Sep. 11th, 2015

You may have read pieces of this on Facebook, either a few months ago or today. This is the most complete version to date, and probably the most complete version I will write.

It was my second day back at work after taking a 3 month leave of absence when I had decided to quit but was talked into waiting and seeing if I wanted to come back. They asked me to come back and manage a transition from someone who was leaving to someone who wasn't hired yet. 9/11 was my welcome back.

I was a few minutes late getting out of the subway, because voting in the primary election that day took longer than I expected. It was probably just about 9:00. As I walked up the stairs to the street, there was an odd smell and a few pieces of charred paper blowing in the wind. I asked someone on the sidewalk what was up and he said a twin-engine plane had hit one of the towers.
When I got to my floor at NYSE, everyone was asking what the shaking was. It turns out the second plane had hit when I was in the elevator and because of the cushioning of the elevator, I was one of the few people in the neighborhood who didn't feel it.

CNN reported quickly after that that it had been another plane. That was the point that we knew (rather than speculated) that it was terrorism. There was confusion from on high over the next several minutes as to whether NYSE would evacuate. Eventually, they did. The Gemini employees there found each other in front of the building. Most went home, but Claire, the top Gemini person said she'd be going over to the office on Broadway in a bit and I said I'd go over now and see if there was anything I could do. At the time, I had no idea the buildings would come down, and I don't think those I was talking with did, either.

At Gemini, reached my family telling them I was OK and reported to those taking calls from others' families that I had seen them after the crashes.

When the first tower came down, it made a terrible, long roar, and I thought it was another building being hit. The room where we had been had a large window and we all evacuated our offices into the building's elevator lobby for the floor we were on. When the tower was coming down was the only time I was scared of immediate harm, and not as scared as one might think.

Eventually, the building came speakers on and told us we had to leave. I don't remember whether we had already walked down to the 2nd or 3rd storey before then; I think we had. The first floor was blocked by the awful smoke and ash. The building kept telling us we had to leave, and eventually we did. I was much more scared of what the neighborhood would be like outside the building, but not because of immediate death or external injury. At least someone had thought to get wet paper towl before we left and I was one a few people who asked if he could get me some, too.

Once outside, the only way to face and be able to breathe was south, so I found myself in Battery Park. I went to the Staten Island Ferry, but they were closed. I could see people on the walking over the Brooklyn Bridge--somehow the smoke didn't go that far north and the sightline to them wasn't obscured, I guess because they were high up. But I couldn't get there because you couldn't walk into the smoke for that far. I tried a few times, though. I also helped a vendor struggling with his cart. I gave some of my wet towels to someone who didn't seem to be doing well. I ran across some tourists with a baby who were facing away from the smoke but had the baby on a shoulder, facing into the smoke. I pointed out the problem and gave them half my remaining towels.

When I tried the ferry for the third time, a boat was just arriving with firemen from other boroughs. The ferry folks said the boat would return to Staten Island and we could get on. As we passed the firemen, they looked in worse shock than the rest of us. I didn't learn until later that many firemen had died, undoubtedly including their friends and family. As the passengers went into a long, wide, tunnel-like passageway onto the boat and the firemen came into view from the other end, one of the passengers started clapping, which we quickly all took up. I remember one of the large, stunned firemen drawing up his hips and back, putting on a show, still stunned but seemingly glad for even the distraction of feeling he had to put on a public face.

When I got to Staten Island, I walked a mile and a half in shoes that really weren't meant for that to get to an intentional community I had lived in for several months a few years before. From there, I didn't get in the first set of cars that went to give blood, but I did go somewhat later when a new group left in another car. When we got to the center, they were clearly overwhelmed and it was apparent my blood would not immediately help anyone. I went to a bus stop and after another couple of hours, I got a bus that took me home to Brooklyn.

Gemini had people at WTC, but they were all on lower floors and got out. Several NYSE colleagues knew someone who had died on one of the planes, but interestingly nobody knew anyone who had died in the tower. Until I learned that on old friend from my high school chess team had been a new father and that was his first day at Cantor Fitzgerald and the last of his life.

Two weeks later, when they re-ran the primary election, my day started the same way. I was even the same few minutes late. On the way from the polls to the subway, I had an overwhelming sense of wrongness of continuing that path. It was the only mental health day I took. I quit shortly after, but that was because I wasn't working up to my (or eventually, I imagine) the company's standards. 9/11 was at most a minor contributing factor to that.


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