My September 11 Story

Healing begins with acknowledging the pain.

By Dulce Zamora

I was home that day. My apartment was a 10-minute walk from the World Trade Center. After the first plane hit, I went to the roof of my building and talked to neighbors who were there. Someone said he heard on the radio that a Cessna had run into the North Tower. We pondered what could have caused a plane to run into a building. We guessed that the pilot was sick or drunk.

“Uh, it’s kind of hard to miss the towers,” we joked and laughed. “They’re massive!”

A firefighting plane approached. “Oh good,” someone said. “Finally, relief is on the way.”

That’s when a gigantic fireball streaked across both towers. Scorching heat slapped my face. Immediate pangs of dread and fear burned deep into my core like hot coals. Something was definitely wrong. Two side-by-side skyscrapers in flames, hemorrhaging massive black clouds into the clear blue sky. This was no accident.

The neighbors and I looked stupefied. I saw us all on that rooftop. I felt like part of me had left my body and watched everything from afar — like a movie.

“Yo! That was a missile, yo!” said a maintenance guy, mop still in his hands.

I can’t remember what else was said but time seemed to slow down until the maintenance guy said, “Yo! That’s not debris, yo! Those are people, yo!”

Men and women around me cried. Some people looked dumfounded. I looked from all of them to the people falling from the towers. They were so little next to the gigantic buildings. Could they really be people? What was happening?

Then, someone shouted, “Another missile is coming! Missiles are coming for Manhattan! They’re coming our way!”

We didn’t know where he was getting his information, but no one stopped to ask. We scrambled down 28 flights of stairs. Once we reached the ground floor, our doorman, Willie, stopped us at the front door.

“We can’t go out right now,” Willie said. “There’s too much stuff flying around out there. The police told us we have to stay inside.”

Despite our protests, Willie convinced us to go inside our own units. “I’ll call you when it’s safe to go out,” he said.

I went to my apartment. My two roommates were not home. I called my parents and siblings in California. Since it was only six-something in the morning in the West Coast, my call woke them up.

“Hey,” I said, trying not to sound alarmist so as not to worry them. “Turn on the TV to see the news. Just wanted you to know that I’m fine.”

“Okay,” they all said in groggy voices, and hung up.

After a few minutes, they took turns calling me. Everyone couldn’t believe what they were seeing. We watched the news together. Every once in a while, I’d call Willie downstairs to find out if it was okay for us to leave yet.

“No,” he’d say. “But I will let you know.”

Even after I found out it wasn’t a missile that struck the towers, I wanted to leave the building. Where would I go? I wasn’t sure. My friends were probably all at work. I had just gotten laid off from my job as a writer for CBSHealthwatch.com. The dot-com bubble had burst. Our website went dark. So, I was home that day as a full-time job searcher with nowhere to go.

I talked to my family once more while I watched the news. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, took off my pajamas and got dressed. That’s right. I was in my pj’s the whole time. Earlier that morning, one of my roommates, Lisa, had woken me up with a call. She was at her boyfriend’s house in Tribeca, a few blocks north of the WTC. She was blow-drying her hair when she heard a plane flying low. She looked outside the window and there was a bomb at the World Trade Center. She was crying. I couldn’t really make out what she was saying, or I don’t really remember. All I know was that I didn’t know what was going on outside. So, I put on a jacket to cover my sleepwear, and went up to the roof to check it out for myself.

My dad was on the phone with me when I watched one of the Twin Towers collapse on TV. We didn’t really know what was going on, but when we figured it out, Dad instructed me to stay calm, and to not leave the building. I told him not to fret, because our doorman wasn’t letting anyone out until it was safe outside.

After I hung up the phone, I went downstairs to the lobby to talk to Willie.

“It’s not time to leave yet,” Willie said. “I promise I won’t forget about you.”

Not knowing what else to do, I went back to my apartment. I called my family again but the lines were busy. News of the Pentagon attack, the Pennsylvania field crash, and other (now-known-to-be-false) reports streamed in.

Some time in course of the morning, I was on the phone with my dad again when the North Tower collapsed, sending a wave of debris all over Lower Manhattan. At the same time, it became dark in my room. I couldn’t see anything other than the images on the screen. It was surreal watching on TV an aerial view of the dust cloud spreading throughout my neighborhood, while I was actually inside it.

I went back to the lobby. Now, was it time to leave? Willie shook his head. Quite a few neighbors were also there, anxious to leave.

I returned to my apartment, and the phones were busy again. I couldn’t reach anyone. I started responding to friends’ concerned emails on my computer.

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Don’t panic,” one guy friend said, which greatly annoyed me. Who was panicking? I was totally calm.

As the morning progressed, when other buildings around the WTC Plaza started collapsing, I began to worry about a domino effect. My apartment building was a half mile away. Would the fire spread, and would our building collapse, too?

Finally, after a lot of back and forth with Willie, he called and said it was time to go. I don’t know why I didn’t think of packing anything while I waited. I guess, looking back, I was just watching events unfold, and was trying to assure family and friends that I was fine. I did bring a wet face towel to put around my nose.

When my neighbors and I exited our apartment building, I was shocked to see our street look like the Bosnia war zones I had seen on TV. It was as if a bomb had gone off. Thick, white ash blanketed everything like snow, the air was thick with smoke, and stuff was flying around everywhere. I couldn’t see clearly. I tried to breathe into my wet cloth. Someone on the street was handing out face masks. I took one and put it on, but I still had to look down to prevent debris from getting into my eyes. I walked with one of my neighbors, Kevin. When we got to Chinatown, we were able to look up and around. We glanced toward our home. It looked like everything was on fire.

Kevin suggested that we walk to his friend Ellen’s place in the Flatiron District. It was a couple of miles away. I didn’t know where else to go because I couldn’t reach anyone by phone. So, I followed Kevin. Some time during that day, Ellen let us into her apartment, and I slept there – I think on her living room couch or floor. I think she lent me some clothes and underwear. I had to get out of my dusty clothes. I took a shower but I still didn’t feel clean. There were no stores open except for bodegas (small convenience stores). I did manage to get my own deodorant and toothbrush. Dozens of military tanks lined the mostly deserted streets of Manhattan. People started putting up missing signs as they tried to locate loved ones. I still couldn’t reach anyone by phone.

This is my September 11 story, but it is far from the full account. This is just a raw play-by-play version of what happened that day from my viewpoint. I tried to write something insightful, but I struggled to get the words together. I wrote so many versions of this blog post, but nothing felt right. The only thing that felt okay was to write this.

I cried a lot this morning. My heart really hurt. This was the first time I fully realized how much of the September 11 tragedy I had carried with me all this years. I tried to deny my experience by saying I wasn’t really a September 11 survivor. After all, I wasn’t at the Twin Towers during the attacks. I wasn’t a first responder. I didn’t physically get hurt. I didn’t personally know anyone that died. 

But I did continue to live in the Ground Zero area for a couple of months after the attacks. I recognize now that I devised layers of physical, mental and spiritual shields around me over the years, only to have the scabs yanked one by one, and, then, patched up again. It’s been a rollercoaster. But those stories are for other times. Not right now.

Even though I didn’t get the more articulate words out this time, I can say: Don’t worry. I am okay. Really, I am. I always have been.

Today, I recognize myself as a survivor. Today, I am going with the flow, however imperfect. Today, I give myself permission to relive the past. Today, I shower myself with compassion to recognize that the past does not define me.

There is no denying that September 11 has affected my life. The tragedy cast a spotlight on the issues I already had, and on the strengths already within. I am strong because of my vulnerability. But I am also vulnerable because of my strength.

This statement by the Persian poet, Rumi, resonates with me:

The wound is the place where the light enters you.

My wound is open. The pain is intense. But I also know that the healing light is within.

My daughter, Sienna, drew this on her daily notice board. I tell her I am a survivor tree, and she is one of my branches.

© 2019 Windswept Wildflower

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