We all have a story. We all remember where we were on 9/11 when we heard about the attacks. We all remember the shock, the grief, the sheer terror we felt in our bones.
I was in Manhattan at the time, 23 years old, newly married, and working at an office near Grand Central Station. When I got to work, my co-workers were buzzing about the fact that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I felt uneasy immediately. My husband was downtown. He traveled for work, and I wasn’t even sure where he was, or whether something like this could impact him.
When I found out a few minutes later that a second plane had struck the other tower, I knew immediately that it wasn’t an accident. Something awful and unprecedented was happening. I picked up the phone to try to get in touch with my husband. The phone line was dead. I told my boss that I was leaving. My fight-or-flight system was in full gear. My boss understood.
As I walked down Madison Avenue, I could see the two towers burning in the distance, thick smoke wafting out of them. I tried payphone after payphone to reach my husband, but not one phone worked.
I walked downtown aimlessly. As I walked, I passed people who were rushing uptown. Some were covered in ashes, crying. I had no idea what I was doing, but it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to find my husband this way, and I should probably get the hell out of the city. I boarded a subway to Brooklyn. As I got on the train, an announcement came on the intercom alerting us that this was the last train leaving the city because the subway system was being shut down.
I sat next to a woman covered in ash, crying. I didn’t say a word but gave her a hug.
When I got off the train, I walked past a man who was standing on a ladder on top of his truck, looking out to the Manhattan skyline. “There’s only one tower left,” he told me. It would be a few hours later until I understood what he meant.
My story ended well. My husband wasn’t near enough to the Twin Towers to be affected. He walked uptown with a swarm of people, then across the 59th Street bridge, and another two miles to our apartment in Greenpoint. When I saw him walk up our block, I cried, then rushed to him and held him tight, never wanting to let him go.
I know how incredibly lucky I was, because I soon learned that thousands and thousands of people were not.
As the smoke from the wreckage wafted across the river to our home, filling the air with an awful, terrifying scent, we sat inside watching the news, listening to the many stories of loss and fear. We didn’t personally know anyone who died in the attacks, but we had friends of friends who lost loved ones. There was a firefighter from our Long Island hometown who had rushed to the scene that morning and lost his life.
The thing was, whether you knew someone or not, if you lived near the city then, you felt intimately connected to what happened. Even when we began to return to our daily routines, it wasn’t the same for weeks, months.
Subway station walls were filled with pictures of the missing. It took a long time for all the bodies to be identified, and many held out hope for weeks that they would still find their loved ones. For the first few weeks, we all walked in a daze, sharing stories, hugging each other tightly, and crying. It was hard to concentrate on much else.
As many stories of grief as there were, there were stories of heroism. I remember walking through the city past fire stations and police stations, all adorned with flowers. We’d all walk by, nodding at our brave men and women, our first responders, knowing they had seen things they would never forget, and had lost friends, brothers, and sisters they’d loved with all their hearts.
So many of them had rescued men, women, and children from the buildings. So many had pulled injured bodies out of the wreckage, had given comfort, love, and a helping hand without letting fear stop them, not for one second.
That bravery was palpable, and for those weeks and months after 9/11, there was a deep sense of community in the city. We New Yorkers are tough, often guarded, but now were looking each other in the eyes, an unspoken sense of camaraderie between us. Everyone felt like family then.
We said it then, and it’s still true now: We will never forget. None of us will, whether we were in New York, or Pennsylvania, or Virginia — whether we were starting our school day in Kansas, or were just waking up in California. We will always remember the moment we found out what had happened, the enormity of it, and the knowledge that our country could never be the same.
If we lost a loved one that day, we are forever changed. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. The ache and loss is still raw, always, in our hearts. Not one day goes by where we don’t think of what happened, that we wish we could have fixed it somehow. Even after all these years, all we want in this world is to be reunited with our lost dear ones.
We will always remember the loss, the pain, the terror, and the bravery of the men and women who put their lives on the line to save others. Our hearts will forever hold gratitude for those who rushed to the scene to rescue the hurt, the trapped, and injured — those who stayed for days on end, with little sleep, working until everyone who could be saved was saved.
It’s been 17 years since the attacks, which seems like a long time, and so much has changed for many of us in that time. But in many ways, hardly any time has passed, and that day is fresh in our minds.
We are changed, forever and always, and we will never, ever forget.