I Was In NYC On 9/11, Here Are My Reflections 20 Years Later

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
A woman in a black hoodie and an orange backpack leaning on a railing and watching New York City at ...
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It’s hard to believe that 9/11 was twenty years ago. It’s one of those days that is permanently etched in my mind. Usually that’s a space reserved for happy memories, but I guess in this case the trauma sticks with me in the same way. So much of life as we know it has changed — for me personally, and as a country. I feel like sometimes the things I remember in the before is a fading memory. If there wasn’t media to confirm that’s what life was like, it wouldn’t even feel like something that happened.

Summer of 2002, I spent the summer in the midwest with my brother and his family. Once people found out I was from New York City, the first thing they asked me was, “were you in 9/11?” I’d smile and nod politely and try to answer questions the best I could without revealing too much. The wound was still too fresh to talk about all of those details. And in ways it still is. This is only the second time I’ve ever written anything on the subject.

Compared to other people I know my age, I had it relatively easy in terms of impact the day had on my life. Friends who went to high school closer to the World Trade Center have had it much worse in the last 20 years. Some of them suffer from anxiety and PTSD, and one of my friends is currently fighting breast cancer that is a result of her closeness to the site. Another friend’s mother had cancer a few years ago because they lived near WTC.

Usually I take a social media hiatus on 9/11. As someone who lived through it (though not as intimately as other folks I know) I cannot handle the constant barrage of images. I don’t even really like talking about the day with people who aren’t also from New York. There’s a special kind of kinship for people who were actively going through the collective trauma together in real time. I usually only talk about it with my dad, as our timelines of the day intersect the most. It’s not something I bring up to former classmates or other friends who were students at high schools across the city. It hurts too much to bring it up every year.

I can understand why people need to spend time publicly memorializing the day. It was literally the most world changing thing we had experienced. Something like that stays with you, even if you try to push it out of your mind. But you can’t put it out of your mind. Because we are beaten over the head on that day with the images of the horror: the video of the planes hitting the building on loop takes me right back to that day and the days following. Seeing pictures of people jumping and falling out of the windows, or others covered in ash and other debris. They just throw me right back to being a scared teenager, terrified of the city I knew and loved never being the same again.


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Like I said, my dad and I will usually check in with each other that day, even though it’s become less frequent over the years. He was a reporter at the time, and spent the days following 9/11 as close to the buildings as he could get, talking to first responders and others about what it was like in those first minutes and hours after the worst of it happened. I remember him coming home covered in the same ash and debris I had seen in those pictures. When we talk, I always appreciate the stories he tells — one of the police sergeants was Black, and it’s not something that felt widely talked about. But it’s really cool to know that.

I was 15 when 9/11 happened. It was the second week of my sophomore year of high school. My day started at second period, which means I didn’t have to be at school until 9AM. As someone who isn’t an early bird, that was a relief. That morning, I left our apartment in Brooklyn like I always did. My mom had already left to spend the day on Staten Island as she usually did. And my dad was planning on going to his office at the United Nations. I took my usual route: the Brooklyn Shuttle to the 4 train to the 6 train like it was a typical morning. I had no idea how much would change in the next few hours.

There is one thing about that day that always sticks out to me. The sky. It was the most perfect blue sky I had seen. Big white clouds that looked like cotton balls gently floated by as I walked down East 68th Street to my school. When I got there, I heard a student telling the elevator operator that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remember brushing it off. “It was probably a little Cessna; I bet it bounced right off and kept going.” I wouldn’t find out what actually happened for about three more hours.

I’ll spare you the minute details of the day, but I was one of the few students in my school with a working cell phone: a small brick-like Nokia that was prepaid to discourage me from using it. I had to call my dad for permission to allow friends to use it so they could find out how they were getting home from school that day. Subways that went through downtown weren’t running, including the trains I normally took home. In fact, if it wasn’t for my excessive need to be early, I might have gotten caught on the 4 train heading to school that morning.

My mom happened to see the second plane hit the Twin Towers by chance as the ferry docked. She was stuck on Staten Island for a day or so because they shut down the ferry and all the bridges. My dad never made it to work at the United Nations that day — he was home already getting a jump on the news and sending me updates. The O-Town concert I was supposed to attend that night was obviously cancelled (my best friend with the tickets lived on Staten Island, so I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway.) We didn’t have cable at the time and there wasn’t anything to watch but the news, where the horror show was on constant loop. The radio stations played ‘God Bless The U.S.A.’ for what felt like months.

This is why I don’t need to spend 9/11 memorializing on social media. I can bring those memories up at any given moment — I can still see that blue sky and remember the relaxation exercise we were doing in my movement for actors class right before we found out what happened. I will never forget the eerie silence that befell the city. Manhattan is rarely quiet. But you can’t hear all the commotion from downtown all the way up on East 68th Street. So we just heard silence. Whenever I ride the Staten Island Ferry, I can see the holes left by the Twin Towers — now you can only see them in old TV shows and movies…if they haven’t been edited out.


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While I don’t usually watch or commemorate the day, I have watched far too many specials over the last 20 years about the 9/11 babies. Kids who were very young when they lost a parent (mostly fathers) at the World Trade Center. With every special, I cry for the kids who will never get to know the parents who loved them. As a mother myself now, it breaks my heart in new ways. There’s a new special on Discovery+ about them, and I’ll probably watch it and cry. Those kids aren’t even babies anymore — they’re all in their early 20s, likely finishing college and learning how to exist in the world. I think of them, and the kids in my life who don’t know a world before. They only know the darkness and sadness and “war on terror.”

September 11th, 2001 has had profound effects on all different parts of life. Flying hasn’t been the same. I miss being able to drop off/pick up someone directly from their airport gate. We’ve been fighting an unnecessary war for almost 20 years. Parts of New York City, especially high traffic areas like the Staten Island Ferry and Times Square are literally crawling with cops, some of whom are wearing military grade assault weapons. After 20 years, that has not gotten easier, trust me. And I don’t even live in New York anymore.

Listen, I’m not here to tell anyone how they should commemorate 9/11. If you want to post that tired old picture of the spotlights beaming up where the Twin Towers once stood, go for it. Know that it might be hard for people to see that though. Everyone processes things in their own way. Two friends of mine post pictures of cute baby animals to distract people from whatever triggers they may be seeing on their feeds. I spend the day with my kid, reflecting to myself about how far my life has come in the last 20 years. One day, he may learn about it in school, and I can tell him about how the New York City I knew and loved died when the towers collapsed.