I don’t discuss 9/11 with many people and haven’t shared many of the details that I experienced or witnessed that day. But I felt strongly about sharing a small snippet of my morning from 19 years ago. It was a simple exchange I had with a U.S. Army soldier, who helped me more than he’ll ever know. I’m certain he wouldn’t remember this, but I always will.
Having evacuated the World Trade Center earlier, I was nearing Midtown at this point. There were U.S. Army tanks rolling down N.Y.C.’s streets which echoed with a continual scream of sirens. I’d already passed by multiple friends’ and coworkers’ apartments, but kept walking because I really just wanted to be home.
I spotted a group of soldiers in fatigues situated outside of a bank and standing in a semicircle. Memorial Day sightings of U.S. sailors was completely normal, but seeing armed military troops with full equipment on these same streets was definitely not. As I walked towards them, I passed a long line of blurred faces, which spanned over two blocks. Really? You’re doing your banking now?
As a side note, making sense of much of that day was somewhat beyond reach. At first, a long bank line seemed completely irrational, then scary, as I thought this may be a run on the banks. I think I had all of twenty bucks on me. Finally, I saw the signs from the Red Cross. Ok … this makes sense, however dreadful.
Both buildings had fallen at this point and the black smoke had obscured the streets of Downtown and SoHo. The Village looked as if a dark camera filter was set over it. But the blue, cloudless, skies over Uptown formed a heavenly gateway that a never-ending wave of suits walked towards. The breakneck pedestrian scramble that I was part of earlier had slowed to a disconsolate trudge.
I approached the soldier with a communication device strapped to his shoulder. He was probably about 40 years old, and wore glasses and the matching fatigue patterned patrol cap. Even so, I could see that he had kind eyes and I so walked towards him.
His mere presence gave me a sense of security. The feeling of vulnerability was unshakable and seeing our troops was a relief. Maybe I’d found the one little place in N.Y.C. that was safe. The U.S.-freaking-Army was on the scene.
I asked the soldier a question that would, on any other day, elicit a joke. “Sir, how can I get over to Jersey?”
I was totally keyed up and prepared to walk 15-20 miles on highways, through tunnels, whatever and wherever. I mentally mapped out pedestrian routes that would parallel the major roadways for safety, even if they were longer routes home.
He looked up at me. “Ma’am, I’m afraid the trains and busses are suspended and the tunnels to Jersey are locked down.”
Okay. So I knew the Holland was closed and wasn’t about to walk back towards Downtown anyway.
“What about the Midtown Ferry near Javits? I heard it was running.”
He spoke into his communication device and asked the voice on the other end if there was any viable transit to N.J. His questions were followed by periods of silence while answers were sought. I listened intently only to hear that even the Midtown ferries were being used for triage to transport first responders and the wounded. No civilians or passengers were allowed onboard.
“How about the bridge? Can I walk across the G.W.?”
At that very moment, a loud booming sound suddenly roared overhead. Panicked, I lunged toward the soldier, tucked my head into his shoulder and hugged him, bracing for another hit. The sound passed without incident. He put his arm over my shoulder. “It’s okay. That’s us. They’re ours. Ma’am, I think you’re in shock. You should sit down for a bit and maybe drink some water.”
I loosened my firm grip and finally let him go. He kept a hold on my elbow to make sure I was steady. I repeatedly apologized to him for my reaction. I felt silly, but the sound of the F-16s had totally triggered me. Through an embarrassed smile, my eyes welled-up a little, partially from fear and partially because of my overreaction to the simple sound of planes. Jesus!
I held up my giant liter bottle of water. “This is my second one so far … I’m okay, thank you, I’m really okay. I really appreciate that you took the time to help me. I’m going to keep moving. I have friends Uptown. Thank you again and please be safe.”
He smiled at me and his tilted his head back so he could look at me under his glasses. “You okay?”
I answered with a more emphatic,“Yeah. Really. Thanks so much.” I gave him an assured nod and he turned back towards his group.
I was so grateful I’d found my way to him because for that panicky moment and to this very day, that gentleman and soldier was my rock. He made me feel protected and let me know that our country was “on it” and that we’d all come through this. He filled me with confidence that, quite honestly, I had been stripped of just hours earlier. That day, I had a wealth of good fortune including meeting this kind soldier who, like so many of N.Y.’s finest police, fire, and rescue members, was about to wade into hell.
I walked a few yards and winced towards downtown. It actually hurt to look. The soldier and his group began walking towards the smoke-filled sky. They didn’t stop and have continued to this very day, 19 years later.