Submitted by Elizabeth Pagan
I have no recollection of anything that happened that morning prior to my getting on the express bus into the City. I just remember it being an absolutely beautiful day. Literally, a cloudless day, blue sky, warm sunshine. I wore a sleeveless red sheath dress and a pair of sneakers. I had my shoes in a small paper shopping bag and my purse.
I boarded the bus at the corner as I had every morning, although I don’t remember being on it for long. Shortly after, the bus accidently tapped the back of the car in front of it and everyone had to get off. Naturally paperwork had to be filed. All I was thinking was ‘Oh great…now we’re all going to be late!’ - We all waited about 20 minutes for the next bus. It was pretty full and I ended up standing, thank goodness for the sneakers…
We crossed the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn fairly quickly, and from the BQE into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in no time. I thought to myself maybe I’d get to work on time after all…
As we approached the opening of the Tunnel into Manhattan, there was what I thought just some stop and go traffic, maybe because of a red light up ahead. Every now and then the bus would creep up just a bit. The minutes passed and it seemed like we weren’t moving at all. Finally we approached the opening of the Tunnel and I looked up. I wasn’t the only one that looked up but I think I was the only one that said that there were flames coming out of one of the Towers. I looked at my neighbor, who was sitting in the back of the bus, and repeated what I had said. ‘Flames?’ she asked me again. I said ‘Yes, flames’. I told her that it looked like the outline of a plane, that a plane must have accidentally crashed into it. And as I said the words my heart sank. I thought there was no way possible!
Around that time was when the bus driver opened the door and said that we could get out and walk if we wanted to. Traffic was just not moving at all and there were people walking just about everywhere. So I got off and walked a block or so with my neighbor. We, of course, talked about the ‘horrible accident’ and ‘how in the world could a plane have possibly gotten so close’ that it crashed into the building. I knew that obviously hundreds of people had lost their lives but thought about all those that maybe weren’t at the office yet and were saved…
She and I parted ways about 8:45 a.m. or so. She continued to walk up Broadway to catch her train and I walked towards South Street to the building that I was working in. I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard what sounded like the screeching sound of a jet plane. I remember ducking my head because it was so low. I remember the sound of the engine being so incredibly loud that it pierced my ears. Instinctively I covered my ears but the sound was too loud. I saw the shadow of a plane on the ground whiz by me where I was standing. I looked up in total disbelief. My eyes couldn’t have possibly been looking at what I thought I was looking at! It’s a plane…a commercial airline plane! It flew right over my head. Deep in my heart I knew that plane was too low! It’s going too fast…something’s not right! I was so scared that I froze. I just stood there, lifeless, motionless. I stood there frozen in time as I watched the horror that was about to unfold. It was as though I was watching it in slow motion. In my mind I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew what was going to happen and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it. Nothing.
The sound of the explosion was too much for me to handle. It was simultaneous with the sound of people screaming. I ran. Everyone was running. I don’t remember at all what street I was on. I think I just ran instinctively. I was in panic mode and all I knew was that I had to get away. I had my cell phone and I tried to call my sister at home. I called my boyfriend, his mother. I tried my ex-husband, someone, anyone. Dear God, why couldn’t I get through? What is going on? What is happening? I thought the end of the world was here…
It seemed like forever by the time I got through to someone. My ex-husband was the lucky recipient. It was intermittent. We called each other several times but could only get a few words in before losing signal. I was hysterical. He told me that we were under attack. I couldn’t fathom the idea. I didn’t understand. Attack? Why? Who the hell in their right mind is going to attack the United States for crying out loud?! Although I was obviously living it, I couldn’t understand us being under attack, and why in the name of all that is Holy, would ‘they’ attack my home? All I remember saying to him were my good-byes. I told him to tell our daughter, Alyssa, how much I love her. I felt in the pit of my soul that I wasn’t going to make it off the island of Manhattan alive. He wasn’t having any of that but it was all I could think, all I could feel. I couldn’t stop crying.
I ran to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal hoping to catch a boat. They had the doors to the piers locked and the Terminal filled up quickly with anyone wanting out of the City. There was no boat. I met up with a friend that I had worked with at Lehman Brothers the year prior. We exchanged stories and held on to each other tightly. We stood towards the middle of the Terminal but near one of the outside doors facing the Towers. People poured into the Terminal. My neighbor that was with me on the bus found me at the Terminal and desperately wanted to call her husband at home. At this point there just wasn’t any cell phone service. She told me she was going to the back of the Terminal to make her call home on a public phone. She asked me not to move and to please wait for her. I promised I would. Until the ground shook.
It was a horrendous sound that seemed to be coming from the ground directly beneath us. The lights in the Terminal blinked on and off and swayed back and forth. The whole Terminal seemed to shake violently. It shook so violently that my friend and I ended up outside the door we were standing near. There were more screams. Everyone quickly ran back in. I don’t remember anyone yelling anything about a building falling. Maybe someone did yell it. Maybe the fear in me shut that out, I don’t know. I just thought to myself ‘How ironic! Now we’re having an earthquake! God must hate New York!’…
Just moments after, the screaming and yelling seemed to get louder. There was an enormous plume of smoke coming toward us. I don’t think anyone really comprehended what was going on. We all thought that it was a bomb of some kind that had gone off. ‘They’ were bombing New York City and we were all going to die. We were all squeezing on top of each other. The people that were outside waiting for a boat were now desperately trying to get into the Terminal. It was mass chaos. The fear that was instilled in me was now multiplying. I don’t know how to swim! I just knew I was going to die. The people in the front were banging on the doors leading to the piers. There was a boat there now and everyone was pleading for them to open the doors and let us on the boat. When they finally did open the doors, everyone walked quickly in, there was no panic to get on. But it was too late.
The plume of smoke had enveloped us. The smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun. You couldn’t see anything in the distance. My eyes burned so bad I could hardly keep them open. And the smell of smoke from a fire…but it was a very distinct smell. Not like a regular fire. It’s hard to describe exactly what it smelled like. Yes, definitely something was burning but it almost smelled chemical-like. Not really like gasoline but certainly not typical fire-like.
People seemed to get quiet. No one was screaming anymore.
As we walked on to the Ferry, Ferry personnel handed out life preservers as a precaution. Rumor had it ‘they’ were going to bomb the waters of New York. I put the thing on over my head and just left it there. I knew my death was eminent. I couldn’t think anymore. I didn’t know what to feel. I kept looking back for my neighbor. Please Lord let her be ok. Let her make it on this boat.
I remember seeing a young woman fall to her knees the moment she got on. She was crying. Someone helped her up and she said that she had just left one of the Towers. She had an interview there earlier. That took me back to the times when I interviewed with Oppenheimer Funds and Cantor Fitzgerald. I interviewed with Oppenheimer four times and I just knew I had that job, only to get a call saying they decided to go with an internal applicant. I was crushed. And a year or so after Oppenheimer, Cantor hired me. But I had to turn it down because I needed to be there by seven in the morning. My daughter was too young for me to leave her alone. I gave up hope in ever getting a job at my favorite place in the world. And a flashback came to me on how my sister had been so upset just a couple weeks earlier. She had been let go of her job at Numora Securities. I thought of how had she been working that morning, there was no way in the world I would have been able to NOT run towards the Towers. I would never have been able to leave without her, never. Was this the will of God or mere coincidence?
Everything seemed surreal. None of this could possibly be happening. Not in MY city! Someone wake me from this never ending nightmare…please.
Seemed like we boarded very quickly. Next thing I knew the boat was moving. Shortly after we pulled away from the Terminal and the air seemed to be a little less dense, everyone looked out towards that infamous New York City skyline…sweet Jesus!!!! There was only one building left. I was horrified. My heart sank farther. We all watched in disbelief as it got smaller and smaller the farther we went across the water towards Staten Island. She stood tall despite all the black smoke pouring out…and the debris.
And then it happened. Right in front of us all. As we watched helplessly and hopelessly. She could stand no more. She was weakened with the heavy burden of that commercial airliner flying into her center core, at what seemed like the speed of light. She saw her sister fall and take countless along with her. No, the weight of that burden had become incomprehensible and she let go. We watched her fall to the ground as though an enormous hole had opened in the earth beneath her. In just a few short moments, she was gone. Now we all understood what the ‘earthquake’ was. We all knew what the plume that came at us was all about.
The sound of sirens was everywhere, coming from every direction. I was in a daze, shaking. I just wanted my daughter. I wanted to hide away with her because I was so scared. Rumor had it they were closing the Ferry, we were the last boat out of Manhattan. ‘What about all those people? What about the ones still running, the ones that didn’t make this boat?’, I thought to myself. ‘What about the people that live in Manhattan, the kids that go to school there?’ I couldn’t think anymore, I could only feel.
We disembarked in Staten Island and I walked to catch a bus. Not feeling very positive about another bus ride but I had to get to my daughter’s school. I had to sign her out early and get home. I needed to find out what was going on. People on the boat listening to walkman’s had said that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Was this the end of the world? I didn’t understand, how, why?
I don’t remember ever getting on the other bus, nor my ride home.
I just remember getting off and was immediately comforted by seeing my sister already standing at the school waiting for me. We held each other and cried and cried. She kept apologizing for sleeping in and not hearing the phone. She said that she finally heard it and got up to answer. It was my ex-husband telling her to put the TV on. After seeing what was unfolding, she decided to wait for me at the school.
We walked in to the school and I was surprised to see that it was almost empty. Parents had gone to pick up their kids. Mine was one of just a few children left. I could see the fear on her face, not knowing or understanding what was going on. She had questions that I didn’t have answers to, who is attacking us, why?
Time passed very slowly that day. I didn’t let my daughter out of my sight. We all ran out when my neighbor got home. We held each other and talked for a bit.
Life has never been the same. The City shut down for the rest of the week. Unheard of in the past. Everything had shut down. The constant sound of sirens was everywhere. As luck would have it, I didn’t live far from the water. You could see the skyline within walking distance. A few times that day you could hear what sounded like more bombs. It wasn’t bombs. It was other buildings falling. Seemed like more screams resonated and the horror was never ending.
The hours ticked by slowly, days passed. Went back to work about 2 weeks later. I was scared to death to go back into the City. The Military seemed to be everywhere you looked, on every corner holding shotguns, snipers on roofs. All transportation was rerouted. You were being screened just to get in the building where you worked. Life had been flipped upside down. My Towers were still burning. The smell of fire was still in the air.
I mourned. I mourned for the loss of the City as I had known it, I mourned for everyone that lost their lives, I just mourned. Although I didn’t personally know anyone that died as a result of this attack on our City, the loss I felt, and still continue to feel, is insurmountable nonetheless. I was always at the World Trade Center. I had been shopping there just a few days prior to 9/11, I had friends that worked at 3 WFC, I’d go there to shop, eat or catch a train. The Towers were a landmark symbol to me and all New Yorkers; I’d get out of the subway and always look up to see where I was and what direction I needed to go. Having to go back to work in the City was like losing a child, a parent or a spouse and having to relive their burial over and over, day after day. I take it as a personal loss. Someone took something from me that has permanently altered my life. Nothing will ever be the same. Ever.
My pride as a New Yorker will never be taken from me. Although unforeseen circumstances currently have me living in Florida, I’m still as passionate about New York as I ever was. I absolutely love it there and if I had it my way, I’d move back today. My experience here has shown me what we all already know, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere! Nothing like the ‘concrete jungle’…Nothing! I miss it the way anyone misses the loss of a loved one. I go back and it’s definitely a feeling of ‘something’s missing’. I revisit the ‘hallowed ground’ every time I go back ‘home’, just as I did when the Towers were there. Only now it’s not a happy feeling of contentment or fulfillment. It’s a feeling of laying pretty flowers over the grave of the one you lost.
Only a few people here know my story. Some have asked what I think of the whole Bin Laden thing. I don’t know what I think. I’m just numb. It’s not like anything is going to change. We can’t turn back the hands of time and give the City all of its parents, siblings, husbands, wives or children back. The Towers will never be reconstructed in the same fashion. Yes, I watched the news that day, like pretty much every American in the country. I think what bothered me the most was watching the people celebrating in the streets that we ‘finally got ‘em!’ They showed people celebrating in the streets throughout, a lot of young people. I couldn’t help but think to myself, what do they know? They weren’t there, they didn’t experience any of it. Most of them were probably much too young to even have been out of school, let alone working. I understand that maybe some of them have family overseas fighting because of 9/11 or worse yet, maybe they lost someone because of what Osama Bin Laden did to us. But I still didn’t find it worth ‘celebrating’.
Living so close to an air force base now is absolute torture for me. The sound of this Nations men and women coming and going on those Military jets still affects me. Even though I can see them, I KNOW what it is and what they’re doing, my heart still races, I breathe heavier, and I freeze. To this date, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and wait until I can’t hear the sound of those jets anymore, until the sound fades away the farther they get. It’s almost as though I still think I’m going to hear that horrifying explosion. I will never forget the night one of them flew by so low, it shook the windows of the house and woke me from my sleep. I was horrified and I screamed out over and over ‘It’s gonna hit!! It’s gonna hit.’ That sound still scares me in a way I cannot describe. It’s embedded in my personality. It’s become a part of who I am.