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In the Midst of Disaster

A reporter's personal experience on Sept. 11, 2001

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the alarm on my clock radio went off on cue at 8:55 a.m. I had set it a little early because I had planned to hit the gym before heading in to work for my Tuesday lunch shift. As usual, it took a few minutes before the noise of the radio became annoying enough to rouse me out of my deep slumber. I opened my eyes just in time to hear the morning news reporter say "A second plane has crashed into Tower II of the World Trade Center."

Apparently, the radio had not been loud enough to wake my boyfriend because as soon as that statement was made, his hand came down with a loud thump on the snooze button. I however, sat bolt upright in bed and shook him awake.

"Wait, turn that back on –– I thought I just heard them say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and it didn't sound like a joke."

As he grudgingly opened his eyes and turned on the radio, I yanked open the curtains next to our bed. In January of 2001, we had moved from Northern Virginia to an adorable fourth floor walk-up in New York City's West Village. If you looked out of our bedroom window, you could see the Empire State Building to the north, and the Twin Towers to the south. As the morning sunlight poured into the room, I turned my head toward the downtown view and was stunned to see smoke billowing from both of the towers.

"Oh my god, something really is happening –– we have to get up right now," I screamed.

I jumped out of bed and ran into the living room to turn on the television. Each station was reporting different calamities (many of which later turned out to be false), and I felt a rush of panic sweep through me. When I heard that an airplane had crashed into the Pentagon, I thought of my parents in Vienna, Va. and immediately tried to call them but could not get through. I tried my cell phone but repeatedly got a message that said all circuits were busy.

My dog was looking at me expectantly and I realized that –– terrorist attacks or not –– I needed to take her outside. I picked her up and ran down the stairs and out on to 8th Avenue. It was a beautiful, sunny September day and it was obvious that some people were still unaware of what was unfolding just a few blocks away. People were standing on the sidewalk and pointing, others were hurriedly walking uptown while talking furiously on their cell phones, but traffic on 8th Avenue continued to flow by just as it normally would.

As soon as my dog had finished her morning business, I sprinted back up the stairs and into my apartment where my boyfriend was glued to the television.

"What should we do?" I asked.

"I kind of want to go down there," said my boyfriend.

I stared at him long and hard.

"Are you out of your mind? Why on earth would you want to do that? We have no idea what is going to happen next!"

After I made it crystal clear that he would only be heading downtown over my dead body, we decided that we would go to our roof so we could see what was going on. From there, we had a clear view of the towers and the streets below. Several other people had gathered on the rooftops of neighboring buildings and we all just continued to stare in disbelief at the smoking towers. Ever the reporter, I had brought my camera with me, and as I was snapping photos, the first tower collapsed.

WE WERE ABSOLUTELY FLOORED. Never in a million years did we imagine that happening. I gasped and both of my hands flew to my mouth as tears started streaming down my face. I just could not believe that this was going on right in front of me. It all seemed like a bad dream. Moments later, we watched in horror as the second tower collapsed sending plumes of thick billowing smoke into the air. Suddenly, everyone on the street below started screaming and running uptown. Ash was blowing everywhere, and we could hear the roar of fire truck and ambulance sirens as they flew toward the towers.

"Aren't you glad you didn't go down there?" I asked.

We immediately went back to our apartment to watch the news and discuss what we should do. As we watched the news and continued to try unsuccessfully to make phone calls, we decided that we should just stay put for the time being. Leaving the city would require taking a train or a car across the Hudson River and that seemed far riskier than staying in our apartment. However, I could not help but wonder whether New York City was suddenly going to be air raided and bombed from above.

We spent the day watching the news and waiting for the phone to ring. A close friend of ours lived right next to the World Trade Center, and we repeatedly dialed his cell phone to no avail. The inability to communicate was maddening. At 1:30 p.m., our intercom sounded and we breathed a huge sigh of relief when we heard his voice yelling into the speaker.

He arrived on our doorstep with his dog. She had a sock over her nose and both were completely covered in thick gray ash. He described how he had woken up to frantic calls from his girlfriend telling him to get out of the building because a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. As he was on the phone with her, he had stepped out on to their rooftop deck just in time to see a large plane fly over his head. It turned sharply, and plunged into the second tower sending glass, debris and bodies everywhere. That was when our friend grabbed their dog and ran. They headed up the West Side Highway until they reached our apartment. He would not see the inside of his own apartment for a couple of weeks.

That night several of my friends came over and we all sat in my living room talking for hours about what had happened. My family was finally able to get through to me late that night, and I could hear the relief in their voices.

WATCHING THE DEVASTATION of Sept. 11 from the roof of my apartment building was the most surreal experience of my life.

In the days and months that followed, life in New York changed. Most people went back to their jobs and their daily routines, but feelings of sadness, fear and anger were pervasive in the aftermath of the attacks. Many people packed their bags and moved away, and I witnessed many couples break up and go their separate ways. For about a month, I had a recurring nightmare about terrorists dropping bombs on New York City. On the other hand, the city's 11 million residents had also become bonded on a deeper level –– we had all been there for one of the most unexpected and horrific moments in American history, and we were united by monumental tragedy.

At that time, I worked as a bartender at a restaurant in the West Village. Subsequently, I spent many a night discussing the events of Sept. 11 with patrons. I talked to people who had lost loved ones and people who had barely made it out of the building. Everyone had a story.

One friend of mine had arrived at the law office where she worked at 8:30 a.m. and discovered that they were having electrical problems. She decided to use the opportunity to run to the ATM, and as she was withdrawing her cash, she watched the first plane crash into the Tower I, just below her office.

One night, not too long after the attacks, my friend who lived in Battery Park City asked us if we could give him a ride to his building, as he had been given permission to access his apartment and collect some personal belongings. I will never forget how eerie it felt to drive right by Ground Zero. As we made our way through the narrow streets of the financial district, the awful smell, white spotlights and blowing ash made us feel like we were in a war zone.

ONE YEAR LATER, I moved into an apartment right next to that war zone. In an effort to revitalize the downtown district, the government offered rent subsidies to anyone who signed a 2-year lease at apartment buildings in close proximity to Ground Zero.

In September 2002, I signed a 2-year lease on a studio apartment at Gateway Plaza in Battery Park City.

My window had an expansive, unobstructed view of Ground Zero, and for a moment I wondered whether I really wanted to live somewhere that would remind me daily of that horrible Tuesday. However, by that point, Ground Zero looked like a giant construction site, and frankly, the chance to live in a semi-luxurious apartment building in Battery Park for just $975 a month was too good to pass up. Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that a deal like that is absolutely unheard of.

I lived in that apartment for three years. Every day, I would walk by Ground Zero to get to the subway station, and every day I would look out my window and wonder what it would have been like to be in my apartment on the morning of the attacks.

The 9-11 rent subsidies brought about a change in demographics in Battery Park City –– one that was unwelcomed by some. Older residents and families were replaced by people in their twenties and thirties, and the lower income "newbies" as we were called, were not always well received by the long-time residents who had opted to stay.

The dust in my apartment was so bad that I decided to purchase an expensive air filter and purifier. The instructions indicated that it should be cleaned every week, however, the notification light on mine lit up every couple of days. When I would pull the filter out for cleaning, the blades would be covered in a thick black film, and I would often wonder if that film was also accumulating in my lungs. I also spent thousands of dollars on vet bills as my dog was constantly afflicted with inexplicable eye infections and allergic reactions. I frequently received Red Cross health surveys in the mail.

In the fall of 2005, I decided that it was time to leave New York. I was unhappy at my job and living hand to mouth. I was breathing contaminated air and living in a city that was guided by a color coded terror alert system. Security guards with guns wandered around my neighborhood, bomb barricades were erected in front of my building and on occasion my bag was randomly searched on the subway. Every time the subway stopped in the middle of a tunnel, thoughts of suicide bombers would flicker through my mind.

One of the undeniable lessons of 9-11 was that life is unpredictable and you never know when your time is up. For me, that translated into a desire to make the best possible use of the moments I do have –– pursuing a career I enjoy and spending time with the people I love.

My friends often joke that they are not sure if I have really good disaster karma, or really bad disaster karma. My father was a hostage in Iran in 1979, but fortunately came home safe and sound in January 1981. In December 2005, I boarded a plane to Thailand to visit relatives and spend a week vacationing at a beach resort in Krabi –– I landed in Bangkok to discover that the tsunami had wiped out the resort that I was supposed to check into the next day. Personally, I am inclined to think that I (knock on wood) have good disaster karma. Living on the brink of disaster is still living, and the hardships of life only serve as a reminder to appreciate each and every day.

Looking back on the past five years, there have been many tragedies –– 9-11, the tsunami and hurricane Katrina to name the big three. However, all of history is riddled with natural disasters and war. It is impossible to know what the future holds and, at least for me, it seems unreasonable to live a life that is shackled by constant fear. All we can do is learn from our experiences and be thankful for what we have, which in this country, is quite a lot.