9/11 from the eyes of a New Yorker

I witnessed the attacks of September 11th 2001 first hand in New York City as the World Trade Center towers collapsed before my very own eyes. It was a painful day for many people all over the world but it was uniquely different for those of us that lived in NYC. I haven’t spoken much about my experience so I thought I’d try to share a detailed account. Hopefully this will be cathartic.

During the early 2000’s I was living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in NYC. I lived on the 9th floor of a 14 story apartment building on East 63rd St. between second and third avenue. The location was amazing. I could walk to a grocery store, movie theaters, great shopping, and a lot of entertainment. I was also a few blocks from the FDR drive which is the main highway running along the east side of Manhattan. If you wanted to drive from my apartment to the World Trade Center complex you would take the FDR. With no traffic it takes about 15 minutes to go 7.5 miles to get there.

The path from my apartment to the World Trade Center Complex

On the morning of September 11th, I woke up at 8am. After showering I put on CNN while brewing a cup of coffee. At the time I was working on my first startup and worked out of my apartment. My commute consisted of walking from my bedroom to the living room. When the first plane hit the north tower at 8:45am I was checking my email and listening to CNN.

It took a few minutes before CNN started reporting the crash. I didn’t hear the actual crash because I was too far away but I did hear the CNN anchors break to show footage of the north tower with smoke billowing from the top of the building. I walked over to the TV and started watching.

This was my desk in my apartment where I ran my startup.

At first the news reported that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center north tower, maybe from a problem with its radar or a mistake from air traffic control. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the TV. I had been near the World Trade Center complex the week before and I’ve been to Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower. I’m very familiar with the buildings. Growing up in New York its hard not to be familiar with these iconic buildings. Seeing smoke billowing from the north tower was shocking.

Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the WTC north tower.

It felt like an hour from when the first plane struck the north tower until the second plane hit the south tower. In reality it was only 15 minutes. I was watching CNN live when it happened. The anchors were still confused and talking about a serious glitch with air traffic control that was routing planes into buildings. After a few minutes an aviation expert joined the broadcast and said it was not a navigation issue, it was likely a terrorist attack. I was still in shock like most folks.

At this point I started to hear the emergency sirens of fire trucks and police cars as they rushed passed my apartment heading toward lower Manhattan. When you live in NYC you hear a lot of sirens. Your brain gets good at blocking them out so that you don’t notice them. Today however I was noticing them. The sirens sounded louder and there were many more of them.

A few friends who lived nearby arrived unannounced at my apartment to watch the events unfold. We decided to go up to the roof of the building which had a good view to see if we could see the WTC buildings. When we got to the roof we could see a ton of black smoke billowing from lower Manhattan but we could not see the World Trade Center towers. We decided to walk over to the FDR to see if we could get a glimpse of the drama. At this point everything felt surreal.

My apartment building in Manhattan

While walking over to the FDR highway I noticed that there were very few cars or pedestrians on the road. One we got to the FDR I noticed the highway was empty. There were zero cars on a highway which should’ve been packed with rush hour traffic. The police had shut down the highway already so that emergency vehicles could travel quickly to lower Manhattan. In all of the years I lived in NY (half of my life) I never saw the FDR highway empty. Occasionally an emergency vehicle like an ambulance or a fire engine sped down the highway.

FDR highway near lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge can be seen in the distance.

From the FDR we had a better vantage point but we still couldn’t see the towers. We decided to walk over to the 59th street bridge which was a few blocks up the street to see if we could get a good view from there. We arrived and could finally see the towers as they burned releasing a ton of black smoke into the air. Ten minutes after we arrived the south tower collapsed. I was in shock along with the other folks on the bridge. What was unfolding before me was unbelievable. I heard someone near me start laughing which was an absurd reaction to what was likely the death of a lot of people. The woman standing next to me became angry and said something rude to the person who laughed. We continued to watch for another 30 minutes until the north tower collapsed and then walked back toward my apartment.

View of burning towers as seen from the 59th st bridge.

On the way back to my apartment we could hear more sirens. It was as if all of NYC was responding to lower Manhattan. (It was actually all of the tri-state area consisting of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that was responding.) Before we reached my apartment we heard a very loud jet flying overhead. I looked up and saw two F15 fighter jets quickly flying over us. They were racing to lower Manhattan to protect the city from any further threats. I’ve never seen fighter jets fly over Manhattan until that day.

F15 fighter jet flying over Manhattan after 9/11. The white smoke is Ground Zero.

When we got to my apartment we put CNN back on and watched the replay of the twin towers collapsing. Around 11am my best friend’s older brother Keith called me. He worked in the South Tower and was there when the first plane hit the North Tower. He asked me if he could come over and stay at my apartment because all of the bridges and tunnels leading outside of Manhattan are closed and he lives in NJ. (Manhattan is an island BTW.) As Keith walked toward my apartment he told us what he witnessed.

Keith said he was in a conference room on in the South Tower when the plane struck the North Tower. He heard the crash but did not see the explosion. When he walked over to the window he saw what looked like paper blowing around in the wind and fire and smoke coming out of the top of the North Tower. He walked into the hallway to exit the building. He passed by a security guard who was telling people to go back to their offices and wait. An announcement over the PA system tells folks to go back to their offices.

Keith, not wanting to stick around headed toward the stairs. He was on the 50 something floor and started his walk toward the bottom. As he passed floors he would walk by disabled people who were unable to descend on their own. They were waiting for someone to help them. Nobody would ever come to their rescue. Keith kept running down and when he got to the 30th floor he heard and felt the second plane hit his building. It crashed into the 70th floor causing the entire building to shake several feet in each direction. Keith said that some people fell down, some screamed and he thought he was going to die. When the shaking stopped he kept heading down toward the building’s exit. At this point he was fighting his way down while firefighters and rescue folks were walking up.

When Keith arrived at the bottom floor he headed toward the exit and noticed that the turnstiles that control traffic flow going in and out of the building were charred black. There was black charring on the elevator doors too likely from the fireball that rushed through the elevator shaft after the explosion from the plane crashing into the building. Keith ran outside and saw dead bodies splattered on the ground while bits of debris from the building (which looked like paper) fell to the ground. He called me after he was two blocks away.

It would take Keith a few hours to get to my apartment so we decided to head out with some water bottles and see if we could help. I assumed that there were a lot of folks who would need help. We walked to midtown before we started seeing the first people who were near the WTC towers when they collapsed. You could tell they were there because they were very dirty and covered in ash. They looked like zombies. We passed out water bottles quickly to those people and then ducked into a nearby bodega to grab some more water. We spent about an hour passing out water and then headed back to my apartment to meet up with Keith.

Keith arrived looking pretty good considering what he had been through. He described what happened to him in detail. I recorded it on my video camera. (I’ve got a DV tape in storage somewhere with his story on it.)

I started keeping a list of people I knew who worked in lower Manhattan. As their calls came in to tell me that they were okay, I marked them off the list and broadcasted it via my startup’s website to folks around the world who were following me online. Today Facebook has a check-in feature designed for situations like this. After a terrorist attack people can checkin so that family and friends can quickly verify that you are safe. In 2001 Facebook as barely getting off the ground and there was no Twitter.

My wife (now my ex-wife) was studying at Cornell to be a Physician’s Assistant. In the morning after the crash she ran over to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to help main the trauma station for the rush of injured people that would come in. That was the plan anyways. She came home that night looking defeated. Very few people would show up to her hospital with injuries because they were already dead.

I don’t remember much else about the day but I do remember being exhausted. I had two friends stay over at my one bedroom apartment that night including Keith.

I don’t have a detailed account for what happened the next day but I do remember at some point during the day the wind shifted and I could smell the carnage from the day before. The air got a little dark and dirty and smelled horrible. The only way I can describe the smell is to say that it smelled like a burnt grilled cheese sandwich. The rest of the day haunted us with that smell. Manhattan remained closed all day so that only emergency vehicles could enter or leave. Keith stayed over for another night.

For the next few days fighter jets flew very slowly at low altitude across the city sky. I don’t know if they were on a mission to keep us safe or if they wanted to show force so that we would feel safe but I found it very unsettling. The jets are loud and very ominous. If you haven’t seen a fighter jet in person they are scary. I did not feel safer seeing those planes in the sky.

One week after the attack my cousin Sean who is a few years older called me to ask if I wanted to drive by Ground Zero to see the wreckage. I don’t know why this appealed to me but it did. Although I saw the buildings fall down I did not get close up to the wreckage. I was curious. Sean picked me up and we started driving toward lower Manhattan. Once we got to around 14th street there were military troops guarding the streets. They were probably national guard but honestly anyone in fatigues looks the same to me. They had assault rifles so I turned to Sean and said we should go home. Sean was determined to get closer.

Sean parked his car and we walked a few streets over and found an opening where we could walk by a police officer and get closer. Some of the police officers wore face masks.

Police block the street preventing folks from getting to ground zero.

Along the way we passed by several tents full of news media who were continuously covering the aftermath of the attacks.

News media in tents covering the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

We also passed by a few fire stations. They had become memorials for the people who perished in the attacks. In some cases 90% of the people who worked out of these fire stations were killed.

One of the memorials for a local fire station. Notice the photos on the wall of the deceased.

I think we were walking up West Broadway and had just passed Chambers street. We were now close enough now to see the carnage. When I looked down the block to where the World Trade Center towers had been all I could see was a mountain of rubble consisting of bent steel bars and broken concrete. There was several stories of this rubble. It was shocking.

Several stories of rubble is seen in the distance. White smoke is also visible from the smoldering ruins.

Being at Ground Zero so close to the attacks of 9/11 was anything but cathartic. Seeing the pile of rubble and knowing that there are human bodies still waiting to be found was horrifying. I will never be able to undo the smell of ash in the air at Ground Zero. Visiting Ground Zero was a mistake.

Living in NYC was one of the best experiences in my life. It is a fantastic city and it was so much fun being there. After 9/11 living in NYC was anything but fun. There are so many things that happen during the day that remind you of the 3000 people who died only a few miles from where you live. A memorial in front of a fire station, an ambulance siren screeching by, the lack of the twin towers in the city skyline.

Then there was the anthrax attacks a few months later which also hit close to home. One of the hospitals where people were killed was only a block away.

Me standing in front of the Manhattan ENT hospital next to news crews covering the Anthrax attack

For the next three years there were constant reminders of the the attacks of 9/11. By the end of the third year I was ready to leave New York and in early 2004 I moved to Austin, TX.

I don’t talk to Keith much except on 9/11. We have a ritual of reaching out to each other to check in. Sometimes we chat about what happened that day, other times we just share stories about our children.

I’m pretty sure I still suffer from PTSD from my experience that day. For a few years after the attack I started getting anxiety attacks. I took medication for a while to help me reduce it. I’m also terrified to fly on a plane. I do it often but I need to take anxiety medicine to make it comfortable. Prior to 9/11 I never had trouble flying. I also get a little claustrophobic in elevators going up to high floors in tall buildings. I feel the same way in below ground parking garages.

Every year people remember 9/11. There is always news coverage on TV, articles online, and so on. I try to stay away from it all as much as possible. It makes me feel depressed and sometimes anxious. It took me more than 10 years before I could write about my experiences on 9/11. Writing this article wasn’t easy.

I didn’t suffer nearly as badly as those who lost loved ones on 9/11 or due to the sickness afterwards. My experience was as a spectator helpless to do anything but watch. But living so close to the tragic and horrible deaths of 3000 human beings is a pretty horrifying thing. Studies show that many people continue to suffer from PTSD from the 9/11 attack. Many of them are unaware of their trauma. One of the reasons that people suffer from something like 9/11 is that they experienced an event so shocking that it ripped at the fabric of their ordinary life. That mental tear requires healing which can take time. For some they will never fully heal.

I’m happy to finally write this article. It has been ten years in the making. I’m sure many other New Yorkers have similar stories. The attacks on September 11th was one of the worst attacks on US soil in recent years. Despite the news media playing up every terrorist attack as if the world has become a dangerous place, we are actually safer than ever. Sometimes I don’t feel safe but I keep reminding myself that I am.

By joshkerr

Josh is an 8x startup founder and angel investor.

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