20 Years Later: Remembering 9/11
Written by Jason Roseberry
Five Star Technology Solutions
My September 11 story is one I have shared very few times over the past 20 years, but not one that I launch into lightly or casually. It is an incredibly important and personal story to me, so instead of taking the risk of recounting it incorrectly (or potentially offending the listener with my unique perspective) I generally attempt to avoid it altogether.
First off, it is important to me that you understand that I share this not for sensationalism, drama, attention, or any other personal reason. If it only mattered to me, I would just as well keep it in my own way. I share it because I am an educator and a father, and just as people have always passed down stories to friends and family in order to teach lessons, I want to do everything I can to keep it relevant in the hearts of others. Additionally, it has been 20 years and my memory isn’t getting any better.
So, here’s the thesis statement:
September 11 was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me.
See why I hesitate to share casually? Hang in there and give me a chance to explain.
September 11, 2001
(Some times are exact and others are approximated.)
A struggling actor and writer in NYC, I left my apartment in Astoria to head to my temp position at Moody’s Investors Services. It was a great job – if you describe a great job as one that requires you to read novels and spend a mandatory one-hour lunch break working out in the free gym. On my first day of work, someone walked me to my desk and said, “Someone will be by soon to tell you what to do.” No one ever came back or even talked to me again for that matter until 9/11. My usual work time was 9:00 a.m. sharp, but I had left earlier than usual this day to accompany my wife as she went to shoot a movie on the subway.
I got off at my subway stop underneath the World Trade Center. If you never had the chance to visit the subway system under the WTC, then you need to know that there was a small city under there. Mini-marts, shops, and food vendors. There was one stand/vendor who I visited frequently to pick up a newspaper and candy items. I don’t know (or never asked) his name, but I didn’t think of him again until years later and wondered if he escaped the tons of wreckage that later occupied where his stand stood.
By this time I was at my desk and “working.”
American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower. I heard a very loud sound and was “moved” sideways. My first thought was that there was construction happening on the floor above me and something very heavy had fallen. I stood up, looked around, saw that everyone else was acting normal, and so I went back to “work.”
A voice came over the loudspeaker and informed us that there had been an explosion outside and no one was allowed to leave the building. I looked around, and no one seemed concerned, so I cracked open my book.
My phone rang, and my wife told me a plane had “accidentally” crashed into the World Trade Center. That’s what we all assumed it was….a terrible accident. One of my coworkers overheard my conversation and walked over to my desk. My wife told me to “be careful” and I told her the same. My coworker and I got on cnn.com and saw the now infamous shot of the WTC with a hole in it. “That’s right over there,” he said and pointed.
My coworker and I were walking across the floor to look out the window as Flight 175 hit the South Tower. I was aware of a loud explosion, and the concussion caused our building to sway from side to side. It was at this moment that a hundred things happened at once and chaos took over. I remember people started screaming and running. I remember hearing a voice over the loudspeaker telling us to remain calm and “Stay in the building!” I remember suddenly being in a crowded stairwell (not knowing how I got there), and turning to a stranger next to me and saying, “Are we getting bombed?” I remember feeling for the first time in my life that I might die at any moment.
I exited the building and turned to see the now infamous hole in the side of the World Trade Center. Ashes were falling all around as if it were snowing. I was stunned, and I have no idea how long I stood there staring at the sickening sight while people screamed and moaned around me. I suddenly had two alarming thoughts enter my mind: everyone seemed to be running TOWARDS the World Trade Center, and I feared that one of the buildings was going to break off and fall right where I was standing.
I stood frozen until a woman next to me started screaming. I turned to see that she had dried blood in her hair and face. She screamed, “They’re jumping! They’re jumping!” I instinctively turned back to where she was pointing. Everything blurs for me at this moment, but the next moment of clarity I found myself running in no particular direction. I approached a man in a suit and asked, “Which way is uptown?” He pointed and I took off running in that direction. My only thought was to get as far away from the site as possible.
While running, I got out my cell phone to call my wife’s director. I had our one and only cell phone that day. The lines were jammed. I started looking for a pay phone and saw that there were people lined up seven or eight deep to use them. Besides, I didn’t even have a quarter. I shouted out at the crowd, “Does anyone have a quarter?” Again, here is another moment of haziness, but the next thing I knew my hand was full of quarters. I found an empty pay phone and called, but I was only able to get her voice mail. I looked down at my cell phone and saw that it had connected with my sister’s cell phone back in Indiana. I left her a message saying that there had been a terrible accident, but I was okay. I let her know that I was going to try and find my wife and then try calling again.
I came to an intersection and saw that everyone was standing perfectly still in the middle of the streets with their doors open and car radios turned up. I listened as President George Bush addressed the nation to report that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was a horrible and unbelievable moment.
Suddenly, there came the sound of an engine overhead. I watched as the hundreds of people around me threw themselves to the ground at the same moment. We all had the same thought: “Another plane was about to crash.” I later found out it was a fighter jet flying in to secure the city. I jumped up and ran as fast as I could until I reached 14th Street. Strangely, it appeared to be the picture of calm. People were sitting, shopping, and going about their daily routine. I ran into the Virgin Records and asked if I could use the phone to try and contact my wife. The teenager behind the counter told me, “Phones are for public use only.”
I yelled, “Don’t you know what’s going on out there?” and thundered out the door as they shrugged.
I sat on the curb and dialed my wife’s number over and over mindlessly. A man of Middle-Eastern descent came over and sat near me. “This is exactly what the United States gets for sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong!” he yelled. I stiffened, but we eventually struck up a conversation while waiting for…well…nothing…and he shared his perspective on the dynamics in the Middle East and, ultimately, his concern for his family members who worked in the WTC.
People began making a fuss inside Virgin Records, and we ran in to see what was going on. A plane had just crashed into the Pentagon. My first thought: we are at war.
They announced that Manhattan had been sealed off until further notice. This was a scary and unsettling realization. I was trapped on this island. I couldn’t find my wife. I couldn’t get to my family in Indiana. I couldn’t even get to my apartment in Astoria.
About this time my phone rang and my wife told me to come and meet her at our friend Rohan’s apartment on 23rd Street. I wished my new friend good luck and we parted with a handshake.
I arrived at Rohan’s apartment and hugged my wife. She brushed the ash off my shirt. I hadn’t even realized it was there. We all huddled around the television set just in time to see the South Tower crumble. There were and still are no words to describe this moment.
United 93 went down into a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the brave passengers on board. We did not register this in any way until days later.
My wife and I climbed up to the roof of Rohan’s apartment building just as the North Tower collapsed. Even this far uptown, we could see the smoke and debris in the distance.
10:28 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
These hours are a blur. The subways and ferries were shut-down, so we had nothing to do but wander around the city locating friends. The restaurants were out on the sidewalk giving out free food and drinks to people walking by. It was a NYC I have never seen before or since.
Word came that we had finally been granted permission to leave Manhattan, but we had to walk across the 59th Street Bridge. I will never forget looking back at the burning skyline as I marched across that stretch with thousands of people. It took over three hours of walking to make our way back to our apartment in Astoria. My wife, who had been wearing heels, was given tennis shoes by a store we passed, but her feet were still a mess by the time we finally arrived home.
The “new” skyline from 59th St. bridge
We ventured out during the next couple of days to take a look around the city. There were few people on the streets, and those who were looked and acted just like people attending a funeral. There were pictures and postcards of the WTC for sale in every shop – marked up and prominently displayed of course (it was still NYC). Around 14th Street, we began stumbling upon makeshift memorials people had created. Everyone seemed to be looking for a way to pay tribute, and no one was able to get it right…still, they kept trying.
A few days later we finally decided we had to take a break from the city. We weren’t alone in this feeling. There were moving trucks all around the neighborhood we lived in and mattresses being disposed of on the sidewalks. It looked like the beginning of some sort of mass exodus. We couldn’t find a car rental anywhere within 100 miles of NYC. We finally came across train tickets to Pittsburgh and a car for rent there. We booked the tickets and headed home.
Once we arrived back home, our family and friends wanted a retelling of what happened and I was surprised to see some of their reactions were even more emotional than my own. All over the country radio stations were quickly editing patriotic songs with screams and shouts from Ground Zero and reporters commenting on the action. Everyone was looking for some way to grieve and connect to this enormous horrible thing that had happened far away and for the days, weeks, months after 9/11 my wife and I provided that outlet. I have to admit that playing that role made me uncomfortable then, and I still struggle with it today.
Having twenty years to reflect has brought me a small amount of clarity on this uncomfortable feeling. It boils down to this – I don’t want/need any amount of fame or attention due to my proximity to the 9/11 attacks. I certainly didn’t act heroically at the time. As those brave firefighters and police officers ran towards the WTC, I was running as fast as I could away. Most importantly, I don’t want pity for having gone through it. In fact, the lesson I hope they take away is quite the opposite.
In the days after the attack, I had this feeling that I just couldn’t go living my life the way I had up to this point. I was a 23-year-old who had quit his teaching job, worked as a temp in Manhattan, and spent all of his free time sending headshots and letters to directors talking about how great and talented he was. Having been so close and witnessed so much death, I simply couldn’t go back to a life that (through the lens of that moment) now felt selfish. On September 11, 2001, my life didn’t end at 8:46, 9:02, 9:45, or 10:03 that morning. For whatever reason, my clock kept going and I felt it would be blatantly disrespectful to those innocent victims and heroic rescuers if I didn’t make meaningful use of the one thing they no longer had…time.
My wife and I moved home and dedicated ourselves to our families and communities the best we could. We became educators. We became parents. We started a non-profit. We became the kind of people we truly wanted to be. That half a day on 9/11 didn’t just scare me – it irrevocably changed the course of my life in a very positive way. A five-hour experience aged me five years.
In the months and years following 9/11, the entire country acted differently. There were more weddings. There were more babies. All of us felt the highs and lows a little deeper than we did before.
What makes us human is our ability to face the worst possible circumstances and make something good come out of that situation. I hope when you are faced with problems, sadness, and setbacks you will find some way to lift the good out of that situation. What better way is there to honor another person than by changing your own life for the better because of them?
September 11, 2001 was the worst day of my life, but September 11 was also a rebirth for me and so many others. This is how I commemorate it, hold onto it, and grieve it in my own way.