There is no reason for me to be inside the World Trade Center just as a commercial jet hits Tower Two at 8:48 AM, September 11, 2001. But there had been a hitch in the usual schedule. A new bus company had taken over the route to Brooklyn Heights where my youngest son Charley goes to school, and it was proving massively inefficient. Charley had arrived an hour late for his first day of classes, and Tuesday the 11th—his second—would apparently be no different. I promised over breakfast that I’d take him to school myself, on the subway. It was on the way back to Manhattan, an hour later, that I decide to attend to some errands, most of which could be done in the confines of the World Trade Center. It all sounds so normal, doesn’t it? It’s another person’s life, maybe my twin sister’s. She didn’t hear the screaming inside the building, or have to run for her life along with thousands of others. She’s my lost self.
Here I am then, standing across the street from the World Trade Center, looking up at a perfect blue sky. Why are there no intimations of disaster flashing through my mind? But no one shouts, “Beware the ides of September,” and I march purposefully toward the appointed target. The New Yorkers converge, we press ourselves close together, forming tight phalanxes, and in an orderly manner, we start pouring through rapidly revolving doors, and heavy swinging ones, into Tower Two.
At a jewelry store on the level below, my husband, Peter, had recently bought a watch. I’d coveted it, and he’d lent it to me. Now it is strapped to my wrist, and I check the time: 8:44. I dodge into place on the crowded escalator, and descend farther into the building. The masses of people crisscrossing the floor of this grand concourse have an almost hypnotic quality. They leap gracefully as they come into view on the steeply ascending escalators from the New Jersey PATH train.
I have reasonable hope that all of them survived. By virtue of not being upstairs, of not being too early, of risking censure by “cutting it fine.” And now I join them. And it was at that moment that the familiar routines that make up Daily Life blew apart, making it impossible for any of us to reassemble them in quite the same way again.
I am thinking, “Mustn’t forget Staples,” when it happens. A horrifying sound fills the vast concourse. Everyone freezes in their tracks.
There’s nothing natural about the sound. It’s not thunder; it’s not an earthquake. It is the bursting and ripping of a massive explosion. It’s come from somewhere high inside the building, though the vibration of it is also inside my head. The building shivers in response. In that second, I hold my breath. We all hold our breath. Then it’s pandemonium. I hear some screaming. There is one collective thought: That was a bomb. And one collective goal: Let’s get out of here. Somehow you know a terrorist attack when you hear it, and we are in the midst of one. The knowledge is writ on every frightened face whirling past, considering escape routes. Then I see something so intimidating it chills me to the bone.
The doorway at the end of the concourse leading outside to the plaza has filled with a huge wall of white smoke. We’re not sure what we’re seeing, but in the same instant, the enormous wave of smoke rushes forward without a sound, and we flee like frightened villagers before a tidal wave. Whether the force propelling it is the “bomb”, or whether it is chemical gases, there is a sense of being in direct danger, as though this bomb has assumed a ghostly presence, in order to hunt us down.
Some faces stream with tears, but everyone is running fast, an army in panicked retreat from a greater and more terrifying force. We turn the nearest corner, past the Coach store. No one pushes or shoves anyone else, we just run to find the nearest exit. There is no hysteria. I remember that I myself felt quite clearheaded. There is no time for fear; this is survival, pure and simple. Frightened shop assistants run out of doorways, calling “What’s happening?” and receiving no answers, join our swelling ranks. There were only two ways my situation could resolve itself: I would die, or I would not die. For whatever reason, dying didn’t frighten me. But I wanted more than anything else to help Peter raise our boys. And so I formed a two-part prayer to my Higher Power, which I repeated over and over as I ran through the World Trade Center. Please let us make it out of this building. Please let me bring up my boys.
We made it outside, and most of us continue our walk/run away from the building. Looking back I could see the burning upper stories, but I had no satisfactory explanation. The area was covered in ash and burned paper. People watched, stunned, anguished, horrified. I didn’t know what they had seen—I didn’t think of a plane in the sky.
There were no police of firefighters yet, though I could hear sirens. I marched north on Broadway with an army of strangers, huge numbers of whom were on cell phones. You could tell those who’d been near the explosion because their faces and hair were full of ash, like mine. I thought of Armageddon. It felt like the end of the world. There wasn’t a vacant public phone anywhere. Everyone wanted to reach their loved ones. I had decided to stop when I got to my friend Bebe’s apartment building, on Broadway opposite City Hall. It felt far enough away from the disaster area. I wanted to use her phone to reach peter.
I rang her bell. She answered “Alison?” surprised to see my face on the video monitor. I began, “Bebe.” Then there was a second explosion in the sky behind me. It sounded like a bomb had fallen from high. I wondered if we were being bombed from planes. I couldn’t see either tower from this angle. People were running past, screaming, and I Joined them. I wasn’t taking any more chances. I had been spared. I was going to raise my boys. I ran all the way home.