By: Enid Burns
I was at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and even now, 20 years later, I remember it so vividly.
It started out like any Tuesday. I was on my way to work; the subway was crowded, just like any other morning. As usual, I had headphones on to tune out the noises of the New York City subway, but even with the music blaring I started to feel something wrong when the train pulled into Chambers Street, where I transferred from the express to local trains. Something had clearly happened; the conductors moved us from the express back to the local, and back to the express, and I continued on the train to the next stop where I would get off to go to work.
It was likely to be the final one to pass through the World Trade Center/Cortlandt Street station.
As I exited the train, I started to realize something was wrong. It became clearer as I climbed the stairs to the concourse level of the World Trade Center – the lack of people, dim emergency lights, and notably shuttered stores – when my mobile phone rang.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center,” my husband said urgently.
It took a moment to process. I was in the World Trade Center.
While I didn’t know then if it was a terrorist attack and could just as likely have been an accident, I knew I had to get out quickly. I had no idea at the time what could have happened or more ominously what would happen.
As I reached the doors and exited the building, the gravity of the situation became clear. Refuse had already fallen from North Tower.
New York in 2001 had been cleaned up, and Lower Manhattan was generally well kept, especially around the World Trade Center, but here was skyscraper debris, cubicle bits and papers, not to mention bits from the airplane strewn about.
It looked unnatural, as something terrible had occurred. I didn’t let myself stop to study the scene.
As I reached the large planters that surrounded the towers and made my way to the street, there was a young couple stopped to survey the building. Instead of even looking up, I knew I should keep moving.
“Keep going!” I yelled at them and resisted the urge to turn around. I ran across the street and only then allowed myself a quick glance to see a burning hole in the side of the skyscraper that dominated downtown.
I turned up the street, and just as I cleared the corner of the building on Church Street, a deafening noise could be heard. It was the second plane crashing into the South Tower. At that point I didn’t know it was a second airplane; I thought it was just an explosion. I screamed, yet I did not hear myself under the noise of the crash, as bits of airplane and skyscraper whizzed by me. I zipped into the entrance of my office building half a block away from the towers.
That in itself was surreal as the chaos of the outside world hadn’t permeated this other building.
There were a few coworkers in the reception area, mostly managers of the research firm where I worked. I went into an internal conference room and made two phone calls: my husband and my father.
“I don’t know how, but I will get to you,” I said as I agreed to meet my husband at my father’s office in midtown near Herald Square. On a good day that would be quite a hike, but at that moment it seemed a world away.
One of the department managers said, “We need to wait here until they tell us what to do.”
“They don’t want us here, we need to get out of their way,” I responded strongly.
Whether “they” meant company executives or rescue workers, it didn’t matter. Everyone came to reason, and within minutes, we exited the stairs and set off in different directions as we all worked toward our respective homes.
It was a wise decision, as things became increasingly chaotic. First responders were on the scene, and it was clear that the best course of action was to clear out.
I made the trek with two coworkers, and we set a decent pace. We watched the first tower collapse from somewhere in the Lower East Side. It was a horrific sight, and while I’ve seen it a hundred times on TV, nothing compared to seeing it happen at that moment.
When we arrived at Union Square some two miles from the World Trade Center, a rush of people who had gotten caught in the dust cloud streamed past us. They were both dazed and focused on their destinations. I felt so lucky to have been a safer distance when the towers came down where I wasn’t in range of the dust cloud.
Numbness and Reflection
My worldview changed that day. I grew up in a family of divorce with two divergent households, yet both were liberal with strong anti-war beliefs. Though my husband was more conservative, I felt myself somewhere in the middle.
That was the day I realized that sometimes war makes sense. That we had to go into Afghanistan to go after Al Qaeda, and anyone involved in the attacks. We needed to bring some sanity and peace to the region – as others had tried and failed so many times before. I didn’t like the idea of sending troops to risk their lives, but it seemed like a mission that made sense, that was necessary.
I had discussions with my father, a veteran of the Vietnam era. He had been stationed in Germany and dealt more with Cold War tensions than the hotbed of Vietnam, yet he was strongly opposed to the military action, as he was generally opposed to most battles.
Over the years we heard less about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
We knew there was a continued presence there, but the mission didn’t seem to be what we were continuing to work toward. We propped up a Western society that so easily came down. The suffering we experienced on 9/11, the drive and sacrifice of so many of our troops. And the region so quickly went back to the way things were. While there are memorials and ceremonies held each year, the American experience of 9/11 should stand for so much more, and should have had an influence on what we should have done in the years following that fateful day.
I no longer live in New York City, and sometimes I think that’s easier for me to get through 9/11 and other moments of reflection of that day. I did have an opportunity to visit the WTC memorial site a few years ago. The pools that take up the footprint of the buildings were very moving.
What had more impact to me and my experience was actually the subway ride to the site. I instinctively went to the third door on the first car of the express train.
Pulling into the Courtland Street Station brought memories rushing back to me as the train pulled through the length of the station. I saw the station signs and familiar sights. The doors opened and were perfectly lined up with the exit.
I climbed the stairs, but instead of emerging in the concourse level of the World Trade Center, I surfaced on Church Street, in view of the bathtub memorial, and my old office building. So many things in the area had changed that I was a little disoriented, yet some markers remained, and I was able to find my way as my emotions rolled through me.
Thinking back, I realize it wasn’t just Lower Manhattan that changed 20 years, it was the world. I was also changed by it. It isn’t enough to never forget; we must appreciate and celebrate our freedoms.
Enid Burns is a freelance writer based in Michigan. She covers a wide range of topics from antique relics from around to the world to the latest bleeding edge technology too. Her exposure to military history and firearms comes from her husband, fellow freelance writer Peter Suciu, and together they have traveled the world visiting around 20 countries on five continents. Together they have built a collection of helmets, uniforms and small arms representative of armed forces and conflicts that span the globe. She and her husband continue to travel to military collectibles and antique arms shows around the country to find more treasure, and to discover more topics to research and to write about.