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Tom S.’s Account

On the morning of September 11th 2001, I woke up just like any other day. I worked on the 15th floor of 10 Exchange Place in Jersey City, a skyscraper on the Hudson River right across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. I remember how nice of a day it was- about 70 degrees with a nice breeze. Sometimes early September in New York can be sweltering, but that day was as pleasant as they come. I arrived at my office, the trading floor of National Discount Brokers Capital Markets around 8:30 and started my normal pre-opening bell duties. Around 8:45, all the TVs on the trading floor started reporting that a plane had struck the North Tower. This was surprising, but no one panicked. With all the tall buildings in NYC, collisions with planes do happen from time to time. Everyone assumed it to be an accident involving a small, single-engine plane. The floor-to-ceiling windows of our conference room had a direct view of the towers so we all ran to them to see for ourselves. Only a few minutes after getting to the windows, we watched, all of us struck silent, as the second plane screamed towards the South Tower. Not only could we tell that it wasn’t trying to avoid the building, but that it was accelerating. The explosion when the plane flew into the tower was almost blinding, and we could feel the shockwave hit the windows and set them vibrating. We could hear the rumble from across the river and see as pieces of steel and glass flew out of the South Tower into the clear blue sky.

In a split-second, my entire office went from stunned silence to frantic action as the fire alarms sounded. My colleagues and I ran back to the main trading floor to make sure everyone knew what was happening and to find close friends or family members to be sure everyone began evacuating. Some of us helped older coworkers down the 15 flights of steps though we couldn’t move that fast as the entire 30-story building’s occupants came rushing into the emergency stairwells. It took almost 15 minutes to make it out to the street, and when we did we found all the streets surrounding our building jammed with people. Everyone just stared at the now-enormous smoke plumes pouring out of the tops of the Twin Towers. The breeze that was so enjoyable earlier that morning now picked up the thick, black smoke and carried it out over New York Harbor towards Brooklyn. It was a scene that was truly incomprehensible, the stuff of nightmares right in front of our faces. The definition of unbelievable.

After what seemed like hours but was in fact only a few minutes, Jersey City police officers began instructing us to start walking. Some people asked them, “Where should we go? Where is there to go that’s safe?” The police, like the rest of us right at that moment, had no good answers. None of us blamed them for this. They merely stated that all transit had been shut down and that the concentration of people in the area was dangerous. Not only had all transit been shut down, but so had car traffic. Officers were telling people to turn off their cars in the streets, take their keys, and join those of us already walking. They would be contacted later about retrieving their vehicles. Another thing I saw that day that made me question my own sanity. It didn’t take much to get us all moving away from our little cluster of skyscrapers, because if the World Trade Center could be hit like that, right in front of us, what else could go wrong today? What else might be coming that no one could anticipate? Most people began walking north towards Hoboken, as there were few choices. No one walked quickly. We all kept turning around to look at the Towers hoping that they would be back to normal, that the events of the last hour had been some kind of collective psychotic episode that had passed. Of course, that didn’t happen.

By the time I reached Hoboken, about three miles from where my journey started, I was alone. My coworkers had peeled off gradually from our group to head where they maybe had family or friends nearby. I was heading to Union City, a further 4 miles up the Hudson, and no one else was going that way. It was from the riverfront in south Hoboken that I watched the South Tower collapse. I had taken a pause to get a drink of water and once again stare at the absurd scene in Lower Manhattan. It had never entered my mind that the buildings would come down. We had discussed it on our walk, and no one really thought that collapse was a possibility. We all agreed that they would probably burn for a while more and then be able to be repaired. So among the many shocks I received that day, one of the largest was when I watched the upper floors of the South Tower fall onto the lower floors and begin the cascading collapse that turned the building into so much dust and rubble. On video, it takes seconds, but in real life, it took an eternity. I felt as though I could see individual beams bending and giving way, that I could make out individual dust grains as they rained down from over a thousand feet in the sky. Of course I couldn’t. But the mind plays tricks when it is stretched to its limits.

It was in Hoboken that I managed to find the only working pay-phone I’d find all that day. I called my mother to let her know my aunt and I were ok (we both worked for the same firm), and that I was heading home. I couldn’t get through to anyone else on the pay-phone, and others who tried to use it didn’t have much better luck. Cell-phones were useless. I tried until my battery died to get through to my girlfriend (who is now my wife) but it was futile. She was in Lower Manhattan, south of the World Trade Center, and there was no way a signal was going to get through but I had to keep trying. People watching the tragedy unfold on TV on the other side of the world were better informed in some ways than those of us actually near it. After the phone call, staying in one place felt strange, so I continued on, trying to make it home.

I had made it to the hill that led from the banks of the Hudson up to the top of the Palisades, where Union City is located, when I turned around once more to look back at the unbelievable. Having watched the South Tower come down, I was fervently hoping that at least one of them would survive, that whoever had done this wouldn’t take them both away, along with all of the people I was sure were trapped in the tower that was still standing. Unfortunately, that was the moment the tower gave way. In almost an exact repeat of the South Tower’s collapse, the upper portion of the building fell briefly then impacted the lower, setting off the dreadful, but now strangely familiar cascade of steel and glass and stone. Again it happened in slow motion, and tears were streaming down my cheeks uncontrollably.

I had never felt such a profound sense of loss in my life, and my mind didn’t know what to do about it. It wasn’t normal crying, with the accompanying sobs and runny nose. They were tears of incredulity, of sorrow for friends I knew who were down there, for friends whose wives or brothers or sons and daughters were down there. I’ve always had a fierce love for New York City, and watching icons of the skyline that I had stared at and longed to be a part of my entire life, having grown up in New Jersey, was overwhelming. I took it personally. Those tears were of anger as well. I had no information but what I’d seen with my own eyes and the five minutes of TV I’d watched at the bar where I’d found that pay-phone. In a way, that made the anger worse. There was nowhere I could direct it, no one to lash out at, nothing to be done about it. Nothing to do but keep walking.

I walked another two miles alongside the river. On top of the Palisades in the town of Weehawken, is Hamilton Park. The park runs along the top of the cliff and normally gives spectacular views of the entire Manhattan skyline, but that day, no one was looking anywhere but at the huge plume of smoke and ash pouring out of the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. As I walked the final miles to my apartment, I passed through huge crowds of people who had gathered at the park. I saw a full range of emotions as I walked. Since I evacuated my building, I felt I had gone through a full range of emotions myself. There were people in tears hugging each other for comfort. There were people who had that blank, unbelieving look that I had become very familiar with earlier that day. And there were people who looked at my face and understood, and returned my stare with a knowing nod or handshake. By this point anger had fully taken over for many people. It seemed the progression for many people was similar to mine: disbelief, followed by sadness, then anger. But we all loved each other at least a little bit more than we did the day before.

The rest of that day was a blur of friends coming over to check on me, endless newscasts and speculation, casualty numbers going ever upwards, not a little bit of Jack Daniel’s, and worst of all, the interminable wait for my girlfriend to get home, or at least to get some word. She had to walk from Battery Park up to W. 60th St., and make her way onto one of the last ferries leaving for New Jersey. It wasn’t until about 7:30 or 8:00 that she finally made it home, and I could finally really breathe. Some parts of that day are fuzzy or blurry, but some others are unfortunately very clear. Mine is just one story among millions from that day.