my 9.11

Maybe it’s silly to add yet another story to the list of “where I was on 9/11.” I suffered no direct loss, while some people I know did. Many other world events were far, far more awful. But as I did experience 9/11 in person, I feel the need to write down some thoughts, some memories.

On the night of September 10th, 2001, I was having drinks with an old friend (I’m having trouble remembering which friend!) in Chelsea, about 3 miles north of the World Trade Center. We stayed up late. We talked about world politics, terrorism, the Middle East. So when the alarm clock radio came on a bit before 9am (hey, I’m a software guy), with talk of a plane hitting a building, I thought I was having some messed-up dream based on the night’s conversation. By the time I turned on the TV, the second plane had hit. My mom called. “Mom, that’s a second plane, it’s not an accident.” I got a call from my sister who lived a few miles uptown, she was fine, too. I noticed a voicemail from my friend and coworker Josh. His wife, who worked in the WTC, was fine, as she was away on a trip. Then the cell phones went dead.

I threw on clothes and comfortable clothes. I watched the first tower collapse on TV. I grabbed a backpack, put on jogging shoes, and ran out of my apartment on 21st street, between 7th and 8th avenues. From my street I couldn’t see the towers, so I headed to 7th avenue. By the time I got there, all I could see was smoke. I had to ask someone on the street: “where’s the second tower?”

I started walking downtown, towards my office in TriBeCa, about a mile north of the WTC. I panicked for a moment: what if this was just the beginning and more was underway? I stepped into a convenience store, bought 3 candybars and 2 bottles of water. As I walked downtown, I passed cars stopped in the street, doors open, people standing with their radios turned on, straight out of some apocalypse movie. Then I started seeing people covered in dust. I made it to my office just south of Canal St, walked in, and logged on. I think I spent an hour clicking “respond”, writing “yes, I’m fine, more later.”

I found an unused IP address on one of our servers and set up a page to list “I’m ok” messages. Looks like the Internet Archive has a copy. I remember thinking I might be aggregating thousands of messages from around the city, though in the end it was obviously limited to my circle of friends. I guess I wanted to help, in any way I could.

Somewhere in there I chatted with co-workers, emailed our clients and partners, told them we were alright, asked how they were doing. One of our clients was on Wall Street and lost a number of friends.

In the mid afternoon, my friend Greg and I went up on the roof of our office building and talked, looking down Greenwich St towards WTC 7 surrounded by smoke of the collapsed towers. We went downstairs, heard on the radio that WTC 7 had collapsed, ran back up, and sure enough, it was gone. That night, Amanda, Greg, my sister and I crowded into my little apartment, ate frozen pizza and watched the news until we couldn’t anymore.

One of my best friends was stuck in Pennsylvania on a business trip. He wanted to be home in NYC, but couldn’t.

I gave my team the week off.

The next few days were odd.

I wasn’t able to fly out to the West Coast that Friday to see my friend Rodrigo’s new baby.

I stayed up nights listening to fighter jets flying overhead. I participated in far too many email arguments about “how to respond.” I was crazy and emotional. I made stupid, childish arguments. Within a few weeks, I would be calmer and, I think, more reasonable. I wish our leaders had also taken a moment to breathe.

People started going about their business again. There was the smell of burn in the air, but people tried not to talk about it. People were nice. Very nice. I went out a lot. I followed my friend Arjun to see indie bands on the lower east side. I didn’t want to stay in, ever, I needed to go out and be with people. I remember a faux-french band we saw, the guitarist wore an “I [heart] NYC” t-shirt he’d modified to say “J'[aime] NYC”. They didn’t mention the burning buildings. No one talked about it. Instead people went out of their way to be friendly, to reach out, to help.

That was, in some way, the saddest part of that experience. Everyone wanted to help. Doctors waited for the wounded, but none came. People lined up to give blood, but none was needed. People lined up to help downtown but there wasn’t room for everyone. So we tried to help each other, in small ways, every day.

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