9/11 – In Remembrance of the Missing People

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I remember that September morning well – the air was crisp and breezy with a hint of fall. The sun bright and commanding. At around 6 am, I ran my favorite 6.2 mile loop in Central Park. There was something about the park that day, the pool-blue sky, the hopefulness I always feel in September, that made me want to linger outside. But I had to get to work. At 8 am, my hair still slightly wet from my shower, I rushed from my apartment on 70th and 3rd a few blocks south to catch the cross town bus, which took me to the west side, where I caught the 1/9 train downtown. On my way to the bus stop, I realized that I had forgotten my blazer, and I knew it would be cold in the conference room, where I had meetings, so I stopped at a vendor on 3rd avenue to buy a hot pink pashmina to drape over me. I had a $20 bill and the scarf was $10, and it took the vendor a few minutes to get me change. I was restless, anxious not to miss the bus. These details, which were so insignificant before the fact, became worthy of dissection to me after the fact. I have never taken things for granted since that day – if I am stuck in traffic, miss a plane, I believe there’s a reason, even if it doesn’t appear evident in the moment.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, and just that past Sunday, my buddy Paul and I had biked around NYC, riding along the west side highway, and later that afternoon, I had gone with my mom and dad on a boat ride from the South Street Seaport, where we took in the Statue of Liberty. Native New Yorkers, we had decided to play tourists for the day. Early evening, I had my first meeting for the yoga teacher training program I had been convinced to sign up for. “You’ve been practicing now for over five years; it’s time to take it a step further,” one of my yoga teachers had said. I was unsure if I wanted to commit another year to study after the long haul of graduate school, but something had propelled me to do it.

The train was crowded, and just before the door was ready to slam shut at 42nd street, George Stephanopoulos and what I imagined to be a colleague of his, jumped into my car. I took George in: his olive complexion, his jet black hair, the pass that hung around his neck and around his colleague’s neck – a press pass or something of the sort. At that point, he was not yet the chief anchor on ABC News, but I had the same reaction I had whenever I saw anyone recognizable in NYC. I felt as if I knew him. They seemed fired up, anxious, but they had moved past me, so I couldn’t hear their conversation. I was standing, swaying with each jolt and stop of the train as I devoured an article in The New Yorker, the treat of my morning commute. It wasn’t until we approached 14th street that I started to realize that something was wrong. The conductor was agitated. She seemed to be talking to someone, saying that she couldn’t pull over. That there was nowhere to pull over, so the train kept rolling forward. We were supposed to stop next at Christopher Street. As we approached it, she was screaming that she couldn’t pull over, that other trains had stopped there. I was to get off at the next stop: Houston/Varick. But it never came. Our train car began to fill up with smoke. We stopped mid-track. The conductor was screaming something that I couldn’t make out. My eyes darted from one fellow passenger to another. No one was too nervous. This was NYC, after all. Stuff happened. The smoke began to permeate our train car, so that I looked out at shadows through the fog. Passengers started to close up the windows. Then the lights in the car went off. A man got up out of his seat and motioned for me to sit down. I did. I held my New Yorker magazine in my hands and for a while, I stared at George Stephanopoulos. I don’t know if he saw me, but his presence made me feel safe. What could happen to me with him in my train car?

Our train made its way to Chamber Street. Something in me was shifting – not quite panic yet, but I was getting there. I had a 9 am meeting. I was late. The air was heavy. At some point, we were close enough to the station that the train doors opened and we piled out. I wrapped my new hot pink scarf around my mouth and nose to keep from breathing in the smog. We were told to wait in the station, police officers blocking the stair cases leading outside. There was a pregnant woman sitting on the floor of the station, in between the left and right stair cases. Work. I had a meeting. I went to the pay phone to call my boss. Our connection was shaky. He said, “We are all okay. When you get out of the station, go home. Go home!” I didn’t understand what was going on. No one around me knew what had happened. I had been underground now for close to an hour and there was no cell phone reception. Finally, police officers shuffled us to the stairs and told us we could go. Outside, the sky was grey/black. Debris was everywhere. It looked to me as if the world had come to an end. I was covered in a thick layer of soot. I started to cry. An impulse. A reaction. “Are you okay? Miss, are you okay?” one of the police officers leading people up the stairs said, and I nodded. We were being led onto a street and there were herds – literally, herds – of people walking everywhere. “I’m okay,” I said.

At some point someone beside me told me that the Twin Towers had been struck by a plane and I shook my head. I didn’t understand. Chaos all around. Smoke. Flames. The Twin Towers? It wasn’t until later that I learned what had occurred – that one Tower had been hit, and then the second Tower was struck. Much later that afternoon the terrorist plot began to unravel.

There were hundreds of us walking uptown. Thousands perhaps. It seemed as if everyone from downtown was on a pilgrimage uptown. I was confused. Disoriented. My phone rang at some point – a friend. She was calling to see if I was okay. To tell me that she was okay. It was impossible to make sense of anything with all that soot in the air. My brother, who lives in Paris, called next. Apparently he had seen it on television. My family and friends all knew that I traveled downtown towards Wall Street each morning on the 1/9 train. After his call, I lost cell phone reception. He had promised to let my parents know that I was okay.

Eventually, I went back to work. A few weeks had passed and finally the streets below 14th street had reopened. I walked past St. Vincent’s Hospital at 12th Street and 7th Avenue every night on my way home from work and stopped to read the posters and signs that people had put up in search of their husbands, their wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters. Endless pleas for help in finding their loved ones. Many wrote stories about their missing people – the bars they frequented, the places they liked to go. Others put up pictures, phone numbers at which to contact them with leads. There were so many pictures of missing people. Too many to take in at any one time. Each day, I read about other, new missing people. I took in their names, their faces. I wanted to believe that some of them had been found. I learned that a friend from junior high school, a firefighter, had died in the blaze. Another friend had lost his seven-month pregnant wife in the Towers. My closest friend, whose husband worked in the Towers, was away with him on their honeymoon the week of 9/11.

New York City became a land of broken people. Of missing people. Thousands of people went to work one day and never came home. Firefighters went into the blaze and never came out. Then there were the pets whose owners never returned home. They too needed to be found, rescued. I felt unraveled. In need of being put back together. My friend and colleagues played a key role in my stability. We all had a need to talk, to be together. My colleagues, who had made it into our 12th floor penthouse on Varick Street that morning, had witnessed people jumping from the Towers. Each of us had our visuals. Our pain, our fear, our knowledge that safety was at best, an illusion.

A few months later, on 3rd avenue and 68th street, I locked eyes with George Stephanopoulos as I crossed the street. I didn’t know if he recognized me, if it registered, but it was one of those moments in which I felt myself coming undone. He had become a part of my story, and while I hadn’t determined the role he played in it, seeing him reminded me so intensely of that day. Of the reality that we had survived. That we had been the lucky ones. That we had gotten to go on with our lives. I watched him walk away. Perhaps at another time in my life I would have run after him, said something, made a connection, but back then, it was enough for me to know we were both still out there, alive; that we both got to pursue our next chapters.

My yoga teacher training became a life line for me. It taught me to both delve inside and to let go; to breathe and focus and most importantly, to accept –myself and the world around me. I started to ask myself on a deeper level what mattered. What I wanted in my life. I understood now that you could have your life all intact, your to-do lists all set, your tomorrows and upcoming weekend planned, but that it was not real. It was not the truth. The truth was that nothing was intact. That tomorrow was not promised, that plans may not ever come to fruition. That was the truth, as resistant as I may have been to hearing it. To accepting it. There are no guarantees in life.

I was afraid to ride a subway for two years after the attacks on 9/11. I felt claustrophobic and panicked each time a subway door closed on me. Whenever I tried to get past it, I would run off the subway after a few stops and rush outside. I took to riding my bike everywhere, to walking more, to taking the bus. I had to be able to see outside, around me. I didn’t want to be trapped underground. Over the years, when the subway doors closed, I learned to breathe, to smile at the people around me. To take it all in – the incredible kaleidoscope of life, and to hope that there was more good in this world than evil.

Events change us, shape us, and in some ways define us. Buildings can fall. Planes don’t always take you where you intend to go. There are people who are evil. Just as there are people who are extraordinary. Life, at best, is fragile. That’s the bad news. But it is the good news, too. Because knowing that it’s not all set in stone taught me that the sometimes haphazard path of life is not only worthwhile, but beautiful in its own unique way. I don’t know why terrible acts have to be a part of our existence, but while I live on this earth, I have to be aware that they exist. I have accepted that everything I do counts, and that sometimes, when I feel the most lost, I may in fact be the closest to my core. I have learned that we are all survivors in a sense. All trying to make sense and hopefully find peace, in this great, big, connected world. Our stories become a part of our selves. We can allow the past to overcome the possibility of our future, or we can choose to keep going, to take meaning from our experiences, and live out our chapters, one at a time.




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