Every year during the second week in September, New Yorkers relive the tragedy of 9/11 through story, through ritual and through remembrance. As we all know, on September 11, 2001 two planes crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The towers, both more than 1,700 feet in height, collapsed to the ground that morning, changing the history of our city and of the entire world. 2,606 people lost their lives at the World Trade Center and in the surrounding area. That number includes 343 firefighters and 71 law enforcement officers, men and women who were tasked with saving the lives of civilians. It was the worst day we’ve ever faced as a city, and every one of us that was here on that day have a story to tell about where we were when the planes hit. Here’s mine.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was a 26-year-old man living at 546 Putnam Avenue in Bed-Stuy. I worked at a discount brokerage firm as an account officer. I worked nights. My office was at 80 Maiden Lane, a stone’s throw from where the towers stood. I had left work that Monday night at 10pm. It was the last night I ever worked there. I would never return after 9/11.
Tuesday morning, my girlfriend at the time, Tracie, got up early and took her daughter to school. Bria’s school was located in Cobble Hill, so the commute was such that they left the house around 7:15am. I stayed in bed until about 8:45am. I got up, went to the bathroom and then went into the living room and turned on “Good Day NY” on Channel 5. “Good Day NY” used to be my favorite morning news show. As soon as the channel came on, I could hear the voice of Dick Oliver reporting from Lower Manhattan. He was saying that smoke was coming from the upper floors of one of the World Trade Center towers. He was saying that a plane might have hit the tower. It was 8:49am and 64 degrees outside, a beautiful September morning. I sat on the couch and watched as Jim Ryan discussed the incident. Dick Oliver interviewed some kid, and then threw it back to Jim. It was a plane. It banked sharply, and it looked like it intentionally hit the tower. That was the report.
I get my news-watching from my mother. Every morning when she wakes up, my mother turns on the local news. She had been watching the news that morning, too, and she called her favorite child around 9am that morning to discuss what was going on. Yes mom, I’m watching the news. Yes mom, I know a plane hit the World Trade Center. No mom, I don’t know why. I figured it was a tragic accident. I had flown into NYC from Chicago once and remembered being in awe at how clear the towers were from my vantage point in the plane. Maybe something went wrong. Maybe the pilot fell asleep or had a heart attack. Whatever happened, I didn’t put much thought into it. That’s when something surreal happened. I was watching the television and on the phone with my mother when at once I heard a booming collision. It seemed far away, but it was a definite collision and I didn’t just hear it in my living room, I heard it through the phone. My mother was living about 8 blocks west of me and I could hear the boom through the phone. She heard it, too, and just as she called my name, I could see a second plane hit the other tower on “Good Day NY.”
“Marlon! Did you see that?” She was watching, too.
“Yeah Mom! Another plane hit!”
“Oh my God, Marlon! Air Traffic Control is fucking up today!”
That moment was both the scariest and the funniest moment of my life. Scary because I knew then that whatever was happening was intentional. Funny because my mother chose to blame Air Traffic Control.
“Mom, why do you think it’s Air Traffic Control? It isn’t Air Traffic Control! I’ll call you back.”
I just sat there watching the coverage in disbelief. New York had always seemed like the strongest place on earth; buildings of iron and steel, people of grit, communities that defined themselves with self-determination. Nothing and no one gets over on a New Yorker until that moment there on the couch. My girlfriend returned home and the first thing she said was that some crackhead outside told her that planes were crashing into buildings. She laughed it off. I pointed to the television. She stopped laughing. We left the house to pick Bria up, and we had to walk from Putnam and Throop over to Cobble Hill because the entire subway system shut down. That walk was bizarre. Everyone was looking up at the sky, scared of what might fall. The towers fell on that walk, one not too long after we left the house, and the other not too long after that. People were visibly shook, crying in the streets, rushing to their loved ones, looking as defeated as Mike Tyson was when Buster Douglas knocked him out. That’s how it felt. It felt like someone had knocked us out and we were all on the canvas reaching for our mouthpiece while the referee counted. And though we have lived to fight other days, on that day we lost. We really lost. The New York that existed on September 10th, 2001 was gone, never to return again. Today, we live in a “new” New York, renewed and better in some ways, but still bitter and distant in others.
We tell the stories every year, not because we wish to relive the horror of that day, but we tell them to pay homage to those that were blessed to be able to navigate through that chaos, and to those who perished in that chaos, because aside from all of the terror and devastation, we learned on that day that we are all one. And at this time in our nation, that’s a lesson worth remembering.