(This is an excerpt from my book, Confessions of a Female Safety Engineer.)
I was still at the circuit breakers houses job. At 9 AM on September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be at their job progress meeting at NYC Transit headquarters, which was the same 2 Broadway I’d worked at in lower Manhattan, but the meeting was postponed. So I was on the #7 train, coming back to the office from looking at one of our remote circuit breaker house retrofits. The train was on the elevated section of track that ran in the middle of Queens Boulevard, a main route into Manhattan heading toward the Queensboro Bridge. I was looking out the window past Aviation High School when I first noticed flames coming out of one of the distant twin towers.
“Wow,” I remarked to a fellow passenger, “there’s a fire at the World Trade Center.”
A lady across the aisle, next to the conductor’s booth, said, “Yes, the conductor just heard about it on his radio. A plane hit it.”
“That’s terrible,” the man next to me said, shaking his head. We all watched the fire through the train windows until the view was obscured by a building, and then I got off at the (no longer swaying) Court Square Station.
I came down the stairs from the station to find the sidewalk filled with people, all looking toward the twin towers, which were due west down the street, direct line-of-sight. My project manager was among them. “I saw the other plane hit,” he informed me, and like everyone else who got that news I realized we were under attack.
If you were in New York City that morning you couldn’t watch TV coverage of the disaster, and you could not hear about it on the radio. All of our local broadcast towers were atop those burning structures, coming down when they did. But a local business had the BBC network on cable, and I watched the agonizing pictures of jumpers and falling rubble from there. I’d been scheduled to be two blocks from the towers; I’d have been at that postponed meeting at 8:30 AM. The pictures of people running from the falling rubble and women emerging from clouds of white concrete dust, coated and terrified, hit me especially hard. That could have been me, had the scheduled meeting actually happened.
The word was to just get home, so I walked to the E subway to take the train, but the trains were not running. On my way back to the site office I pushed through crowds of panicked people in the street, darting to and fro like schools of fish avoiding a predator, terrified of any planes in the air if the plane strayed near the nearby Citibank building, the tallest building in Queens. What if a plane hit that, too?
One of my coworkers who’d brought his car in drove me as far as a Long Island Railroad station, and dropped me off there. After the NYPD went through the train cars with bomb sniffing dogs, we were told we did not need a ticket; just get in and get home. It was obviously something they’d drilled for; they were following an emergency contingency plan.
I took my car home from my local commuter rail station, and like everyone else in America who was not a first responder to the three locations in NY, PA and DC, I huddled near the light of our collective television news, fending off the dark.
Working in the City, I realized, was about to get very different.