My story: Wading through the chaos

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photo Hillary and Aaron Brotherton

The very first sign that something was wrong was a confused look on the faces of the Staten Island Ferry crowd that boarded my subway car at the Whitehall station. There was a fire at the World Trade Center, someone thought maybe a small plane had crashed into one of the towers.

I dismissed the conversation and went back to my book. This was New York City after all, bizarre things happened, manhole covers randomly exploded, pet tigers escaped. A small fire at the WTC wasn’t even on my radar.

When the train creaked slowly into the Cortlandt Street station, I became a little concerned. The air was filled with smoke and the smell was overwhelming. Stranger still, the station was completely empty. Our conductor came on over the intercom and announced something quickly, loudly and unintelligible. The subway rolled through the station without stopping and then picked up speed. Station after station flew by, my nerves tightening with every missed stop. Finally, as if nothing strange had happened, our train rolled into Union Square and stopped. Everything here seemed typical, so I resumed my reading until I got off at 42nd Street to walk to my office.

I learned about the second plane from the gigantic news ticker in Times Square. Although the damage was a mere 50 or so blocks south, I first saw pictures of the burning buildings on a screen behind Peter Jennings through the glass at the Good Morning America studios.

Within a few minutes of getting to my office they were evacuating. A woman was sobbing in the lobby. Suddenly the streets outside were empty, taxis and cars lined up against the curb, Mayor Guiliani’s voice imploring us from car stereos to stay calm. Sirens were screaming down Broadway at breakneck speeds.

The sidewalks were full of people. A tourist pulled me aside, pleading with me to help her. Her husband had a morning meeting at World Trade 1, what should she do? I didn’t know what to say. I patted her arm and told her that I was sure everything would be fine.

The subways were closed; I wasn’t getting on one now anyway. I had to get out of Times Square. If we were under attack Times Square could be on the list. Fighter jets thundered in the air above us. Were they American jets? No one in the crowd could be certain.

My boyfriend (now my husband) was at his office in the Village. I decided to go there. I’m not sure how I managed to run the 2.5 miles in heels, but I arrived, with both feet oozing blood, just in time to see the tip of the second tower disappear from view.

I met up with my boyfriend and we walked the 4 miles home to Brooklyn. A nice man in Chinatown gave me a pair of sneakers and some bandages for my feet. We passed through Little Italy, filled with empty booths and abandoned decorations for a San Gennaro festival that would never happen. The Red Cross handed out water on the Manhattan Bridge. Sirens continued to wail past us. We watched what must have been a hundred sanitation trucks pass by us, on their way to start digging for survivors.

Our apartment was filled with dust. We had left the windows open, and now a fine layer of ash covered most of our belongings. The wind carried the smoke and debris across the river to Brooklyn, and now soot, trash, even office memos from the towers, littered our neighborhood.

What you cannot grasp by watching the news is the smell. For months it lingered. The burning stench of smoldering chemicals and metal stays with me still today.

We slept in the hallway that night because it was the farthest from the windows. Even still the air was stifling. Outside we could still hear distant sirens and the roar of F-15s, but otherwise an eerie quiet filled the city. The National Guard walked the streets of our neighborhood.

In the days that followed, "missing" posters appeared on every street corner, photos of smiling family members and friends that would never be seen again.

We debated gas masks, food supplies, even a rowboat. Under my desk I kept running shoes, a backpack filled with granola bars, bottles of water, and an envelope filled with hundred dollar bills. I rested my feet on the backpack while I worked, it reassured me.

Note: A condensed version of this story appeared on page D7 of The Columbian on Sept. 11, 2011.