Ten years ago, one of the most monumental events in U.S. history occurred – the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed thousands of people.
On that morning, I was living in a walk-up apartment on Third Avenue and 73rd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was working for a well-known financial services company on Wall Street – I won’t name them, but suffice it to say they attracted some notoriety recently after downgrading the credit rating of the wealthiest, most powerful nation the world has ever known.
I remember waking up late and scrambling to get ready to go to work. It was a routine Tuesday morning, a gloriously cool sunny day – more like autumn than the typically humid climate of late summer New York.
I took the subway down to Wall Street, probably reading the sports pages of my favorite paper, the New York Post.
When I alighted at the Wall Street station on Broadway (just after 9 a.m.), I noticed something strange, The air was filled with pieces of paper and confetti floating in the air. Although this was highly unusual, the other pedestrians around me didn’t seem too curious or worried.
I think, as I walked toward my office on Water Street, that perhaps some local building was on fire (I was right, but not to the extent such an inferno would eventually reveal itself to be).
No one around me was in a state of panic at all (yet). By the time I reached my office on the 42nd floor of my building on Water Street, I saw a crowd of people gathered around the television with astonished and anxious looks on their faces – a commercial aeroplane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers! (So that explained all that floating confetti in the air).
It was a stunning event – the first thing I thought of was that a small aircraft had once smashed into the Empire State Building decades before.
I went to my desk preparing to write a news story about the plane crash. Then, a few minutes later, we heard that a second plane crashed into the other Twin Tower – and that it (or both) had collapsed. It was clearly the work of terrorists, not a simple mechanical failure by aircraft.
The next few minutes were a chaotic blur. Although no evacuation order was issued by building officials (as best as I can recall), people on my floor panicked and streamed for the exit. In the pandemonium, I joined the exodus, leaving my bag behind.
I remember how bizarre the ride down the elevator was – packed like sardines with more than a dozen frightened people. Nerves were on edge – fears of what the attacks meant spiraled. Since we were on the 42nd floor, the elevator doors would periodically open at other floors below us with other people desperate to escape. After some screams and curses, the lift kept descending. Privately I worried that if our building was targeted, the power might go out and we’d all be trapped in that cramped elevator car.
Finally, we reached the ground floor and began streaming out. It was still a beautiful sunny morning, but fear and paranoia gripped the hundreds of people around me.
My only purpose at this point was to somehow get home and call my family and loved ones.
At this point, the timeline becomes fuzzy – as I, and thousands of other harried office workers, pedestrians and tourists trudged northward, I heard from some passersby that one of the Towers had collapsed. Not only that, but another plane crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania; and yet another plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
Was World War III starting, I wondered? Where can anyone go now that would be safe?
Clearly, something epic and life-altering was afoot – and I was right in the center of it all.
Still, the mass movement of people was surprisingly orderly, even with the large numbers of dazed and/or tearful expressions on random faces I encountered.
One thing I noticed was the long queues of people at public phone booths – mobile phones had already become ubiquitous; however, over-burdened cell networks rendered these magical devices useless, Hence, folks sought to contact their loved ones the old-fashioned way. (At that time, I had no cellphone, so it was irrelevant to me).
The most surreal – and unforgettable – moment of my trek towards my subway station (City Hall-Brooklyn Bridge), occurred somewhere along Park Row. I noticed everyone was staring to the left and upwards – the top of one of the Towers had been ‘truncated’ and raging with a burning fire. It was like something out of the most fantastic science-fiction movie – but it was real life and I simply couldn’t believe the spectacle.
As I approached the subway station, I wondered if the trains would even be running – or, if they were, would it become a death-trap should more planes attack New York City?
I considered walking the two miles home, but once I saw people scampering into the subway, I decided to follow them (I wanted to get home quickly).
I can’t remember the subway ride too well, perhaps I had a numb feeling. However, I am certain that every passenger was focused on the same questions I was brooding over: what just happened? Will it happen again? And what will the long-term ramifications be?
This was, after all, completely uncharted territory – I had never experienced anything remotely like a terrorist attack, or war, or even a minor civil disturbance.
For some reason, I exited at the 59th street station and decided to walk the rest of the way. A long, long line of workers were streaming up-town on Lexington Avenue, presumably from all the way downtown, People had taken over the streets in an orderly, joyless procession – there appeared to be little or no vehicle traffic.
Looking southward, plumes of black smoke were arising from the World Trade Center. I got to my apartment on 73rd St., raced to the telephone, but it was dead. I flipped on the television and watched in fascinated horror – terrorists had finally struck on American soil, including the very symbol of Western capitalism and the fortress of U.S. military power that had ruled the planet for the prior sixty years.
Unable to call anyone, I darted outside, I felt the need to be with people at this historic time. I strolled into a pub on Third Avenue which was filled to the brim with people glued to the TV set which showed the destruction downtown. One girl told me her apartment had been destroyed (although she didn’t seem overly upset by this development).
At some point, I walked up Third Avenue all the way up to the main thoroughfare of 86th Street. The incongruously beautiful weather made the ongoing tragedy that much more surreal. I noticed that stores and restaurants had shut down – I surmised that since virtually all police officers and firefighters would be busy downtown, business-owners elsewhere feared looters and rioting,
Thankfully, nothing like that happened.
By early evening, I was able to reach friends and family to inform them I was all right.
September 11 was a Tuesday – the stock market would remain closed until the following Monday, which meant I had a brief (and unexpected) ‘vacation’ of sorts.
I honestly cannot remember what those seven days or so were like – I was bombarded by millions of images, fears, thoughts (from both external sources and within myself), as I tried to process this unprecedented ‘episode.’
I do recall some pundits on TV and newspaper columnists claiming that (I am paraphrasing) nothing will ever be the same again and that ‘people will now be concerned about important, serious things, rather than the inane and trivial.’
Some observers even made the grandiose prediction that the very fundamental relationships between people, government, business, churches, etc. – the most important institutions in society – would be irrevocably altered forever.
I certainly hoped all that would be true, but I was skeptical.
Ten years later, what are the results of 9/11?
It led to two questionable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; thousands of deaths of U.S, soldiers; the ultimate fall of Saddam Hussein (who likely had nothing to do with 9/11); the global recognition of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (all of whom became household names across the globe).
However, while people in New York (and the remainder of the country) probably became more serious, sensitive and introspective in the days and weeks after 9/11 … such a permanent sea change in attitude never really emerged.
Too many people remain obsessed with stupid TV shows, lousy movies; they eat junk food and waste their lives on pointless activities. Too many Americans remain ignorant about foreign cultures; too many remain selfish, materialistic and narcissistic (look at Facebook, Twitter and the near-maniacal obsession people have with their iPhones, iPads and Blackberrys).
So, I must wonder – what has really changed after 10 years?