I can't believe it's been 10 years since September 11th, 2001. I've told this story in bits and pieces to my friends, but I've never written it down. I think I'm finally ready to talk about it. It's long, so bear with me. It may be hard to read. It's certainly hard for me to write.
photo credit: Stephenwigg
photo credit: Stephenwigg
Ten years ago, I lived in Manhattan on the Upper East Side. I was a Chief Resident at NYU/Bellevue Hospital after finishing 3 years of residency in primary care internal medicine.
I was also married and almost 8 months pregnant with my first child. As my bus lumbered down Second Avenue on the way to work, I remember what a beautiful, clear morning it was. I was thankful summer was over. Pregnancy and humid weather had been a hard combination for me.
The first strange thing that happened was that the bus driver started talking to us over the speaker.
NYC bus drivers never talk to the passengers, except to say what stop was coming up or yell at us to make room for more people.
"I've been told one of the twin towers was hit by an airplane," she said, and we all looked out the front window of the bus to see a thick cord of smoke floating eastward across the sky--a blemish in the blue.
I heard the passengers murmuring to each other. One person said it was actually two planes, but another assured us it was just one.
One plane could be an accident. But two? I couldn't quite fathom what that might mean.
So at first, I didn't get too excited. I'd worked in the architecture department archives as an undergrad and had seen photos of a small plane hitting the Empire State building by accident. I tried to convince myself that it was just a random event.
I got off the bus and waddled past Second Avenue to get to Bellevue Hospital, on 27th Street and First Avenue. My husband and I shared one cell phone. It was quite the luxury then. I called him where he was at work as a Chief Resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. All I got was busy signal.
That was when I started to worry. I dialed my sister, who lived less than ten blocks from the Twin Towers. Another busy signal. I waddled faster, my worry turning into panic.
In our offices, I found the other chief resident staring out the window. Now, there were two plumes of smoke, one coming from each building. Several attendings and residents had heard the news. One of the residents had a husband who worked in the towers. She couldn't get in touch with him and was freaking out.
We tried to get in contact with each resident. Nearly every phone call we made ended in a busy signal. We had a TV in the office we only used for playing educational tapes, and it had horrible reception. All we could do was listen to the local news, since the images were so grainy. No one wanted me to do much because I was so pregnant, so I manned the phones, telling the few people who got through to get to Bellevue ASAP, if they could. The rest of the time, I stared out the window.
The smoke changed from cords of grey to large clouds, depending on the winds. Sometimes, I saw orange flames emerging out of the smoke. Once, when the smoke got so voluminous, I told the other chief that there were patches of blue sky within the blackish clouds.
"Look," I said, grabbing her sleeve. "It's almost like you can see through the smoke. I think one of the towers is missing."
"No," she responded. "It's still there. See?" But when she stepped away from the window, the wind changed directions again and I covered my mouth. There was only one building standing.
"Oh my God!" I shrieked. People ran to the window to see what I'd seen. As we stared and stared at the impossible--that one of the towers was down, another impossibility began to happen. The second one crumpled, slowly, then faster, right before our eyes.
I don't remember what I said. I do remember what I felt. Like there were a thousand people screaming in my ears and there was nothing I could do about it.
One final corner of the remaining tower still stood--a tall, jagged shard. Then it too, dissolved in a puff of dust.
Attendings and residents came in and out of the office, all wearing stethoscopes and making plans to clear out the inpatient wards for the coming wounded. People ran to the ER bay to stand by the doors, waiting.
They kept waiting. And no one came.
Some doctors and nurses decided waiting wasn't good enough, and went in teams to Ground Zero to help. One of them, a colleague, was so haunted by what he'd experienced that he could barely speak of what happened. He mentioned seeing...oh God. I can't even write it down.
Finally, someone told me to go home. They didn't want me working, and the phone lines were practically dead. The one resident whose husband worked in the towers finally got in touch with him. When the first plane hit, he took to the stairwells, got to the street, and kept running till he reached his apartment. He couldn't call her because the payphones had lines of people trying to use them since no cellphones were working.
The buses and subways weren't running. I numbly walked the fifty blocks to get to my husband's office, taking frequent stops to rest on benches. I could only go a couple of blocks before I'd get contractions from the exercise. Shopkeepers had their doors open, setting up free snacks and drinks to the people walking in droves down the avenues. The sense of community and desperate need to help others was palpable. I remember thinking, "This is the New York that so many people don't know."
I eventually found my husband and huddled in his office while he and other coworkers also mobilized for wounded and dying that never came to their hospital either.
I finally got in touch with my sister, who'd taken her own child and went immediately to a friend's apartment further north for safety. I remember crying a lot the next day. I can't even remember if I went to work or not. I think I stayed home and watched too many horrible images on television.
For weeks and month afterwards, the entrance to Bellevue was plastered with photocopied images of the missing. At first, people stood around the entrance, handing out flyers and asking us if we'd seen any of their family members in the hospital. The pictures were haunting images of healthy men and women, smiling in a frozen moment of time. As each day passed, reality told us that nearly all would never be seen alive again. Soon, piles of flowers and candles began to appear under the pictures of the lost. The photos went from being cries for help to memorials.
Early in the morning on September 13th, I awoke in the darkness with excruciating abdominal pain. My belly was misshapen out of its usual 8 months' roundness. We grabbed a cab to NYU's Tisch Hospital, which was connected with the Coroner's offices, only two blocks from Bellevue. The smell of burnt things still permeated the air. A police officer barred our way; when my husband pointed to my belly, we were let through to the ER.
My baby, which was breech, had turned around in the middle of the night. The doctor said all the walking from the day before might have triggered it. My husband and I smiled weakly. It was hard to believe anything positive could possibly come out of that day of tragedy.
Six weeks later, our son was born after seventeen grueling hours of labor. He was seriously and unexpectedly ill. To put it simply, he was born with a broken heart. Suddenly, the grief of an unspeakable tragedy was eclipsed by the fear of losing our first child.
Even now, I think of September 11th and it brings me to tears. I think of those family members, those friends, the brave souls who tried to save them and lost their lives. Those terrible losses will never be returned.
Even now, I remember the scent of burning things, the look of bewilderment on the faces of my colleagues that got ready to heal and had no one to save.
Even now, I sometimes wonder what I have done, bringing children into a world so filled with hate that such a thing could happen.
And yet, even now, as I look on the face of a beautiful, healthy, brilliant son who's about to turn ten years old, do I realize that there are far bigger things in the world worth holding on to.
And above all else, love.