9/11 Stories

James Capelonga

Tuesday morning, September 11th, started out as every Tuesday had since the fall semester of my junior year at Fordham University had started three weeks earlier. Tuesday was a free day for me, one magical day of the week where the toughest decision to make was typically whether or not to even bother showering and getting dressed. Needless to say, I was sleeping quite soundly at 8:45 am when I was pulled from my slumber by the phone ringing halfway across the room. After it rang a second and third time, some little voice inside my head, call it gut instinct if you will, said: “This is your mother calling, and something must be wrong”. Darting across the room half awake to answer the phone, I nearly dropped the damn thing as I picked up the receiver. “James?” said my mom, sounding confused, speaking loud into her cell phone. “Yeah, mom, what’s wrong”, I said, knowing something had to be wrong judging by her tone of voice. “Uhh listen, I just wanted to call you and let you know that I’m okay, but something’s happened”. “Listen, I think a plane just hit one of the Twin Towers”, she said. “I have to go now, I have to get to school. I’ll call you back a little later”, she said naively thinking, as most of us had that day, that the daily events of the city would not be disrupted. Before she got a chance to hang up, I managed to blurt out “Wait, where are you”? Her response and the sound her voice, in retrospect, was almost funny: “Umm, I’m right under the World Trade Center. I’ll call you later. Bye”. It should be noted here that my mother is not a city person. She had only started commuting to Manhattan a couple of weeks earlier, when she had started taking classes through Adelphi University to get her bachelors in nursing. Classes met every Tuesday at 75 Varick Street. She took the X1 bus from Staten Island, as I had in my commute working in midtown over the summer. At the minute she called, the bus had just pulled away from its stop on Church Street and Vesey Street, directly in front of the World Trade Center.

I ran to the television and turned on NBC, and could not believe what I was seeing. When I first thought of a plane hitting one of the buildings, I thought of a small twin-engine jet that some moron with no experience had lost control of and smashed into the buildings. But the sheer size of the gaping wound and the amount of smoke and fire pouring out of the structure laid that thought to rest rather quickly. I woke up my roommate Dave, who was at this point still sound asleep. The two of us stared at the screen dumbstruck, only speaking to interject numbingly inane gestures that at this point nobody had answers to. “What happened”? “Who’s dumb enough to hit a building that big on such a clear beautiful day”? “Wow, how are they going to put that fire out”? I ran from my room to the stairwell of my building, which faces the city. The smoke billowing from the tower seemed to envelope the city in a dark, ominous blanket. Other people were standing in the stairwell and in the hallway, some on cell phones, some trading rumors that they had heard. One thing I will never forget in that short walk between my room and the stairs was the same look in everyone’s eyes as they met with yours. They communicated fear and uncertainty, two emotions that I would become well acquainted with as the day wore on.

Back in my room a short time later, Dave and I listened intently to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, who were practically as lost for words as everyone else was at this point. Suddenly, for a split second, another plane flew from the left side of the screen straight into the other tower. The screen went blue as the second plane hit. “Holy fucking shit! No fucking way! Another one? Oh Jesus Christ no way”, the two of us started yelling, our jaws literally hanging from our heads in unison like two cartoon characters. I jumped to the television almost as I had nearly jumped out of my skin, switching to CNN, where the newsroom was literally exploding in a frenzy of people running and yelling.

The next half hour or so is hazy in my mind. Dave got in the shower, still thinking he had to go to class. By now, my heart was racing so fast in my chest I could feel the blood draining from my extremities and pounding against my ribcage. I opened the windows to get some air in the room, taking a moment to notice what an eerily beautiful day it was outside. Commuters ran for their cars like their lives depended on it, nearly all of them furiously dialing their cell phones, usually to no avail. I called my grandmother at home to find her surprisingly calm and collected. I told her that if she heard from my mother before I did to call me back. Dave left for class, which some weeks later he confessed to me that the only reason that he left the room was that he saw how worked up I was getting and wanted to leave me alone. Not five minutes later the phone rang again, this time my mother once again. I picked up to the sound of her crying. Almost instantly, I started bawling like a little schoolgirl who just scraped her knee. “Holy shit mom, where the hell are you”? “I’m okay, I’m okay, and I’m at school. Oh God, James I have to get home, I have to get to your father on the ferry”, she sobbed nearly uncontrollably. At this point I remember that my dad was working the morning shift, driving the Staten Island ferry to and from Battery Park. Trying my best to compose myself, I tried to think logically for her. “Mom, listen, you cannot go back downtown and try to get to the ferry. Please just move uptown. Move anywhere: east, west, north, but not downtown. Do not try to get down Broadway or Church Street.” She cried back to me, “oh James I don’t know what to do. I have to get home I can’t be here. I’ll call you back later” she said, and hung up. About twenty minutes later, 2 World Trade Center collapsed in a massive column of smoke and debris.

The next two hours can only be described as the single two worst hours of my life. Where was she? If she were going to try to get to the ferry, she would have been right near those towers if she started walking twenty minutes ago from Varick Street. The only thing I could think to myself was the single most terrifying thought that had ever entered my mind: “Could she be dead”? I went up to some friends’ rooms to try and not stay isolated. But the more I sat, not saying a word, the more I wanted to just throw up, so I left and went back to my room. On the way back to my room, I took one last look at the skyline out my window. It was gone, shrouded behind a massive moving cloud that once composed the structure of the Twin Towers. With the reports of the Pentagon being struck and the plane crashing in rural Pennsylvania, I lay on my bed, closed my eyes and in an act of total futility prayed that this was some sort of terrible dream.

The rest of the afternoon was surreal, like some sort of waking nightmare. Mom got in touch with me at about 12:30 on her cell phone. That phone call was the single happiest moment of my life, all thirty seconds of it. She was ok. It turns out she never tried to get back downtown, and instead was heading northeast with her nursing instructor, whose son had an apartment on E 64th Street. Now at least I knew she wasn’t all alone and she had somewhere to go in case she couldn’t get off the island. With that in mind, I was able to start functioning again. I called nearly everyone I knew, from family and friends to coworkers. Everyone had a story, and hearing other people’s stories made me feel better, like I wasn’t the only one who was suffering incredibly. I showered and dressed, and for the first time in God knows how long, started to cry. Yes, I know I cried the second time my mom called earlier that morning, but that wasn’t genuine crying. It was more hysterical “what the fuck is going on” crying. I was crying because she was crying, basically. But now I was really crying. As far as I knew, the world as I knew it was gone. I have so many good memories of the Trade Center, visiting there a number of time in recent years. I thought of the minute details, anything that would come to mind: lamenting that Sbarro’s was the only place to get food in the WTC mall, sitting in Austin Tobin plaza and listening to a band play in the summer of 1998, eating at the Green Court Café in the Marriot World Trade Center, taking pictures in the outdoor plaza with friends, getting yelled at by a security guard for running through the lobby of 2 WTC. All that was gone now. Those places exist only in my mind now.

I’m sorry if my story ran a bit long, but there’s really no way to make it concise. I’m either going to tell the whole thing or not tell it at all. Yes, my mom was reunited with my dad on the Staten Island ferry after a harrowing walk that stretched from Chelsea to the FDR Drive to Water Street. I got the call at about 5:30 as I was leaving mass that I had just attended with my friends. Now, nearly six months later, one image still remains strong in my mind. As I had said previously, I took the express bus into Manhattan from Staten Island three days a week over the summer, and each morning the bus stopped on West St. right in front of the towers. If there was nobody sitting next to me and nobody looking in my general direction, I always craned my neck upward to look up, up, up at the seeming endless towers. Of course I didn’t want to seem like some lowly tourist gawking at a tall building, but it was just something I always did and it made me smile. Of course, its something I’ll never get to do again. One painful lesson taught to me on September 11th is that nothing lasts forever.

James Capelonga
Staten Island NY
Age 20