September 11, 2001.
The day that changed America.
I know it changed me, and my perspective on the duality of mankind (evil vs. good).
I’m finding it difficult to believe that it’s been eighteen years when it feels like it just happened. Even now, certain images or sounds still evoke all those terrifying feelings and thoughts I had on that fateful day.
An airplane flying over my house. A fireman on a street corner. Any high rise structure.
It took me sixteen years to step back on a plane. I have flown a few more times since; however I am still unable to shake the uneasiness that disaster can strike at any given moment.
In 2017, the events of 9/11 continued to haunt me so I decided to write a micro-story and eventually turned it into a video, The Bench. In a way, I did this to try and purge some of the feelings of intense sadness and of the anger over what we all had lost that day. I wrote this from a fireman’s perspective drawing upon a specific story I saw on one of the many 9/11 documentaries.
The actual photo that inspired my story:
(Someone took the iconic picture of a fireman sitting on the bench when he couldn’t find his wife anywhere)
Article detailing his story — Husband and Wife Survive World Trade Center on 9/11
Although his story had a happier ending, I wrote my story with the thought of so many others who’d lost their loved ones. And even worst, never to have their remains found.
9/11 had a profound effect on me. For several months afterward, I struggled with depression.
Perhaps in part it had to do with the fact I am from New York state. Born and raised upstate, my hometown was about five hours north of the Big Apple. I’d spent time among those enormous high rises (yes, including the Twin Towers), roamed many of its streets, and walked along the boardwalks admiring great ships of war.
My husband and I had just relocated from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina in May of 2001. I’d flew on an American Airline plane back to New York in July for my sister’s wedding.
On that day, a Tuesday, I was a teller working for RBC Centura in one of their branches near REX hospital (only a few short miles from the RDU airport).
Annette, another teller, was there initially as we got ready to open the bank. But just before opening, she received a phone call that her grandmother was taken to the ER so she had to leave.
It was a few minutes before opening, Waller, the branch manager, got a call on his cell from his mother to turn on the news. A plane had crashed into one of the Towers. We quickly went back to the break room and turned on the small television and sure enough, we could see plumes of smoke rolling out of the North Tower.
Our first thought was that a commercial plane had accidentally hit the Tower.
An accident. That’s all it was.
With that, we opened the bank for the day.
As there were no customers yet, I rushed back to the break room to continue following the breaking news when I witnessed the second plane hitting South Tower.
I’d felt like something had knocked the wind out of me as I found myself holding my breath unable to take another.
Oh my god…that was no accident.
When the third plane hit Pentagon less than 20 minutes later, I was thinking, my god, we’re under attack.
My heart was racing. I couldn’t help but wonder – where will they hit next?
Unbeknowst to me at the time, my brother, Rick, was working that very morning at the American Airlines Southeastern Reservation Center in Cary, NC. He personally knew the coworker who took that agonizing call by one of the flight attendants (Betty Ong) from Flight 11 (the plane that hit the North Tower). But when the call initially came in (between 8 and 8:30am), no one (including him) except for the supervisors knew of the tragic events unfolding. The coworker was told to keep the call discreet as not to spread panic through the center. Unfortunately, no one was able to get help in time for her and the passengers of Flight 11. Rick said that this coworker was so distraught, they had to resigned.
It was sometime before 10am when I began hearing that the FAA were grounding all flights. I also remember hearing that all planes were accounted for…all except for one. That one, Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania.
Throughout this whole first hour of being opened, not one single customer came to the branch. The main phone did not ring. At. All.
I was still the only teller. Annette was gone. Remi, the part timer, wasn’t due in for another hour. Throughout this entire building there were only myself and the branch manager.
It felt so eerily strange.
Up to this point, I was feeling a little frantic and unnerved, but managed to keep myself together.
A little before 10am, I decided to go back and check on the news for any new information and watched disbelievingly as the South Tower collapsed.
Oh. My. God. Did I just see an entire high rise crumble to the ground? How was that even possible?
Less than 30 minutes later, North Tower fell.
There was a loud buzzing in my head as my mind tried to decipher all that had happened. This was such craziness! Who would do such horrific acts?
I was stunned. I was afraid. Then I became angry.
Whoever was responsible, needed to pay for all those lives lost.
I was so livid, I really wanted to smash something.
The phone rang.
It was my husband, Jay, who’s a teller at another bank across town. A former soldier who fought in Desert Storm in 1991, it was his calm voice that snapped me back from the edge I was about to fall from.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I had to take several deep breaths before I could answer, “Yes.”
After all that had happened up to this point, the bank decided to keep their branches opened; but the rest of the day was a blur for me. I don’t remember if Remi ever did come in. I’m sure he did. I do remember the only two customers who came. One of them took the drive-through, the former owner and CEO of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Everything felt so surreal. I couldn’t tell if I was awake or asleep. I suppose I was in shock, but I can remember the utter relief I felt when we finally locked the doors, and seeing my husband waiting in the parking lot.
Thank god, I can finally get away from here!
For the next week or so, the skies over us were empty. Silent. The RDU airport nearby was practically barren of all life. Rick was given nearly a week off before returning to the Reservation Center.
Our lives, everything, had changed forever.
Feeling secured in our country had only been an illusion.
Even today, I can’t help looking over my shoulder every once in a while for the next disaster to strike.
What about you? Where were you on September 11, 2001? How did that day change your life?