Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11- My Story

I have long battled with the idea of writing about my experience on 9/11/01. I always found what happened to me so inconsequential compared to the larger scale loss of life and destruction. Daughters lost fathers, mothers lost sons. How does my experience possibly measure up? I was just a guy who happened to make his living just yards away from the most recognizable man-made landmarks in the world. The fact that nine years has passed has allowed ample time for my thoughts to cohere and make sense even to me. I know this is a blog dedicated to news and politics. This is not politics but it is my story, and to warn you it's a long post so read it if you wish.

I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday (Cheerios?) but I could tell you with detail the happenings of that day from the minute I left my house to get the train in Middletown,NJ to the minute I got home that night around 9:30pm. It was a beautiful clear crisp morning in the suburbs, one of those mornings that follows a warm day with a chilly night up here in the Northeast. A little dew on the grass and on the windshield of my black 1997 GMC SUV was there and I knew Fall was right around the corner. That and the Monday Night Football (Denver vs Giants) game I had watched the night before confirmed it. For people who know me, Summer is my favorite season around here and those first glimpses of Fall remind me it's over. Other personal things at the time were on my mind so I wasn't particularly excited to go to work. My attempt to branch out on my own as a market maker on the floor of the American Stock Exchange, where I had spent the previous four years, was starting to flounder and I was taking larger risks than I was used to making. When things are good you don't mind taking those risks because you know that is part of the deal and you know you'll make it up. When your confidence is lagging a little and you start to doubt your analytical ability to make good decisions is precisely the time you get your clock cleaned. That only turned into paralysis by the time the floor reopened for business at the end of September.

So I did the daily grind, taking pretty much the same train in everyday. Leaving my house around 7:15am to get to office at 8:45-8:50 and then be on the floor by opening bell 9:30am. Rode the NJ Transit train into Newark Penn for the switch to the PATH which took me to the WTC virtually every morning for those four years. Newark Penn was the usual crowded mess at that time in the morning, you basically jam up into these little groups of people, your spot on the PATH platform hoping to be exactly where the doors of the stopped train will eventually open. Sometimes you don't get a seat, you stand in that spot as people whizz by you so you can sit on the next train that pulls up and maybe take a cat nap on the ride in. That was my preferred tactic, trains came every 2-3 minutes, that wouldn't make or break my time in plus I wasn't punching a clock. So I get on my train and proceed to sleep for the next 20 minutes (odd simulation of that exact ride i found when searching for an old PATH map) only to be awaken by the screeching brakes as it pulls into the WTC on the usual hard left it would make pulling to the platform. Checked my reads 8:45, right on my schedule, take the 3-4 minute walk to 2 Rector St. and I'm there at 8:50.

As I am filing out of the train though I start hearing a blaring fire alarm from the deli (Akbar's Cafe I believe was the name) that's stationed just one floor up from the PATH platform. My thought was 'poor guy just had that place completely re-done and it's on fire already?' Made my way up the large bank of escalators to the Concourse shopping mall level and that is where it became strange. Dropped coffee cups all over the floor and people were kind of scattering straight to the exits. That is when a plainclothes PA Officer told me to "Get the hell out", sometimes I think to myself if that man followed his own advice. Crazy to think but I just walked out of there, no running no panic since i had no clue. Went through the usual set of doors between 4 WTC and the South Tower (2 WTC) I walked out of almost everyday to make my way to Greenwich Street. That's when it became even stranger, glass was all around me and I was actually feeling things hit my head. Nothing heavy mind you, but it made me look up immediately and that's when I saw the smoking hole in the side of the North Tower. People were starting to gather and just stare upwards so I asked someone on the street, "What happened?", the response "A plane crashed into it". I felt at that moment 'what a terrible tragedy', just looking up at the smoke and fire you knew people were not making it out alive and my sentiment was that it was a terrible accident. Flaming papers and other debris at this time are hitting the street and the first police and fire were starting to arrive asking me to keep moving down the street. I walked down Greenwich and watched the guys at Ladder 10 right there on the corner of Liberty and Greenwich packing up their stuff and getting ready for the call.

I got into my office just before 9:00am and CNBC is already covering what they are terming a terrible accident. No one knew exactly what happened. My desk next to the open 5th floor window faced west but just looking down Greenwich Street you had a clear look the block and a half down to the WTC. Sitting there with my clerk watching people on the street staring up at the fire wondering why they were still there "Didn't they have to get to work?", he responds "What's that sound?". We could hear the high pitched roar only a commercial airliner makes, looked west and saw the plane explode upon impact of the South Tower. The sounds and being able to feel the heat of the explosion are still with me. Now we know we are under attack and security in our building is asking everyone to evacuate. I comply but as I gather outside with some fellow AMEX members I learn that subways are closed and train service stopped to New Jersey. I am now in it for the long haul it seems. I grab a coffee to go at George's Diner, corner of Rector and Greenwich. Me and 3 or 4 of us are outside now one block further east on Trinity and Rector trying to figure out how to get back to NJ. Word is, if we can get uptown to 38th St they were running ferry service out.

The problem is that in the middle of that conversation, I heard the loudest sound I had ever heard and felt the earth rumble just a little. People were running at us screaming,I grabbed my briefcase and ran not knowing what i was running from. Took one look north and this cloud is about to overtake me. At this point I get separated from my friends and kept running east towards Broadway, but it didn't matter I couldn't see a damn thing. I put the bag over my mouth since i took one inhale of the dust and it completely dried me out, wanted to try and shield myself from it. This is where it got scary, couldn't see but could hear people crying and screaming. I also was convinced along with some of these people that something was going to fall on me and I would die. I somehow found myself to an office lobby that was actually open and people were filing in. We were all covered in dust, soot, and whatever the hell else it was. I just remember sitting on the floor of the lobby staring in space holding my briefcase not understanding what had just happened. The security guards in this building (would later find out it was 55 Broadway) were extremely helpful, one brought me a little paper cup filled with water. I took it and washed my mouth clean.

The security guards were not sure what to do with us, would it be better to herd everyone downstairs? Was another attack coming? No one knew what to do. They eventually took us upstairs to a big conference room that was setup for a conference later that day. That floor also had a bathroom we could use, thankfully. Oddly my only desire at that time was to wash my face and clean up. Used it and went to the conference room to get more water, that is when i received my first panicked phone call. It was my friend Cheryl in Baltimore, she got through somehow and we spoke for probably 20 seconds before the phone cut out. But I was glad that now at least someone knew i was OK. Now it was time to try and get in contact with others, my cell phone was useless at this point, no signal at all. There was a room that they were allowing people to use to make phone calls,the landlines were working. I tried my sister (an MBA candidate at NYU Stern at the time, also downtown)...nothing. I tried my father whose office was in Queens...not there, his cell phone was not working either. Any New York cell number or any one's in the area was worthless. I knew my girlfriend (who later became my wife, and now ex-wife) was at work teaching and not reachable. Last hope was my mother who happened to be vacationing in Miami at the time. I got through and told her i was fine and i just cried. I just stopped talking and said "I'm fine, I'll get home". In that room is when I found out about the Pentagon and the second tower collapse, everyone saw it on CNN in another small conference room. I just opened up my paper and tried to read to relax, not knowing when I was getting home. That is when security came in and informed us that the National Guard was moving in and asking for evacuations of all buildings in what later became known as the 'Frozen Zone'.

Took the elevator down to the lobby of the building, that is where I ran into my clerk. He was with me when we left 2 Rector, but lost him somewhere, now he also ended up in 55 Broadway somehow. We walked out together and trekked towards Water St. where we were told would be clean air and no dust. He offered some perspective on the fairly quiet walk, see he was born in Vietnam and remembered his being 4-5 years old and growing up with war. So I just listened and walked, uptown through Chinatown, seeing the sea of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, and finally taking a pit stop for lunch at McSorley's Ale House. We wanted some beer and stat. That was the place to go. There we ran into some others we knew from the AMEX who seemed to have the same idea. The rest of the day was a walking tour of Manhattan until I found my way to 38th Street on the west side with two other new friends I found at McSorley's who lived in NJ. We took a dinner cruise boat to Weehawken, waited in line for a bus to Hoboken, got onto the PATH so I could get to Newark Penn to take the train home that started my day.

I was wearing black pants so when I got off at the Middletown,NJ train station I was immediately spotted by the local First Aid and HAZMAT crews. "You were exposed sir, I need you over there", was all I heard. All the stops of NJ Transit were apparently equipped that night with these teams to wash off anyone who was exposed to the dust cloud. I waited my turn and took a quick warm water shower fully clothed in the parking lot of the train station. A nice woman gave me a blanket and walked me all the way to my car. I was cold and in total shock from everything. I pulled in at home and sat down with my ex-wife just glad to be home and then late that night I wrote this:

>I just wanted to let all of you know that i made it home alright. I got home
>about 9:30pm about 12 hours after the whole ordeal happened. I know most of
>you called and im sorry i have not gotten back to you but honestly im not in
>the mood to talk about what i saw today. I appreciate all the calls...its
>nice to know that some of you might actually miss me if i was gone:-) I will
>be calling some of you within the next couple of days. Thanks again and say
>some prayers for the people who were not as lucky as i was. 


My friend Stacey says she opens that every 9/11 and reads it. That's really the only reason I have that, she sent it to me last year. My cell phone was no longer taking messages and my machine at home had 38 messages on it. Some of them the same person calling two or three times worried that they had heard nothing from me. What's the point of telling you that? Well it really made me feel for the people who would not be hearing responses to their frantic phone calls. Who wouldn't be getting some simple form e-mail from their loved one saying more or less what I wrote above. Those friends and family lost and gave the ultimate that day. All we did was go to work, we didn't strap on for war. So today I remember all of them, and I give you what Marco Rubio, US Senate candidate in FL and fellow Cuban-American, wrote this year:
“On this ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we remember the heroes who lost their lives that day and grieve with the loved ones they left behind. It’s because of the selfless heroism of first responders and passengers that countless lives were saved in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the ground.

“Today, we give thanks to the brave men and women of our armed forces, intelligence community, law enforcement and public safety agencies, whose efforts have prevented another similar tragedy on U.S. soil. Especially today, they deserve our respect, admiration and appreciation for all they have done to keep us safe.
I couldn't have put it any better. We Will Never Forget...9/11/01. Thanks for reading.


Miss Haunt Couture said...

I'm really sorry. This means more than some bullshit "Never Forget" app on facebook.

When I moved into my apartment, my downstairs neighbor was a firefighter who was there. he said it took him 6 months before he was able to sleep in his bed. He'd fall asleep on the couch.

I'm really glad you're alive and still my friend.
-Melissa Joy

Anonymous said...

Love ya my friend...thanks for sharing your experience.


Kirk said...

Great post Ocho. I can relate to a lot of it, but was among the lucky ones that made it to the ferry at the end of Wall Street . I saw the first tower fall as we were 10 minutes out.

Anonymous said...

Finally got a change to read this - thanks for posting. I was one of the frantic callers on your ass that day! what a way to take me down memory lane- walking through Chinatown and getting lost and covered in dust and soot and whatever else - yep! that was me as well but thankfully I didn't see as much as you did and I know it wasn't pretty. I drank a lot that day too. Glad you're with us today my friend!! I love you!! Claudia

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