9/11 Twenty Years Later

I was born and raised in Manhattan. Celebrated my 18th birthday with my family at Windows on the World. After college, I moved to Soho. Each time I walked out my front door, I could turn right and see the Midtown skyline or turn left and see the Twin Towers. I worked just across the street from them for a time, bought clothes and books in the ground floor shops, picked up coffees and lunches in the food court. That was my reality, my home.

And then one day, it wasn’t.

Scott shook me awake early that Tuesday morning. “Honey, wake up. A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” A plane had hit the Empire State Building once, in another era, so the words were shocking, but not completely out of the realm of possibility. I turned on CNN.

We didn’t know what to make of it. How could an airplane have gone so off course in this modern era? We didn’t know about the other planes yet. It seemed like a weird, crazy one-off. I picked up the phone to call Mom.

We were on the phone as the second plane hit. CNN caught it happening in real time and I screamed. That was when the world changed. When we knew that this was no random tragic accident, but something much, much worse.

Memory is a weird thing. I Googled the footage and watched it again the other day, to make sure it happened the way I remembered. That I really did see the impact, the explosive burst of flames. I did. CNN still has the link online. It’s a gut punch to watch, even all these years later.

Much of the rest of the day is a blur, but I remember watching the first tower fall. Even as it crumbled, I though, “surely only the top will be affected”. The cloud grew bigger and bigger, and I couldn’t process what I was seeing. How could something so huge suddenly just be gone?

This was before smart phones and ubiquitous connectivity. My sister worked next door to the WTC and walked through it every morning on her commute. She didn’t have a cell phone. We had no idea where she was or if she was safe. She’d been standing between Trinity Church and City Hall, watching, then after the towers collapsed, walked home. It took several hours until she finally arrived at my parents’ house, covered in dust, but safe.

I didn’t know my friend Kath was killed that day. I thought she was safely in midtown, so I didn’t call to check in. I hadn’t heard she had just switched jobs and was working on the 97th floor of Tower 1. We’d met when she came to New York as part of a NY/London community theater production. She fell in love with one of the other Americans in the cast, and a few years later, I was maid of honor at their wedding.

I called her husband when I heard the news. I sat on the floor, helpless, not sure what to say, as we cried on the phone together. Death is a part of life, but there’s no instruction manual for what to do when your friend is killed by a terrorist in the prime of her life. You make it up as you go along.

9/11 is part of history now. The world has changed in so many ways. I’ve seen some people saying, why should we care about 3,000 dead when COVID has taken more than 600,000? And if you didn’t have a personal connection to 9/11/01, it’s a fair question. But to those of us who lived though that day, who felt that pain, who still mourn those losses, we know that the one doesn’t cancel out the other.

We will never forget.