I woke early that clear, sunny and warm September morning. I showered quickly and ate while getting dressed, in order to catch an early F train from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Manhattan. I was co-director of a photography gallery on the Upper East Side and with the transfer, my commute could take up to 40 minutes depending upon if I made my connection at Bleecker Street. My stomach churned from nerves. I was behind with my invoicing and wanted to get as many completed before my boss arrived.
I scurried to the subway station, ticking off items on my mental checklist and the usual details for my line of business: remembering I had to confirm the framing on several print orders, making sure each client’s special requests and specifications were seen to, remembering which photographers I had to contact for prints.
I unlocked the door to the brownstone on East 76th Street and climbed the stairs to the first floor. I turned off the alarm, turned on my computer, left my bags under my desk and headed to the tea kitchen to make coffee. While I waited for the coffee to perk, I smoked a cigarette while listening to a cd and typing invoices (Yes, it was allowed because my boss chain smoked, as did I at that time.).
I wasn’t even half an hour into my work when my boss burst into the gallery. She dashed to the boom box, turned off the cd and frantically began twisting the dial to find a radio station.
She blurted out desperately, without a greeting, “A plane hit the World Trade Center!”
She continued to fumble with the dial until she found the news.
I shrugged, muttered “Good morning,” and continued typing.
“Christina. STOP. Stop working. A PLANE HAS HIT THE TOWER.”
I didn’t understand. How could I? A plane crashed into the World Trade Center? What did that even mean? What was she talking about?
“What? A pilot just lost control?”
“They don’t know. The think it might be a terrorist attack.”
The the radio announced that a second plane crashed into the second tower.
The chain of events are foggy. My co-director arrived. The phone rang off the hook. I couldn’t reach my family in Ohio to tell them I was ok because all cell phone connection had been shut down. My ex-husband managed to get through to the gallery, for which I was grateful, as he could pass on the message to my family that I was ok and far enough from Ground Zero.
I may have been removed from the events at Ground Zero as I was on the Upper East Side, but it didn’t make the brush with terror less scary. From the window next to my desk I could see into the neighboring brownstone. A blonde woman sat glued to a television in her kitchen, watching the news with the same loop of a plane flying into the second tower again and again. Her husband worked in one of the towers.
My boss closed the gallery and said that we would be in touch about if we were to come in to work the next day or not. The unspoken words were actually, “If we are still alive in the next days.” Because that was how we felt. Would we even be alive on September 12th?
My colleague and I began the long walk towards Downtown. I would head to Chelsea to pick up my roommate. We chose Park Avenue thinking it would be less crowded. Not so. We walked down the sidewalk passing military jeeps, soldiers marching and carrying machine guns, and actual TANKS heading down Park Avenue. The military had taken over the Armory Building.
The only thought in my head was, “This is what war must feel like.”
And the paper. There was paper everywhere. Letter sized sheets of papers floated from the sky. Everywhere. White sheets caught the wind and lazily floated with the current until landing on the ground.
I collected my roommate at the Magnum Photos New York offices in Chelsea. A quiet, sombre staff greeted me, contrasting the constant ringing of phones and the shouting of the editorial and managing directors in the conference room. They directed the photographers to various points around Manhattan to secure as wide photojournalistic coverage as possible.
The rest is a blur. I remember crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by foot and being relieved to finally step into Brooklyn and leave Manhattan. It felt safer to be across the river.
After hours of being glued to the television, I went to bed that night with the constant drone of helicopter blades in the background, fairly confident I wouldn’t be alive the next day.
Waking the next morning, I truly couldn’t believe we didn’t have another attack in the night and that I was still alive.
There was dust everywhere and the stench in Brooklyn of charred flesh was overwhelming.
This is what I think about every September 11th. When I consider what happened, I had a very sheltered 9/11 experience. I’m grateful that my experience wasn’t worse. But it was close enough for me.