"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it." - Ferris Bueller

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tails: September 11th

My mom asks me why it's been six years and I have never written about 9/11. I know why she asks me. I was living there at the time. But for some reason, I think that being there and living through it for me is so much smaller than the people who really lived through it, those who lost people they knew and loved, who literally ran for their lives that day, who were trapped buried underneath the rubble for days, who jumped from the inferno, who witnessed fear at its most basic, primal worst, who fought off hijackers, who sat helpless while terrorists ravaged through our hearts.

I lived in Queens, just on the other side of the river. I took the F-Train to work at my job at Fox News Channel every day and I was running a little late that morning. I was supposed to be in early to cover someone else's shift at 9:30. It was just past 9 when my phone rang and it was my mom who said, "Turn on the tv."

I saw the smoke coming from the World Trade Center and thought, "Shit." There were only preliminary reports then and at that time it was being labeled an accident; a small plane that went off course. I knew it was going to be a busy news day even if it were an accident, so I just said "Gotta go! I'll call you later! Love you." Hung up and ran for the subway. What a morning to be late, I thought.

I got onto the train and for the next hour and a half I was stuck on the subway underneath the East River on a trip that only usually takes 25 minutes. I was pissed. I thought the train was having problems. I thought I was in serious hot water, late on a breaking news day. Great. No one on the train knew what was actually happening. There's no cell service down in the tunnels. The conductors said nothing. It turned out the train I was on was one of the last ones into the city for the next few weeks.

As the train pulled up to my stop, there were officers everywhere. I ran up the stairs and out into the sunlight, straight down 6th Avenue toward the News Corps building and when I got there, it was under lockdown. Of course, I ran out of my apartment so fast, I had forgotten my I.D. and security wouldn't let me in. I pulled out my Driver's license, my business cards, everything I could to say who I was in a panic and he let me in. I ran in, ran down the escalator and into the newsroom, where everyone was standing, mouths dropped, watching the live news, watching the monitors at their desks as the second tower began to fall. I could not comprehend what was happening. I was seeing only one tower left and now it was falling.

I realized that as I was trapped in the subway for that hour and a half that my parents were probably watching the television, freaking out that while this was going on, I was on my way into the city, and after it all started to sink in, I called them. "I'm ok," I said. "I'm below ground. We're safe here. I'm safe." "Oh, THANK GOD!" my mom yelled back. I told her I had to go and I'd keep in touch. I logged in on the computer and my e-mail was flooded with subject lines "Where are you?" and "Are you ok?" from friends and family who live far from me.

Bulletins were crossing the wire, planes were missing everywhere, we realized we were under attack. The newsroom was both completely numb and chaotic at the same time. We didn't know the scope of this yet. This truly was worst case scenario. We didn't know if the world was going to end as we knew it, whether this was the just the beginning, whether there would be bombs, more attacks, we didn't know anything. But we had to find out. It's what we do. Turn off. Work.

I worked until 2 in the morning that day and had to come back in by 7 a.m. That was pretty much my schedule for quite some time. The subways and bridges were shut down indefinitely. There was no way I was going home any time soon. I, along with my co-workers, plunged into work. I ended up staying in the city for the next two weeks. Borrowing clothes, yes even underwear, and an apartment from a co-worker, who turned out to be one of my dearest friends, and working around the clock. The only food we had time to get was whatever the channel was providing from some deli.

That summer, it was hot. There was no wind, and a white, chalky haze from the World Trade Centers hovered over Manhattan for more than a month. It just hung there, stagnant. I can't explain the smell even though I remember it so well. The city was the best and worst place to be during that time. ATMs ran out of money. Stores ran out of food. People saluted and waved to the firefighters who drove by with their huge flags waving from the backs of their fire engines. Firefighters drove by and passed out bottled water to people on the streets. Businesses were shut down. New York City was in a collective silence. People were cautious. And at that point ready for anything. Riding the subways or the bus was a scary, but bonding experience. Everyone noticed everything. An unattended backpack. A suspicious face. Suspicious activity. There was no local crime, or at least it felt like it. That feeling of togetherness was overwhelming. The feeling that anything could happen was terrifying.

The friend I was staying with lived a couple blocks from the Empire State Building. There were always threats against the building, which turned out to be hoaxes, but we didn't know that at the time. That skyscraper stared right at us like a giant face through her bedroom window and there was no sleeping. Just in case.

For a while, we ditched our "regular" jobs in emergency mode. Tapes and tapes of video were being pumped in from every network. Every network shared everything. There was news conference after news conference. There were two live cameras on Ground Zero at all times, watching the "bucket brigade", as they called it; firefighters one by one passing bucket after bucket of rubble down the line. When they came across someone who was buried under there, we knew. The firefighters would either break out into chaos trying to free them, or salute, and a few minutes later we'd see them solemnly roll away a flag-draped gurney. Each time, every producer would stop and watch. Many cried.

I only went down to the site a couple of times. I couldn't really bear to. I saw it enough from my desk and heard enough from reporters and photographers who were there. But when I did go, the one thing I remember most about what it looked like was the papers everywhere. There's an old church behind Ground Zero that held services for the workers and was turned into a kind of shelter for them. The entire grounds of the church was covered in papers from the towers. Papers literally everywhere you walked, all covered in a chalky ash. All along the fences there were missing people posters, put there by family members desperately waiting to hear any word of their loved ones. There were impromptu memorials of flowers, candles, and notes in bunches along the fences around Ground Zero. People would pray, all day, all night, and sing and talk, at a park north of Ground Zero, at Union Square, which became a sort of giant memorial and gathering place.

At work, the only time we left the building was to go sleep for a couple hours, but no one really slept. We were all zombies just going through the motions of this first-ever experience for every one of us. Somehow, we all got it done. Through our own personal fear and loss, we wrote, we worked to bring as much of what we were seeing to the world as we could. I never saw more professionalism in my life.

A month later, things were finally starting to quiet. The air was starting to smell a little less, the cloud was starting to lift although there was still smoke coming from the wreckage, and there was a chill in the air. People started to live life a little more normally. Before that point, going out for a beer seemed sacrilegious and besides, there was just no time. But I remember the first time we all got a chance to hang out together outside work and we got hammered. Which was terrible because what happens when a bunch of people who have a bunch of pent-up exhaustion, fear and sadness get drunk? Yes, drunk crying. The whole lot of us.

For months and months, no one could really talk about anything else. And conversation would always turn to "Where were you?"

I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for families, relatives, rescuers, and victims or what it is still like. I can't even begin to imagine it. It was so difficult for me that I saw a therapist for two years afterward. And every year, I cry on the anniversary. I will never forget that 9/11 was on a Tuesday. Today is Tuesday and that is weird to me. I suspect I will talk to my dear friend with whom I shared that time with. We don't talk very much now living on opposite coasts, but we always talk on this day. I was going through my clothes cleaning out the nursery closet a couple weeks ago and found a pair of her pants that I had borrowed when I stayed at her house during the weeks following 9/11 and I finally parted with them. There is so much more to tell about New York City during that time but I don't even know where to begin. All I know is that it was the most terrifying, unifying time I have every experienced. I have never seen so much love come from so much hate. I would never want to be in any other place on that day.


Baldwins Girl said...

That was one of the most beautiful, difficult, heart wrenching things I have ever, EVER read. I know how hard it was to read, I can only imagine how difficult it was to write. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us..with the world.

Skittles said...

I totally agree with the comment above this one. I think that is the best first hand experience I've ever read. I cannot imagine what those days were like for you and your co-workers.

Thank you for sticking with it, not giving up, and bringing the news to the world. ♥

Anna said...

I'm crying with you today. Thank you for sharing this. You have a perspective that most of us don't, because you were right there while we watched from a distance.

I especially love the way people bonded and pulled together in the face of all this tragedy. That part was beautiful.

tegdirb92 said...

thank you so much for sharing your story. Wow, that was really hard to read without getting overwhelmed with emotion.

Jennifer said...

Yours is a great portrayal of what was really happening and your emotions. Thanks..

Mom not Mum said...

That was very powerful. I have a friend who left her office building with a stack of papers to take to the building across from hers - one of the twin towers. Only to reach the bottom floor and realize she had forgotten 1 document so she went back inside, up to her office and then back down. As she exited her building all hell broke loose. Her accounting of the events was just amazing.

Sparky Duck said...

you and I agree on not really going near it, because it was around us, but not on us. Does that make sense?

um Newscorp???

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, there are many Hero's and families that share the losses. We are proud you were there as well to share what others were forced to bare as well..Today we remember, tomorrow we must not forget, each and everyone who perished, and of course their loved ones.
9/11 will be forever on the minds of many in this country. Thanks to those who care, and share.
I lost a friend in the tower, I think of him often, as also those I didn;t know as well.
Too bad we must remember something as tragic as this but who knows what good will come out of it, much has already............

Jenmomof4 said...

Great post!! I read you all the time but just don't comment!! Call me a lurker! :-)

meeyauw said...

Thank you for writing. I know it was difficult to write and that it dredged up memories you may not want. Perhaps this is part of the healing. You did an important thing by sharing.

Bankerchick said...

What a moving story, your music was playing and I was welling up. I usually don't blog with the sound on. Thank you for sharing your story about life in the newsroom during that traumatic time.

Sarge Charlie said...

excellent post, thanks

maggies mind said...

Christie, wow. I've read this previously, and I am surprised I didn't comment then. Your story and your perspective are just so well told that it is like being there with you almost, except that I still can't quite imagine. To come up from the subway, the last one at that, and to see what had happened had to have just been surreal. Even watching it on the news in the morning as the second plane hit while the first was being reported was eerie for me, then having to go to work and hearing on the radio as the day unfolded, just waiting for the next Very Scary report. I needed to read this today, to see it from your angle and to be reminded of how much love came from so much hate as you aptly put it. Thank you for writing this.