Today, and every September 11th, is about remembering for Frank and I. In the days leading up to this anniversary I feel myself thinking more about it, feeling emotional and reflective. Now thirteen years later, it feels as fresh in a lot of ways as it did on the first anniversary, so I believe it will continue to be every September of my life.
I feel that for me, the best way to honor this anniversary is always by remembering again.
These are my memories.
On September 11, 2001, I was in graduate school working on my MFA in painting at Parsons in lower Manhattan. I had been living in New York City for 5 years already and had an apartment in the East Village close to school. I got up early that morning and was out the door by 8:30AM as I had to make it to class for a 9AM seminar. I walked quickly, moving west on East 12th Street, my mind full of everything that I had to do that day. At one point I heard a loud boom-like crashing sound, which I dismissed quickly as I often heard loud sounds living in the city. A minute later, as I approached the corner of University Place and 12th Street, I saw every pedestrian standing still and looking off into the sky at something. My first distracted thought was, "Oh great, now I'm going to have to walk through a parade to get to class.". As I reached the corner I turned south to see what everyone was staring at, and saw a gaping black hole in the side of the North Tower of the World Trade center, about 2 miles to the south. I asked the man in a suit next to me what happened and he had no idea, he looked at his watch and said, "Its not even 9AM, hopefully not too many people are in there yet."
I continued walking the two remaining blocks to school, looking back over my shoulder at the heavily smoking building. Papers were pouring out of the black hole, fluttering in the clear sunlight.
When I got to school my close friend Brad greeted me, he had been walking to school from the West Village, he knew what had happened. He had seen an airliner flying down 6th Avenue, so low that he had clearly seen faces in the windows looking out at him. He knew that it had hit the tower.
We turned the radio on to try to get some information but all we heard were confused reports that a small plane had hit the building, so a bunch of us ran up to the school's roof to watch for ourselves.
We stood there staring at the smoking North Tower, and then suddenly without warning we watched a massive fireball explosion bloom out, engulfing half of the South Tower. Those moments are fuzzy for me, I remember one friend saying "Oh, God." and I remember that everything around me, the brilliant blue sky, the yellow gold billowing fire, seemed to be crisp and sparklingly clear. From our perspective we had not even see the second plane approaching.
Then our building security guard came up and told us that we could not be on the roof, so we all ran down to the street. We stood on University Place just below 14th Street, at this point all traffic had stopped so we stood in the middle of the street with the gathering crowd. One girl in our MFA program started filming with her video camera. Brad and I were desperate for information, so we ran into a bar close by where they had a television. A news caster on the television reported that a passenger plane had also hit the Pentagon and that there was another plane believed to still be in the air, Brad turned to me and said, "It must be an attack.", and we hugged each other.
We stood on the street for a while just staring at the smoking buildings. Everyone was staring, and talking. Someone pulled up with a car on 14th Street and opened the car doors with the radio on so that people could gather around and hear the news.
We heard bits and pieces, that firefighters were in there, that they were thinking of rescuing people off of the roof, that people were jumping. I was mesmerized by the sight of the smoking buildings, from our perspective we could see into the holes, it was glowing hot like a kiln or like I remembered a glass blowing furnace. It looked so hot, we wondered how they were going to put those fires out. Then, gracefully, the South Tower swayed, and then it started getting shorter, it took a moment for me to realize that it was collapsing down on itself, pancaking floor to floor.
For a few minutes all we could see was smoke, and then as the smoke cleared a stranger next to me asked me, "Where is the other tower?", like he thought that he just couldn't see it, and I said, "I think it fell down.", and it felt like one of the most surreal moments of my life.
After that, I did not want to be there on the street watching any more, I wanted to sit down, I wanted to be inside. So Brad and I went back into school and listened to the radio with some of our classmates in our studios. We were sitting there listening to the radio report when the North Tower fell. All I could think about were how many people must have been in those buildings. And then, all I could think about was getting to Frank. We had started dating 4 months earlier and he worked at a painting studio across town on 14th Street in the Meatpacking District. One of our teachers, myself and Brad decided to go out to find our loved ones, we got ready not knowing what it would be like outside. We worked our way west along 14th Street, it was surprisingly calm everywhere we looked, as a tide of people walked north through Manhattan. Each face that we saw looked shocked and stricken, as I'm sure our faces looked. Clusters of people were gathered around cars listening to the radio, it felt like everyone was together, strangers were friends. Fire trucks and cars drove past covered in ash, we walked past Saint Vincents hospital with 50 gurnies and staff waiting outside.
I found Frank at his work, listening to the radio with his coworkers. Frank told me that he had been on his way to work on the subway beneath the towers when the first plane hit. A woman had gotten into his subway car screaming that she had just seen a plane hit the World Trade Center, everyone on the train had stared at her and thought that she was crazy. Then the walkie-talkie of a cop standing near by started talking about the towers, and the cop quickly got off at the next stop. Once Frank got above ground a few stops later at 14th Street he knew that the woman had not been crazy.
Frank and I wandered around the West Village, making our way slowly over to Brad's apartment to be with friends. Every church that we passed had their doors wide open, with impromptu services of lamentation and mourning. At one beautiful church we decided to go inside, we sat in a pew for a while, the dark and the quiet were calming and I felt strangely numb. Frank prayed on his knees.
We spent that afternoon at Brad's house, his boyfriend loved to cook and he cooked for hours for the big gathered group of friends. One of their friends arrived all dusty, she had walked up from close to the World Trade Center where she worked. We all listened as she described her journey, she had seen the bodies falling, she told us things that I wish I could forget.
That afternoon we watched television news broadcasts about the event for the first time. We learned about the flight that had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The phone lines in Manhattan had been overloaded, but once phone service was restored we called all of our parents and family not in New York. Every hour or so we went up on the roof of the building to look again at the smoking plume billowing up so far into the sky at the south of our island. That was when I first began to smell it, an acrid smell, something like burnt hair and tires, a really bad smell.
It was not until that afternoon that Frank mentioned that his cousin was doing a job in the North Tower, it was just a short term computer job, and he probably wasn't at work yet so early in the morning. All of us assured him that his cousin probably had not been at work yet, but Frank was very quiet.
Frank and his cousin Matthew Horning grew up close to each other in the New Jersey suburbs. They were born 5 months apart and growing up they shared lots of the same interests, like Star Wars and Boy Scouts. Being the same age they were always on the same trajectory in their family, always together at family functions. Matthew came to all of Frank's openings and they had stayed close into adulthood. That morning Matthew had gone to work early so that he would be able to leave early that afternoon and go to an appointment with his fiance. He was in the North Tower, above the blast where the first plane hit. He was trapped in the building and was able to send out a few texts during the hour after the plane hit, he did not survive and his body has never been recovered. He was 26.
That evening Frank and I walked back to my apartment in the East Village, the 20 minute walk across town was very quiet except for the sound of occasional sirens in the distance. We said "I love you.", to each other for the first time on that walk to my apartment that night. I had been sure already that I would spend the rest of my life with Frank, but something about that day solidified it. We were married one year later, on September 15th, 2002.
The days and weeks after September 11th were like an open wound in New York. For two weeks I had to show ID to get to my apartment since I lived below 14th Street in Manhattan. There was paper from the Towers all over the streets of Frank's neighborhood in Brooklyn. The site kept smoking for a while, a constant reminder. And that smell, I will never forget it, just pungent and awful, sometimes around a campfire or when driving by a factory, I smell something similar and I feel nauseous for a moment.
Frank mourns Matthew, I know that it is harder every year around this anniversary, but also that it is always with him. As he has gone on living, getting married, having children, it is something that he always carries close.
The horror of September 11th also did come with blessings, on the other side now with thirteen more years of perspective I can see that in many ways that day was a day that we woke up to life like never before, we were able to see what was right in front of us with vivid clarity. I don't believe that all of that clarity has been lost over time.
Everyone has their September 11th story, this is only mine, I would love to hear yours too. I believe that in sharing our experience we can come through to healing and understand in a deeper way. I took all of these pictures while we were traveling in Portland Oregon in 2009, their solemnity seemed to fit perfectly here.