16 yrs ago today, I left my house for work at Jive Records. I was a new employee and still finding my bearings with the team. I was excited about the new position. It was a gorgeous day. And in my mind, I was happily reliving my amazing birthday party from the previous weekend during my train ride to the office that morning. Life was good.
And then the train stopped.
We were told there was a “fire” at the WTC. In the financial district. Where so many of my friends and family worked. I panicked. My siblings often shopped in the WTC Mall in the mornings. Were they there? The train slowly rolled onto the bridge. We directly faced the towers. My entire train car yelled, screamed and jumped up towards the windows as soon as we saw this “fire”. One man loudly proclaimed that there was no way the damage we were watching right in front of our eyes was the result of a run of the mill “fire”. My stomach dropped. What did he mean? What could it be? He repeated that the blast looked more like the result of an explosion. WHAT?! (At this point, only one tower had been hit.)
We had no details. No one did.
Considering we were outside (sitting on the train but on the bridge), I frantically tried to reach my Mom on my cell to see if my siblings were in the building. The call wouldn’t connect. By the time the train pulled off the bridge and opened the doors for us to exit at a nearby station, I turned around on the street to check on the “fire” & saw that the second tower was also burning. I knew that couldn’t be a coincidence because of the placement. Wtf was going on?
People in the streets were frozen. Fearful. I ran to the office so that I could connect with someone. Anyone. Either these new co-workers (who were virtual strangers), or any one of my loved ones who I could reach on my office landline. I arrived at the office with my heart pounding. No one was in my department. NO ONE. Eerie.
I dialed my Mom over and over. The call wouldn’t connect. Finally, I got through. Turns out, my Mom had been trying to get through to me. Because she knew. She had been watching live on TV. And just as I was about to ask if she had heard about this weird “fire”, her frightened voice told me all I need to know. My mother screamed and started crying loudly. She yelled at me to get out of the building and find a safe area. “T, it’s NOT a fire! It’s a terrorist attack! They are flying planes into buildings! Get out of your building!” My mind raced. What do you mean??? Where was I supposed to go??? As we were on the phone, the news came through about DC and the decision to ground all flights. My Mom’s voice trembled through the phone. What made matters worse was that my Dad was in the air on a plane on the way home from a business conference. Right in our vicinity. When THAT reality hit, we both became sicker. I was shaking. At least I was informed that my siblings were safe. They were still in downtown Brooklyn. Whew.
My Mom further informed me that she had been watching live on TV in Brooklyn that morning and was just as confused as I was watching live in Manhattan with an in-person view of the towers. Once the announcement was made that it was a terrorist attack, and that the plane crashes were intentional; that’s when she started calling me nonstop.
At that very moment, additional lines on my office phone started to ring. Other friends and cousins who were in Manhattan were all starting to check on each other. Everyone was terrified. I informed my Mom that it was decided I was going to head to my cousin’s apartment a few blocks away as a central meeting place for several of my friends and cousins. We were (slightly) relieved. At least I would be with loved ones and could call her back from there as we’d figure out how I could get home safely. But right before I took off running to my cousin’s (in heels, unfortunately — I was young and new to the work force so this was way before I became smart enough to carry a pair of flats with me everywhere), my office phone rang one last time.
I recognized the number immediately.
It was one of my best friends.
Who worked down the block from the WTC.
I picked up and instantly heard her screaming and sobbing. She was trapped in her office. They were telling everyone to stay put. But she wanted out. She knew she was in an extremely precarious position. Should she leave and brave the streets in the vicinity of the attacks in order to head somewhere, anywhere else? Or should she listen to her office managers and stay put? She was pleading with ME for advice. LORD. I didn’t know what to say. I never heard my childhood friend sound so extremely terrified. Her vulnerability was on full display while anxiously crying to ME to make the decision because she told me that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make any other calls once we hung up (service was extremely spotty). My hand was shaking while holding the phone as I kept crying and repeating that I honestly didn’t know what to tell her. I knew neither option looked like a clear solution. I gave her my cousin’s address and told her to meet me there if she decided to leave.
In the end, she WAS able to get home. With a mask covering her face. Much later that evening. Covered in “soot”. I got home eventually too. But not after running to my cousin’s, through streets crowded with hysterical men, women and children hurrying uptown or to the outer-boroughs while nervously looking back lover their shoulder at the burning buildings. By now, everyone knew what was going on and people were desperate to get out of the city. I actually tripped and fell cutting both knees pretty badly but I didn’t even feel the pain over my suffocating fear. I just got back up and continued on to my cousin’s. But not before turning around to “check on” the buildings once again myself…
And right then, I saw the first tower fall. Unbelievable.
By the time I got into my cousin’s apt, she opened the door crying as I anxiously stuttered to her that one of the buildings fell!
And she replied that they both did.
Her and her other guests had just watched the second topple from her rooftop. We started to cry with each other as then she looked down and realized my legs were bleeding. After I explained what happened, she rushed me into the bathroom to help me clean up with peroxide and band-aids. I was numb.
After hours of watching the news and comforting each other, a few of my friends from Brooklyn decided to attempt to walk home. We walked 7 miles in terrified silence with the rest of NYC. The only sounds we heard were people’s muffled cries, sirens and occasional applause whenever a fire truck would pass. But then after a truck would pass, the sidewalks would return to a stunned creepy silence. I never heard NYC sound like that before.
I was overwhelmingly grateful that my siblings, father and best friends were safe that day.
But I did lose other family, friends & acquaintances.
I did have to attend 9/11 funerals.
I did have to listen to a family friend bawl with guilt and depression in her eyes, as she held my hands and explained in detail how she lost all of her co-workers and friends after she was the only one who went downstairs for coffee shortly before the attacks (her office was one of the worst hit).
And I did have to return to work in NYC eventually. On the train. On edge. Unsure of the future.
No one should have to experience what I saw, heard and smelled that day. In my city. Right in my own backyard. Pure, unadulterated terror. I can still see, hear and smell that day as if it was yesterday. In the days, weeks, months, and years that have followed; NYC has “recovered”. But for all of us who were there that day…headed to work or school, excited about the beautiful weather…it never really leaves you. My life was irrevocably changed that day.
I haven’t been able to do anything on 9/11 for years. One year after the attack, I actually went into work on that date and ended up getting stuck on a bus in the Battery Tunnel for over 2 hours (they held all traffic back from entering the city during the memorial service). I had a panic attack. People had to be rescued from buses and cars and carried up the ladders out of the tunnel when their own anxiety became too much to bear. But I tried to stay strong and stay on the bus (because I didn’t trust climbing up out of the tunnel by way of winding hallways and staircases either). Needless to say, I never returned to the city on that day.
Bergdorfs was hosting a Fashion Week event with my favorite fashion illustrator, Donald Robertson. I wanted to attend, but wasn’t sure I could do it. Ultimately, I figured I’d try. I knew the worst part for me would be pulling into the tunnel. So I cued up one of my Prince mixes and let the music console me as I headed into the city. [Prince has been an extremely important part of my life for decades. His music represents every emotion known to man, and the genius behind the music has affected my life in powerful ways. Prince is THE ONE.] No joke, at the exact moment my car entered the tunnel; “The Cross” started to play. The sound of the guitar and Prince’s voice washed over me. I was instantly comforted. It was a sign that peace can come from within and that I should count my blessings and always continue on stronger than before.
I ended up having an amazing day, but not without remembering those that were lost on that fateful day 16 years ago. I still watched the memorial this morning and cried like a baby when I heard the names of those I knew (and some I didn’t). I will never forget.
However, I found solace in music, art and fashion today — the three cornerstones of my life. I hope that others can find the same. I truly believe that compassion and empathy grows in the presence of creativity. Emotion breeds emotion. And art cannot exist without emotion. Music is therapy. And the fact that so many arts programs are in danger of surviving is unfortunate. Because music heals.
Whatever trials and tribulations you are facing in your own lives, music can help. It keeps us centered and balanced. It can bring you joy. It can make you laugh. It can give you chills. It can strengthen your spirit. It can calm you down. And it can help put everything into perspective.
In the end, music got me through today. And yesterday. And the day before that. And I know it will get me through tomorrow. The best advice I can give to others is to tap into the magic that lives inside the gifts artists, musicians and designers have left us all. And breathe.