9/11 Stories

G. Ramos

11:10 pm: Yesterday and today have been indescribable. I was at work yesterday morning. I went in at 8AM, which I never do. I knew Tuesday was an important day, my brother was scheduled to leave for Greece that afternoon. I’d arranged to leave work at noon, go visit my dentist at 1, and then drive my brother to JFK at 2:30 and see him off.

At about 8:40 I heard our secretary DS start crying, making random exclamations I couldn’t hear through my door. I stepped into the common area, “Did you hear? The World Trade Center is on fire!” I was amazed. It then emerged that somehow a plane had crashed into it. What a catastrophe! No one suspected it was intentional. I stood by Dana’s radio with a few others, and we listened as the North tower of the WTC burned. I ran to the roof with MT, trying to catch a glimpse. Nothing, not even any smoke. I climbed up onto the high tower, over that rusted ladder on Building 17 that should have fallen off decades ago (MT refused to go up), but still nothing.

I returned to the office. Then, suddenly, there was a general crying out. Another plane had hit the World Trade Center. Was it the same building? Were they bombs or airplanes? Frantically, I tried to access the internet. Only once did I gain to access anything, the first press (Reuters?) release about the first collision. Not helpful at all.

Over the next 30 minutes we all stood around in shock, listening to the radio. There had been 7 or 8 hijackings that morning. This was a terrorist attack. Suddenly we learned Washington DC was on fire. The Pentagon, the great symbol of America’s impenetrable military, was blown up. Washington was deserted, the Great Mall up in flames. Then the rumors started coming in: the Plaza Hotel had been blown up, there were 2 airplanes headed out of Pennsylvania our way, a van full of explosives had been intercepted at the George Washington Bridge. Suddenly, the Museum was clamped down. No one could come or go. JF had tears on his eyes. I finally got through to my mother, assured her I was ok. Then the phones died, and I couldn’t reach anyone through the telephone or my computer. Then, the announcement that all non-essential personnel had to leave. I asked my boss if I could go, he said I must. He did not want to explain to my mother why I was still in the Museum.

I drank a quart of water and walked out. No one checked my bag. Crossing the street, I entered Central Park. The day was beautiful. The only sound came from the birds and cicadas. There were dozens of people in the Park, about as many as one could expect at 10AM, perhaps a few more. No one was talking. Overhead, I saw a passenger jet and 2 F16s pass. I worried about that passenger jet (I still am, whenever I hear a non-military jet fly by). At one point, I saw a shiny jet fly by and reflect the sun as it passed directly below the moon (the moon was still up, looking almost like a crescent moon). The crescent and the star: Islam.

I realized that MR would be panicking right now. I counted my responsibilities: MR, my mother, my sister. I knew my brother and stepfather would have stayed in Queens. MR does not respond well to emergencies, and I knew she’d probably forget that the 59th street bridge has a pedestrian walkway. My sister has probably never walked more than 2 blocks in her life, never mind knowing how to get to Queens on foot from Harlem. They’d need help. I made it out of the Park, tried in vain to use a payphone to find the address of MR’s office. I walked into one of the posh 5th Ave buildings and asked to use their phone book, in the Queen’s English (I was sweaty and surely looked agitated). It worked, they let me use it. No answer. I walked to her office, persuaded the impressively handsome guard to call her. She came downstairs, was calm, hardly even nervous. I guess I underestimated her. I told her I was walking to Queens and that she should come with me.

We started walking towards the 59th street bridge. There were thousands of people converging on the bridge. We heard wild conversations, people screaming into cell phones, horrendous lines at the payphones (though it looked like only 1 in 10 people actually got through anywhere). Traffic was thick, and the cross-guard at 3 Ave looked like he wished he had a gun. On the bridge, I walked among hundreds of fellow Queens people. All races, all ages. Some groups of people were cursing, screaming “sand nigger” and other things. There was only one lane of traffic leaving the city, the other lanes were clogged with people. At one point a small caravan of cars pushed its way through the crowd into Manhattan. All were driven by cops, except for the one car with an old Rabbi in the front seat. A black woman with dreadlocks was driving.

We walked as fast as we could, considering the crowd. The situation was bad, and I was effectively alone on a mile-long bridge hundreds of feet above the East River, surrounded by a mob of emotionally charged people. Then, the incredible sight of the black and grey cloud coming from lower Manhattan. Just 2 days before, I commented to my roommate KN that I’d never been to the top of the WTC. We’d admired New York’s skyline from the Staten Island ferry and talked about how much of a miracle NYC is. Now, all I could see was one tower obscured by a billowing cloud of thick, choking smoke and dust. It completely enveloped lower Manhattan, and the river, and a large part of Brooklyn. It was turning black as the fires got hotter.

The reality of all of this finally dawned. I was frightened. I could not imagine how I would react if I had seen this happen up close. I have had dreams about this before. I’ve run away from collapsing buildings in Manhattan, hearing the rumble of the Earth opening behind me, watched as the wall of debris and dust swept over me, sending me into oblivion. Other times, it was a tidal wave that was sweeping towards the city. This terrified me in my dreams, and it steeled my resolve to get home. My plan was to get home, change shoes, then walk to Harlem and get my sister, one way or another.

Midway over the bridge, a smokestack came into my field of vision. There was an American flag on it. The newly painted smokestack, a clean flag tethered to it at 4 points, the great dark cloud marring the otherwise perfectly blue sky. The flag, bound by industry, a great cloud of horrific toxicity seeming to bellow from it. Eventually, we made it to my apartment, finally. We were safe. I called my brother, he said my mother called and said she was fine, that she’d have to stay at the school late. I managed to get through on my sister’s cell phone. She was fine, did not need rescuing, would be home whenever the Board of Ed said she could be. Her friend C. had a car. I checked my messages. Only my dentist had called, no one else had called for me. Slightly depressing, but understandable (later AH and EB would call).

After MR went home, I visited my brother and watched the incredible footage of the explosions, the people falling hundreds of stories, their mouth agape, their arms and legs flailing hopelessly. I remembered hearing the radio newscaster go silent when she saw the North tower collapse earlier that morning. I now watched it on television. I watched as the airliner curved its way towards the tower, nearly missing, then exploding in the most hideous billow of orange flame and black death, watched as the building exploded on the other side, the debris raining hell onto the firemen below. How many people I know had died in that instant? How long would I have to wait before I knew? I felt capable of withstanding anything at that point, yet I felt utterly alone. I was not shocked, nor in disbelief. I knew this would happen eventually. It was brilliant, and the perpetrators would pay dearly. I hoped I would not be involved in the retribution. I wondered how AJR was, whether she was safe. Would I ever see her again? My roommate AM came home crying, but she was fine. KN was in the Village, safe but on her way. She arrived 4 hours later, her feet blistered. We had beer together.

I slept poorly, was awake again 5 hours later. Sirens wailed all night. Jets flew overhead. My morning meditation practice was sweet, the ocean of calm there to protect me. I cleaned my room. I picked the first tomato from my garden. It was 2” in diameter. Sliced open, it revealed a sizable stain of black, probably a larvae of some kind. I gently cut it out, then ate the tomato. It was perfect. I shared with my roommates. Broccoli and Shrimp for lunch. Walking around, anyone that looked Arab walked with their eyes averted, their heads down. There was a strange tension down on the Muslim part of Astoria, between 28th Ave and the GCP. An angry group of Italians were walking up and down Steinway, yelling at every Arab they saw to go home, to get out of their fucking country. By nightfall, the streets were almost empty. The sirens continue, though there are not many jets patrolling the skies tonight. We are all waiting to hear about the retaliation. It will be tragic, no good can come of this. I hope, I pray that we as a nation, and we as a species, learn from this great folly. Let the blood soak into the earth and blossom into flowers, not choking bramble. Oh, I hope we are all safe. My family, my beloved friends, my roommates and acquaintances, all the people I know, all the people I love. I am so grateful everyone is fine. No one is missing, though some of the outlying friends and acquaintances are saying otherwise. M. is distraught, she witnessed the whole thing. My poor friend MK….he had killed himself a year ago, now it seems his brother was lost; I feel great sadness for his wonderful mother. It is now night, I can’t sleep. And yet, I am happy because AJR called me tonight. I know I have no reason to feel this way, but somehow talking to her, hearing her voice….such a profound comfort. Tomorrow….I don’t know what to expect, this is not over.

G. Ramos