Terrorism and commuting don’t mix

I was a New Jersey Transit rider on September 11, 2001. I don’t remember much about the train ride in that morning, but I do vividly remember how I felt when I came out of the Seventh Avenue exit of Penn Station. As soon as I got off the escalator, I was struck by how beautiful a day it was: barely a cloud in the sky, cool, crisp air—the kind of day that made you glad to be alive. Some players from the New York Rangers were right outside the exit distributing what I think I remember were glossy team schedules. (The Rangers play in Madison Square Garden, and the entrance to the Garden is right above Penn Station.) I left the station feeling good about everything.

Back in those days, I was working at a legal publishing company on Fifth Avenue, down near 21st Street. From Penn Station, I used to walk down Seventh, at some point taking a cross street over to Broadway, and then walk down Broadway to Madison Square Park, where I’d pick up Fifth Avenue. I remember crossing 23rd Street, when a woman I’d never seen before said to me, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.” As I do with anyone who directly addresses me on the streets of New York, I gave her a smile that can be interpreted as “thanks for that valuable information,” but really means, “please don’t talk to me you friggin’ nut job.” As she walked past, I raised my head to catch the view of downtown.

Looking down Fifth Avenue from that area of the city, it was as though the Twin Towers were in a frame. I had a perfect view. So I immediately saw that the woman wasn’t nuts. There was a big, black, smoking hole in one of the towers. From where I stood, I couldn’t tell how big the plane that had flown into the tower was. I’d assumed it was a small plane, flown by an amateur pilot who had gone off course and had an accident.

I went up to work and everyone was staring out the office windows that had downtown perspectives. Rumors were already beginning to swirl about what had happened, but at that point it was still basically an oddity. That is, until the second plane flew into the other tower right in front of our eyes. Huge explosion. I remember somebody said, “How are they doing this?” But we had no idea who “they” were. The news started to pick it up. People went to their computers and phones, trying to get information. Then we’d circulate back to the offices that had good views of the towers. We heard about DC. I think there were also rumors of Boston. I called my wife to tell her what had happened. She was in the middle of a play date for our then two-and-a-half-year-old son. Later, she said she didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was telling her until she saw it on the news after we’d spoken. At some point the phones went dead and I couldn’t reach her anymore. More circulating from office to office, looking at the big, smoking holes.

Then the towers crumbled. There were people who screamed and cried. I felt numb. At some point before Noon, we were told to go home. But the problem was that we already had heard on the radio that all the trains out of the city were shut down as an emergency precaution (though I heard in the days that followed that some people were able to get out on Metro North and New Jersey Transit—but I’m a rule follower, so I didn’t try).

My brother was working in our company’s production department at the time, laying out newsletters and books. He wasn’t going to be able to get home to Long Island, either. So we left the building together to go to our other brother’s apartment in the Gramercy section of the city. As we got into the elevator, I said, “I’m glad you were here,” and my voice started to crack. Staring straight at the elevator buttons, he said, “Don’t be a pussy.” I started to laugh. We tried to find lunch and watched some early news coverage. Osama bin Laden’s name started coming up very early.

When we got to our brother’s place, the three of us watched the news, trying to figure out whether there was more coming that night, whether there was anything we should be doing, etc. We went to a hospital and tried to give blood, but were turned away. We saw guys in suits walking up the middle of Third Avenue, covered in dust and looking dazed. We couldn’t find anywhere to eat, so we just went back to the apartment and watched CNN all night. I don’t think I really slept. Early the next morning, I walked back across town to Penn Station noting fighter jets flying overhead. I got a train back out to New Jersey. It was my ninth wedding anniversary.

Of course, a lot of people had a much worse day than I did, but it was surreal. And the experience affected my commute for months afterward. Everyone was hyped up about homeland security and the anxiety-inducing warning system. I read the New York Times every morning, trying to learn about the terrorists and to predict what their next targets might be so I could avoid being in any of those places. There was a lot of talk about commuter trains, bridges, and tunnels being targets. Every time I got on a train, I surveyed the faces of my fellow passengers in an attempt to determine who appeared cool, detached, and evil. When we went through the tunnel that took the train into and out of Manhattan, I’d ask God to make sure we made it through safely (and I’m not a person who prays much).

Now, eleven years later, a new tower is starting to appear on the lower Manhattan skyline (see a picture my buddy took of it below) and Osama bin Laden and many of his deputies are dead. There aren’t near-daily reports of planned attacks in and around New York, but you know it’s still a target. Anyone you talk to continues to say it’s just a matter of time. And, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, whenever there’s a report of police activity, the first place my mind goes is, “they’re back.” I really don’t like these guys, whoever they are now.

New World Trade Center tower. (Photo: Brendan Hasenstab)

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3 responses to “Terrorism and commuting don’t mix

  1. Pingback: We’ll cross that bridge…every day « Notes from the train·

  2. Pingback: The best of September 2012 « Notes from the train·

  3. Pingback: The week that was: September 14, 2012 « Notes from the train·

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