The first indication that anything was wrong came as we were approaching Jamaica Station in Queens around 9 a.m. A passenger in a seat across the aisle from me to the right, a man around my age, stood up and called out to the rest of us "In casy anybody is interested, two planes just crashed into the Twin Towers." Someone had called him on his cell phone to relay the news.
The man did not specify what kind of planes hit the towers, but the fact that he mentioned two planes made me think at once that it was a deliberate terrorist attack. But in the absence of any further information, I was under the assumption that the planes that hit the towers were those small Cessnas and that they probably did not do all that much damage.
As I took this all in, our train pulled into Jamaica Station, and as with any other day, some passengers got off and others got on. The doors to the train closed and we resumed our journey towards Penn Station. Whatever had happened, I figured it must not be that serious if we were still continuing on to Penn Station.
After the train had passed Forest Hills, the Manhattan skyline began to come into view. Everyone in the train began to peer out the windows on the south side of the train, anxious to see what had happened to the towers. This was the image that greeted us, albeit from farther away:
The extent of the damage was now there in broad daylight for all to see. I knew at that point the situation was really serious. But it was too late to get off the train, as there were no stops between Jamaica and Penn Station.
When we finally arrived at Penn Station around 9:25, I learned that the subways were down. The line I took to my office near Rockefeller Center, the 1 Line, had a stop at the World Trade Center. My office being only 15 blocks away from Penn Station, I decided to walk the rest of the way to work. 7th Avenue was crowded with people, many huddled around television screens that were visible from the street.
I arrived at my office around 10:00. Everyone was getting the latest updates from the morning's events from Internet news sites at their desks. It turned out that the Twin Towers were hit by hijacked airliners. I was shocked to find out that the Pentagon was also hit by a hijacked passenger airliner. But I was not prepared for the most shocking news of all. The Twin Towers had fallen.
The Office Administrator sent out an office wide e-mail telling us that the office would be closing for the day. Unfortunately, the Long Island Rail Road and all the subways were shut down, so most people who commuted into Manhattan for work that morning had no other means of transportation for getting back to Long Island. Because the Pentagon had also been hit, there was a pervasive sense of fear that the worst might not be over. Would there be anymore attacks? There were some people who were even afraid of crossing the bridges, because they feared the bridges would either be bombed or that terrorist sharpshooters would shoot at them as they tried to cross over to the other side.
Since I didn't know how or when I would be getting out of Manhattan, I headed over to the nearby office of my friend Trang. She and I had become good friends over the last couple of years and I thought maybe we could come up with a plan to get out of Manhattan. Around noon, her boss offered to have people come over and spend the day at her apartment in the city. I was not enthused at this prospect, as I wanted to get home and be with my wife and family. As I followed Trang and her co-workers out onto the street, I saw a shuttle bus driver and overheard him talking to someone about the bridges.
"Is the 59th Street Bridge open to foot traffic?" I asked him. He told me that it was. That was it. I would walk across the bridge into Queens. My grandmother, who was still alive at the time, managed an apartment building in Sunnyside. I would go to her place, call my father (I did not own a cell phone at the time), and ask him if he could drive to grandma's place to pick me up. I turned to look for Trang to tell her my plan and to see if she wanted to come with me. She lived on Long Island and had a daughter, so I am sure she wanted to get back home as soon as possible too. But I did not know which direction they had gone and she and her co-workers were already lost to me in the crowd.
Now that I had a plan, I resolved to carry it out. I was on 51st Street between 6th and 5th Avenues and started making my way eastward and northward towards the 59th Street Bridge. The streets were even more crowded than before, evidently from so many offices closing for the day. As I approached one corner on my way to the bridge, I was surprised to see Sander Vanocur. We made eye contact with one another, but I did not say anything to him. His face was a mask of grief and sadness, and I felt it would have been disrespectful to have troubled him at such a moment.
I continued on towards the 59th Street Bridge and joined thousands of other people who had the same idea as me. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with an African-American woman and we discussed what had happened that morning. I knew it was Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida that was behind the attacks. I had no doubt about that. "This was their big 'fuck you' to America," I said to her, and she gave me a hearty "Uh huh!" in agreement. Looking south towards downtown Manhattan, I could see what looked like a large gray cloud formed by all of the debris kicked up in the air by the collapse of the towers. I felt like I was a refugee who was fleeing from a war zone, though I certainly do not wish to trivialize my experience to people who really did have to make their way out of places filled with violence and danger.
After some time had passed, I set foot on Queens asphalt and made my way to my grandmother's apartment building near Roosevelt and 49th. I walked into the lobby of the building and rang the bell for her apartment, but she did not answer. "Maybe she's still asleep" I thought to myself, as she was nearly 90 years old. I decided to sit outside and take a breather, when a few seconds later I saw my grandmother walking up the sidewalk to her apartment toting a grocery bag. She was quite surprised to see me. I gave her a hug and kiss and explained to her how I had ended up outside of her apartment building.
Grandma made me a turkey breast sandwich while I sat down on her living room couch to watch the television. The latest news was that a fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania that was believed to be heading towards Washington, D.C. I don't recall if it was speculated yet if the plane was shot down or that it was deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field because the passengers had tried to retake it.
I called my father to see if I could get a ride home, but he said he would not be able to make it in. I cannot recall if the parkways were closed or if it was a matter of them being clogged with traffic. I had made it out of Manhattan before mid-afternoon, but I was still a long way from home and I was still on my own. I stayed with my grandmother for about an hour and was able to recover my strength after eating some lunch and relaxing on the couch. I told her that I was eager to get home and thanked her for the sandwich.
I began the next leg of my journey home as I walked eastward on the south side of Queens Boulevard. My objective was Jamaica Station, the same station where I had the opportunity to get off and go back home earlier that morning after I had first heard of the planes hitting the towers. The walk was long and tiring, and as it was mid-day, the hot mid-September sun beat down upon me. On the north side of Queens Boulevard I noticed a Muslim temple. I believe it was the Islamic Institute of New York. I felt an urge to go there and vent my anger at any Muslims who might be there and ask "Why?" but I was too damned tired and I was more concerned with getting home to my family than harassing some Muslim-Americans who had nothing to do with what had happened that morning and who probably deplored it as much as I did.
As I felt myself growing more fatigued, I decided to try hitchiking. I held up my right thumb while I walked with my upper body twisted backwards to see the cars coming down Queens Boulevard from behind. To my good fortune, after walking just a few blocks more, a car driven by a Jamaican man pulled over and offered to take me as far as Union Station, where I could catch a subway to Jamaica Station. When I finally made it to Jamaica Station, I was relieved to find that trains were running from Jamaica to Long Island, and I was fortunate in that a train headed for Hicksville was waiting for passengers at one of the platforms.
On the ride home, I found myself in a conversation about the Twin Towers and terrorism in general with a handful of passengers seated near me. Most of them were convinced that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of terrorists in America waiting to strike at us with follow-up attacks. I told them I had my doubts and that there at most only a very small number of Muslim terrorists in this country. But it was clear to me that in the wake of the day's horrible events, my viewpoint among the passengers on the train was decidedly in the minority.
Some twenty minutes or so later the train pulled into Hicksville. I walked to my car and drove home, arriving there around 5 p.m. I was so relieved to be back home safe and sound with my family.