My 9/11 story. An eyewitness account of that blue sky morningSep 11, 2021
I write this in honor of the precious lives lost in the September 11th attacks. I have deep gratitude for the first responders of NYC Fire and Police who rushed toward the danger I was fleeing. My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives that day.
My name is Sarah Jane Nelson, and I'm a songwriter and recording artist in Nashville, Tennessee. This is my personal story of September 11, 2001. I was a Broadway musical theater performer in New York City at that time...
September 11, 2001
8:00am. I lived on 14th Street 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…” I felt very lucky. 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 to head 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!", I thought. 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 frozen 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. A building exploding is something I was accustomed to seeing in movies like Die Hard, but you never imagine this would happen in real life in front of you. Debris that streamed from the building after the explosion blew on the southeast wind. I was standing two blocks northwest of the World Trade Center, so I just stood there watching as pieces paper fell like a ticker tape parade, the kind they have downtown when the Yankees win the World Series. So much paper sailing quietly on the wind. The whole scene was impossible to process in that moment.
This was my view of the building right after the fireball died down into smoke.
In that moment, 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 noticing the first fire trucks racing south on the West Side Highway. I’ll never forget the faces of the firefighters, hanging their heads out of the fire truck windows, eyes wide and somber as they watched the black smoke billowing out of the giant tower. The brave men and women of our fire, police, and rescue charged forward towards the scene that I was fleeing. One guy, in particular, caught my eye, no more than 30 years old, very handsome with brown eyes and sandy brown hair. I remember thinking that he looked like a model for Armani or J.Crew, but his eyes were scared. As a first responder to the incident, it’s very likely that that brave, young man didn’t survive that day.
When I arrived at 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, as I watched, 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 had been watching The Today Show when they interrupted programming to announce the attacks. I tried to comfort her, but there is so little you can do in that circumstance. I went into my apartment, 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 must be normal for those in war torn countries, but here? What’s next?” I tried to remain calm, but inside I was so scared.
Then the cab driver (a Middle Eastern guy with a very heavy accent) said, "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 apartment 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 trapped on the same small island where all this was happening.
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 the sound gave me a scare every time. I felt like a plane was going to crash into another 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 with people. 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. That's what New Yorkers do.
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. 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, husbands, wives, friends… All ages and races. MISSING.
This was 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 suffered from 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 I did after 9/11 was to see the movie “Zoolander” on that following Saturday night. It felt strange to go to a funny movie when we were still reeling from the trauma, but 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.
Today, I still suffer from some anxiety issues in the form of claustrophobia on planes and in elevators, but I don't let it stop me from travelling and living life to the fullest. I feel the fear and do it anyway. If there is one thing that 9/11 taught me is that nothing is guaranteed in life. We have this moment and that's it. Embrace it. Make the most of it. Share your love and gifts with this world today because you don't know what tomorrow brings.
I will end this post with a prayer for our nation and this world.
“Life is short, and 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,
P.S. - Below is a song that I wrote about experiencing trauma and finding my way through it and out the other side.
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