I have wanted to write down my experiences that day for some time time. Forgive its length.
I was on a Metro North commuter railroad train speeding towards Manhattan. I had not stepped foot on the island of Manhattan in like six years, and my stay was brief.
I was visiting some family and friends in the New York City area, and had flown in a few days earlier. I decided to take the train that Tuesday morning down from Brewster, NY, where I was staying at a cousin's house, into Manhattan. I went with another cousin, who was going to return to her home in New Jersey after we visited a museum or two. At five that evening, I was supposed to meet two college friends at their workplace, the publisher, Scholastic.
As I prepared to leave for the day, I removed from my bag the small radio that I often carry to listen to the news of the day or political programs because I figured that I would just talk to my cousin on the way down, and listen to my portable CD player on the way back up to Brewster that night. I figured that the train would provide lousy radio reception. Also, I may be the only onetime resident of Los Angeles not to have ever owned a cellular phone.
We decided not to catch one of the early trains that day simply because it was unnecessary, slightly more expensive, and probably crowded with normal weekday commuters. I believe that our train left Brewster at about 8:30 am.
The first sign of a problem was a warning at the White Plains station of possible delays due to an "incident" in lower Manhattan that had limited train service. A few folks got off. We figured that it was a water main break or something, and that the people getting off were just itching for a reason to have a day away from the office. But I had a lot of plans, and wasn't about to end my day prematurely.
Later on, we noticed the person seated in front of us finish a cell call, and then whisper in the ear of the person next to him. Odd. This wasn't a child at third-grade recess. This was a businessman in his forties wearing a suit. We overheard the word crash. There must have been a train collision in lower Manhattan. That must be the incident, I told my cousin. Terrible, but we would still get to Grand Central Station. We could always take city buses to our destinations.
As time passed, more and more people were on their cell phones with worried looks on their faces. We finally asked (demanded) to know what had happened from the gentleman in front of us. He said that he didn't want to spread rumors, but that he had been told that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.
They must be Cessnas or something, I thought. But two? Two accidental crashes didn't sound right. Next stop, 125th Street in Harlem, the last stop before Grand Central. As we pulled in to the open-air station, we were told that southbound train service would stop. Someone said that they could see smoke from downtown. I doubted her word, and stepped out of the train onto the platform.
She was right. Large, billowing smoke was clearly visible although we were several miles away. Although I did not look at my watch, it must have been between 9:40 am and 9:50 am, when Tower 2 collapsed. I say this because one of many police officers on the platform said that the Pentagon had just been hit as well.
The Pentagon, the DOD, Arlington? My commuter van parked there when I worked in DC for several months the previous Fall. The Pentagon and the Towers hit within minutes of each other? And they weren't Cessnas. It was mind-boggling. I was a news junkie without CNN, Fox News Channel, and Drudge to give me updates. I turned to my cousin on that train platform and stated the obvious, "We're at war."
I made a futile attempt at communication by standing fourth in line at a payphone. It actually was working. But then it went dead. An announcement came over a speaker that a northbound train making all stops was on the next platform. We descended the stairs. I saw another payphone next to a bodega a few yards away, but it was dead too. We went up the stairs, hand in hand, to a standing-room only train heading North.
Some folks' cell phones worked, others' didn't. For some reason, I never asked to borrow one. I finally got to sit down after more and more passengers had disembarked; I think that it was at Chappaqua station. The man sitting next to me told me that he worked in Tower 2, but had not made it into the building. A woman on a cell phone announced that both towers had collapsed.
I truly did not believe her. The Twin Towers couldn't just fall down. I've seen them many times up close; I went up to the observation deck as a young boy. Even a commercial jet is not going to bring down such a structure. Of course, my degrees are in Classics and Law, not Architecture or Engineering. The woman was not fanning the fire of anxiety by exaggerating; she was reporting exactly what had happened.
After a long ride, we got off the train at Brewster. I found a payphone that worked, and my cousin was coming to pick us up in her minivan with her two daughters in tow, the oldest of whom had started kindergarten the day before.
A well-dressed man in his fifties asked us if we knew of a local cab company that he could take to his car. He apparently had missed his stop, the previous one, a couple of miles away and was innocently angling for a ride to his car so that he could drive home to nearby Connecticut. I told him that I wasn't familiar with local cab companies, and that I couldn't promise him a ride because we were being picked up in a possibly full vehicle owned by someone else. I suspected that my cousin would offer him a ride when she got there, and she did.
9/11 altruism, or perhaps just altruism. The man was a professor at NYU. I forget the subject, maybe economics. After we brought my little cousin to her noon bus for afternoon kindergarten, we dropped the man off at his car. During the ride, I listened to Don Imus and Charles McCord give updates on the events of the day on the radio. Gone was the lighthearted banter I often catch on MSNBC's simulcast of Imus' program.
When we got back to the house, I phoned my Mom in Arizona at her job to tell her that I was fine. She had been well aware that Tuesday was Manhattan Day and was quite upset. I phoned my Grandmother in Virginia, as well as a smattering of other friends and relatives.
I spoke with my college friends at Scholastic, a married couple, as well. They had seen the second plane hit from their office building. Obviously, our plans were off. I stayed in the relatively peaceful confines of Brewster for several more days, and caught a flight out of the White Plains Airport (instead of JFK or Laguardia)the day after flight service resumed.
As the United Express flight to Dulles with 4 passengers passed by Manhattan, we could see the smoke still billowing from what was by then known as Ground Zero. From the day on the platform through hours of watching cable news coverage, and now to a flight many days later, it billowed.
I know that one person from my class of a 100 or so at a Jesuit prep school died in the Towers. I later learned from press accounts that none of my fellow DC commuters were harmed. My cousin in Brewster knew the wife and children of a missing NYC firefighter through her work at a preschool. I never met them, but I often remember being told that his wife was asked to provide samples of his hair from a comb or brush during this period. Of course, he was never found alive.
Well, that is enough. Thank you for reading this.