A number of years ago, I wrote this recollection of the events of the September 11th terrorist attacks and memories of my experience that day and the days following. As with all significant, out of the ordinary events, most of us have vivid memories of where we were and what we were doing. Feel free to share yours below. I lived in NYC on September 11, 2001, but I wasn’t in the city that day. Instead, my colleagues and I were at a national meeting in Crystal City, Maryland, across the highway from the Pentagon. We felt the hotel shake when the plane hit. Soon after, we smelled smoke. The building was locked down. Like many others, we could do nothing but wait and watch the horrifying images on a big screen.
While phone service was limited for the first few hours, I felt reasonably certain that my daughter was safe at her preschool in upper Manhattan, over 10 miles from Ground Zero. I had hoped that my husband was still in the city, but, when I finally reached him, I learned he had crossed the bridge soon after the first tower was hit and was stuck in New Jersey. He ended up driving over 100 miles out of the way and taking 4 hours for a typical 18 mile, 30 minute trip home. He had to ditch the car in the Bronx and make his way by livery cab and foot back to Manhattan. 6 hours later, he picked up our daughter and made it home.
Back in DC, the trains weren’t running; the airports were closed. People at the meeting started talking about carpools to Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Florida. I was able to leave the hotel that night and stayed with friends in DC, relieved for the comfort of good friends in familiar surroundings, away from the destruction and chaos that were so closeby. Then I had to figure out how to get home.
I was able to get a train back to NYC on September 12th. I’ll never forget the first glimpse of the two giant pillars of smoke rising from Ground Zero as the train made its way through New Jersey toward Manhattan. The towers were gone. The smoke and sky where the towers once stood were like a huge scar. I will never forget these images and memories from those unfathomable days.
I’ll also never forget the changes that took place in the city after 9/11. Everything was quieter, a startling change in a city of deafening overstimulation. Planes weren’t flying over head , a very strange occurrence on an island with waterways that serve as giant flight paths for 3 major and multiple smaller airports in the area. Only the occasional roar of fighter jets circling the city was heard, extremely unsettling after the air attacks.
People were also quieter. We all seemed to be whispering. We were also making more eye contact than is usual for New Yorkers. Sometimes the glances were suspicious, but mostly they were supportive and sympathetic, looking for a connection, an understanding smile, or a little reassurance.
The Friday after the towers fell, I was coming home from my office in the early evening (I was working as a psychologist at the time and spent many months processing the events of September 11th with my hospital clinic and private practice patients). I would normally take a 30-minute subway ride, but I preferred to stay above ground for while and ended up taking mainly buses and cabs for almost 2 months after the attacks. The bus ride home would take about an hour. My only concern was that I’d miss the candlelight vigil scheduled for 7pm. I was hoping to participate at the park in the close-knit neighborhood where I lived, but as the bus continued its stops, it became clear I wasn’t going to make it. At a stop in West Harlem, around 138thStreet and Broadway, I saw people gathering in front of an apartment complex. I jumped off the bus, ran across the street and joined the growing group.
A woman had a basket full of candles and was handing them out to the crowd. Most people were speaking Spanish. The woman with the basket started talking to me. I told her I lived uptown but had seen the gathering from the bus and wanted to be with others for the vigil. We shared our sadness for those who had perished and concern for the hundreds who were missing. People started lighting each other’s candles. The woman started the ceremony. She spoke to the crowd, well over 100 people, in Spanish and English. She turned and asked if I thought we should say a prayer. “That sounds nice,” I said. “What’s your name?” she asked? I told her, and she turned to the crowd and said, “Gloria has joined us and will lead us in a prayer.” She turned back to me and asked, “Do you speak Spanish?” “Uh, no…”, I replied. “That’s ok, I’ll translate.”
I wish I remember what I said. At that time in my life, I wasn’t praying too regularly, so I was a bit out of practice and certainly taken aback. I just started talking – I know I prayed for the victims and their families, peace and healing for us all. As I spoke, the woman with the basket translated. When I was finished, she made a few more comments, then invited others to offer intentions. People prayed for friends, family, friends of friends, firefighters. People held hands and cried.
After 10 or 15 minutes, a noticed a cab pulling up near the corner. Cabs were hard to come by at the time, so I slipped away, got in the car and continued toward home.
I will never forget those moments on a street corner, part of a group of total strangers from diverse cultures, classes and backgrounds, sharing the grief, fear and concern that brought us together that night for a little comfort during such a stressful and frightening time. I will never forget the feelings of hope, unity and peace that night; the feeling of connection to others; a degree of pride and love for my country that I had never felt before; and the gratitude and sorrow for those who courageously lost their lives and for the thousands of innocent victims whose lives were changed forever.
All of our lives were changed forever on September 11th. Today I pray for our continued healing. And I pray for more peace, love and unity in the world that can also change our lives forever.
Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. is a leadership coach, speaker and trainer who uses a strengths-based approach to help individuals, groups and organizations achieve their goals and realize their greatest success. She is a New Yorker by birth and heart who lives in Southern California.