By Margaret Mulvihill
I have never written anything about Nine Eleven. In the beginning it was too raw to talk about it, and too raw to think about it. For at least the first few years after it happened, those of us who lost friends there could barely speak of it. To write about it would have felt like a betrayal. Although fifteen years have passed since the East Coast of the United States was attacked by Saudi Arabian terrorists, it will always be yesterday to me. As the weeks went by after that awful, terrible act of war against us, the reality set in that we had all lost friends and we had all lost colleagues that day. The loss of FDNY and NYPD personnel was staggering in its scale. Those losses became a source of great anger as news filtered out that Rudy Giuliani, then Mayor of New York City, had set up his emergency management headquarters in the towers. How many more died that day because of that decision?
September 11, 2001
That Tuesday morning started off just like any other day in our apartment. There were four of us living there, on Riverside Drive in the shadow of The Cloisters. As usual we were all rushing to get ready for work and for school. Ed was working downtown at Chase, I was on Sixth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets at Allianz. My younger son Kevin was attending Borough of Manhattan Community College downtown, while my younger daughter Elizabeth was attending Park West Montessori at Central Park West and 103rd Street.
Ed, Elizabeth, and I were out first, getting a taxi down to 103rd Street. All the usual squabbles and complaints about traffic. Arguing about whether to go down Riverside Drive or down the West Side Highway. Once Elizabeth had been handed over and settled in, Ed and I hopped on the C train. I got off at Seventh Avenue to walk to my office, and he continued on to the World Trade Center stop where he would have a short walk over to Chase Plaza, at Liberty Street.
A brisk walk in beautiful, crisp weather got me to Allianz. Temps were in the 60s, a bright, cloudless day. The light was perfect. Stepping off the elevator on the 50th floor, the first person I saw was our lovely receptionist, Vanessa. She had a radio, and told me that a small plane had accidentally crashed into one of the two World Trade Center towers.
I continued up to my desk and my colleague Howard confirmed what Vanessa had said. We didn’t think twice. We went up to the roof.
It was around 9:00 AM now. We were looking at all the smoke and debris falling from the tower, when suddenly there seemed to be a huge fireball or burst of flames from behind the towers. We thought a sudden fire had broken out, but it was puzzling and it was intense. One of our security personnel, Juan, came and got us off the roof, and when we got down to the 50th floor again we learned that the fireball had been a second plane crashing into the towers. It was a terror attack, an act of war.
The rest of that day was a blur of frantic activity in a vacuum. Phone lines were out, the subway stopped running. All bridges and tunnels were closed to incoming traffic. Only those of us with Blackberry’s were able to communicate at all, with anybody.
I didn’t know if Ed had made it out of the subway. I didn’t know if Kevin was trapped on a train. I only knew that four-year old Elizabeth was safe at school.
We had a few senior staff members visiting from Germany. They were very anxious to get out of New York. A few of them managed to get taxis and car service limousines to out-lying airports where they were able to rent cars and get out of New York State. Others tried to work through it, but that was difficult given that only people with Blackberry’s were able to reach the outside world.
Many of our colleagues wanted to leave and start out for home, but the building was on lockdown, with the elevators at a standstill. Several hours later, we were advised it was safe to leave the building. We were free to start heading home. An unwelcome long walk in high heels and a tight skirt loomed, all the way from West 57th Street to 103rd Street, but there was no choice. Exiting the building I met a colleague who told me that the uptown trains had just started running again with limited service, and within Manhattan only.
I thought that was worth checking out, and sure enough, after a wait, I squeezed myself onto an incoming C train. At no point before that or since then have I ever been sardined into a train car like that! There must have been hundreds of stressed-out people on that car. The smell of body odor and worse was overwhelming.
Just as I was pushing through people to get off at 103rd street to pick Elizabeth up from her Montessori school, there she was climbing on! Boarding the train through the same door I was exiting. Ed had walked from the World Trade Center to 103rd Street to collect her. What were the odds of that happening? In New York. Ever. We barely spoke all the way home, the train was so noisy and over-crowded. And what could we have said anyway?
We continued on to 200th/Dyckman Street, and walked the last few blocks home. I was very relieved to find Kevin safe and sound, he had not had any classes that morning, and had watched the events of the day unfold on television. Over dinner we heard Ed’s story, told here in my words.
After I got off the train at Seventh Avenue that morning, Ed continued on to the World Trade Center stop. At the time, he was working for Chase Manhattan Bank over on Chase Plaza on Liberty Street. He didn’t get that far though. As he exited the train station, people were already pushing back to return uptown. The second plane had hit, people were jumping from the World Trade Center towers. The upper floors of the towers were on fire.
He got carried along in the crowd. The fire was engulfing the towers, and was fully engaged at this point. A huge black cloud was now rolling down the street. Everybody turned and ran, including Ed, all trying to outrun the black cloud. There was terrible confusion. Ed ran and walked to 14th Street, but the trains had stopped running.
He continued walking and stopping at various subway stations to check if they were running yet. They were not, so he continued the long walk uptown. When he got to my building on Sixth Avenue, the building security wouldn’t let him in at first because he was covered in soot and dust. We now know that the dust contained the cremains of pulverized victims. Security could not call upstairs to Allianz, as the building had lost all power, including communications. The elevators of course, were not operable and the building was under a heightened terror alert until we knew what was happening. The confusion was deeper because Fisher Brothers, who owned the building, had their own security at the front desk, and all the tenant companies had their own security staff as well. There were many layers of red tape to work through before even the simplest decision could be reached.
Ed walked across to Times Square and bought a tee-shirt and shorts, socks and sandals. He walked up to the fountain at Central Park and washed up, then continued on to 103rd Street to collect Elizabeth. She was one of the last students still at the school. The office had been calling all the parents since early morning to make sure that they were ok. As soon as parents were able to, they came and picked up their children.
Ed and Elizabeth waited a while for a taxi, eventually giving up and going underground to get the subway. They had not been waiting long when my train came along. That entire evening was spent calling or trying to call friends and colleagues to make sure all were safe. The following morning was, if even possible, almost worse than the day before. As I left my building, I saw the darkness in the sky to the south. I heard the sounds of an eerie silence. No traffic. Nothing. A lone firetruck passed me by, full of grim-faced firefighters headed towards the West Side Highway, destination World Trade Center.