Virginia Willis Blog

My Day in NYC on 9/11

This picture of my sister was taken a in August, just a few weeks before the tragedy. I’ve never written a word about 9-11, a single word.

So I did.

Virginia Willis

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning. I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy. We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living. Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolute mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.

So, I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

I remember walking mad.

Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, other peoples refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my irritation saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower. I know this. I walked this walk every day most often looking skyward at those twin towers across the river directly in my sight. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute in the days and weeks to come.

I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.

Often I would take the PATH to the WTC and then change twice to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.

I’ve thought about that more than once in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower. I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet. Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, the White House. I was the producer for Epicurious on the Discovery Channel hosted my chef Michael Lomonaco. We didn’t know where he was. I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.

But, I was in Times Square and which didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square could be next. We walked down the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down.

I knew I couldn’t get home.

So, I started walking southeast. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw only one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying in and of itself.

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the cerulean blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone. Just gone.

Soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking south, then east. I finally arrived at Claire’s apartment on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I waited. My cell couldn’t call out, but somehow my friend Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay.

Claire arrived. We watched the news all day, weeping, trying to keep the children occupied in the other room. We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. Claire didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more sirens. No more noise. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

I walked North through Union Square where 2 candles already flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.

14th was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd.

Finally, success.

The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was muted in fear. We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.

Garbage bags.

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15 Responses to “My Day in NYC on 9/11”

  1. Thanks for sharing. Although, I was not in NYC that day…the memories are still crystal clear all these year later. It was a clear blue sky…

    Reply
  2. And this is exactly why I come here to read whatever it is you’ve written; such clarity, such details, the emotions.

    My father had died September 7th and I was in WA State planning a funeral; my husband came in and woke me saying, ‘something terrible has happened, I don’t know what’s going on but you need to get up and see this.’ I remember watching the TV when the 2nd tower was hit and knew then that this wasn’t an accident – it was an act of terrorism. We held my father’s funeral on a Saturday but my sister’s family couldn’t be there as the airspace was still shut down. But I’ll never, ever forget my brother’s words when he said, ‘I’m so thankful we have a body to bury when so many others do not.’ Those words have stayed with me all these years and every single anniversary of 9/11 will forever be tied to my father’s funeral and those words.

    Thank you Virginia, for sharing this piece; we need to remember this day, but more importantly, we need to remember how, in the face of such tragedy and loss, we were a united people then – one purpose, one goal, each caring for one another – the American spirit blazed as a beacon to the world, was at it’s best. Unfortunately, 9 years later, we have lost our way and that makes me quite sad.

    I am beyond the moon to have met you this past weekend – you are a real treasure!

    Reply
  3. Your memoir is such a remarkably penetrating look into the emotions and fear we experienced that dread day, Virginia. How heavy it must have weighed on your heart all these days since. How beautifully you wrote it. Thank you. And, thank God you’re safe to inspire us with your talent.
    Gio

    Reply
  4. Beautiful and sensitive writing. I read it twice; might read it a third time. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply
  5. Virginia

    When you mentioned you posted something that day, I had no idea it was this story. Thank you for sharing. I can only imagine what you experienced that day.

    One of my dearest friends was a flight attendant for AA and was supposed to be on the flight that went into the Pentagon. She, thankfully, had changed flights the week before. Although, I was talking to her only moments before her other flight took off and the first plane went into the towers. I could not get back to her until that night.

    Thank you again for sharing your story and for participating in FBF on Saturday.

    Reply
  6. I am riveted by stories like these. Clearly we all have our “I remember when” moments. I was a new Navy sailor living out in California. Our base went on complete lockdown for days. We were convinced that a plane could have been headed towards us. We will all surely never forget-God bless America.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    On another note, it was very nice to hear you speak at the FBF yesterday. I lived in France and speak French so I adore French food and pretty much anything French. I am truly jealous that you got to spend 3 years there-maybe someday!

    Reply
  7. Although your talk at #FBF yesterday was inspiring, this post is moving, so filled with emotion.

    Thank you for sharing. I think we’ve all got our 9/11 stories, but so many are still balled up inside of us, banging around trying to find the right place to land. Hopefully you’ve found getting it out in this post has helped.

    Reply
  8. I remember that day also. My son lives in D.C. & was working across fromt he pentagon. I tried to reach him all day, his phone wouldn’t work the fear I had, D.C. was down as well and he was walking & finally stayed with a friend in D.C. He finally got back with me in the evening saying he was OK but everything was locked down. I had a niece who was suppose to be at the pentagon & was late getting there. Thank God. 9/11 is a day we should never forget & remember & carry it in our hearts for all the fallen who are left there. God Bless
    them & the families.

    Reply
  9. An important post. I’m glad you wrote it, and I’m glad to read it. Nice meeting you today at FBF. Thanks for the inspiring words. And the cookbook! My 5 year old has already marked some requests.

    Reply
  10. Rosalyn Gilreath

    You must have had a covering of God’s love around you that day. We don’t know or understand why things are allowed to happened, but God has and continues to have plans for your life. May you find peace in living and doing what you have a passion for, the rest of your life. May God continue to bless you.
    Roz

    Reply
  11. Such a horrific day, VA. SO glad you weren’t caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The southern tip of Manhattan looks so … bare … now. I loved the twin towers, took all my visitors there in the 1980s and they were designed by a Detroit architect (my hometown).

    One of my son’s friends was at work at his very first job, on the 101st floor of Tower 2 and perished. We think of Teddy often.

    We shall never forget.

    Reply
  12. Virginia, I still remember, I was volunteering in my daughter’s school. I heard a huge silence fall in the school. Everyone was huddled near the small t.v. set atop the file cabinets. We all stood staring in disbelief! It was an empty feeling! It was anger! It was sadness! More than anything…I was numb! And then the second plane crashed!

    Reply

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