In May 2001, I moved from Pittsburgh, P.A. to New York City. I was 32-years-old and loving life in the Big Apple.
On Monday, Sept. 10, I had dinner with fellow Corinth native turned NYC-resident Mac Worsham. The next morning I was off to work in a mid-town high-rise and sat waiting at my desk for my assistant to join me for a meeting. When she was late to our meeting and wouldn’t answer her phone, I walked to her cubicle where I saw tears running down her face and the image on her computer screen was that of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center.
As the moments of the early morning passed, more and more coworkers came to the office aghast, troubled, with expressions of horror on their faces and tears in their eyes as they learned what had happened. A friend in London sent me an email with a subject line of “Bloody Bin Laden – get out!”. Nothing of the sort had been mentioned here in the U.S. yet and in fact, it would be over an hour later before terrorism was reported in the news, but people in Europe knew what a terrorist attack looked like.
My coworkers and I piled into the board room to watch the news. At the time, I worked in the insurance industry and our office was located on one of the upper floors of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, a building that was part of the Rockefeller Center Group and headquarters to Fox News. Insurance giants and market competitors Marsh McLennan and AON Corporation both occupied numerous floors in the World Trade Center buildings and several of my coworkers had family members who worked for them. Annette’s sister worked for AON and no one had heard from her. Sam’s son worked for Marsh. He had called to say he was leaving the building but hadn’t called back since. Other colleagues started rattling off names of industry friends who worked in those buildings and we all just sat there in silence, watching the horror, praying everyone would get out alive.
Some did and some didn’t.
When I could no longer stand being in that building on the 37th floor, I told the president of the office I wanted to leave, but he urged me to stay, telling me I would be safer inside than outside, even though we were a few miles from where the disaster was happening. No one knew what was going to happen that day. My only thought was that if the attackers were targeting NYC landmarks, being one block off of Times Square, we could be next.
I left the office around 11:15 a.m. and started the surreal walk back to my apartment on the Upper West Side. Others were walking too. Through Central Park, it was like being on a people mover – the kind you ride in the airport. I wasn’t sure what was compelling me forward as I watched people move by.
On my walk, I saw a restaurant worker collapsed in tears in a deli door frame. I wondered if he knew someone who worked at Windows of the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the North Tower. I passed by a young woman sitting on a bench crying hysterically on her phone. I wanted to stop and hug her, but I kept moving. There were hundreds and likely thousands of people walking through Central Park and everyone was moving in complete silence until we heard it – the sound of an approaching plane. The airspace over the U.S. was shut, but we all simultaneously froze and looked up. Could it be another plane? Are we still under attack? What we saw were a pair of F-15s flying over Central Park. To say the sight was unreal is an understatement.
The rest of the day passed as a blur. I was able to get a message to my family in Corinth that I was ok. A friend came to my apartment because she couldn’t get home to hers. Another friend made it out of the North Tower but had to jump over a plane tire as he ran for safety across the plaza. Another friend and her husband ran down the West Side Highway escaping their apartment which was two blocks from the nightmare. My friend recalls that they turned around to watch as the South Tower fell, but to her, the collapse made no sound. It was eerily silent, likely because her mind could not, at that moment, process what her eyes were seeing.
In the days that followed, everywhere I turned – every ATM window, every stop sign, every light pole – was plastered with posters and flyers of “Have you seen her?” or “Have you seen him?” as family members desperately searched for any hope or sign that their loved one had somehow survived. I could walk to the Hudson River from my apartment and for months see smoke billowing up from Ground Zero. The regular sound of commercial flights traveling Hudson to land at LaGuardia was replaced by the sound of fighter jets circling Manhattan.
For a while, in fact, for a very long time, New York became a nicer place to be. Everyone was kinder, gentler, more gracious. Everyone shared their story of where they were that day. We mourned and grieved with those who lost loved ones, unable to imagine the nightmare that they had lived and were still living. We celebrated the firefighters and the policemen. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik were our heroes.
To this day, I cannot bring myself to watch any of the 9/11 documentaries or visit the 9/11 museum because I was there. While I will never forget what I witnessed, experienced, and saw, I am also glad that some of the memories of that horrific day have begun to fade.
(Now 52, Lane Williams Yoder is the community development director for The Alliance and lives with her husband Bill in downtown Corinth.)