It was early August, and my hubby and I were returning from our honeymoon in Bali.
We were driving back in a taxi from JFK into the city. I gazed out the window and the view of the city felt maddening after the 10 days of tranquility of our ocean-front resort. As the cab approached the Lincoln tunnel and I saw the chaotic skyline of midtown, I briefly glanced down at my hands. They still had the faint orange stain of my bridal henna.
I wondered for the first time why it is we chose to live here. On any other trip back into the city, I had never felt this way. I was always energized by seeing the commotion, hearing the sounds, and soaking in the energy. Somehow this time, it felt empty, less connected. It felt alone after having family around for the last three weeks.
But New York City will have its way with you—it sucks you right back in. You go to work, and within a few hours, you can’t even remember you have a husband and just got married. You’re lucky if you find time to pee at work on some days.
Two weeks prior to 9/11, my shiny, new husband (who worked as a consultant) finally got a local project in the city. Normally, we would only get to spend the weekends together, so we were thrilled that we were finally getting a chance to live together. His client was a Wall Street bank located about a block from the World Trade Center (WTC).
That morning, I was still at home getting ready for work when I got a call from him. He said that they heard a really loud sound, like a garbage truck blowing up, so he was going to go outside to check it out. I didn’t think much of it and hung up. In less than 30 seconds, I instinctually felt something was really wrong. Thanks to having grown up in Kuwait and my childhood experiences with bombings, I knew that when there is one explosion, another usually follows. So, I called him back immediately but got his voice mail. I told him to get out of work and return in an hour if everything was okay.
I finished getting dressed a few minutes later and left. In the elevator, a distraught woman in her mid-20s asked if I had heard the news. She said that a plane crashed into one of the WTC towers. Like the reaction of most people that day, I was in disbelief but couldn’t dismiss what she was saying because she looked so emotionally shaken up.
I walked outside and everyone was on their cell phones. I tried calling my husband again and I just couldn’t get through. Little did I know that the cell phone network had already crashed by then. Four blocks later, when I looked up into the sky, I saw black smoke rising from the south. In disbelief, I stared at it for a few seconds as it kept bellowing up, growing larger and larger. My usual 17-minute walk to work turned into a running spree.
I got to work and turned on the TV in my manager’s office to finally figure out what was going on. In complete shock, I returned to my desk to attend to my nonstop ringing phone. Every family member and friend under the sun was calling from all over the world, asking if we were okay and where hubby was. All I could keep saying was I’m fine, but I didn’t know where he was, yet.
When the first tower fell, I felt a wave of panic. I kept hoping he had heard my voicemail and as a rare incidence, did what I had asked him to do—leave work!
I kept trying his mobile. How could I not have gotten his desk phone number from him? He had been on the job two weeks already. I called 411 and asked if they had a phone number for his company. The concerned woman on the other end of the line asked which building. The bank owned several buildings in downtown. I couldn’t believe it—I didn’t even have his work address. As my voice quivered, I told her I didn’t know and hung up.
My hands were clasped, my head down, and my eyes fixated on my phone. My brain was trying to quickly process the next steps. At this point, my manager walked in. I was the only one on the floor not glued to the TV, so she knew something was wrong. As I tried to explain that my newly minted husband of a few weeks had gone missing, the gravity of the situation started to sink in.
Shortly after, our admin, my manager, and a couple of colleagues were calling hubby’s mobile constantly with no luck. Two long and agonizing hours passed. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to go downtown to the WTC and find him myself. Of course, the moment my manager saw me trying to leave, she stopped me. I sat there for another half hour just dialing his number.
Finally, just before 1:00 p.m., he called. I felt a huge wave of relief flow through me. He was fine, but he saw the second plane crash, the tower fall, and people jumping out of broken windows. He blurted out these monumental and grave events in one long sentence. The adrenaline was pumping and the energy within him seemed uncontained. Unable to describe in any more detail the horrific events, I told him to meet me at home.
Outside, it was a different world. People were scampering around, there were lines outside the grocery stores, and the ATMs were already all empty. Traffic was almost clogged.
When I entered our apartment, he came over and gave me a tight hug. We held on for a while to each other in silence. Finally, I opened my eyes and looked around. I saw seven other people in our living room. He had brought with him out of town consultants who had nowhere to go.
“Holy sh*t,” I thought. “The bathroom is a mess.” I quickly moved toward the bathroom and hubs caught me by the arm. “Don’t worry. It was the first thing I cleaned up when I walked in,” he whispered. I knew we were meant to be married.
As the minutes and hours unfolded, we watched the national guard move in, control traffic at the intersection, and bring order back to the city blocks visible from our window. Slowly, each of his colleagues made their own arrangements for the night, thanked us, and left our apartment.
We were both wired, and as the restlessness grew inside, we decided to step out and see how we could help. We lived across the street from the NYU hospital, so we decided to sign up as volunteers. Nurses and doctors were waiting outside the entrance. One of them handed over a checklist of medical training or procedures we could assist with.
“Okay, let’s see. No, I have no training in providing any first aid. No training in CPR, no experience with this and this and this,” I thought. After I finished the checklist, I looked at it and there wasn’t a single “yes” I had filled out. Was I really that useless?
Regardless, we waited on the sidewalk with the medical staff and other volunteers, except no injured people showed up. We waited and waited some more, and not one ambulance pulled up all evening. We were perplexed. Surely, there would be so many casualties from such an explosion, never realizing that no one could have survived the devastation unfolding downtown.
Later that evening, we realized we had not eaten all day. We left the hospital to get something to eat.
The city felt schizophrenic. On one hand, there were people sitting on the local restaurant patio, eating dinner and chatting away. On the other hand, a parade of fire trucks from all over the state and neighboring states drove by. We watched in silence as did many others at the heroes changing shifts. Their faces were calm. There was an aura of humbleness and silence as the trucks roared past. It felt awkward to be having a social dinner outside—at least to me. So, we took a to-go order, and like most of the country that day, went home and ate in front of the TV, staying glued till our eyes could no longer stay open.
The next day, the city had not reopened, so naturally, our work remained closed. The two of us went down to what had already been coined “Ground Zero.” In complete disbelief that the towers no longer stood, we cheered on the workers.
Even though the city was packed with people, there was a strange silence. In the hours and days that followed, the city was filling up with posters of missing people, candles, and flowers. We just walked around watching mothers, husbands, brothers, and all sorts of family members hanging up poster after poster, block after block. People just wept silently in the street day after day. I was emotionally numb. I didn’t understand what was going on. It didn’t feel real to me.
When the winds blew north, we would smell the stench from Ground Zero. It was nasty. We kept our windows closed, stocked up on water and food as there were over 100 bomb threats in the city in one day.
On my usual walk to work, which was littered with flowers, posters, and candles of missing people, the first poster I would see was of a 26-year-old girl. She lived in the building diagonally across the street. There would always be fresh flowers and a small teddy bear by her photo. Then three to four weeks later, on one fine day, the poster, flowers, and teddy were gone. It was time to forget her, I guess, and move on. I came home and finally just wept that evening.
I’m so thankful that 20 years have passed and I can no longer smell the stench in the air, no longer hear the incessant sounds of sirens, nor see the large refrigerated trucks pull up across the street to the makeshift morgue. I’m so thankful that on this quiet, cool summer evening, my son sleeps peacefully upstairs without being an eyewitness to the events. Maybe one day, he will just read about it in a history book.
But as the images on TV show up again, they still feel raw at times. So, I hope for the ones who really suffered and are still struggling, may this year be the year that brings peace to us all.