My 9/11 story. An eyewitness account of that beautiful blue sky morning that changed our nation and our world.

Sep 11, 2020

I write this in honor of the precious lives lost in the September 11th attacks. My heart goes out to the families, the survivors.

This is my story of that day - September 11, 2001

8:00am.  I lived on 14th Street in New York City between 7th and 8th Avenues and decided to go on a bike ride heading south on the West Side Highway bike path. It was the most spectacular morning.  I remember the sun gleaming on the Hudson River in a way that made me think, “I can’t believe THIS is my life. I live in the most beautiful, special place.  A spectacular day…” As I approached the boat basin, I decided not to go my usual route around the base of the World Trade Center and back up Broadway to my 14th Street apartment.  As I turned around and headed north, I remember seeing a bunch of commuters getting off the ferry.  They all looked chipper and refreshed with briefcases in hand from their boat ride commute on such a pretty morning.  What a lovely way to get to work!   As I passed Stuyvesant High School, the city noise seemed to get louder.  Planes over Manhattan were a common occurrence, but it was especially loud above me.  I remember thinking, “Lord, how close are they flying planes to the city these days?”  Then I looked up.

8:46am.  I watched as American Airlines Flight 11 crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  An enormous fireball shot out towards me and the sound of the deep BOOM shook my insides.  It seemed like many seconds passed before I took my next breath.  A woman nearby crumbled to her knees on the pavement.  Traffic stopped.  For a moment, the city around me was in stunned silence with only the cracking of embers falling from high above and the low roar of the flames.  Finally, sirens rang faintly in the distance.  I was in shock from what I had just witnessed.  The paper and debris that streamed from the building after the explosion blew southeast in the wind and I was luckily standing two blocks northwest of the World Trade Center.  I just stood there watching, unable to believe my eyes.

This was my view of the building right after the fireball died down into smoke.  Something you can't believe you're looking at.  Something that might happen in a Die Hard movie, not in real life in front of you...

At the time, I assumed it was an air traffic control issue.  I didn’t have my cell phone and I knew mom would want to contact me, so I finally turned away from the now smoking building and headed north up the West Side Highway sidewalk. I remember crying as I rode my bike - looking back over and over.  I also remember the fire trucks racing south.  I’ll never forget those handsome young firemen, hanging their heads out of the fire truck windows.  They saw the black smoke billowing out of the giant tower and they charged forward towards the scene that we were fleeing.  One guy, in particular, caught my eye, no more than 30 years old, very handsome with brown eyes and sandy brown hair.  He looked scared.  As a first responder to the incident, it’s very likely that that brave, young man didn’t survive that day.

When we got to the intersection of 14th Street and the West Side Highway, I waited with my bike for a chance to cross.  As I stood there, I looked back at the building, still in disbelief.  Just then, a fireball exploded out of the other tower.

9:03am  United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of World Trade Center.  I didn't see that plane because it had hit the tower from the south.  I was so confused and in shock as I hurried home.  As I arrived at my building at 237 West 14th Street, I heard intense screams coming from the apartment across the hall.  Screams like nothing I had ever heard.  I knocked on the door and discovered that my neighbor’s sister worked at Cantor Fitzgerald which was located at the top of the tower that was hit first.   She was hysterical as she watched The Today Show.  I tried to comfort her, but there is so little you can do in that circumstance. I went into my apartment and called my mom and told her I was heading up to her place on 102nd Street and Broadway. 

At this time (less than 5 minutes after the 2nd plane had hit) people around the world were just discovering what had happened.  I walked outside and was able to hail an empty cab.  With all the subways stopped and bridges and tunnels closed, empty cabs were non-existent that day.  I was lucky.

Once inside the cab, the driver told me that a plane had also hit the Pentagon.  It was surreal.  I thought, “Do things like this REALLY happen to me?  Right here in the U.S.A.?  This is a war zone.  What’s next?”  I didn’t know what else was coming and I tried to remain calm.  I remember the cab driver (a Middle Eastern guy with a very heavy accent) was telling me, "It's the governments who hate each other. The regular people in the Middle East can get along.  Palestinians can live and work beside Israelis and have no problem.  It's politics! People are just people!"

I got to mom's place and was still in shock.  The television was on and we sat on the couch watching the events unfold.  It showed doctors and nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital (right by my apartment) waiting outside with stretchers to treat the injured, but very few injured ever arrived.

9:59am - Suddenly, on live television, we watched the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapse.  When the cloud of dust settled, the building was gone.  It was hard to fathom.  We were shaken.  It was scary to be on the same small island where all this was happening. Bridges and tunnels were all shut down.

10:28am - The North Tower collapsed.  Two skyscrapers.  110 floors each.  Gone.

Throughout that day, we hung out at my mom's apartment. Dazed.  Trying not to let panic set in.  We were constantly reminded of the day’s seriousness by F-16 Fighter Jets roaring overhead.  They were so loud and it gave me a scare every time. I felt like a plane was going to crash into a building.

We watched comedy.  Any funny tv show or film we could find.  We even put on my childhood home videos to lighten the mood. The city was covered in a thick cloud of smoke and dust.  It was very strange to think that human life was somewhere in that dust.

Finally, by afternoon we realized we hadn’t eaten all day and decided to get some food at the corner diner.  Walking outside, we saw the strangest sight.  Hoards of people, dressed in office attire, walking north.  With all the subways stopped, taxis non-existent, and tunnels and bridges closed to cars, people were walking home to upper Manhattan, New Jersey, the Bronx… Some had briefcases; many were covered in white dust and debris.  They all looked tired and dazed.  I wish I’d taken a photo but I was still in too much shock to think to do it. 

When we got to the Metro Diner, we were surprised to discover that it was packed.  New Yorkers were sharing a meal together, some sitting quietly, some talking about what they saw and how they felt.  There was a sense of goodwill among the citizens.  We would pull together to get through no matter what.

After that day, the city was still in a tailspin.  The air where I lived down on 14th Street had a unique smell that I suppose can only come from more than 2,000 people and 2 skyscrapers cremated in the blink of an eye.  It was strange to breathe it in.  

Our neighbor let us know that her sister who worked in the South Tower, had been late for work that morning and her life was miraculously spared.  She had worked on a team with 30 people and only 3 had survived.  She was late for work, one person was at a funeral that morning, and one was home sick.  She spent the next month going to funeral after funeral for all her lost friends and the PTSD she experienced was severe.  I hope that she was able to recover from that.

The most heartbreaking sights in days that followed Sept. 11th were the flyers.  Faces of mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, cousins, boyfriends…  All ages and races.  MISSING.

This is a bus stop right by my apartment.

Families held on to hope that their loved ones somehow got out of the buildings and were in a hospital or wandering the streets somewhere. I would stand and look at those fliers - so many faces.  Good, hard-working people who were loved. 

Week by week, the fliers were slowly taken down.   Life went on for New York City.  The goodwill and warmth shared by our citizens on that day slowly shifted back to the harder-edged city ways.   I had PTSD with intense sensitivity to sounds.  I would wake in the night and think I heard an explosion far away (perhaps the Empire State Building?) only to discover it was a truck driving over a manhole cover.  The sound of the North Tower exploding in a fireball was stuck in my ears - a low, loud boom. 

The first “normal” thing we did after 9/11 was to see the movie “Zoolander” on that following Saturday night.  The theater at Union Square was packed with other New Yorkers trying to feel normal.  Everyone laughed out loud.  My friends on Broadway went back to performing their shows.  We all tried to go on with life… holding our loved ones a little tighter than before.

And that’s my 9/11 story.  I know I’m just one of the millions of lives changed by that blue sky morning of September 11, 2001.

“Life is short, we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind and may the Divine Mystery, who is beyond our ability to know but who made us, and who loves us, and who travels with us, Bless us and keep us in peace.”

Love and Peace,
Sarah Jane

P.S. - For those of you who don't know me, I'm now a songwriter and artist based in Nashville, Tennessee. My record, "I'm Not Broken" is about finding peace and healing as we face challenges in life. 

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