That Horrible Day

by Lois Coleman.


On September 11th, 2001, I was a librarian at Barnard College, and lived on the other side of the Columbia campus on Morningside Drive. I enjoyed my walk to work across the campus that day, because it was, as everyone has noted ever since, a supremely, quintessentially beautiful New York fall day. The first plane must have hit the World Trade Center while I was walking to work. The library was empty when I arrived, but as people trickled in I heard that something strange, something terrible, had happened downtown - a huge explosion at the World Trade Center.


I turned on the radio (because in those days there were no smartphones, of course, and the Internet was not very sophisticated so we relied on the radio and TV for up-to-the-minute news) and suddenly I heard that a plane had flown into the WTC! The feeling I had was one of horror and shock and puzzlement. Of course I assumed it was an accident - but how was that possible?


I had a great idea - there was somewhere I could go where I’d be able to get an actual view of the World Trade Center. I had worked, until 1999, on the 18th floor of 475 Riverside Drive, at the national offices of the Reformed Church in America, and the kitchen there looked due south towards the bottom of Manhattan. So I looked in my bag to see if I still had my ID for 475 Riverside Drive and I did, so I ran from Barnard across Claremont Avenue to the God Box (as we called it because it contained many church and denominational offices).


Flashing my ID at the security guard, I jumped in the elevator. On the 18th floor, as I had hoped, there was no-one around to whom I would have to explain my return to my old workplace, and I ran to the kitchen and looked out of the window.


What I saw was a huge plume of black smoke rising from one of the towers of the World Trade Center! It was a horrific sight. When I worked at the God Box as an administrative assistant, I had gone to the kitchen every morning to make myself some tea, and to stand at that window with the amazing view and say hello to the New York skyline, which was really beautiful from there, with the Hudson River on the right-hand side gleaming in the sun and the skyscrapers of Midtown and the Financial District laid out before me. Now it was marred by this unbelievable sight.


I stood transfixed for a few minutes and a few people, old colleagues of mine, came into the kitchen but we didn’t have much to say to each other, we were so shocked. I ran back to the library to see if I could get more news about what had happened. By now it must have been about 9am. Other librarians had turned on a TV and we saw the building on fire with flames and smoke billowing out of it and we heard that people had been seen falling from the windows.


Then the second great shock of the morning came - another plane flew directly into the second tower of the WTC. Feeling increasingly frightened - were we all under attack? - I canceled all my appointments with students and faculty for the day and sat in a daze at my desk for a while. An hour or so later, after the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed, I went back to the 18th floor of the God Box. This time, all I could see was an even wider plume of gray and black smoke where the buildings had been. I remember thinking, “Wow, that smoke is so thick that I can’t see any of the buildings behind it!” but then I realized that there were no longer any buildings there. This was the hardest thing to grasp - the WTC, whose lobby I had walked through only two weeks before on my way to Century 21, no longer existed. I thought about all the people who worked there and how their lives had been destroyed.


I remember the TV showing images of people streaming north up the streets of Manhattan covered in gray dust. People were distraught, bewildered, and crying. Public transportation had ground to a halt. The radio and TV seemed to broadcast panic. Many people were saying that they were getting out of New York as soon as possible and staying there. My daughter was at school on the Upper East Side. Fortunately, the mother of one of her friends called me and said she would drive over and pick the girls up, so I wasn’t too worried. But I was very relieved when she got home safely.


A friend who lived in Pennsylvania but was in town at a conference in the Marriott World Trade Center called me. He had been evacuated with only the clothes he was wearing, and asked if he could come up to our apartment and possibly stay overnight, and bring three colleagues with him. Of course, I said yes. Later I got a call from two other out-of-town friends who couldn't get home, and they came to our place and borrowed our car. We had a houseful that afternoon and evening.


At 6 o’clock we walked over to the Cathedral of St John the Divine. The organ filled the whole space with a deep, sad throbbing that got louder and louder. Many people from our neighborhood were there. Later, we went to the Columbia campus with a candle and joined the crowds of other people in a candlelight vigil. This was one of the few times in New York City that everyone was sharing an experience and a feeling of togetherness. People were kinder and more courteous to each other.


It was only in the days, months and years following the disaster that we understood the aftereffects of 9/11 - post-traumatic stress disorder, toxins in the environment, a huge increase in anxiety about terrorism, and an unnameable uncertainty.