Virginia Willis Blog

My day in NYC on 9-11

NYC on 9-11

This picture of my sister was taken in August, just a few weeks before the horrible tragedy in 2001. In 2010, when I wrote my original post, I had not written a word about 9/11. It all stayed bottled up for a long while. Today, this anniversary, I do what I do every year. I call my friend Claire and tell her I love her. Her home was my refuge that tragic day. And, I reach out to my friend and colleague, Faye. She was my mouth and ears to the world. Somehow I she could reach me via cell when no one else could, so she called my family for me to let them know I was okay.

I reworked this piece just a bit, but, I think, at least for a while, this will remain my blog post for 9-11. 

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 absolutely 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 cerulean blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty, dented 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 people’s refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my disgust and  irritation actually saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower.

I know this.

I walked this walk every day —  most often amazed, looking skyward at those tall twin towers across the river directly in my sight. They were a compass point. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute of the deadly attack in the days and weeks to come.

I know that I was walking exactly at that exact time.

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 from Jersey City to the WTC and then change on the subway 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 quite a bit in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC. I could have been right in the middle of it.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station on 40th Street 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, then 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 actually didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square might likely be dead center next.

So, we walked down 25 floors of 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 from Midtown. 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 one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. It gave me chills. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying.

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

Just gone.

As I walked South, soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking further south, then east. I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment on 5th Street on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I took my shoes off and waited on the stoop. I remember now that my shoes were new and my feet were blistered. At the time it seemed unimportant and now, I am not certain.

My cell couldn’t call out, it was silent, but somehow my friend and colleague Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay. She called home. She called, she called, she called. She called home for me.

My friend finally arrived home. We quietly walked up the stairs. We then watched the news, silently weeping, watching the horror, the live images, the flying shreds of paper, the grey dust, the people — the absence of survivors, of people — trying, all the while, 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 didn’t care about what might happen to me. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. My friend didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

We kissed, we cried, and cell phone dead, 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 radios. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. No people. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

It was incredibly dreamlike and surreal.

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

The 14th station 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 and paralyzed  in fear and shock.

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.


Tell your loved ones that you love them.

Peace be with you.

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15 Responses to “My day in NYC on 9-11”

  1. Can’t believe I haven’t seen this before. I didn’t realize you lived in Jersey City, ever! And on that horrible day!!
    I did get home that day. Walked all the way from City Hall [where I had just landed on my way to work (so I thought) when the South Tower fell] to the Javits Center Ferry Stop with several stops along the way. They ferried us to Hoboken. Separated those of us who had been near the towers from the rest of the passengers. We disembarked first and were taken to a makeshift shower. It looked kind of like a car wash. We walked through it with all our stuff. Then we were handed a small towel and told to go home – dripping wet.

    Gee, I haven’t told that story for a very long time. It’s still really hard for me to deal with. And very hard to be at the World Trade Center every day.

  2. Virginia,

    This reminded my sister Meg and I of our 2 family members in the city that day. We both forwarded this to everyone today.

    My brother was at Fordham and our dear friend was right there and one of the people you saw in the garbage bag. Such a moment we will never forget and peace to you always.

    Katy Plough

    Sent from my iPad

  3. It has been 11 years. I have read and relived your revealing and raw nerved accounts for a few years. It has just brought up, after all these years, panicked memories of those times.
    Of calling former roommates when I lived in NYC and desperate to just hear their voices, knowing they worked in one of the towers. Getting them, finally, on the phone and grateful, but hearing the panic and anger in their voices that their fellow coworkers at Goldman were unaccounted for and they couldn’t talk to me. Later knowing they lost an entire floor of coworkers and friends is beyond comprehension… I never talked with them again, but knowing they were ok, made me calm for the moment.
    Remembering I worked in World Trade 1 for a time in my early years in NYC, and wondering if those I worked with there still worked there then, and are they still alive? I don’t know. will never know.
    To crashing at a friends place in the South End of Boston on weekends when I was doing a show in town shortly after 9/11, and hearing, for the first time since the ban on planes flying was lifted. I had a full out panic attack as I heard it soar over the brownstone. I will never forget the sound of the engines and going to what could have been and what happened to others.

    To the two gay men and their daughter on one of those planes who were acquaintances of mine in Ptown and were heading back home to LA, and never made it..

    To the anger of having lost a brother a few weeks earlier, tragically, and a criminal investigation was stopped short, permanently, so all police and law inforcement could focus on 9/11. Anger and confusion layered on anger and confusion. I understood it but it didn’t make it easier.
    To doing a show that night of the attack in Ptown and the silence. The difference of the audience, but the need to go on.
    To look to the sky before the show and wonder at the beautiful sky and how something so gorgeous could be hovering over so much horribleness,and looking up to see if we could literally see angels and souls at peace in the sky. We said a prayer and went on.
    On stage, on with our lives, on with life. it was different. It was darker, it was our new normal. I hope we have truly taken in the lessons offered to us all. I wish for us all that we become more, in the moment people and take each moment as precious, embrace it , breathe it in and share.
    And laugh. laughter heals soooo much.
    And love.
    I love Virginia for this forum and her passion and sharing and her heart. Thank you Virginia for all you have done. xo Richard

  4. Virginia — a very poignant and moving piece. We will all remember where we were, what we were thinking, how we processed the horrible truth, what we did or tried to do to react. It is hard to think about it time and time again but important to remember it in order to continue the healing.

  5. Virginia, your recollections of that day still send chills up and down my spine! Thank you for sharing such a beaufully written account of that tragic day. We were all forever changed. Sincerely, Perrin Rountree


    From: Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises [] Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 3:23 PM To: Subject: [New post] My day in NYC on 9/11

    virginiawillis posted: “This picture of my sister was taken in August, just a few weeks before the tragedy in 2001. In 2010, when I wrote my original post, I had not written a word about 9/11. It all stayed bottled up for a long while. Today, this anniversary, I do what I do e”

  6. Virginia – You write brilliantly. As it happened, I was at my favorite place in the whole wide world (Hemlock Inn in Bryson City, NC) with my mother. When the towers were hit, the proprietors brought their TV down from their house and turned it on in the main room so the guests could keep abreast of what was happening. This was unheard of – there was never TV watching at Hemlock Inn! Sitting in that perfect place, it was impossible to grasp how such a thing could have taken place. The world became a much scarier place.

  7. Virginia,
    We have a very similar story, one we shared with each other, a few years back via Twitter. It was the first time I’d been able to “speak” about it with more than just a few words. From my office on the 21st floor, overlooking the WTC, I watched in horror as the first plane hit. Still a tragic situation, I could never come to the conclusion that it was more than a freak accident. Then the first was eclipsed by the second hit and the world was never to be the same. That day, and all that went with it – getting out, getting home, finally being with loved ones, kneeling in prayer, and, yes, full-on tears – will forever be vivid in my memory. Thank you for such a personal account. God bless.


  8. This post on 9-11 moved me to tears again as I walked with you. You are a wonderful writer and a special person. Love, Diane

  9. Claire Perez

    I also remember that crisp September day as if it was yesterday. Forever ingrained in my mind. Love you too. xo


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