On the 19th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, here are a few survivors’ stories. Tuesday, 11 September 2001 was a seemingly ordinary, sunny day in New York City, and nobody on the scene of the attacks could have guessed that their lives were about to change forever.
At the same time I was getting ready for work at my home on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, New York City, where I lived at the time with my parents and sister, 19 members of Islamist extremist network al-Qaeda were boarding California-bound commercial flights from Boston, Newark and Washington DC.
It was primary election day in New York City and a lot of people went to vote before work. The city was bustling that morning, school was back in session and everyone had just returned from summer holidays.
In a co-ordinated attack, hijackers flew two aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, buildings comprising almost 10 million square feet of office space, 430 companies and thousands of employees. The twin towers were the tallest buildings in New York. They weren’t only tall, each floor was an acre in size.
Soon after the aircraft hit the towers, hijackers flew another plane into the Pentagon. Learning about the other hijackings, passengers and crew members on the fourth plane launched a counter-attack, spurring the hijackers to crash the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.
Almost 3,000 people were killed on that day, the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil. By far the bulk of fatalities were in New York.
My sister’s 9/11 story
Jillian Reid, my sister, was 21 years old. She was running late for work at 1 New York Plaza. She says: “Dressed in an A-line black skirt with a huge flower on it, a solid pink tank top and my new pink snakeskin Versace sunglasses (it was 2001), I got on the 4/5 train downtown at Union Square to travel the two stops to Bowling Green.
“We were stuck there for a while and I began to panic about being too late for work. There was some commotion about a plane and the Trade Center but no-one seemed to know anything.
“We finally moved and then stopped between stations for a while. The conductor announced it was because of “police activity”. When we got to Bowling Green I tried to run out of the station as people raced in screaming ‘turn around, they’re closing the subways down!’ By this point both towers had been hit.”
‘Ants falling from the sky’
Instead of walking to her office, Jillian walked in the opposite direction.
She says: “I stood frozen in confusion in front of the World Trade Center as ants gracefully fell out of tippy top windows. It was like they were falling from the sky. My brain failed to grasp these were people jumping to their deaths.
“When I finally arrived at my building, co-workers were standing outside, unsure what to do. We couldn’t go inside but the subways were now officially closed.
“The Staten Island ferry, about a block away, was still running so I buddied up with my co-worker Tara, who had a relative on Staten Island who could pick us up on the other side.
“As the first tower fell we ran to the ferry station and bumped into Jacki Esposito and a colleague of hers. For a while, ferries stopped running and we sat in the station with all the windows shut. We didn’t want to breathe in soot from the towers.
“A lady with a transistor radio was listening to the Howard Stern show – that was our news. The air seemed to clear for a while and then turned black again – the second tower had fallen.
“I buried my face in that lady’s shoulder and burst into tears. I learned about the Pentagon and Flight 93 from her radio and feared other attacks. There were so many rumours. After a little while, who knows how long, they announced we could get on a boat and women and children ‘had to wear life vests’.
“I looked out over the water to downtown Manhattan and thought it was burning to the ground and I’d never see it again”Jillian Reid
“I constantly tried to make calls from my phone and finally got my grandma as we were halfway to Staten Island. I tried to keep it together for her. I still couldn’t reach anyone else and didn’t know if Tara’s aunt could pick us up. When we got off the ferry I looked out over the water to downtown Manhattan and thought it was burning to the ground and I’d never see it again.”
‘I think about him all the time’
“Tara’s aunt picked us up and Jacki’s co-worker listened to a voicemail left by her brother. He was in the towers and told her he loved her. I think about him all the time.
“We stopped by a deli for some ‘baconeggandcheese’ – the gold standard of New York bodega breakfast sandwiches – and a case of beer. I’ve no idea what time it was.
“When we got to Tara’s aunt’s house we put on CNN and got really drunk. Jacki said Osama Bin Laden’s name before anyone did on TV. We tried to reach our families throughout the day. At some point we heard the bridges had opened and planned to drive to Brooklyn so we’d be one borough closer to home.
“We got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and had to drunkenly pee in someone’s back garden only to find out it was a rumour – the bridge was not open. So we went back and waited for an official announcement.
“Once it came, we made it to Bayridge, Brooklyn right over the bridge. By that point we were exhausted, drunk twice over and had no idea what the world was going to look like tomorrow.”
Jacki Esposito’s 9/11 survivor story
It was Jacki Esposito’s second day of work at a Wall Street law firm a few blocks south east of the towers. She exited the subway at Bowling Green shortly after the first tower was hit and remembers seeing a trail of smoke in the sky.
People milled around the station looking at the sky, believing an aircraft had “crashed”. No-one knew what had really happened so Esposito walked to work, ultimately entering an empty room. Cable news on a big-screen TV was showing footage showing the World Trade Center had been attacked.
She says: “At some point I was told to evacuate the building. Cell phones weren’t working. I kept trying to reach my family, who I knew would be terrified by what they were seeing on the news, but I couldn’t get through. This was back when we still had payphones so I joined a long line in Water Street to use one.
“While I waited, someone yelled: ‘The building is coming down.’ The sky turned black and everyone ran in different directions. That was the first tower falling. The rest of the day and night were a series of moments a person never expects to experience. Looking back, I don’t think any of us realised the years of fear and grief that were just beginning.”
Long-term health consequences of 9/11: The death toll is more than 10,000
Esposito was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer 10 years ago. She says: “Like so many workers and residents of the area, I had been exposed to toxic dust in the days and months that followed the attack.
“A week or two after the attack we were told it was safe to return to work despite the heavy odour permeating downtown Manhattan. An odour every New Yorker remembers too well.
“Similar to the onset of covid-19, we weren’t sure if we should wear masks. Of course, now we know almost 20 years later that 9/11 first responders and recovery workers have higher rates of certain cancers such as leukemia and thyroid and prostate cancers. More than 10,000 have died of a 9/11-related illness.”
Esposito attributes 9/11 for changing the “entire trajectory of my life – and not just because of the cancer diagnosis”.
My father and I: Our 9/11 story
My father, Mark Herman, and I were also close to the chaos. We were heading to court in lower Manhattan when the first aircraft crashed into North Tower. We got to the courthouse, showed our ID and waited outside the courtroom, which remained locked.
I remember looking out the window and seeing a NYC Department of Corrections bus loaded with prisoners leaving the criminal courthouse. Why were they leaving court before court even opened? We waited a little longer. Finally we were told by security the courthouse was being evacuated, we figured there was a bomb threat. This was lower Manhattan after all.
The scene outside was disturbing. There was greyish white dust everywhere, including on the suits, faces and shoes of the masses of people walking north or east. There were more people out than you usually see at any one time. Some people were covered in blood.
We joined them. I was wearing a black leather pair of sandals I had taken from my mom’s closet that morning without asking. They were soon grey with ash. Many people had no shoes on at all and there was a strange smell in the air.
We still didn’t know what had happened. People were talking about white supremacists, terrorists or maybe a horrific accident. We were all in shock. My dad characterised the scene as “like the walking dead”. People were dazed and shocked. Covered with ashes and soot.
Not knowing where else to go or what was even safe, we went to Wo-Hop, a below-ground restaurant in Chinatown a couple of blocks east of the courthouse, further away from the towers.
I remember using the payphone in the restaurant to try to reach loved ones and find out if they were ok and to get some information. Remember, it was 2001. We had no idea what was going on – only that it was bad. It’s funny the people you call in those times. My friend Daniela Pottruck remembers calling an ex. Her rationale? “There was the thrill of reconnecting with Sam because it was the end of the world.”
‘I can’t see the towers any more’
When we walked down the steps into Wo-Hop, both towers were visible, they looked like a cigarette that had burned halfway down. When we came out of the restaurant, though, they were gone. It felt like an optical illusion.
I kept trying to get my bearings, asking dad: “Were we able to see the towers from here before? I can’t see them now.” It was difficult to comprehend they were no longer there.
We started walking again. North now. It seemed like everyone had spilled out of whatever high rise they had been working in and were on foot, heading away from the smoke and dust. I remember stopping with crowds of people huddled around a parked car with the radio on, trying to figure out what was going on. Who did this? What actually happened? What are we running from? Is there still a threat?
My dad remembers: “We walked up to and over Ed Koch 59th Street Bridge. Along the route everyone helped everyone. I realised life is fragile and safety is an illusion. Who was looking out for us in Washington DC? There was a feeling no-one was in charge and no-one cared about us.”
We ultimately walked seven miles that day.
The aftermath never ends
When we arrived home we finally heard from my sister and learned she was safe – but we had to figure out how to get her. Ultimately, we drove to Brooklyn. There were checkpoints everywhere. I remember being questioned as we exited Brooklyn Bridge. People were still walking, zombie-like, through New York’s roads and arteries, making their way to safety. The fires at the site could be seen 20 miles away.
At the attack site, named ‘ground zero’, the search for survivors began immediately. Thousands of rescue personnel, investigators, engineers, labourers and volunteers arrived from departments all over the US and Canada.
Despite their efforts, no survivors were found and the search expanded to include jewellery and traces of anything else related to life. In total, 19,500 body parts were collected but more than 1,600 death certificates were issued without a body at the request of victim’s families.
The legacy of 9/11 continues to shape policy debates in the US. Its legacy for many survivors and first responders are 9/11-related diseases, including cancer and PTSD.
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