9/11 Stories

Kathryn Nocerino

I work at a City office on the 12th floor of a building on the corner of Water and John Streets. I get in early (8 a.m). It was before 8:30 on September 11th that Jeff M., a co-worker, walked into my space and said, “Did you hear THAT?” I told him to relax. I said it sounded to me like a truck backfiring.

Within seconds, our Director called us in to the corner office. He had apparently received a call, via the agency’s emergency notification system, telling him to turn on the TV. There, on screen, was the first WTC tower emitting black smoke. The station then replayed footage of the plane hitting it.

I immediately said that the hit was deliberate; no pilot could possibly fail to see an object as large as the WTC. There was a lot of discussion back and forth. Then we returned to what we were doing.

A few minutes later, we were back in front of the set: the second hit, the ball of flame.

Then the fire alarms went off and an announcement directed us to evacuate via the stairs.

Our departure was orderly and very, very quiet. I remember being amazed by the quiet. Out on the sidewalk in front of the building, we looked up at what we had seen on television. I was seeing it, but I wasn’t fully believing it. We were told that the subways had stopped running and advised to begin walking home.

I went north up Centre Street. Every so often I turned to look back, each time wondering if I should be doing that at all. I remembered the biblical story of Lot’s Wife who, in the flight from Sodom and Gomorrah, gazed at the City’s destruction and was turned into a pillar of salt…

I sat down in front of the Federal Court building on a bench facing South. Two women next to me were sitting with tears running down their faces.

When I reached Canal Street, my legs began to feel wobbly. I realized I was probably in shock, and headed for Maria’s Bakery on Lafayette Street to sit down, have something hot to drink, and decelerate.

I wasn’t there ten minutes when I saw people running headlong up Lafayette Street. Nobody knew why.

A rather unattractive man at a nearby table tried to pick me up. He was gentlemanly about it but somehow, under the circumstances…

This taught me that, no matter what happens: tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, Martian invasions, some things always remain the same!

I said goodbye to Mr. Wonderful and cut West to Broadway. I noticed that all of Lower Manhattan seemed to have gone white - not white like fog, white like a low-lying, very thick cloud. Some people were huddled around a van. The driver had his radio on loud. People were saying that one of the WTC towers had collapsed. I made fun of them. I told them to stop spreading hysterical rumors, since the truth was bad enough.

When I got home and turned on my own set, I found out this wasn’t a rumor.

Later, I began getting calls from co-workers: two of them crossed the Manhattan Bridge on foot, bound for Brooklyn. Laurie had to ditch her shoes, which were sitting-demurely-at-your-desk shoes rather than running-for-your-life-shoes. L and S, standing in the center of the bridge, saw the towers collapse. When this happened, everyone began screaming and crying at once.

I’m glad I didn’t see it. As it is, I didn’t get a normal night’s sleep until just about three days ago.

Four of the guys were waiting around in front of the building, hoping for train service to resume, when the dust cloud hit. The dust was so thick, no one could see. Everyone headed for the Seaport, thinking that they would get relief at the water’s edge. I remember reading about the excavations at Pompeii. When Vesuvius hit, they had the same idea.

I tried to volunteer on September 12. No one - from St. Vincent’s to the Red Cross - was soliciting any more volunteers. Then I was told they had enough blood. I wrote a check.

It took about three days after the event for me to begin believing it.

I became enraged reading the puerile discussions of whether the WTC attackers were “cowards” or “courageous”. Basically, the men who piloted the planes had been turned into unthinking robots. I regretted the humanity they had lost. I feel nothing but revulsion for the men, so many miles away, who considered the mass murder of unsuspecting civilians as a “respectable” and, yes, laudable, act of war. THAT is cowardice!

We returned to our office the following Monday. I remember that the air outside the building was virtually unbreathable. My eyes began to burn. Wild theories as to the content and safety of the air flew around the office like a swarm of gnats. Asbestos, PCBs. I didn’t like the look of the dust. Our building has sealed windows, so there wasn’t any inside, but once out the door, you saw it everywhere. It stood to reason that this dust was all that remained of the World Trade Center. At 2000 degrees, the building and everything it contained - desks, walls, and, yes, occupants, atomized.

This Sunday, there was a memorial for the wife of a colleague. She had worked in one of the Towers and never returned home on 9/11. A funeral without the presence of a body.

This weekend, when they announced the beginning of strikes on Afghanistan, I felt very strange. I agreed with the goal to erase the terrorists’ training camps. At the same time, I felt intense pity for the civilians in that country. I didn’t want what happened at the WTC to be visited upon anyone else.

That night, I had my first dream about the event. I dreamed that our country had been invaded and conquered by Al Qaeda. They were entering people’s homes and carrying off possessions. Then, in the dream, aerial bombardment started. With nowhere else to hide, I crawled under the bed, not really believing this would protect me. I woke up.

Two Things I Forgot (Added 10/16/2001)

These experiences did not fit into my chronology of September 11th. In fact, I just remembered them while attending the “Here is New York” show (an exhibit of WTC photographs):

1. Most weekends, I travel to eastern Long Island to take care of my mother’s house. The Friday of the week of 9/11, it rained steadily almost all day, stopping in late afternoon. Toward dusk, I visited a large bookstore on Sunrise Highway just west of Patchogue. Emerging from the shop, I noticed that everyone was gazing up at the sky toward the east. There was the most intense, most enormous double rainbow I had ever seen. I stood watching it for at least ten minutes, then walked toward my car. I remember thinking of the rainbow as a good omen, a sign that the universe was smiling upon us, and that eventually everything would be all right. As I reached my car I noticed a man transfixed by the light-show. I said, “Magnficent, right?” He turned to me and, his face full of horror said, “It’s because of the material coming out of the World Trade Center collapse, isn’t it?” I continued watching the rainbows as I drove east. They faded very slowly, disappearing only when I passed the town of Bellport.

2. On September 17, we returned to our office, which is south of the WTC site, near the South Street Seaport. The weather turned damp and misty. At lunchtime, I was walking north on Fulton Street. Before 9/11, the uppermost towers would often disappear in rain or fog, and very occasionally, the entire structure. Looking toward the North, I saw two dark columns…a familiar sight. An instant later, my head began to reel: “They’re back!” I looked again, and realized that, instead of twin solids, rising into the air were columns of smoke. (In effect, the buildings’ “ghosts”…)

Kathryn Nocerino