't leave them. So I stood there stuck somewhere between fight or flight,  facing the only tower left standing, clutching my little dog tightly to me, as the frightened crowd continued to stream around me.

I remember feeling a tug on my arm, it was my artist friend, he kept saying, "Come on, Fran, we gotta run. We gotta RUN!" But I was determined not to leave the people under the building. Even if I couldn't help, I could keep them company. I could be there for them somehow.

"We're okay. It's stopping, we're fine," I calmly told him, really believing it somehow. I thought he and the other people were just being babies - c'mon, we have to stay and help. There was nothing that would get me to leave until he said the one thing that hadn't occurred to me. 

"We have to get away, really Fran. It could be germ warfare."

Germ warfare. You mean maybe that big cloud of smoke is really filled with something that can kill us all, everyone in New York City? And I could carry it on me and infect everyone else I came in contact with? 

And I know this sounds sick, but that's when I thought of my little dog, and how she needed to be protected so I covered her snout with my hand and reluctantly turned around and joined the throngs making our way uptown. 

But I will tell you this. I was not proud of my decision. To this day.  I felt like a coward walking away from the people. Abandoning them. I felt a portion of my heart tear away from me and stay put on the street corner.

And now, nine years later, I cringe when anyone calls me a 9/11 victim or survivor. It disgusts me. It seems sacrilegious, in a way, to wear that mantle. I wasn't hurt or maimed. I didn't lose a loved one. I don't cough and have trouble breathing. I was merely a witness.

And I remained one for some time. We'd all been evacuated below Canal but I had been able to return to my office the next week by showing my lease. And for some reason, I chose to live there rather than my home in NJ, sleeping on the futon night after night, taking long nocturnal walks throughout the streets with my dog. It was just the two of us, one lone 25 hour deli, the trucks hauling mangled steel and the volunteers doing their holy work.

One night, I couldn't take it any more and I kept walking further and further downtown to be closer to the people but was stopped by a bunch of workers taking a break. "Really, Sweetheart, go back," they told me.  "You don't wanna go down there. Trust us, you don't wanna see."

I have never gone to the site.

And throughout the weeks that followed, I haunted a four block radius around my office. I ate cereal and deli food night after night. I had no business, no one did. I didn't even have phones for three months. But I needed to be there.

I eventually lost the company and myself before the first anniversary. Had to declare bankruptcy. I began to just float from day to day - something I had never done in my life. It's taken me years but I have recently started to feel like "me" again. Creative. Funny. Useful. A different me, less goal-oriented, but I'm now someone I recognize.

I still struggle with the ability to believe that anything can be made so strong that it won't crumble in an instant. I struggle with the ability to believe that I can make something sturdy enough that it won't crumble before it's even done.

Vividly, I still see the woman at her desk with her coffee and donut in my mind's eye. I still see the young man prone on the street, praying in pain. 

And a piece of my heart remains forever on that street corner, wanting to keep the people company.

With love,


_________________________  <^>  ___________________________

If anyone is interested,  I've found actual 
on YouTube mostly taken by 
that most capture the experience 
of those of us in that area of Manhattan. 
While not graphic, 
they're very raw emotionally.

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