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 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. 

NYC on 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.

Garbage bags.

 

Tell your loved ones that you love them.
Peace be with you.
VA

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Photography of Jona Willis by Virginia Willis

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7 Responses to “My Day in NYC on 9-11”

  1. Virginia, This brought tears to my eyes as I remember that tragic day. I had moved away from NYC by then, and my feeling of helplessness was extreme as I watched the towers fall on the television from my safe comfortable California home. We finally heard that evening that a friend with a young baby had walked all day from her Battery Park apartment and was safe at our relative’s apt on the upper east side. So many stories of that day.

    Reply
  2. Thank you Virginia for sharing your beautiful story. My friend was on a train to the WTC from NJ as the towers were hit. He escaped to the streets and was probably one of the soot-covered evacuees covered in garbage bags. We lived in Princeton, NJ on 9/11 and I will never forget the eerie quietness of that day and night. Schools closed at noon. No one had told the kids about the towers. Children whose parents were missing were whisked away by relatives. The five minute drive home seemed endless. I had to tell my young son what had happened, but I just wanted one more moment when he felt safe. That afternoon we lit a candle for his friend’s dad who worked on the 104th floor in Tower 1. I remember sitting on the front porch together that afternoon in our peaceful neighborhood, staring at the crisp blue September sky. Then several military helicopters broke that silence and sent shivers up my spine and tears to my eyes. How could I tell an 11-year old boy that his friend’s dad could not have survived…that there was no hope. I couldn’t fathom what kind of world my son would now face and realized that I could not protect him from what was to come after 9/11. But I could let him believe in a miracle for just one more day. We kept the candle in the upstairs window burning through the night as his tiny beacon of hope that his friend’s dad would come home. The hugs were tight at bedtime and on the days that followed. Holding him close was all I had to offer for both of us. Never Forget 9.11

    Reply
  3. Thanks for this intimate look at that awful day, Virginia, and the sweetness, the heart of it.

    Reply
  4. Kay Dickerson

    Virginia, again this year on 9/11 your beautiful words have brought me to tears. In 2001 we also lived in New Jersey and had friends who lived or worked in the city. There have been similar stories from them but never so eloquently written. Thank you for sharing your feelings and your many talents with those of us who admire you so very much.

    Reply

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