September 11 Digital Archive

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How has your life changed because of what happened on September 11, 2001?

For the first time in 12 years, I wrote down an account of what happened on that day:

BECAUSE WE MUST ALWAYS REMEMBER
By Melissa A.E. Sanders

Because in 12 years I have never written about 9/11. Because I rarely talk about it. Because I never took pictures. Because it changed the lives of people I love. Because I have friends who were “one of those stories” and barely escaped. Because it happened to “my” city … and it is still “my city” – despite the fact I no longer live there. Because it is history. Because I lived that history, there, on that day. And because if I don’t write about it now, I may not ever. But I need to because I want my kids to know about it so they will know “Mom and Dad were there, and this is what they told us.” And most importantly, I write this now because we must always remember that Americans are resilient and we will never accept being bullied by terrorists.

(This post is long. It’s a detailed account of my day, which I somewhat found therapeutic to write about… so settle in if you want to know where I was that day.)

As time passes, I find there are elements to September 11, 2001, that are fuzzy — Some because it was so overwhelming I have just forgotten until a trigger causes me to remember lost details; Some because I think I blocked it. But in general, I remember it vividly. The feeling of fear. The anger “my” city was attacked. The determination to not let “them” get the best of us. And knowing there was nowhere else I would have rather been on the days that followed than there, in my city, a part of standing tall and remaining strong. And I remember the smell which lingered for weeks… I used to compare it to burning plastic.

In 2001, I was working as the Associate Director of Public Relations for the New York Philharmonic — and it was the week before Opening Night. The Orchestra was in Braunschweig, Germany (they would later be stuck there due to all airplanes being grounded). I had been going in early to keep up with the tour and prepare for our annual opening of the season. I remember sitting on my bed that morning, watching the "Today" show, as usual, when the local WNBC interrupted to say a bomb had gone off in the World Trade Center (WTC). The phone rang — my husband, Mark, called to say he was crossing Sixth Avenue and stopped because the WTC was on fire, but no one knew why. I explained what they were saying on the news, that I was heading into the office, and would call him when I got in to share anything else I learned.

And then, in real time, as I was about to turn off the TV to leave, I watched it — the second plane flew into the other tower. I recall thinking “was that a plane?” The news said another bomb had gone off … maybe it was a small prop plane that lost its way… I felt unsettled, but why would this stop New York City from running and going about its business? That’s a statement, I will say, most non-New Yorkers question me about to this day. Why did I even leave my apartment? Because I was a New Yorker, and that’s what we do.

It was a glorious fall morning with the clearest of blue skies as I walked to the 190th Street subway station to take my A train to Lincoln Center. There was some rumbling about the news among fellow subway riders: “They say it might be terrorists…” And then we all got on the subway headed downtown.

A few stops into the route, I noticed the train was running local instead of express —which happened from time to time— so I left my iPod running and tried not to think about the news weighing heavy on my brain. But the train got more crowded and stopped for longer and longer at each station until there was an announcement: “Due to an incident at the World Trade Center, this will be the last top on this train.”

I didn’t know how long I had been on the train since my phone had no service on the subway (and it was the only clock I had). I wasn’t even sure what to do as I exited with the masses to find I was in Harlem. With no cell service outside, I noticed long lines at the pay phones (yes, those still existed in 2001), so I got in line. The police were firm “One call per person … keep it moving.” My call was to my husband who immediately asked “Where are you?!? I’ve been trying to reach you.” “I’m in Harlem. The A train stopped running and had us exit here,” I replied. “Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the second tower just came down,” he said anxiously. “The second tower?” I asked, confused. “Melis, what is the last thing you heard after we talked?” I replied, “That a private jet lost its way and hit the tower – you know, when we spoke.” “Oh, baby,” he started. “We have been attacked by terrorists, they’re saying. The World Trade Center was hit by two airplanes. The first tower collapsed, and the second tower just went down…thousands are projected to be dead…” I was speechless and stunned as my mind raced. I was struggling to comprehend what he said to me. But to this day, I still recall this conversation vividly. “What do I do? What are you going to do?” He proceeded to tell me he has been waiting to hear from me… because the cell towers on the WTC were now gone, there was no cell service. He was going to start walking home. From 19th and Fifth Avenue all the way to our place at 190th Street. He didn’t know how long it would take, but I should start walking, too. Find a safe route out of Harlem and go home to wait for him. We said “I love you” and he hung up. I stood there stunned.

As “New York’s Finest” told me to move on, I reached in my purse and got out another quarter. “Please,” I said. The cop nodded in approval, and I proceeded to call my office. I had to know my friends and colleagues coming from downtown were okay. My co-worker Monica answered: “Oh, thank God you’re okay!” She said. “You’re the last to check in.” Our entire PR team had accounted for … some of their loved ones were not. Everyone was heading out to walk home, I should do the same. But my sister had been calling, she shared, and wanted me to call her. I explained the pay phone situation, asked her to call my sister back and tell her Mark and I were okay; That she would know who else to call. And then we all journeyed home.

The walk home was surreal, and unusually longer than I expected. I should share that I never saw the towers burning … and perhaps that’s a good thing (it’s a vision my husband, Mark, has never been able to forget. When he went to work, one was on fire. When he left work, they were both gone). But I remember the walk through the streets of New York. I got on a bus for part of the ride. I wasn't sure where it was going, but got off when it started going East to figure out how to get home. As I walked West, I passed many a corner store, coffee shop, or bakery where everyone was watching the television. I passed a school where parents were clinging to the outside gates wanting their children to be released. And then I came to 168th Street, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. It was frenzied — ambulances everywhere, medical personnel in the streets. They were all clearly preparing for the injured to be transported. But, as we now know, the injured would never arrive. I found a payphone and kept calling Mark’s cell hoping I would get through. He finally answered and said “Baby, just keep walking. I’m on my way, too.”

When I saw the George Washington Bridge (GWB) in the distance, I felt a little better, momentarily, because I knew I was close to home. But as I neared, I realized it was not cars in the streets, it was army trucks and tanks. The bridge was closed, and I was sent on a detour. I would later learn the GWB was considered another terrorist target, and that cars could leave, but no one was allowed into Manhattan who wasn’t already here. We were sealed off.

The streets of our Hudson Heights neighborhood were surprisingly calm when I arrived – probably because most people were walking home like me. And like Mark. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I decided to get money from the ATM … because I didn’t know what a terrorist attack would mean. The line at the bank wrapped the corner, but the one inside the little pharmacy was empty. So I entered and took out $200.

I walked across the street to our grocery story. I wasn’t really going in to buy groceries … and I'm not sure what I was looking for. I just didn't want to go home yet. When I entered, it was more chaos. As in snow-blizzard, no-power chaos. People were fighting over produce and food items. The lines were as long as the aisles. I don't recall what I bought, or how long I stood in line. I was in shock and likely seeking some normalcy and companionship in this unbelievable day. The grocery store was anything but.

I finally venutred home, up to Cabrini Blvd., Apartment 5E. Chloe (our kitty) greeted me at the door sleepily … a mix of happy to see me, tired because her nap shouldn't have been over yet, and completely unaware of the mayhem outside. I was envious of her bliss and grateful for her furry welcome. I held Chloe for a long time before I noticed our answering machine blinking at me (yes, we still had those back then, too). I pushed play: “You have 28 messages. Your mailbox is full.” I can’t tell you who was on the machine, or what was said by any of our friends. I only remember my friend Mary’s voice saying something like, “Melissa, it’s Mary. I don’t know what to do. My Uncle is missing. I can’t reach him. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. No one can reach him. Please call me.” She called three times… and I felt numb. (I would later learn Mary's Uncle ran from the tower as it collapsed.)

I tried to reach Mark on his mobile and learned he was on the Upper West Side, still walking. I continued to wait in silence.

I don’t know what time I got home. I don’t know what time he got home. But when he did, we embraced, and sat on the floor of our entry way crying. Those were likely the first tears I had shed all day. Then we called each of our parents together. And then some local friends – lots of folks we wanted to be sure were okay. And then some non-New York friends to let them all know we are okay. Emotionally drained, we sat in front of the TV in a mix of amazement and agony as we watching the horrific footage of the day.

Eventually, sleep took over. And the next day, reality. Is the subway working? Do we go back to work? What happens how?

Mark was first. I sobbed as he left out apartment to take the subway back to work. The A train. Back down there. I called my staff … the Orchestra was stuck in Germany (all planes grounded in the U.S.), so I had to hold down the fort, and I convinced myself we could do more as a team than alone. Fear of dirty bombs on the subway led me to call a car service to take me back downtown to Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. To my job. Little did I know it would also become my therapy.

And this is where my story should really focus. Because what we at the New York Philharmonic (NYP) did over the hours, days, weeks, and months that ensued was amazing. We cancelled the Opening Night Gala, and instead offered a memorial concert with Kurt Masur leading the Orchestra in Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem, also projected for free onto Lincoln Center Plaza. The artists donated their fees, the profits were donated to relief efforts, and we had a concert for the people of New York. It was tremendous. Because music has a power that transcends all, in my opinion.

It didn’t end there. in October 2001, the NYP musicians played a series of free lunchtime concerts all over lower Manhattan for those who lived and worked in the area. The Stock Exchange, banks, offices, and more. It was heart-wrenching and healing all at the same time. The sights I saw I cannot describe properly — from lobby’s with covered windows (so as not to have to look at Ground Zero), to rubble and dust-covered streets and buildings, to tears and thank yous from many who attended the performances. After one concert, Elliott Spitzer (then-Attorney General) took us to his office where he had a clear view of Ground Zero. I remember him saying he had asked they not cover his window because he needed to see it. A colleague took a photo from that window, and it’s probably one of the few photos I do have from all of this.

I need to back up a bit. Because Saturday, September 15, my husband headed down to Fordham University for his weekly classes — just days after this tragedy. But he never got off at Fordham. He kept going until he reached the WTC site. At that time, it had not been blocked off, so he was able to walk freely and see the complete devastation. And when he came home in tears, I knew I needed to see it, too. The next weekend, we went back with our friends Kerry and Tad. By then, it was all roped off … limited access… but it was enough. Those are images are forever in my mind. But I have no photos — and I would guess most New Yorkers probably don’t because, to us, it was a graveyard. There was no social media or camera phones like today. It was raw, and we had tears streaming down our faces the entire time.

Which takes me back to the concerts the NYP musicians gave in lower Manhattan. I went to so many, I cannot count. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. It made me feel like we were doing something and making a difference in people’s lives. Concerts like these lasted well into February of 2002. Perhaps longer. I can't really remember anymore.

In September of 2002, the Orchestra performed the premiere of John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls — commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, using actual notes and letters left around Ground Zero and around Lower Manhattan for loved ones. Surviving family members were in the audience. And the work was remarkable. I can’t describe it, but you should hear it. And by the time we completed that premiere, I felt I had lived 9/11 for a year. From the HBO special on the tragedy (for which the NYP played the score), to John Adams’s work, to all the media coverage of our music, the personal stories of friends and colleagues. And, the fact that New York was standing tall, not backing down, and moving forward together.

I could write so much more about my experiences of 9/11. Such as my brother moving to NYC a week after this happened; Such as the moment I watched President George W. Bush announce we were going in after"them"; Such as the first time I learned a friend lost a loved one. I could share the email I sent to family and friends the evening of 9/11 (which I recently found). I could share about the trip Mark and I took to Maine a month later and stopped saying we were from NYC so we wouldn't have to talk about it. I could share our first Yankee game after the attacks, when George Bush's speech was shown on the jumbo tron; or the first game when air space restrictions were lifted and we held our breath as a plane flew over the stadium. And then there was the Thanksgiving visit from my family in November of 2001, and the journey back downtown so they could see what New York had been living. I could go on and on and on because writing this opened the memories buried deep inside. And I think that’s good. But for now, I will pause.

It’s been 12 years. So I wrote this for me. Because it’s important for me to remember. Because someday I want my kids to know what happened. Because New York is still “my city.” And because we must always remember those we lost, as well as those who have fought, and will continue to fight, for our freedoms.

Don't just hug your loved ones tonight. Hug them often.

Collection

Citation

Melissa Sanders, “[Untitled],” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed May 22, 2019, http://dev.911digitalarchive.org/items/show/97051.