A few months ago, my cousin Camille, the Managing Director for Cosmopolitan Magazine Philippines emailed and asked whether I was in fact in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks. And if so, would I'd mind writing a personal account of my experience that day for an upcoming issue.
Below is the unabridged version of what I submitted. It published in Cosmopolitan magazine, Philippines back in June, 2011.
a photo I took in 1999 from Hoboken, NJ
I was home in Brooklyn getting ready for what was to be my first day freelancing for Rollingstone magazine. I recall hearing a loud noise and discussing it with my roommate. We both figured it was a building explosion somewhere in the area. I saw a huge, thick plume of smoke traveling across the sky on my way to the subway station. But I assumed it was a big fire somewhere in Brooklyn. People on the street did not alert me to anything unusual. All I was concerned with at that point was getting to work.
It wasn't until the subway car I was in crossed the Manhattan bridge (which was several stories above ground) that the entire car full of riders let out a simultaneous gasp as soon as we looked out the window and saw two burning black holes in both World Trade Center towers that I realized where the smoke was coming from. One burning hole was so new that at that point it was still in the shape of a plane hitting the building at an angle.
I was in disbelief and I remember thinking to myself: There's no way people would be at work yet at the WTC, it was too early. So therefore, no one must be hurt. I was in denial of course, as my heart pounded loudly in my ears. I knew that people in the financial district are known to come to work early. The entire train was plastered to the window, none of us could believe what we were seeing. I heard from a passenger from listening to the radio that The Pentagon buildings also had been hit or bombed. The facts were not clear then since we were all just learning (and witnessing) everything. It really sunk in at that moment that this was not an accident – that this was most definitely a very aggressive attack on the US. I was full of questions.
By the time I exited the train at 51st St. and 6th Avenue – in front of Radio City Music Hall, the WTC buildings had collapsed. The subway system had been shut down and the streets were more chaotic than usual. It seemed everyone was out on the street. Everyone was confused. I decided to head up to the office, not being clear on what I should do. I was also scared. My art director at the time took one look at me and said: "Catherine, what are you doing here? We're being evacuated! They don't know what building might be hit next." I told her I just didn't know what to do. Granted we were only on the second floor but I was officially terrified.
I left the office in a daze. People on the streets frantically trying to get a hold of their loved ones. Some were in tears. I stood and watched the news on a TV that the NBC offices has wheeled outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza so that people could figure out what was happening. I also read the news on the ticker tape that wrapped around the NBC studios building to try and make sense of it all. We collectively tried to remain calm as we struggled to hear the news reporters while fighter planes zoomed above the city combing the skies and sirens from fire trucks screamed by constantly. No one spoke.
I had tried unsuccessfully to call my family on my cel phone. I knew that the lines must have been jammed from everyone calling each other. I was told later that the cel towers that were atop the WTC towers collapsed along with the building, interrupting service for many people. Eventually, my parents in Manila got a hold of me and the moment I heard their voices on the phone, I cried. I was shaking. But I explained that I was fine and I was trying to make my way home.
I headed downtown from 51st Sreet on foot. The subway system would be shut down until later that afternoon. Somehow I was able to track down a cousin of mine that I knew lived in Manhattan. We managed to find each other in the East Village. I had been walking for at least a few hours and was exhausted. I finally made it back to Brooklyn around 4 or 5pm. I took the same subway train line back and saw the space where the WTC towers stood only a few hours before. Still stunned.
My roommate told me that someone in the apartment building had run an errand to pick up a watch she had repaired at The World Trade towers just a few minutes before the attack. We tearfully sat glued to the news for the next few days. Spent hours sitting in Prospect Park wondering what would happen next and how this would affect the already ailing economy. We talked to people in the Park Slope neighbourhood about what happened. I remember walking away from a conversation offended (and furious) at someone we casually knew who angrily spouted racist remarks at people from the Middle East. I thought: Wow, this event had already triggered a reaction not unlike the one after Pearl Harbor, which was in a word, racism. Had we not learned anything from that experience? I had no idea that it would be just the beginning of what would unfold following the events of 9/11.
We had both been through lay-offs only a few months prior to the attacks. Thanks to the dot com crash. What are we going to do now? Over the next two weeks, at least, New York City was transformed. It was a city deep in mourning. Humbled. I have never seen New Yorkers be as nice to each other as they were following the attacks. People looked at one another in the eyes. Everyone was uncharacteristically helpful and kind. The stranger seated across the subway car wondered quietly whether you personally knew someone who perished that day. Lower Manhattan smelled like smoke for the next month at least. Residents of the area had to move out completely.
It took a long time for the city to recover. In many ways, it STILL is recovering. I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday.