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It was the calmest of days. I heard about the first plane hitting the tower from my coffee cart guy, of all places. After making my daily walk across town from Port Authority to 46th and 3rd, I couldn’t help but notice all the commotion going on to my right, all the traffic and emergency vehicles speeding downtown. I saw smoke billowing into the air, but as it had just happened, it hadn’t been overwhelming –yet. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center,” he told me. I think he had a radio on in his cart. We probably both had assumed as most of us had, that it was probably a small Piper Cub or something. It wasn’t until I got up to my office that I found out what had really struck the tower. At that point, most of our 12-person department had gathered in my boss’ office to watch the carnage on her TV. Although we were only a couple of miles uptown, we felt both safe and completely vulnerable, all at the same time. Midtown, from a New Yorker’s point of view, is light-years away from the World Trade Center. But it’s really not so far in human distance. There was a bizarre feeling of helplessness and isolation that day. While we watched gathered in that office, this horror was going on so close that you could smell it. We watched the replays, over and over, sharing whatever stunned thoughts we may have had with each other. My wife was closer to the site – she was doing some freelance work in an office in the Chelsea Piers complex. She saw the second tower fall from where she was. They cleared out early. She went back to our Weehawken apartment instead of staying long. I was lucky enough to get through to my wife by phone, before the call was dropped, so we each knew we were safe. It took us at my agency longer to come to our senses and go home to our loved ones. We finally peeled ourselves away from the coverage and found ourselves faced with the now daunting task of crossing the Hudson River. The bridges and tunnels had naturally been closed – how do you leave town? The three Jersey people of our group left together; somehow we found out that they were using a makeshift ferry service to NJ. As we made our walk across town, we watched as others filed uptown, many covered with dust and ash. Everyone had the same faraway dazed look in their eyes. We were watching an exodus from Hell. No one said a word; none were sufficient. I don’t even know where we boarded the boats that day, nor do I remember what type of boat it was. I think it was some sort of Circle Line type of day cruiser. We sat on the top deck, the three of us among the hundred or two others who had merely followed the stream of people to these charity boats. As the ship launched from the docks, naturally, all of our eyes were fixated on lower Manhattan. One of the most striking things about it – and the entire journey past my office walls – was the silence. Apart from the sirens of emergency vehicles, the sound of the boat’s engine, and lap of the water against the hull, it was purely silent. The silence continued until we reached the Jersey side of the Hudson. From there, chaos reigned as everyone struggled to find which bus would take them closest to home. I had no such worry as the boats had docked less than a mile from my apartment. I helped my friends as best as I could to figure out where they should go, and then I began to walk home. Suddenly, I was actually alone for the first time since this started. The entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel was between where I was and where I had to go, and there was no one there. It had been closed to traffic, and there was no one else walking that way, somehow. So I found myself walking towards the Tunnel, on a typically congested thoroughfare, completely alone. It felt, quite appropriately, post-apocalyptic. I finally reached my apartment and my new wife. We had been married for less than a month when the attacks happened. We’d only been back from our honeymoon for about two weeks, probably less. I can’t imagine what we would have done had this been 9/01 rather than 9/11. The calls and emails, when they could get through, brought in the important news. Our friends and loved ones were accounted for. A friend couldn’t find a pair of shoes that she planned to wear that morning and was running really late for work in her office in the South Tower. The devil may wear Prada, but I think her angel wears Nine West. We found out later that my brother-in-law lost a friend in the collapse that day. Doug’s a strong man, a happy man, a positive man. Yet years later, at a holiday dinner, I saw this strong man fall apart as we briefly talked about that day. My experiences of that day were nothing. To thousands of others, they were everything. Now, my office is directly across the street from Ground Zero, this most hallowed of American ground. I can’t help but marvel at the sights around me every day. Not at this huge, gaping, national hole, but of the surviving neighborhood. It is unfathomable to me that my building – directly across the street from this carnage – is still standing. But here I sit, every day in my 12th floor office, amazed that this could have happened right here, that so many could have perished that day, for doing nothing than what I’m doing right now. I’m at work, and it’s the calmest of days.
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