Letters Home After 9/11
Photo: The World Trade Center Annual Memorial Lights in Lower Manhattan. Credit: RJ Capak/WireImage/Getty Images
This is a letter I wrote to my hometown minister, Scott Planting, the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks. My mother, who had a copy, recently sent it to me and it brought back a flood of memories.
Sometimes, memories of events as tumultuous as 9/11 can fade or change over time. I think it's important that we remember that day — those days — as they were at that moment. That's why we're asking you to contribute as well. Did you write letters or emails after 9/11 that you could share?
We're compiling a collection called Letters Home After 9/11 and would like to include yours. Please post your letter or email in the comments section below, or email them to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, of course taking out any parts you'd like to keep personal. Thank you for helping us document reflections and memories of that wrenching day 10 years ago.
Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001
I heard you were interested in hearing what it's like here. I, and I think most people here haven't really yet come to grips with what happened. The whole city is walking around in a daze, in some kind of horrible, never-ending nightmare.
I was at work at ABC when this happened and have been working ever since. Not really sleeping, barely eating. That morning I got to work at 8 am. At 8:20 we have a meeting to settle on what news we'll cover for the day. Since I cover science, I'm to write a story about how scientists have concluded that more stem cell lines are needed for research. Then, at 8:50, I hear someone in the newsroom say, "Oh my God."
We all look up at the TV monitors and see the unbelievable image of the upper floors of one tower of the World Trade Center burning and smoking. We learn a plane has crashed into it. We assume it was an accident. I call mom and tell her something terrible has happened.
The editors quickly gather and assign stories. I'm told to write a story about what allows the building to remain standing despite being struck by a plane. Then the next plane strikes. There's an audible moan from the newsroom. Now it's clear this is not an accident. It's clear the city is being attacked by terrorists.
For about an hour I can't track down a friend of mine. She was leaving for work shortly before the first plane struck. I leave several messages for her at home and work. I don't hear back until later. She's OK. She was on the train, above ground, when the second plane struck. People in the train watched it happened, cried out and then the train went back underground. They rode the rest of the way in shock.
I start making calls. I talk to structural engineers, some of whom had worked on the design of the World Trade Center. They begin to explain the buildings' complex architecture and how they could remain standing. It appears to be a testimony to the trade's ability.
I start to write my story. Then the first tower falls. We all feel sick. I start over again. I call everyone back. My story now is what caused the tower — and eventually both towers — to fall. After I file it I'm asked to go out and do some reporting.
I go outside and see streams of people walking briskly north. It seems like the entire city is walking, walking in the streets, in the sidewalks, in the parks. And they're all heading north, away from the nightmare that's in lower Manhattan. Many are carrying bags of bottled water and food. Many have heard that the city's water supply has been poisoned. I talk to people who have walked for miles — everyone is scared. A plane flies overhead, everyone looks up, terrified. It's a fighter plane.
I go back to work and file the reporting. I begin hearing from friends and family. In a panic everyone in the city starts calling or emailing everyone they know. We're desperate to know if everyone's OK. Among my friends, one, someone I didn't knew very well, but a great guy with a huge smile, is still missing.
Another friend of mine was shopping at a store right next door to the World Trade Center at the time of the crash. He's a reporter for NBC News and his immediate instinct was to call his wife, also a reporter, and tell her to bring a camera and join him as he tries to report the story. She heads out. He approaches the towers. Now both are burning. He tries to go right up to the building, but a policeman stops him, saying he can't pass beyond that point, and telling him to clear out.
My friend argues with him, saying he's a reporter with NBC and he needs to cover the story. The police officer says no, he's yelling now, saying "Get out!" My friend walks away — and then the first tower collapses. He runs for his life. Debris and shards pierce his back, he's covered in dust. But he survives. The place where the police officer had been standing is buried. My friend knows that police officer saved his life — and had probably just lost his own.
Meanwhile my friend's wife has just arrived as the first tower crashes. She's terrified and starts phoning my friend on his cell phone trying to reach him. He doesn't answer, he doesn't answer, finally he does. Theirs is a happier story than many that we've heard.
That night, I'm not sure how or if I'll be able to get home. A friend walks 40 blocks from her office to mine so we can try getting back to Brooklyn together. We've heard some of the trains are still running and they are. After many long waits on eerie, empty platforms, many transfers and stopping and starting rides, we get home.
My bedroom, which has two windows facing lower Manhattan, is coated in fine debris. There's an acrid, sick, choking smell in the air. Plumes of black smoke still rise from Manhattan. Sirens sound all night. All of this continues still.
The next day I leave for work-at 5:30 a.m. the next day, and the next day. I get home late at night, call friends, family and go to bed. Many times as I'm working, I start to cry. Then I stop because I'm at work and we’re expected to perform. But I can't eat, can't sleep.
I think about the stunned look I've seen in other peoples' eyes in the trains on the way to work, on the streets I think about the time a few weeks ago that some friends and I went to the base of the World Trade Center to go shopping. I think about the maze of wide, gleaming hallways connecting buildings to other buildings, to subway lines, to stores. I think about how packed with people the buildings always were. I can't imagine it's all gone now. I can't imagine so many people are gone now — even when I see the hole in the sky line, it still isn't real.
A friend and I walked downtown and went to a candlelight vigil outside in a park. Below 23rd street, every lamp post is plastered with hand-made posters. The posters an have pictures of someone with the words "Missing" above their smiling faces and a number to call if anyone has information.
On the sidewalks, people have written messages in chalk — from Shakespeare, the bible, Gandhi and others. We've all seen little signs of desperation and diminishing hope. At my friend's apartment, she's noticed how the mail of one of her neighbor's has stacked up since Tuesday. No one has been there to collect it. Many of us have gotten calls, messages from strangers on our cell phones, asking for any information about a lost husband or wife.
I've been frustrated I haven't had time to volunteer, but among my friends who have tried, many have been turned away. They try to give blood, but are turned away. The hospitals are still waiting for patients, but they haven't arrived. Some of my friends visit their local fire departments and ask if they need anything. One unit, a squad that lost seven firefighters, asks her to bring some dinner and plastic utensils and plates. When we bring the food by, we realize that the station is not only staffed by surviving members of the crew, but also by an entire crew from Boston. Rescue workers from around the country have been streaming in to help.
Another friend is on her way home and encounters a woman who looks lost. She's a nurse who drove to New York from Rhode Island as soon as it happened on Tuesday. She's been volunteering at the disaster site and isn't sure where to stay for the night. My friend takes her in.
Many of my friends have bought supplies — plastic bags, bandages, ice, food — to centers to help support the incredible rescue workers helping downtown. It seems like the job of clearing rubble and finding victims is going to take the rest of our lives. Mayor Rudolf Guiliani has been a pillar of light. He's telling New Yorkers to go on with their lives. He tells us to go to restaurants, to show that we will not be cowered by this cowardly act. Every night as I go home, I see the restaurants are packed.
Today, Saturday, fighter planes continue to patrol overhead, creating an unnerving rumble in the skies. Sirens are still heard constantly. And downtown is still an inexplicable mess of rubble and lost lives. Amid the many stories of heroism that we have heard, there are some disturbing ones. One woman tells rescuers that she's received a call from her husband who is trapped under deep rubble with others. The rescuers immediately try to follow her guidance to find the survivor. But they find no one. The woman made up the story.
In another upsetting bit of news, two men, one of whom is a police officer, loot a store downtown, stealing thousands of dollars-worth of watches. And some people have dressed up as firefighters to get onto the scene and then talk to reporters, making up stories of fake rescues. It's inexplicable why people would do these things. But, of course, understanding how the hijackers could do this in the first place is even more impossible to understand.
No nation is perfect — neither is any city, even New York. But it's pretty close.
This city is full of good, good people. It will take a long time before we can even comprehend what has happened here. And I think it will always be too much to bear.
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