It was an otherwise innocuous morning. I was taking my slow sweet time waking up and getting ready for college classes. Shortly before 9 a.m. on that infamous day in September, the subtlest shift in the universe took place, small enough to be ignored by most people, but felt by many New Yorkers. The hair on my neck stood on edge, something didn't feel right.
I turned on the TV and the news was reporting that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. An image of a long plume of black smoke rose from the tower and stood in sharp contrast to the otherwise clear, blue September morning. Something didn't feel right.
Sure enough, not long after another plane hit the other tower.
This wasn't just a freak accident. Things like that didn't happen. The date spelled out our emergency number, 911. Was this the beginning of an all-out attack on my city?
I panicked. My heart leapt into my throat as I sifted through the incredibly confusing and terrifying events unfolding before I had my first cup of coffee.
I tried to call my mom but the phones weren't working. She was an HR executive scheduled to have a meeting at the World Trade Center one morning that week, only I couldn't remember which day it was on. I tried calling my girlfriend, but couldn't get through to her either. She worked at the United Nations and I feared her building could be targeted next. I wanted to pull my hair out and scream, but all I could do was sit, comatose in front of the news in my pajamas, and watch the loop play of the towers spitting out smoke, people covered in ash running, my city turned into a war zone.
Like a nightmare come true, the towers soon collapsed, one after another, and with them, the perfectly unassuming people inside of them, moms and grandpas and sisters and sons, all just starting another day at work, completely unaware they would be victim to the ugliest attack on America in our nation's history.
I'm a native New Yorker, born and raised. I moved from Queens to Manhattan for college and then moved back to Queens after graduation. The city was the best playground a teenager could ask for, especially in the years before 9/11 and hyper-gentrification when the East Village was still scraggly and Williamsburg was a mess of factories and dive bars with hardly any foot traffic. I spent summers on the Christopher Street Piers with inner city queer youth and loved walking through the city's empty streets in the wee hours of the morning (still my night).
I didn't know what was happening on those first few hours, as I imagine many others felt as well. I finally got through to my mom and girlfriend later that day and confirmed that they were OK; my mom's meeting was scheduled for later that week. I had never wanted to just hug my mom so badly (coming from the 19-year old who was previously embarrassed just walking on the same block as my parents).
The trains and buses and nearly all transportation had been shut down so I couldn't easily travel to see anyone. I spoke with a close friend who had been at a job training down the street from the World Trade Center when the first building collapsed, and ran with thousands of others in a herd across the Brooklyn Bridge. She didn't realize until after many hours of walking later when she got home that she was covered from head to toe in dust from the building. Another friend relayed that he watched body parts fall in front of his building as he watched in horror from his balcony in close proximity to the towers. My cousin was evacuated that day from his apartment near Ground Zero, and was never allowed to return.
A handful of days later, still in complete shock, I decided I needed to see the aftermath up close. Perhaps it would bring some closure, some understanding to what still seemed like a weird nightmare. I took the now-defunct 9 train to Christopher Street and walked all the way West to the Hudson River, some blocks north of Ground Zero.
The streets I spent many happy adolescent nights on were now covered in layers of soot made of building parts and charred people, turned over to emergency vehicles and pain and sorrow.
I walked slowly south along the water, the streets empty, a lump in my throat dreading what I might see, but also intensely needing to feel connected in some way to the tragedy, to understand it in a way that I imagine many New Yorkers wanted to make sense of something so seemingly senseless.
I was able to get within a block before police barricades blocked my path. The wreckage was a nine-story high pile of mangled metal that took up a full city block. It was still smoldering days after the attack, a single plume of dark smoke rising off the pile and into the air like a nefarious snake making its way out of the crime scene.
I stared at the charred rubble and the emergency workers scrambling, holding out hope that someone might still be alive.
I remember the hospitals were all on emergency alert that day, including my mom's facility in the Bronx. Friends were calling to see if they could help – to donate blood, to volunteer to help with intake, to serve food, etc. But no patients arrived. Everyone in those buildings perished.
I heard many stories from people about how their friend or family member was in the building and perished. Every firehouse in the city had a memorial wreath and a story of a fallen colleague. The haunting flyers of missing relatives clung to fences around the city for weeks and even months after, slowly fading as time marched on and we tried to pick up the pieces and go back to our daily lives. There were also so many miraculous stories of the mom who was late for work that day, or the uncle who called in sick last minute and their lives were spared. There were so many stories of people who helped to save others, calm others during the last moments of their lives.
But nothing could change the gaping hole in our hearts that matched the hole where the towers stood. And the gargantuan question "why?" lingered on our tongues. New York is home to acceptance and diversity. Why put a mark on our heads? My city is the most fascinating living, breathing organism in not only our country but possibly the world. I've traveled to London and Paris, Dubai and Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and plenty of places in between, and I've not been anywhere that has the diversity that New York City does. Arabs and Jews bump knees on the F train; Wall Street executives and homeless people hold onto the same subway pole; and a ride on the 7 train in Queens takes you through dozens of countries where hundreds of languages are spoken.
It wasn't until I was crossing the street outside of Port Authority on 42nd Street in Manhattan some days later that I got the sign I was looking for. A Pakistani cab driver nearly side-swiped a Chinese man who was crossing the street. The Chinese man started cursing at the cab driver and the cab driver started cursing right back at the man. It was in that moment I knew everything would be all right. New York would not lie down and roll over. We were tough and resilient and would never pass up an opportunity to yell at someone, regardless of who they were.