I post some of these photos on 9/11 each year. My dad took them from a tour bus filled with a senior citizens group from his church who were making their way down to lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. You can see from the shots, taken with a basic and shoot camera, that the bus must have been quite close to the towers.
After many requests to do so, I decided to write about being in New York on 9/11/2001 on the 15th anniversary of the attacks. Here's my story:
My parents had just come to town... I had seen my parents the night before. I was in New York on business. They had arrived that morning from Alabama and were excited to tour the city. (My father is from New York but hasn't been back much since he left to attend the University of Alabama) My parents invited me to come with their church group the next morning but I had a big day at work and could not. That morning as I was getting ready for work, my nephew called from school and frantically told me to turn on the TV, that something was happening in New York.
A little after 9 AM... I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane fly into the South tower and saw that the other tower on fire. After I reassured my nephew I was fine, it dawned on me that my parents and their group would have been headed to the area. I tried to call my mom on her cell phone but she did not answer. I remember that I began getting calls from friends who knew I was in the city--- but within 5-10 minutes, the phone system went completely out.
I began to worry about my parents as I watched the news in horror. Would anyone on the bus even know what was happening? When the towers started to collapse, I decided to go look for them. I changed from my suit to jeans and left my hotel at 38th and Park and started running down Park Avenue toward downtown. I kept trying to call but the phones were not working. By this time, masses of people were walking away from the area. In stunned silence, they walked without a word spoken. Faces were covered in soot and ash; some were crying, tears streaming down their dirty faces. You could hear sirens in the distance but it was eerily quiet. No horns honking and no traffic; not one car was on the street. It was the most beautiful day. Slightly crisp, sunny and clear... with the most beautiful, perfect sky you could imagine. Not one cloud in the sky.
Looking for my parents... I ran as fast as I could against the sea of silent people walking away from downtown. Nobody was walking toward the area. I got down to the financial district but by that time, police had blocked off the area and would not let anyone through. Without knowing what else to do, I decided to walk to the Marriott Marquis, where my parents' group was staying, to see if I could find out anything.
When I got to the hotel, I found them there. When their bus driver saw what was happening, he turned the bus around and returned to the hotel. One of the group had been late that morning and for that reason, they were later leaving than planned. Had it not been for that, they may have been closer to the towers or may have even been there as the planes hit.
Everything in New York came to a standstill. There were no flights out of New York and the airports were closed. There were no rental cars to be had and the hotels were filled with stranded travelers. Luckily, the Governor of Alabama was able to intervene and help get my parents and their tour group out of the city very early the next morning.
Time to do something... After a few hours of staring at the television, watching in disbelief at what was happening only a few blocks away, I decided to try to do something to help. Once there was service, I started calling from the land line at the hotel-- looking for food, gloves, flashlights, water, masks, socks, buckets... and asking my friends to do the same. Wal-Mart HQ in Bentonville promised socks, gloves, and masks. Outback Steakhouse set up in a church and made hot meals for those tediously going through the rubble, searching for survivors.
Ground Zero... I could not sleep that night so I walked back down to the area. You were supposed to go to a Red Cross office and sign up to volunteer but that seemed like it would take too long so I just started working. Makeshift donation centers were popping up. People were showing up with donations from all over the USA. Nobody asked me who I was. If you start bossing people around, other people just assume you're supposed to be there.
As day turned into night, truckloads of men were being driven into the crater to search for survivors. The volunteers would cheer as the trucks rolled past and the searchers were waving and cheering too--- they seemed so hopeful and excited to be able to help. Many were first responders who had driven themselves in from around the country to help. When the trucks brought them back out, their faces were without expression and they were silent... so devastated that they were not finding survivors.
I remember when the word would come that they thought they heard something; tapping noise or the search dogs had possibly alerted on something. They would call for “all quiet” and everyone would go completely silent. Trucks would stop. Radios went quiet. We'd remain that way for 10 minutes or so until word came down that nothing had been found. I believe there were only 2 people found alive during the time I was down at Ground Zero. There may have been more but it was very few, whatever the number. Shockingly few.
I did not sleep much in those three nights after the attacks... I doubt anyone did. I would walk to the hotel to shower in the morning and go right back. I remember walking past the pictures and flyers posted on the makeshift bulletin boards-- on fences and walls all around Ground Zero-- and looking into the faces of the family members who were so hopeful. I was always so grateful that my own parents were safe- I could not imagine what these people were going through as they clung to the hope their loved ones were simply lost or in a hospital somewhere.
I worked down at Ground Zero until Friday afternoon, when I finally found an available rental car (still no flights) to drive to Chicago for my best friend's wedding. (His actual wedding, not the movie.) The New York airports opened and I was able to fly back on Tuesday. I remember being one of only 7 people on the flight that day. It was strange and terrifying. When we landed in New York, the city seemed very different. Quieter. Sad.
Funerals were beginning to happen for some of the first responders. I, like the rest of the country, was glued to the television at every opportunity, watching with a broken heart for the families who had to lay their heroes, husbands, wives, children, and other family members to rest.
May the Freedom Tower and the brave people who died there 15 years ago remind us all that it is our freedom that makes America the greatest country in the world. May God continue to always bless America.