9/11 Stories

Joshua Burnett

Five minutes away
September 11, 2001 1:32 PM
New York City, New York

The first blast half-woke me, or at least I heard it in my sleep, as I was dreaming. The second blast had me jumping out of bed, rushing to unplug everything: my first thought was that we’d been struck by lightning. I opened the shade to see if anything was happening outside. There was a thick, dark grey cloud pouring across the sky, but behind it, the sky was blue. On the ground, people were running, some of them looking panicked. I stood there, looking out the window, for a minute or two before I turned on the television. I switched to CNN, and right away, I saw the image: the World Trade Center, less than a mile from my building, in flames, both towers covered in heavy black scars. There were so many words: at least 1,000 injured, two planes (at least one a passenger plane, a 767) crashing into the World Trade Center. No definite word yet of terrorism, but the phrase, repeated over and over: this can’t be an accident.

I called my parents and I went online, trying to find friends, trying to let them know I was okay. We talked for a while, but then, about an hour after the second plane crash had woken me up at around 9:00 AM, there was another sound: not quite the same as the planes, but this time, the whole building shook like an earthquake. Again, people were running like hell.

After a minute or two, a huge cloud of smoke, thicker than any I’ve ever seen, started shooting through the street, directly towards my building, towards my window. I froze for a moment, and then I ran. I thought I was going to die. I ran out into the hallway, and joined a crowd going down the stairs. At the third floor, someone at the front of the crowd started saying we couldn’t get out. I shouted that we should at least go down and try: it’s better than standing in the stairwell. At the second floor, a woman was holding the stairwell door open, gesturing for us to follow.

The student longue was jam-packed, the wide-screen tv was turned on to CNN. Many people were crying, others were just sitting there. Others, like me, were talking to total strangers like old friends, sharing any information we’d heard, asking if anyone’s cell phone was working. On the tv, we learned what the shaking and the cloud had been: one of the towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed in on itself, goodness only knows how many people still inside. The people on the news spoke of people jumping out of the windows to their death, trying to escape fire in the building.

There were so many voices: people on cell phones, reassuring loved ones they were okay, mostly. But there were some people with real stories. One girl, saying she had planned to go to the Border’s Books at the World Trade Center when she woke up: “If I’d woken up half an hour ago, I’d be dead.” There were a few people who’d been outside during the collapse and had fled into the building. They were covered in ash, telling stories of running, being told not to look back, almost fainting, clawing desperately, blindly, at the side of a building, trying to find a door or a window to slip through.

I’d left my room so quickly that I hadn’t brought my key or shoes, and I’d left the air conditioner running and the tv on. We couldn’t go outside, they said - although we might be evacuated eventually - and we couldn’t go past the fourth floor.

After a while, they said we could go back to our rooms: I asked about locking myself out, they said I’d have to wait. Then, there was another rumble, quieter than the others, and soon people from the longue were shouting that the second tower had collapsed. The World Trade Center, the third and fourth tallest buildings in the world, gone.

One of the second floor suites was opened up, and we all looked out the window. The air outside looked thick, the streets nearly deserted. Ash covered everything.

After a couple of hours, an RA came through the hall, saying that she was making a sweep of the building to make sure nobody was upstairs, and if anyone was locked out, we could come with her to grab any stuff we might need. I walked up with her and other students to the sixth floor, where she let me into my room. The tv and my Internet connection were still running, although the air conditioner had been shut off. Everything was covered in a light dusting of ash.

I called my mother. She sounded more relieved than I ever remember before. She was surprised I was still here - she’d heard everything below Canal Street was being evacuated. Here, in the building, we’d been told that only office buildings and such were evacuating, and we had filtered air and were far safer inside than outside, with so much debris still floating around the air.

I grabbed my shoes, my key, my computer, my phone book, and a box of cereal in case I got hungry, and went back downstairs. After a minute, I decided to sneak upstairs for just a minute, to let the people I’d been talking to online know I was okay. I checked my messages, and had two, their voices worried as hell, saying that if I needed anything, I should just ask - asking me to call them as soon as I coud.

On the news they’re calling for people to donate blood, but I can’t: we can’t get out of the building. Right now, I’m sitting on the floor of the second floor hallway. Occasionally, someone asks if we’re evacuating. The official word is no: we’re safer inside, still. We’re just waiting until the air quality clears a little before we can go up past the fourth floor. I live on the sixth floor: I wish I could go back to my room.

Nobody has any idea what will happen with New York, what will happen with school, what will happen with anything. We’re just sitting in the hallway, waiting. My thoughts are with all of you, especially if you have a loved one hurt, unnaccounted for, or worse.

Joshua Burnett