My 9/11

The weather was beautiful on that Tuesday morning. The sun shone above and the wind was a little breezy. It was a typical morning observing people from various cultures moved around, and rushed to get to their destination. Today was perfect for the New York City primary election. I decided to leave early than usual to spend an hour or more on the World Wide Web at my school, Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) before my first class started. After I waded through the colorful New Yorkers of all sizes on the sidewalks and made my way down into the Lexington Avenue 125th Street Subway Station, I boarded the middle car of a Brooklyn-bound four express train.

While leaning against the metallic door of the train, I listened to the conversations of everyday people. A white man with a receding hairline, who could have been a schoolteacher, told this elderly black man with a brown jacket that a plane hit the World Trade Center. By the tone of his voice, it did not sound too serious. I was thinking to myself how the pilots did not see those tall buildings. The two men soon changed the topic to sports and I stopped listening to their conversation.

After I transferred to the Shuttle on Grand Central – 42nd Street, then caught the number two Seventh Avenue Express, I knew something was wrong. The vibe I felt was a great deal of panic and nervousness. Most of the people looked lost like they never been in the city before. This was the first time I saw New Yorkers in this emotional state.

The train pulled into the Chambers Street Station, but the doors would not open. I knew something was definitely wrong, but I do not know how serious it was. The passengers waiting to get off were puzzled. I observed them looking around trying to determined what was the problem.

“Why won’t they let us out?” A tall woman wearing glasses cried.

After five minutes, the train proceeded to move to the next station. It was Park Street, and the entire station was full of thick white-gray smoke. The sight of this reminded me of the many grills at the annual block party in my Harlem community. The train moved slowly passed the station and it stopped in the middle of the tunnel. This was the worst place to be during an emergency. I felt trapped and I was trying my best to keep my composure under these circumstances. I reminded myself that everything was going to be all right, just stay calm.

The smell of the smoke got stronger and I started to panic because of the bad air ventilation inside the train. There was no way out and no way of knowing how long I was going to be stuck in the tunnel. A pint-size Latino woman clothed in a black sweatshirt, probably in her late thirties, was on the floor crying. A light-skinned passenger clad in army fatigues left his seat to console the woman. Whatever he was saying to her appeared to be working because she wiped her eyes and looked calmer. The feeling was frightening to know that I cannot do anything about the situation. I do not want to die on the train and the thought of it really made me feel timid.

“Get my train out of here, let’s go!” The conductor said on the radio.

When the passengers hear that, they began to feel relieve. I glance over at the pint-size Latino woman; she had a slight smile on her face now. Slowly the train was moving through the tunnel full of smoke. About a half hour later, the conductor instructed us to exit the train from the first car. I noticed we were in the Fulton Street Station and I had no idea that I was about to enter a new world.

Above the surface, debris was falling from the sky and burying the city. A white police officer standing in front of Duane Reade was giving out facemasks to people. I quickly took one and began walking up the dusty block feeling puzzled. I still did not know what happened in the city, but it looked like somebody dropped a bomb here. That second, a roaring sound pierced the sky above. I was thinking a bomb was about to drop, and everybody on the street including myself ran.

“In the blood of Jesus,” An overdress West Indian hollers, as she falls to her knees looking up at the sky. I saw nothing but horror in her paper bag-brown eyes.

Several New Yorkers and I dashed inside a medical center for shelter. Inside, it was something out of a scene from ER. Doctors were moving around frantically, giving out bottles of water and juices. They were also taking the elderly and the evacuees from the World Trade Center I assumed with injuries to emergency rooms. As I sat on the floor in the hallway, I was thinking this was the first time I am experiencing a small taste of war. I did not have a cell phone, and the people I saw with cell phones were having problems connecting, trying to contact someone. They were shaking their cell phones, freaking out. Looking at all this, I knew there was no way for me to contact my friends or any family member to let them know I was secure. There were many working people here possibly from the World Trade Center or Wall Street, covered in soot staring at the walls in disbelief. It looked like they do not have a soul in their bodies. It felt like a career-ending blow to the heart hit New Yorkers in the heart.

A medical assistant with long hair and caramel skin directed some people to other rooms to keep the lobby clear. She was young-looking, maybe twenty-two years old, and very polite. After the lobby was clear, I approached her.

“Excuse me, I just came from the subway and don’t have any idea what’s going on.”

“Oh, two commercial planes crashed into the World Trade Center.” She informed me. “It’s all over the news.”

“You can’t be serious; I was on my way to BMCC. Is it safe to leave now?”

“I don’t think it’s a wise decision for you to go out there.”

“I really don’t want to be in the hospital.”

“Sir, I understand how you feel but the best thing for you to do is to stay here where it’s secure. The air is very bad down there. Besides, nobody is certain that the attacks are over. Listen, I have to go and check on the injured patients. If you need anything just let me know. I’ll be close by.”

She convinced me to stay and I leaned on the wall in the hallway and remained calm. A dark-skinned Jamaican man with an Afro, wearing a security guard uniform was staring at me. He had some ash about his hair and face. On his nameplate, it read Markino. I knew we had never met, because I do not forget a face from the past. I was trying my best not to look at him, but once I made eye contact with him he spoke.

“Do you work at the World Trade Center?” He asked.

“No, I’m a student in BMCC.” I answered. “I was on my way there.”

“The North Tower of the World Trade Center is gone.” Markino informed me.

“What?” I uttered.

“As soon as I ran out the building, it went down. I kept on running and running for my life. I don’t know how I made it here.” Markino continued. “I just hope everybody including the firemen made it out in time.”

“Damn.” I said softly. “Thank God, you weren’t inside the Tower when it collapses.”

“My car is gone so I don’t know how I’m going to get home. I don’t even have a job now.”

“How the hell the pilots didn’t see them tall buildings? What were they doing smoking crack?”

“It’s a terrorist attack?” Markino insinuated.

“What do you mean a terrorist attack? How sure are you?”

“Remember the first attempt the terrorists made to take down the Towers back in ’93?”

Markino hinted. “Al-Qaeda had enough time to plan another attack.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Wow, they had eight years to plan this.” I said.

An hour went by; two women were sitting in a circle somewhat Indian style talking with Markino and me. They introduced themselves as Beverly and Keyana, two workers from the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Both of their faces registered disbelief and shock. We were all talking about how crazy the morning was and how this was going to affect the rest of our lives.

“I’m just never going to forget what I saw this morning,” Beverly said. “People had terror in their eyes and decided to jump out the window. It’s forever embedded in my head.”

I could not help but to stare at the debris in Beverly’s salt and pepper hair and the tears rolling down her cinnamon face. I felt sorry that she experienced something so tragic like this. It was a blessing that she was still here.

“The Twin Towers are gone.” Keyana announced, who was listening to the radio on her Walkman.

I will never forget the look on her surprised dark, ashy face. She looked as if she had witnessed the death of a nation. Keyana’s glassy-gray eyes were daze, and her working clothes were ghastly white.

“Unbelievable. America’s myth of invincibility is gone with it.” I said.

“Commuter trains are suspended and buses are not running below 14th Street.” Keyana added. “Everything is shut down.”

About two hours later, the city’s emergency personnel announced it was all right for people to leave the hospital and go home. Most of the Twin Towers evacuees’ spirits somewhat lifted up, but the horror was still in their eyes. As I was getting myself ready to leave, I exchanged numbers with my three new friends, and we all said a prayer. I waved goodbye to them and exit the hospital.

Once outside, police officers were directing people to walk northbound of the city. The amount of ash and debris on the streets was horrific. Walking up the lifeless Manhattan streets, was such a weird scene. The smell of the city was different. It was the horrible smell of death. The dark cloud of death blew across the city. Not only was I scanning the streets for familiar faces, but also I could not help to noticed National Guards and so many people standing around in silence. I think I was in Chinatown, because I saw mostly Chinese people recording the aftermath of the terrorist attack with their digital cameras. They were stunned and still could not believe what they saw. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” song was playing in my head. Looking up at the “friendly skies,” I screened a mental video of Marvin Gaye singing the song to me. For the first time in my life, New York City was not so energetic or live. The city was dead!

I was near midtown Manhattan, the streets were crowded, and conversations about the terrorist attacks were bitter and louder. Lounges were full of people watching nonstop news coverage of the attacks. I felt like stopping inside to take a break and watch the news, but my legs would not allow me to. Many people I saw had tears and dreams of revenge. Their feelings and thoughts were loud and clear.

“Look at those Palestinian bastards dancing on TV, having a good time. We need to drop a few bombs over there and see how fast they stop dancing.”

“I hope our army is on their way to Afghanistan to wipe them out.”

“Yes, I hope our army kills them all!”

When I finally returned to my Harlem apartment, I immediately stripped out of my clothes and hopped in the shower. As the water hit my body, I was still in disbelief thinking about the World Trade Center not standing anymore. This was the first time I experienced a great tragedy as a young American. To me, this whole event felt like being in one of Martin Scorsese’s classic films with all the drama and violence. Images of the twin towers burning and people jumping from windows were still fresh in my head. The thought of people giving up hope and choosing to die made me wonder would I have done the same thing if I were in their predicament.

Days later, I purchased a shirt on West 33rd Street that had a picture of the World Trade Center and the American flag in the background. It read:

World Trade Center


You can destroy it, but you can’t destroy

the freedom and spirit of people in America.

We will stay together, get even stronger.

“May God Bless New York.”

“May God Bless America.”

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