As I walked out of my apartment in Queens, I was struck by the beauty of the cloudless and sunny Tuesday morning. Normally, I took the bus or subway to work. Both would drop me off right in front of the vast bustling World Trade Center Plaza around 8:45 a.m. I would then walk across the Plaza to my office in the World Financial Center, directly across the street from the World Trade Center Towers, and arrive at my desk slightly before 9:00 a.m. That particular Tuesday morning, I decided to hop on an express bus to the World Trade Center. The clear skies made the express bus an attractive commuting option, since there was no rain in the forecast. I had scheduled my first meeting for 9:30, rather than 9:00 since the recitation of selichos at shul that morning would slightly delay my arrival at the office.
The bus commute started off as planned. Commuters were tuned in to their Walkmans, reading the newspaper, or already hard at work on their laptops. All was quiet on the bus until around 8:45. As the bus approached Manhattan, a few passengers could be heard talking in disturbing voices about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center! Truthfully, I was not that surprised. My office building was located on the Hudson River, across the street from the Trade Center. It had a beautiful outdoor plaza, and I would frequently see planes and helicopters flying overhead. I was often in awe of the fact that none of these aircraft ever accidentally crashed into the surrounding buildings, which included the Twin Towers. So, when I heard the initial reports, I thought that one of the planes had finally had some bad luck and misjudged its course.
As our bus approached Manhattan, we could see thick black smoke rising from the top of 1 World Trade Center. After we crossed into Manhattan, the passengers reported that a plane had struck the second World Trade Center tower. It was now clear that these planes did not simply misjudge their course. People kept chiming in with new updates from their radios: “It was a charter plane…..No, it was two passenger planes…..There was a hijacking.”
About a mile away from the World Trade Center, our bus came to a standstill. We hit gridlock traffic near the South Street Seaport, on the east side of Lower Manhattan. The bus driver announced that he would pull over and let the passengers exit the bus. Many passengers quickly exited the bus and rushed to finish their morning commute to their respective offices in Lower Manhattan. Walking to our respective offices seemed like the easiest and quickest way to work. When I stepped off the bus, I could see thick and heavy black smoke pouring out of both World Trade Center towers. A fleeting thought came through my mind: “Wait, how am I going to cross through the Trade Center Plaza for my 9:30 meeting if these two colossal buildings are literally burning down?” Feeling almost paralyzed and not knowing what to do or where to go, I watched the smoke pour out of both towers. Walking to the office in the midst of this scene did not appear to be a viable option.
Suddenly, the bus driver yelled out that he was going to turn around and head back to Queens. He offered to take the few of us who were still next to the bus back with him. So, we boarded the bus quickly and began the trip back to Queens.
New reports were emerging that these plane crashes were indeed terrorist attacks. We then heard that the bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey and the surrounding boroughs were shutting down due to the possibility of more attacks.
As we approached the bridge into Brooklyn, there was a massive police presence at its entrance. Fortunately, traffic was still moving over the bridge and our bus was able to leave Manhattan and make its way back to Queens. I remember feeling extremely relieved and thankful once our bus crossed the bridge.
Soon after we left Manhattan, fellow passengers started gasping as they listened to the news on their radios. The South Tower collapsed and submerged Lower Manhattan in a cloud of dust and debris. This came as no surprise, since we had just witnessed the intense black smoke gushing from both Towers. Finally, I made it back to my apartment. Upon turning on the television to check the news, I witnessed the collapse of the North Tower!
I was filled with mixed emotions: “Why was I lucky enough to be watching these events on TV rather than experiencing them in person?” “Why was I fortunate enough to have scheduled a 9:30 meeting that morning instead of arriving at my office at the usual 9:00 a.m.?” I was also hit with the reminder that Rosh Hashanah was only a few days away. “Why did the horrific September 11th attacks happen when they did? What message was Hashem sending?” These were the raw thoughts that flooded my brain during the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Since our office was directly across the street from the Twin Towers, I was out of work for about two weeks until alternative office arrangements could be made. This gave me plenty of time to speak with friends, colleagues, and fellow New Yorkers. Everyone was talking about the tragedy and shared stories about September 11. The tragedies were heartbreaking; the stories of the survivors were miraculous.
One colleague was walking along the World Trade Center Plaza when the plane hit the building, just as I would have been that morning had I arrived for work at my normal time. He remembered debris falling everywhere. As he said, “It was literally raining glass and metal.” People were being crushed by debris all around him, yet he ran for cover and was lucky enough to walk away unharmed.
Another friend told me how he was outside in lower Manhattan and ran for cover when the tower fell. He jumped into the nearest office building to avoid being caught up in the gray dust cloud that quickly raced toward him. Other colleagues who were in our office building at the time the planes hit told me how they were instructed by emergency personnel to stay inside the building. But after witnessing the catastrophic scenes of people jumping and falling out of the towers, my colleagues knew that staying inside our office was not an option. They decided to leave the building and walk uptown. Miraculously, all of my work colleagues in the office that day made it out safely.
There was one survival story I heard in the following days that truly illustrated to me, first-hand, how Hashem had mercy in the midst of this tragedy. One of the top officials in New York City’s EMS (Emergency Medical Services) was a member of the small shul we attended in Queens. He helped coordinate the City’s EMS response to the unprecedented situation on 9/11. During Torah reading, Harvey* and I individually went up to the bimah to bentch gomel. When it was Harvey’s turn, he started shaking and weeping as he recited the bracha. I found out why when we spoke after davening. He told me that he and the all of the chiefs of NYC’s first responders immediately responded to the 911 calls that morning. They were discussing their on-site response and rescue operation in the lobby of the World Trade Center, while the building was burning. Suddenly, they felt a rumbling. The tower was coming down! Harvey ran one way out of the building, the chiefs ran another. Harvey found himself across the street, huddled inside an underground parking garage. Once the dust settled, he looked around him and noticed the chiefs were not with him. He subsequently found out that all the chiefs who ran the other way were killed. He was the only one member of his group who survived!
I try not to dwell on the events of that morning, but after so many years, they still make their way into my thoughts. I also remember how this tragedy brought the City together. We wanted to help at a time when we felt utter helplessness. There was a tremendous outpouring of generosity throughout the weeks that followed. Fellow residents sifted through rubble at Ground Zero, volunteered in hospitals, and donated tons of supplies at local fire stations to be delivered to the firemen and responders working at Ground Zero.
I also ponder how, in the midst of the madness of that morning, fellow commuters were so focused on arriving at their office and starting their work day that the scale of the tragedy simply did not hit them. People were so consumed with their daily commuting and office routine that they lost touch with the reality that was all around them. I am grateful that Hashem enabled me to overcome a similar feeling and provided me with a different awareness and destiny. I thank Him for putting me back on that bus, watching over me, and granting me a future that gave me more sensitivity and awareness of His role in my personal life. In the midst of all that tragedy, there were many miracles as well. My story is only one of them.