The Day New York Fell Silent
September 12, 2001
(This piece was published in The Stockton Record Sept 22, 2001)
After what was the largest slumber party ever (what else do you do when blocks and blocks of lower Manhattan are closed), New York woke up. No, it was not just a bad dream. The sun came out, and from this part of the island, everything was calm. Too calm. That’s what was missing. The noise. Everything was silent. There were no buses racing by, no dump trucks clanging at 6am, no salsa music playing from the neighbor down the corridor, not even the sound of children laughing in the park across the street. Just silence.
Venturing out in search of the only thing I wanted, a copy of the New York Times, I left my apartment, for the first time in the longest 24 hours a city has ever experienced. No more TV news, please. No more speculation, please. There is only so much that one can process and the Twin Towers caused my brain to overload. So out I went on a hunt for the newspaper. It proved harder than I thought. There were none up here, (Way up on 185th street). The subway was so somber and empty compared to the normal buzz. The Express train made every stop along the way and I got off before it reached the edge of hell. Rockefeller Center always has the paper, but alas at 51st and 5th, it didn’t.
Midtown was so quiet. There were so few cars that one could walk down the 5th Avenue. There was no sound, no construction, no mobile phones ringing, no music blaring, and no one speaking. New Yorkers are known for wearing black, that nice, slick chic, but today on the most somber of days, New Yorkers turned out in brightly colored attire. No one pushed, no one ran, but everyone wanted to prove that we lived through this. From 7th Ave looking downtown, there was a white cloud of smoke and dust. Mind-boggling.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral was in my peripheral vision, so I walked over and found it swarming with police. As I sat down, it suddenly dawned on me why they were there. A church is a target. They weren’t praying, but rather they had been stationed there to secure our freedom to worship. It hadn’t even registered that someone could take that away from me. Someone could hate me so much because I prayed different. I can’t really say why I went there. Maybe solace, maybe answers, maybe just to remember that we are not alone, but I didn’t have much to say to God. I picked up the prayer book and thumbed through it. In the back was “America the Beautiful”. Have you ever looked at the fourth verse?
O BEAUTIFUL FOR PATRIOT DREAMS,
THAT SEE BEYOND THE YEARS.
THINE ALABASTER CITIES GLEAM UNDIMMED BY HUMAN TEARS.
AMERICA, AMERICA GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE
AND CROWN THY GOOD WITH BROTHERHOOD FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA.
Those words seemed so poignant today. What about my search for a paper? Not likely I would find it in the Cathedral, so I walked to Grand Central Station. Lots of police, but no paper. I walked over to a store where my friend was working to see for myself if he was okay- he was. He was working to get mobile phones running again. No paper in any store, anywhere. So, I walked. I walked from 51st to 14th street.
There at 14th street, were the guarded gates of hell. A barricade of police and people watching. I stood there and watched too. Watching a space that was days earlier occupied by buildings and bakery smells and bicyclists and life. Except all that there was today was a cloud of white dust and the smell of burnt plastic and burnt hair.
I just turned around and went home. Did I really go in search of a paper, maybe yes, maybe no. I have never wanted a paper, a tangible piece of evidence, more than today. I don’t know whether it was house fever or a desire to help or just a need to see if I still had a city left. But at the end of an unreal 48 hours I can say, I’ve seen with my two eyes, New York is still alive and I am most grateful.
September 11, 2006
It’s always dark before the dawn.
I wish I could see 5 years on.
-Carrie Newcomer “5 Years On” from her album REGULARS AND REFUGEES
There it is again- 9:11 AM on the digital clock. Over the last five years, strangely I find myself looking for the time and seeing 9:11 on the clock. AM or PM it doesn’t matter. Why do I check the clock at that time? 9:11- a date, a time and a call for help. I can’t watch the films and the reruns of the event. The sadness and darkness of human nature too fresh in those little numbers- 9:11.
The generation before us encountered the assassination of a president. It took the country years to heal from that day and that was one man representing the institution of America. 9/11 was a deafening blow to the heart of the institution itself; it’s citizens. Hundreds upon thousands of people. So how long does it take to heal? Here we are 5 years on and there is a deluge of movies, TV shows, books and reruns of a day we have not completely heal from. Is it too soon to open up wounds that haven’t scarred over yet?
We go on now, changed from that day and the subsequent events that have transpired from reaction to that day. Many countries are affected and many more people have died long after the Towers fell. What do we do now? Does the world seem more complicated now that we know the threats or is it better because once we are no longer in denial; we can face the problem head on? I still think twice before I get on an airplane, even though I know it’s safer now than it ever was. Although I no longer live in New York City, due to work reasons, inevitably I will always feel like a New Yorker- because it’s always in my heart.
I guess all the movies and shows and reruns of the events on that doomed day help some people. I still leave the room when they come on, but we all heal different and that’s okay. The trust can be repaired but it will take some time to get us there.
I don’t stop living my life but I still look at the clock at 9:11- AM or PM, it doesn’t make a difference. I haven’t forgotten and I think that best honors those who passed, knowing that we remember but we are moving forward together one day at a time.
We live in a cynical time, but on that fateful day 10 years ago, when the world as we knew it went pear-shaped, what I saw in New York City was the best of humanity. In the middle of the darkest hour that many of us have ever faced, we stood up and helped our fellow neighbors. We helped them out of danger. We helped them through pain. We helped them look for loved ones and we helped them find a way to laugh again. In our darkest day, Americans showed the best of themselves.
On the Decade Anniversary of September 11th, instead of remembering the horror and terror, I remember an even stronger emotion that pervaded that day. As I wandered around my neighborhood buying groceries then waiting for all my friends to return home, what I remember most is…love. On that awful day, I have never felt more love. It poured out of my neighbors as those of us in Washington Heights checked up on each other. It was apparent at the grocery store when everyone took just enough to get them through but left plenty for others. It was visible on the street as strangers who passed each other silently, day after day, finally spoke to each other and even hugged. Friends and family from all over the world called or emailed me to find out if I was okay…to tell me, I was loved and would have been missed.
As the dust, debris, and acrid smell wafted through the area below Canal Street, I watched people risking their own lives to pull their fellow New Yorkers out of the rubble. I watched people run towards the North and South Towers to help. I watched people embraced tightly by first responders. And on the East Coast where the TV was live and unedited, I watched people who knew they couldn't make it out of the top floors hold hands and jump together as their last act of defiance against their aggressors. In the middle of all this pain a city of strangers, stepped up and showed love for their fellow man.
If you listen to the recordings of phone conversations, the root of all of them is love. Knowing they were going to die, many people's last calls were to their spouses, kids, parents, or friends to tell them "I LOVE YOU." These men and women's bravery and love endures...even a decade later.
In Loving Memory of everyone who perished in the North and South Towers, in the Pentagon and on AA flight 11, AA flight 77, United flight 175 and United flight 93. United We Stand, together we will never forget. We miss you.
THE NORTH TOWER
Hold my hand
We’ll go together
Our last act of brave defiance
Hold my hand
And together we’ll cross to the other side
There’s no other way
So, let’s be courageous together
Before time runs out and we fall with it
Come hold my hand
So, we will be together
And our families
Will know we made a choice
When there was no choice left
Hold my hand
And together we will join the sky
And though our bodies may fall
Our soul will go together towards the light
And together we will be free
In my last act of love
I offer you my hand
So, you will not feel alone
Wrap your fingers around mine
And together we’ll go
Before the smoke or the metal or the fear takes us
Together we will choose to go our way
In these last few seconds
I cannot offer you wealth or reward
All I have left to offer is my hand
So, take what little I have left
And let us be free
Copyright © 2012 by Mary Alexandra Stiefvater
On the 20th Anniversary of the Attacks of September 11th, 2001
They say time heals. And they were right. There was a time I couldn’t imagine being able to move forward without those images, those sounds and that smell creeping into my subconscious. Now it’s a memory I can go back into when I call it. And I call it to me every year at the very end of summer. I want to remember. I never want to forget. Because on that most awful of days, I witnessed the best in this country. I saw people rushing into danger to help, I saw neighbors lift and carry each other. I saw selflessness and kindness and grace in every corner. I saw unity.
Years earlier I had asked my mom about the day was when Kennedy was shot. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to have a historic memory as part of your personal story. A day that everyone can recount what they were doing when the event occurred. She told me where she was. What she was wearing. How the information changed as more was learned. How shock and disbelief turned to sadness and despair and eventually acceptance. How everything about that day imprinted in her memory. Even the weird and mundane details…she remembered them all.
That morning was so beautiful. So sunny and warm. I remember being tired as I walked down Christopher Street towards the train with him. We had made plans for after work…I boarded the A train at Washington Square Park. I went uptown on the A rather than down. That’s when the first plane struck. I walked into my home in Washington Heights and the phone was ringing. I dropped my stuff on the table and picked it up.
“Oh, thank God,” she said! My mom told me what was happening and I turned on the Spanish channel, the only one that came in clear on our analog tv, to see what she was talking about. We were confused. The first thought was not this is a terrorist attack; the first thought was oh my gosh did the pilot have a heart attack? Was this an air traffic blunder? Oh, those poor people…I hope rescuers can save them!
And then as we watched, the second plane hit. No one thought this could happen. No one thought this was a terrorist attack initially. And no one thought the North and then the South Towers would collapse crushing the A train underneath. It was unimaginable that the Pentagon could be hit or that the White House could have been destroyed. The whole thing was surreal and if it had been a movie, you would have laughed that a plot like this would never happened in real life.
She told me not to go anywhere. Stay put. Her instincts kicked in while I still stood in shock and confusion. What was happening!?! She told me she loved me and got off the phone just as it rang again…my uncle. Relieved that I was alive and okay. He too told me to STAY PUT. The phone lines went dead very shortly after that so no other calls could get in or out. We were cut off to each other and the rest of the world. Then authorities closed all bridges and tunnels in and out of Manhattan. Full scale lockdown. You were where you were and had no phone or internet to turn to.
I stood like a deer in headlights for several more minutes in my living room. And then realized I had no idea which of my roommates or our partners or our friends were going to make it through the front door today. Most of us were in lower Manhattan or midtown during the day. Who was going to make it home that night? Who wasn’t?
I still cry remembering that horrifying thought pass through my head. Friends, loved ones, colleagues, strangers, so many people would not make it home that night. I gathered up my keys and wallet and walked down to the local grocery store. Water, toilet paper, a frozen pizza…it sounded like a good idea to get some supplies while there was still power. Who knew what’s coming next?
The cat that lived at that grocery store, the one who use to nibble the lettuce at the edge of the crisper was sitting at the door, completely nonchalant, licking her paws. There were only a few of us in the grocery store. We sort of wandered aimlessly through the aisle politely taking only what we thought we might need and from time to time someone could be seen just standing staring blankly at the shelves…in shock. I took my small bag of groceries and trudged back up the hill, heavy and labored by the weight of the morning.
I sat silent in my living room watching the Spanish channel as the minutes ticked by. The news was being broadcasted live with no censorship. It was later edited for the West Coast but we on the East Coast saw all of it happen. I watched as desperate people unable to get out of the towers by the stairs, jumped. Not just Falling Man but so many people jumped. Some jumped hand in hand. I carried those images for well over a decade, haunted by them.
The door lock clicked. A roommate walked in. Still in shock, we stood in the foyer embracing.
As the day wore on, the door lock clicked again and again. And with each person that made it home, another breath got taken. Information passed by word of mouth. We learned of other friends who lived in the boroughs, now stuck on the island looking for a place to sleep. We opened our home. But for every piece of good news, there was a loss…or an unknown still. History remembers the aggregate of the events after all the facts have been collected. But when you live through a historical event, the information is fluid at the time. You operate on the information you have at that moment and you adapt as it changes.
Our home was full that night. People in every room except the living room. The phones were working again sporadically and a handful of friends from around the globe called. I sat in the windowsill talking to a friend, processing the events of this beautiful, sunny day that would become a page in a history book.
I was numb for a long time. Still in shock or disbelief. Grief and sadness don’t always register right away. But shock and confusion…disbelief… those are immediate.
In the days that followed I ventured out. I went looking for a newspaper. In the subway car everyone looked at each other. Everyone saw their neighbor for the first time. We didn’t speak a word but these people who ride together every day, finally saw each other. It didn’t feel fragile, it felt powerful. It felt unified; in our shock, in our awareness, in our survival. The stillness felt powerful.
The entire city was silent when I got off at Columbus Circle. If you have ever been to NYC, you could imagine how eerie it is. I could not find a newspaper anywhere. There was no tangible validation that this event had indeed happened. So, I walked further. I saw the police guarding St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It took me a while to process those religious institutions were targets. Surreal.
I walked to Grand Central Station. Surely, they would have a newspaper…What I found instead where thousands of pictures and notes stuck to every surface. HAVE YOU SEEN…? DO YOU KNOW WHERE MY LOVED ONE IS? PLEASE CALL IF FOUND…! These were the faces that didn’t walk through the door that night. These were the ones who never got a goodbye or an I love you or closure. That’s when the grief hit me. I tried to look at as many as I could before it became overwhelming. I read the letters and the notices and the pleas and the prayers.
I stumbled outside and just when I needed it most another friend stood right across the street. We hugged for the longest time, in the middle of the sidewalk. He was there working to get all the cell phone lines up and running. We hoped it would reunite some of those faces on the wall with their families. I walked on.
That day after, New Yorkers made it known that they would not be defeated. People came out wearing bright colors. Some ate at outdoor cafes. There were plumes of smoke in the sky and ash everywhere but they were not going to let the terrorists win. America would carry on and New York would lead the way forward.
I kept walking all the way down to 14th Street. The edge of hell. Everything south of it was blocked off. I stood there for quite a while. What history didn’t mention was the smell. The smell lasted for months. The smoldering ruins, the ash raining, the acrid smell wafting. I can still smell it now. It was like nothing I’ve ever known. Acrid describes it best. The combination of burnt hair and melted plastic and flesh and metal and chemicals…that smell blanketed New York for so long. And when the wind shifted, you’d catch the scent and all the agony of that day would flood you.
Imprinted memories stay for the duration of your life. Whether it was Kennedy’s assignation, 9/11 or some other historical event, it becomes written into your own story. It can become a catalyst for things to come in your own life. Historical events have a way of unifying us. Reminding us what we fight for, why we fight for it and who we are fighting for. It shows the best of humanity during the worst of times. Time heals but we will never forget and that is good because we remember so we can pass on these tales to those who weren’t alive yet. We remember to honor those we have lost and to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. I will never forget that day that we stood united and all those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001.
Copyright © 2022 by Mary Alexandra Stiefvater
I was on the A train, riding uptown that fateful morning. I never intended to be a writer or indeed, to place my memories from that September day on the page, but I found myself turning to the literary arts in the years that followed to find healing. I wrote about it when it happened, on the fifth anniversary, the tenth and the twentieth. I even turned the narrative into a poem. It was an awful day, but what I carry from it, and will for the rest of my life, is the love and kindness that came from all over the world. I hope I never forget, because on the worse of days, I saw the best of humanity. These are the pieces I wrote in sequential order from the day after, through the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
-Mary Alexandra Stiefvater