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My 9/11 – A New Yorker’s Experience of the Day

By Matt Walker | September 11, 2011 | 0 Comment

Since it is now 10 years since the devastation of 9/11, I wanted to take some time and finally write down my memories from that day. I guess I think writing it down would help me preserve it for my kids if they were ever curious about where I was when they learn about the subject in school, as they grow older. I always believe that history is not a matter of fact, but a matter of opinion, so I’m hoping this can give them another perspective of the day.

I have been hearing a lot of people recount what they went through and realizing that being in Manhattan and experiencing it first hand is something a little more unique than I realized after all of these years. A lot of people want to claim ownership of the day because their experiences were so moving to their life, but I feel like it’s safe to say the impact definitely wasn’t the same for everyone. I know that what I went through was surreal and the sights and smells will be with me forever, but strangely, I think mentally it was a lot easier for me to cope with what happened than people far away as I was able to have some involvement and not feel so helpless.

My life circa 2001

In 2001, I was a happy go lucky 26-year-old living in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. I had lived there for about three years with my lifelong best friend Paul Volpicelli. Paul and I were like brothers and grew up right around the corner from each other in Mahopac, NY, which was about 60 miles north of New York City. I was your typical young twenty-something New Yorker thinking I was changing the world and going out on the town having fun and wasting money. I was working as an Art Director for a cool Internet shop down at the Seaport called Fry Multimedia, which was only about four blocks from the World Trade Center. In fact my main client was the New York Mercantile Exchange — which was located in the Trade Center. Everyday, I would walk from the Seaport on the west side of Manhattan over through The Mall at the World Trade Center to the East Side and go to the Mercantile Exchange on the Hudson River. I believe I was supposed to go through the Trade Center again that day as part of our regular meetings.

Working next to the Seaport in 2001, I was only a few blocks from the Trade Center.

I remember waking up that day and being dreadfully sick. I was dating my now-wife Erica at the time and I remember getting sick a lot when we first met. Erica was a spunky new teacher in a really tough part of the Bronx and I remember her giving me all the typical sicknesses a teacher gets from their young students back then. Without getting too graphic (and I definitely could), let’s just say I had a stomach flu that kept me confined to the bathroom. Because I was having such a rough morning, I was probably about 30-45 minutes later than normal getting my commute started that day.

My typical morning routine back then was to pick up the Daily News at the Candy Shop in our building, walk from my apartment down the hill to this HUGE staircase that would take me from the first stop on the 1/9 Subway Train to one of the last stops down on Fulton Street at the bottom of the Island of Manhattan. Essentially I was going from the farthest stop north on the subway to the furthest spot south in Manhattan, which would take roughly an hour door to door. For some reason I remember the Subway platform being much less busier than usual as far as passengers went that day. I also remember looking down the horizon where you could normally see the tiny towers in the distance and seeing something off, but not thinking too much about it.

I got in the train and started reading my sports section as usual. After a few stops in the Bronx, the subway would go underground for the rest of the trip so I wasn’t really paying attention to anything, and back then there was no Twitter or WIFI, so once I got on that train, I was pretty secluded until I got to work. When we were in the midtown area of Manhattan I remember vividly an announcement coming over the Subway PA system. “Due to a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, this train will stop running at 34th street, next stop is the last stop”. I was taken surprised, but back then, you were always ready for something crazy during your morning commute. As I was trying to make sense of it, I looked up at this slightly older Black woman in a nurses uniform and her and I locked eyes and said to each other at the same time “what?”

As we looked at each other for a few seconds a younger seemingly college age girl said naively, “Yeah, some guy in a passenger plane accidently flew into one of the buildings or something…”

The nurse and I paused trying to take in what the girl just said, and then we both just looked at each other in total silence with the same look which said “something’s not right…there is a lot more to this story.” When the train stopped at 34th street, I really had no way of knowing anything. As I said earlier, commuting to the city on public transportation was always one terrible disaster after another. Walking out of the subway station at that point just seemed like another hurdle in the ever-challenging life of a New Yorker. When I walked out of the Subway however, little did I know the world that I knew would forever be changed.

 

A Whole New World

When I walked out of the Subway, I was in a very familiar spot. I was right on 7th avenue across from Madison Square Garden right against the wall of the world famous Macy’s building, just a few blocks from FIT, the college I went to and was the Student Body President of. What was very unfamiliar was the first thing I saw when I got out of the subway was an F-14 fighter plane flying across the sky. In that very instant I knew that everything changed and for some reason, I thought we were at war.

I reached for my phone immediately, but realized there was absolutely no service whatsoever. I was a little thrown off as to what to do, but being a quick thinking New Yorker, I looked at Madison Square Garden where I used to work at Gerry Cosby’s sports store throughout college and that I should just head over there and see if I could use a phone. When I got to Cosby’s I right away felt at home seeing Rick and Matt behind the counters of the store in the same spots they had been for years. They welcomed me right away, but seemed as confused as I was as to what was going on. All they knew at that point was that a plane hit the first Tower and it was on fire. I asked if I could use the phone to call work to tell them I would be late, but I would make it there eventually. I never understood how I thought I was going to still work that day, but at that point I was just reacting normally to the idea of, “there has been a problem, we will get through it, and we will still get our work done” mentality we always had in New York.

Going into Gerry Cosby’s was like finding a port in the storm for me.

I called down to work, which was only four blocks from the Trade Center, and our HR person at Fry, Alexis Kruel, answered the phone. It was weird because I think Alexis was as in denial at the time as I was. I told her I was having trouble getting in, and she really understood as if this was a normal occurrence, but then suddenly out of nowhere I just said, “wait… what are you doing there?” Alexis thought for a second and then said “Do you think we should leave?” and I said, “yeah, Alexis, get the f— out of there right now”. She agreed and hung up the phone and had whoever was in the office get out there.

When I got off the phone, I didn’t really know what to do next. I had nowhere to go and because I took care of work, I had nowhere to be. I still didn’t have any idea of what was going on, so it never occurred to me that I should call and talk to anyone to let them know I was ok. All I knew was that I was running late to work, called and got out of work, and was free for the rest of the day. Never in a million years did I think that because I worked four blocks away people were worried about because of what had happened. For whatever reason, maybe denial, I forgot that I even worked so close and people connected that part of the city with me.

As I was standing in the middle of Gerry Cosby’s not really knowing what to do with myself, the door to the back of the store swings open and my old buddy Rob just barks out to the store “THE SOUTH TOWER IS DOWN!” At first I had no idea what he meant. “What does he mean South Tower? Down where?” I thought to myself. I looked at him and said, “What do you mean down?” Rob replied, ”It fell. It’s down.” After a second or two to process what he said, I just left the store and got to 7th avenue and looked downtown. The building was gone. It looked like a scene out of Thundarr the Barbarian when I was kid. Thundarr was an apocalyptic cartoon set in the future where it was supposed to be shocking to see famous American monuments all being destroyed and just lying around the landscape. That’s what this felt like, it was completely shocking and like something out of a dream.

After I saw that, I just started walking. I wasn’t really sure where the hell I was going to be honest; I just started moving somewhere else. As I started to make my way from 7th avenue to 6th avenue around 31st street was about half way down the block when the people around me just started to run to 6th avenue. So for some reason, I started running too. When I got there people were just standing in the middle of the street of Herald Square looking downtown. I turned to look downtown myself and the second tower was just collapsing. The building looked like the earth itself was swallowing it up. It was surreal, indescribable. I just gasped and tears just started rolling down my face. It was like in slow motion and I will see it in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life. As it fell, there was just complete silence. To be standing in the busiest city in the world in one of the busiest intersections of the world, Herald Square, and to be in complete silence was almost deafening, all you could hear was crying.

It was once thing to lose one building, that could be fixed, but for my entire life these huge structures had always been a part of my periphery whenever I walked around the city. It wasn’t a building, it WAS the city. You could see it from everywhere. From Brooklyn, from Jersey, from Long Island, from my apartment 15 miles north in the Bronx… Also, what did this mean? Those of us standing in the middle of the street had no idea what was going on. We weren’t in front of our TVs this morning. We weren’t following this story as it played out on live television. We were just reacting to something that was happening right before our eyes.

When I passed Father Mike’s Church, he was already gone.

As I stood there I felt more hopeless than I have ever felt in my life. I couldn’t make sense of what I just saw, the smell that permeated the air or the jets that were circling the island. What was I supposed to do now? I really had no answers, so I did the same thing I did a few minutes before, I started walking. For some reason, I headed towards the Hudson to be near the water. I always have this weird instinct to go the shore in times of trouble as if I could just jump in the water or something to be safe. I was never really sure why I felt that way, but that’s what I started to do. As I started on my journey west, I passed by my old parish from College St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. I stopped for a second and thought; I should go in there. My cousin Mike’s closest friend was Father Mychal Judge who had become sort of our family priest back then. Father Mike and I weren’t super close, but I always liked and respected him and he had a painting of mine hanging in the rectory, so I always had a soft spot for him and thought he would be great to hang out with at a time like this. When I crossed the street to go inside, I realized I was at the back of the normal entrance and I would probably have to walk all the way around to the other side of the block to get in. When I realized the extra effort need, I thought to myself “you know what? I bet he is swamped right now with parishioners going in there, I’ll just run into him another time.” (Little did I know that at that point, Father Mike was already dead. Father Mike was a Chaplain for the New York City Fire Department and when he was giving last rights to the injured lying on the ground, he was struck with a piece of debris and killed. He was the first official fatality from that day. I always wondered what stopped me from going in the church that day.)

So as I proceeded west towards the Hudson, I started getting very angry. I tried to make some sense out of what I just saw and more importantly what was actually happening. Were we at war now? The fighter jet circling the island certainly felt like we were. What could I do? Should I try to get off the island and regroup with the others so I could join the fight? This seems funny to think like this now, but at the time that’s all I could think of. I kept thinking of my future father-in-law Felix and how I would have to tell him that as much as I loved his daughter, I needed to leave and join the fight. Again, I know how this sounds now, but all I could think of was regrouping and fighting back. It must have been how people felt after Pearl Harbor, because it just seemed like we got hit. Now it was time to stand up and hit back.

As I kept walking west it was like something out of a movie. There were just lines of people walking in single file towards the river silently and it a defeated synchronized fashion. There were small packs of people huddled around radios here or there trying to hear what was going on. Were we being invaded? Were there more planes coming? We kept hearing that there were more planes on the way. Was this a full-scale attack that just started?

I vividly remember stopping in a doorway with a random grouping of people and listening to a radio broadcast. It actually made me chuckle for a moment because I took a second to realize who I was hanging out with and it looked like some corny casting out of a movie. It was me, a black man, a Hasidic man and an over the top alternately dressed gay man all standing in unison like a hands across America poster. For a brief second I thought about movies like Independence Day where everyone put aside their differences for a greater cause and it was exactly like that.

When I realized there wasn’t a lot they could tell me on the news at this point, I kept going west. I remember when I got to the Javits Center it occurred to me that I was walking along side of it and they could literally blow it up at any moment. It wasn’t exactly the World Trade Center, but it was definitely a public monument that could be a smaller target. I walked across the street just to be safe and finally made it to the West Side highway. When I got to the highway it was striking how empty it was. The streets all across Manhattan were empty which was very surreal to me, but to see this highway that I spent many hours stuck in traffic on completely empty just underscored the gravity of what was going on. Every few minutes you would see emergency vehicles just flying downtown towards the Trade Center with their lights blaring, but for the most part it was pretty empty.

The other thing that I was realizing was the amount of people getting on line around the Intrepid to get ferries over to New Jersey. The subways were closed, but the ferries were in full force. I was thinking about how the poor Bronx was always forgotten and no one was worried about getting people up there because there was nothing going north that I knew of. For a moment I considered going to Jersey, because I was thinking I could get back on the mainland so to speak, but it was becoming more apparent that people were just trying to get home and be safe at this point rather than joining some rebel force :).

With that I decided to just start walking north and taking the long journey up the West Side highway to the Bronx. It would be at least 10 miles, but I didn’t see any other way. As I started to get to the part of the West Side Highway were the ramp begins and it starts to become a highway, I just thought screw it, I was going to hitch hike north. I always knew how dangerous that was, but at the time, I didn’t think it could be any worse than either getting hit by a car or heck even a plane possibly. So even though there weren’t a ton of cars, there were a few here or there and I just kept walking backward like they did the movies and threw my thumb up for a ride.

Walking up the West Side wouldn’t have been a great experience

It wasn’t very long before this really beat up gold minivan came flying over and stopped to give me a lift. I asked them for a ride anywhere north and they said hop in. It was 2 Spanish guys driving what seemed to be a beat up work truck. One of the men only spoke Spanish and the other spoke somewhat broken English. When I jumped in the backseat, which was a total mess, I realized that the bench seat wasn’t actually screwed into the floor of the car. There was a huge piece of sheet rock leaning against the back of the seat and tools and supplies all over the floor without a lot of space to even put my feet down. As they took off up the highway, I started to get a little nervous, because they were really speeding and driving erratically. They were cutting off cars left and right and the entire time I am sliding all around the back of the van with this huge piece of sheet rock leaning against my shoulders and the back of my head. As we started to get closer to the George Washington Bridge the traffic started to build up and it looked like we were going to get stuck. I was having a hard time discerning what the drivers were saying because the one man who spoke English was going back and forth between the two languages and I didn’t know if he was talking to me or about me. Right before we came to a stop in the middle of the highway, the driver yanked the wheel and took the nearest exit. We flew down the off ramp somewhere up in Harlem and as we got off the driver pulled off to what looked like an abandoned gas station and turned to me and said, “You got any money?” As soon as he said that, my blood went cold. In the middle of all of the excitement I had totally threw caution to the wind but this made me think right away, “oh crap… they are going to mug me or maybe even kill me”. For the first time that day, I felt personally threatened and I didn’t know what was going to happen. “I don’t have any cash,” I said. “I’m sorry I only have a debit card”. The driver responded, “That’s ok. You go inside and give the gas station that, but you are going to fill us up” I was really nervous at that point. I wasn’t in a good part of town either. They could have done anything to me at that point and I don’t think anyone would have noticed or care. I was pretty vulnerable. I paid for the gas inside and I filled up the care. The man said, “Get in” after I was done. I thought about just going on alone, but at that point I wasn’t any more comfortable in the neighborhood as I was with these two guys who picked me up. Realizing that my options were pretty limited I jumped back in the car and hoped for the best.

When we left the gas station the driver decided to take back streets to get us north. We started going really fast and erratic again as I slid all around the back with my sheetrock and building supplies holding on to my unsecured bench for dear life. We were covering good ground until we turned right to get over to the east side. We were on a major cross street, but the cars were all at a standstill. Just when I thought I had a moment to relax after all of the sliding around, the driver jerks the wheel across the double yellow line and proceeds to drive against the oncoming traffic. I must admit, I really didn’t see that one coming at all. Cars were coming at us and then swerving out of the way as we barreled our way through all the way to the east side. It was shocking to say the least, but I must admit, I sort of appreciated the driver’s mentality in light of the situation that we were going to get the hell off this island. As we finally got towards the little bridge that would get us off Manhattan and into the Bronx we could see that they had a small barricade with 2 police cars and 2 officers that weren’t going to let anyone off or on the island. After everything we had been through to this point, it was sort of defeating to come so far and fail. Apparently my driver felt the same way because just as we were slowing down in front of the barricade only feet from our finish line, he just says in broken English “we’re going through” and hits the gas!

When I saw Yankee Stadium, I knew I was almost home.

When the two officers saw us lunge towards them they threw up their hands and yelled, “Stop!” and then the two of them ran out of the way. There was just enough space between the two cop cars for a single car to get through and that exactly what we did. They must have been under strict orders to secure that bridge, because when we charged at them I closed my eyes and covered my head in sort of a fetal position bracing for the worst thinking that as soon as we crossed, the sirens would start blazing and we were going to jail. However, once we crossed and I opened my eyes, I realized no one was coming after us, we made it! It was like a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard where we took on the law, and won. Once we crossed into the Bronx it was like a huge weight was off my shoulders, it felt like we were finally safe. It was strange but I remember thinking what a beautiful day it was weather wise as we made our way up the highway. We headed north on the Major Deegan past Yankee Stadium and then my new saviors dropped my off on the side of the highway at the 239th street exit in Riverdale just feet from where my journey began at the 1/9 Subway station by my house. As I made my way to the big staircase to go to my apartment I checked my phone and saw I still had no signal. I still hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would be looking for me, because even though I saw a lot that day, the day itself really had nothing to do with me as far as I could tell at the time. I also remember being surprised that I was already home and it was only 11:30ish, so all of this had happened in a relatively short period of time.

When I got into my apartment, I turned on the television to see what was going on. I saw a little bit, but then just like that I passed out on my bed. I slept for like three or four hours to wake up to a phone call from my roommate’s cousin Melissa. I had known Melissa for years and always was friends with her, but we didn’t ever talk on the phone, so when she called to check up on me because she was worried, it occurred to me that people probably wanted to know where the hell I was. The phones were in tough shape so even Melissa just getting in touch with me was a stroke of luck. I was able to call home and let my parents know what was going on and locate where all of my loved ones were. Later that day Erica and I found out her dad Felix couldn’t locate his brother who was supposed to be at the Trade Center that day. We spent the next few hours trying to locate his brother Peter and make sure he was still alive. There was probably about an hour or so where we thought he didn’t make it. I remember so vividly when we found out he didn’t go down that day that I grabbed him and hugged him as hard as I could. That was probably one of the closest moments I would ever share with my father-in-law.

As time had gone on I started to learn that my cousin Danny the firefighter was in the tower as it fell, but thankfully made it out alive. I learned Danny Suhr; the fireman who took me under his wing when we played for the Brooklyn Mariner football team had been one of the first firefighters not to make it that day. I would learn about Father Mike passing away and all of my cop and firefighter family members who would spend the next few weeks digging out the bodies of their friends and fallen brothers. I would learn of one of my heroes, my cousin John Sloan who was a New York City cop who would spend his whole shift at Ground Zero, then immediately go change into his National Guard uniform and start his second shift right after that (later John would be part of the first group of men deployed in Iraq). I would learn of my Aunt Joan’s best friend Regina who was like a member of our family herself, losing her son, firefighter James Coyle. I would go down to our old office only days later and join my co-workers loading our computers and files on New York City buses to our new temporary offices in Midtown.

Life was never the same after that day. My one-hour commute would later turn into sometimes two-and-a-half hour commute. The city I grew up loving and wanting to live changed for me after that. I would spend my next few years trying to find a life outside of the city. To this day I still can’t see a low flying plane without getting the chills. The smell of burning buildings and who knows what else that filled the air around our offices next to Ground Zero for so long after that will always stick in my mind. Having to work and walk pass Ground Zero and see them demolish parts of it in the weeks and months that followed was really tough. My best hope is that all of the events from that day are behind us. I hope to never know a catastrophe like that in my lifetime. Hopefully this story will seem as surreal, absurd and unthinkable to my children when they read it as it was to me as I was seeing it unfold before me.

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