Before settling into their life in Fulshear, Kristy and Steve lived for a time in New York City. There, they became firsthand witnesses to the horrible events that occurred on September 11, 2001. After much reflection, Kristy (Smith) is now able to share their story.
“The sky was falling and streaked with blood. I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust. Up the stairs, into the fire. Up the stairs, into the fire. I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher. Somewhere up the stairs, Into the fire.”
These are the opening lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Into the Fire.” They hit me hard every time I hear them. The album, The Rising, was Springsteen’s response to the September 11, 2001 tragedy. For me, there is no more fitting tribute. The emotions he captures in every verse are so real and still so visceral for me.
Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, or the catastrophic end to the Space Shuttle Challenger launch in 1986, we all remember where we were on September 11, 2001. As you are reading this, I imagine you are thinking back to when you got the phone call or turned on the television that morning. My husband, Steve, and I were in the center of that horrific event in Manhattan. We lived through it in real-time with no newscasters explaining the situation and no electronic barrier that we could turn off if it all got to be too much. This is the short version of my experience. The long version could fill a book.
Like this year, September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. It was election day in New York City. We were supposed to vote for a new Mayor, and I had intended to go to the polls after work. Like usual, I got on the shuttle outside my apartment building. We lived in Hell’s Kitchen, just three blocks west of Times Square. At the time, it was not the hip and trendy neighborhood it is now. We were considered “way west” – nearly New Jersey! – so to entice people to move in, our high-rise sponsored a commuter shuttle to get residents to the much more central and civilized location of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street.
Steve and I had just come back from a trip to Boston over the weekend to celebrate our birthdays. I had been sick all weekend and was happy to be home. The morning was glorious. Sunny skies, warm – a perfect late summer day in New York City.
I got off the bus and began my walk to my office building; a fifteen-minute commute I had been doing daily for six months. We had just moved to Manhattan from Chicago that March, and even though I had never imagined that I would visit New York City, let alone live there, I loved it. I’d get lost in thought, awed by my surroundings every morning. As I walked that morning, I heard a plane. It sounded incredibly low and immediately, and innocently, my mind wandered to, “What would happen if a plane crashed in the city?” I pondered that thought the rest of the way to my highrise office.
I got off the elevator on the 33rd floor and the receptionist shouted, “A plane just hit the Trade Center!” I ran to the windows – we were up high enough that we could see some of the taller buildings further away. I took two steps, stopped short and shouted, “Steve!” and then took off toward my cubicle.
My husband worked at 7 World Trade Center. He was on the 27th floor, and his office faced the two towers. I got to my desk and my phone was ringing. It was my mom calling from Michigan. She’d seen the news already.
“I don’t know what’s happened, Mom. I have to call Steve. I love you. I gotta go.”
I called Steve immediately after hanging up with my Mom. At this point, we had no idea what kind of plane had hit, whether it was a tragic accident, or where it hit on the building. Nothing. I got through to Steve, and as we were talking, the second plane hit.
Seventeen years later, and I’m still struggling to keep my cheeks dry as I write this.
“There’s been another explosion. We’re being evacuated. I have to go,” he said.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Three hours of radio silence after that. The cell towers were on top of the buildings that had been hit. Our phones became bricks in our pockets - reminders of how little control we had over the situation.
I ran to my boss’s office. I didn’t know what to say or do. We all ran into the board room to watch the madness unfold on television as we tried to figure out the best course of action in real life. I worked in a high-rise. I lived in a high-rise. They were attacking high-rises. I wasn’t safe anywhere. I wanted to go home, to Michigan. Sadly, that wasn’t an option, so I left the office. If I was going to die that day, I wasn’t going to die at work.
My colleague joined me. She lived in New Jersey and she did not know how she was going to get home. I was lucky. It was about a thirty-minute walk to our apartment, so I walked home every day. The only difference was this time I didn’t know if my building would still be there when I got home.
As we walked, a mini-van stopped, and the driver rolled down the window, shouting, “The tower is falling!”
This wasn’t a movie. Nobody shouted “cut!” and ordered us to do it all again. This was happening, and we didn’t know what to do about it. Scared and confused, my colleague and I continued through the chaotic streets of Manhattan and made it back to my apartment. It was still standing. But the cell phones were still out.
I knew in my heart of hearts that Steve had made it out. He had to. I simply could not accept any other outcome.
Our best friends from Chicago had just moved to Manhattan a few weeks prior. They moved into our building and lived one floor below. They were home that day. I had them to help me through the next few hours of not hearing from Steve.
Then, he came home. The elevator dinged and Steve and ten of his office mates shuffled out and into our 700 square foot apartment. Humor helps me deal with stressful situations, and the prospect of housing twelve people in our tiny Manhattan apartment though stressful at the time, makes me laugh now. I also laugh remembering that Steve’s boss stopped at our neighborhood grocery store – which was still open during all of this – and bought cold cuts, eggs and spaghetti to feed the masses. We didn’t buy spaghetti for a year.
As the day went on, and it became evident that the attacks – because that’s what we learned they were now – were over, people began looking for ways to get home. The Circle Line, a tourist boat company that provided tours circling Manhattan with views of all five boroughs, the Twin Towers, and the Statue of Liberty, opened up their boats to ferry people from Manhattan to New Jersey for free. The lines were long but moving, and some of our temporary roommates made it home that way.
Throughout all this, there was one other person I hadn’t heard from, another Chicago transplant, and one of my very best friends - Phyllis. She worked in Tower II. It was the first building hit that morning. She worked on the 101st floor. I didn’t know if she made it out. I couldn’t get a hold of her, no one could. Late in the afternoon, I finally got through to friends in Chicago, using the land line, and got word that Phyllis was okay. Later, I found out that she had been late to work that morning. She was on a bus uptown when the first plane hit.
She was on a bus, and late for work. One unintended action – being late – led to my friend still being with us. There’s certainly some “larger than me” philosophy to be pondered there. I am grateful that she is still here.
Around 5:00 p.m., all our unexpected guests had left. Steve and I had got hold of our parents, and they all knew we were alive. I don’t want to think about the terror they felt that day. Our apartment faced south. When we moved in, we had a 180-degree unobstructed view. We could see Times Square (barely, from the balcony, but it counts), the Empire State building, the Twin Towers, the Statue of Liberty (she was tiny, but she was visible), and the Hudson River and New Jersey. During our four-year stay, construction blocked our view of the Empire State Building and the Towers were gone. But, we still had the Statue of Liberty: a testament to the strength and pride we shared as New Yorkers.
The television showed a near exact replica of what we could see from our living room. All day: smoke, fire, fear, dust. The news cycled through the horror of the towers falling, on repeat. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. Then, as we looked out our window, Steve’s building fell. A split second later, it fell on our television screen. In a day of surreal experiences, that was just one more.
September 12th, 2001 was the quietest Manhattan had ever been. I recall walking up 9th Avenue and expecting to see tumbleweeds, it was so empty.
My husband didn’t have an office to go to. It hadn’t been hit, but it bore the brunt of the heat and the stress of losing the other two buildings, and it was gone just the same. We went to breakfast with some of his colleagues. I didn’t know if I should go to work or not. I didn’t have a playbook on how to deal with terrorist attacks at that point in my life. But, eventually, I made it to the office and was immediately turned away. Everything was too raw. Fighter planes were still circling the city, and every time one flew past, I shook, expecting it to be another attack.
These feelings of fear and confusion lasted months, even years. I remember nearly breaking down on the sidewalk when the subway thundered by under my feet. The rumbling had caught me off guard; I thought it was another plane. I became hyper-aware of the flight pattern at Newark Airport. We could see those planes coming and going from our living room window. Any time one came too far out over the river, I expected it to hit my building. We both slept with “go-bags” next to our bed - tennis shoes, undone and ready to slide on. I began running again, and Steve took up cycling. I needed to be fit so that I could outrun whatever might happen next.
Things did happen. A large plane went down exactly two months later just after takeoff from JFK Airport. It wasn’t terrorists. It was engine wake. Nearly two years later, the lights went out in the city. Most of the east coast and part of the mid-west was without power for several days over the summer of 2003. Also, not terrorists. But, we banded together. New Yorkers had never been so cooperative. Lines at blood donation centers circled entire city blocks. People looking out for each other in ways they hadn’t done before. We were sad and scared, but we were tough, and determined.
We, New Yorkers, all talked about it a lot afterward. Every conversation, if it wasn’t the initial topic, it turned to it. We cried. We laughed. We were awestruck at each other’s descriptions of our experiences. But, we had gone through this unthinkable, immense, world-changing event together. We needed each other to heal. And we did, eventually. We’re not the same as we were before that day. None of us are, not in New York, not in Texas, not anywhere. But, we are healing. I went through dark days afterward of blaming, hating, and stereotyping. None of that made me feel any better about what I had gone through. Not in the long run, anyway. Maybe at first it felt good to have someone to hate for such unspeakable actions and so much loss. But, after a while the hate didn’t have a purpose any more. It didn’t fill the hole, that hole would always be there. My feelings had nothing to do with it.
We were immensely proud. We were strong. We didn’t need hate. We needed action, organization. Companies began putting together business continuity plans in earnest. We all participated in fire drills – walking down thirty-three flights of stairs in some cases – to make sure we knew what to do just in case. That is something that has stuck with me. Everywhere we’ve lived since then, we’ve had a plan: meeting points, how to communicate if technology fails, how to stay safe.
It’s true that it’s a different world now. But, I don’t think that means it’s worse. The tragedy of the September 11th attacks is something that will never leave our collective consciousness, and, rightfully so. Thousands of innocent people died that day. But, from the ashes, we grew, and continue to grow, stronger. We need to call on that strength and lean on our friends and family when we feel like we can’t face the day. We can. I think Bruce summed it up well in the chorus of Into the Fire:
“ May your strength give us strength - May your faith give us faith - May your hope give us hope - May your love give us love”
Strength. Faith. Hope. Love. Building blocks of a strong community. Even after the worst.