I was working in the Admissions Office at the Ethical Culture School on 63rd Street and Central Park West. It was the Tuesday after Labor Day, the second day of school. Our office was closest to the front door. Even before that morning, we used to blackjoke that when the terrorists came (or a disgruntled parent), we would be the first to go. Within days we would be opening the mail wearing latex gloves. A parent came in and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. By the time the second plane hit, when everything changed, there was a line of parents waiting to use our office phones since cell phone service had crashed along with the planes.
We had the most up-to-date student roster and began crosschecking parent work addresses. There was a newly admitted parent working in Tower 2, the single mother of twin boys sitting in Kindergarten classrooms on their second day of school ever. The absurdity of the NYC private school admissions world seeped throughout that morning, before security closed the doors to all but currently enrolled parents, as applicant parents for September 2002 continued to drop off their paperwork, even as the Pentagon was hit, even as a plane was headed for the White House, even as the world was ending.
Mid-morning, the twins’ mother stumbled in to pick up her boys. She had decided spontaneously to play hooky from work that day. There would be so many stories like that: hooky played, alarms that didn’t go off, trains missed. In the end, out of our family roster of 1600, we lost two. A smaller school a few blocks north with a large contingent of Cantor Fitzgerald employees lost 17.
I am grateful for many things about that morning. One is that I had no visuals of what was happening. The other is that I was busy…as much as I complain about work, I am grateful I had a job to do, helping our Principal--fresh from rural Maine, second day on the job--dismiss children to their parents and caregivers. My daughter was in the same building as me; my two boys some distance away at the high school campus in the Bronx. Since I was busy, I didn’t have much time to panic when I heard that all bridges to Manhattan were being sealed off…I was able to reach their father, my husband at the time, on the other side of that bridge in Westchester, and on his way to get them, so at least two sections of the Decker family would be together.
While memories of that morning are crystal clear, like that blue sky, they come in fragments. A friend, an investment banker, arriving at school on his bicycle and handing me an envelope with $100 in it “just in case.” He was the first to think about the ATM machines maybe going down.Taking Dinah to the supermarket on the corner to buy snacks, just like it was any typical day after school…except there was the panic buying that precedes any potential disaster in NYC (snowstorm hurricane blackout)…bread and milk and water, milk and water and bread…except there was none of the chattycrabby NYer camaraderie that usually accompanies the panic buy…people were silent as they loaded their carts. I also clearly remember the lights being out in that Gristedes, although I cannot imagine why that would have been.
The only moment of genuine fear: hearing planes fly low overhead. US fighter planes scrambling, I would learn later; but at that moment, peering into the impossibly blue sky, being genuinely afraid.
I remember a colleague poised in the doorway, announcing that the subways were open. Grabbing Dinah to head home, without a thought of potential danger on the subways, the only goal to get home without having to walk the 120 blocks with a 9 year old whiny in the best of circumstances. On the subway, that same stunned silence as in the supermarket. And for the first time, the sight of ghostly people covered in a silt of dust and ashes, the detritus of destruction.
On the North end of the city, Sam Decker and the boys had ditched the car at the connecting bridge from the Bronx to Manhattan and started the relatively short two mile walk home. Proving his mettle as a genuine NYer, Henry Decker, the ever resourceful middle child, stepped out in the street with his arm raised and nabbed what was probably the last active yellow cab in the City.
And then we were all home.
The images are the part I can’t process. Planes slicing buildings. Buildings collapsing onto themselves. People fleeing a rolling cloud of debris like a Japanese horror movie monster, that impossibly blue sky at the top of the screen. Always, always The Falling Man, bodies littering the sky like big black birds. And the guilt a few days later, driving across the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey, looking downtown and trying to remember exactly in the cityscape where the WTC stood. And I couldn’t picture it. And no matter how many beams of light they throw up in the sky, I still can’t.
It’s a matter of perspective. We spent the preceding Summer of 2001 on Prince Edward Island. While it was (and remains) the most physically beautiful place I’ve ever been, we had a hard time cracking the reserve of the Canadians, who seemed impervious to our well-behaved children, our overtures at conversation, our considerable charm. When we went back in the Summer of 2002, the waitress at the oyster dock where we’d eaten without remark several times during our last stay rushed to our table to greet us by name. “Oh, it’s the Deckers from New York City…we were all so worried about you!” I was genuinely puzzled until I realized she was referring to 9/11.
In the days immediately following, we got a hysterical phone call from a friend in California, a frantic e-mail from a friend in Germany. Each time I had to remind myself that it’s a matter of perspective. If you were in Germany, they attacked the U.S. If you were in California, they attacked New York. If you were above 14th Street, they attacked downtown. An East Village friend describes the first plane flying so low that the tree tops rustled in Tompkins Square Park.
I am peripherally attached to three people who died; I attended one funeral. I can’t imagine that there is anyone living in NYC on September 11, 2001 who wasn’t at least peripherally connected to someone who died. I count myself lucky every time I think about it that I didn’t know any of these people well enough to think about what they were thinking about when they were dying.
I’m writing this because a friend not from NYC asked me a couple of weeks ago for my 9/11 story. In fact, when someone finds out you’re from NYC, the question inevitably comes up, 10 years after. Where were you? And I’ve always groped for an answer beyond a nod. Where else would I be?