Posted by: Hallie Levine | September 11, 2011

9/11

It’s a gorgeous day today, much like September 11th a decade ago.

I remember things vividly. My mother called me at 9:30. I was still asleep. I’d just left my job at the New York Post to go freelance, and I was taking advantage of my new flexible lifestyle to go out every night until 1 am.

“Did you just wake up?” she asked incredulously.

Immediately I got defensive.

“I was up all night working on a story,” I said, lying, and then proceeded to give her a detailed list of all the articles I was working on so she couldn’t accuse me of being a dilettante.

“Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center,” she said curtly, cutting me off. “I wanted to reach you and make sure you’re okay.”

I rolled my eyes. “Mom, I’m only about ten miles from the World Trade Center,” I said. I lived on the Upper West Side then, which was about as far away—geographically and culturally—from Wall Street and Battery Park City as you could get. “What was it, two little commuter planes?”

“They’re not sure yet,” she said. “They’re still collecting details.”

I turned on CNN as soon as I hung up the phone with her. I watched the footage of the World Trade Center burning and it occurred to me that this wasn’t some idiot who had accidentally flown into the Trade Center with his helicopter. This was something pretty major going on. I started to feel the first flutters of panic in my stomach, and then one of the female anchors got on the air. “We’re having reports that a plane crashed into the western side of the Pentagon,” she said, her voice quavering. I noticed her hands were shaking.

Just then my phone rang. It was my father. “I just want to make sure you’re okay,” he said tightly. “I just got out of the operating room.” The fact that he sounded rattled—and that he’d come straight from surgery to call me—unnerved me even more than anything I was watching on the TV screen. My father was unflappable. If he was worried, then most likely us New Yorkers were in some serious shit.

As I hung up the phone with him, I heard screams on the TV. I turned around and watched in horror as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsing.

Back then, I was single in New York City and had no boyfriend; my girl friends were my true community. I kept trying to call people but the cell phone circuits were overloaded. Finally my best friend, Sandra, who was temporarily working as a teacher in Queens and lived in Battery Park City, reached me. She had finally reached her roommate Jo, who was in their apartment when the World Trade Center collapsed. Jo had grabbed their dog Fred and run down 40 flights of stairs and was now safely with her parents in Rhineback. “Our apartment is blocked off,” Sandra said. “I’m not sure what to do.”

“Come here,” I said instantly.

Sandra walked all the way from Queens. When she pulled off her sneakers when she got to my house her feet were a raw, blistering mess.

We watched CNN until we couldn’t stomach it anymore, than roamed the streets of the Upper West Side. The outdoor cafes were packed with people like us who just couldn’t sit inside their matchbox apartments staring at the TV anymore. The was a thick haze in the air and a strange, almost sweetish smell. Sandra wrinkled her nose. “What is that?” she asked. I wasn’t sure but the guy sitting next to us was. “It’s the smell of the World Trade Center burning,” he said. “And charred flesh.”

I didn’t know anyone personally who died that day. I had a lot of friends who worked downtown but had gotten out unscathed. My friend Andy, who was a trader on Wall Street, told me later that when the first tower went down he ran out with a group of guys from his floor only to find themselves bathed in total blackness. “Picture ten guys, holding hands, running and crying,” he said later. “Can you imagine that?”

I couldn’t. Like everything else going on that day, it just seemed too surreal.

This year, I wondered how I would feel on September 11th. I watched some of the news coverage this weekend and it didn’t seem real to me. It didn’t bring back memories of the brave city I knew in those first few hours and days after the attack. Then, this morning, while feeding the kids breakfast, we turned on the news just in time for the memorial service. Two young boys, about 12, were standing at the podium making a tribute to their father, who had died in the WTC a decade earlier.

They would have been about Teddy’s age on September 11th. When I realized that I started to cry.

I didn’t meet Jamie until November 2003, but we were both in the city when 9/11 occurred. He was directly across town from me, in his apartment on 86th street and Lexington, getting ready for work. His office was supposed to have moved into the World Trade Center already but had been postponed because of construction delays. He watched the whole thing on TV but finally at around eleven am he wasn’t sure what to do, so he went outside to try to hail a cab. He was just about to get in when another man about his age raced up shaking. “I really need to get downtown,” he said. Jamie offered him the cab but the guy said he needed to get downtown—as close to the towers as possible—and would drop Jamie off on the way. Jamie wondered if the man had a wife or girlfriend at the World Trade Center, but when he tried to talk to him and asked him if he was okay the guy cut him off.

When Jamie got to work, the office was practically empty. He didn’t want to go back to his apartment so he watched more footage on CNN. “

Were you lonely?” I asked him this morning. “Sure,” he said, shrugging. “I was lonely, and frightened, like everyone else I knew.”

I wouldn’t have made it without Sandra, who lived on my couch for two weeks after 9/11, until she could get back into her apartment. We both had nightmares in the middle of the night and when I got up at 3 am to get a glass of water she’d invariably also be up and we’d spend an hour curled up on the futon, talking about what was going on. A couple days after the Trade Center attacks there was an eerie night of pouring rain. “Can you imagine?” Sandra said. “There are rescue crews out there” and we both cried at the thought of all those unidentified bodies still buried under the rubble and the families waiting to claim them.

It was a terrible, terrible day. I don’t have anything pithy or particularly eloquent to say, so I won’t waste time trying to make something up. But my heart goes out to all the people who lost loved ones on 9/11. And I just hope my children will never, ever have to endure another national tragedy like that.

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