(This post was originally written on Sept. 11th, 2011 – the 10th anniversary of 9/11)
While typically on this blog I write about my passion for theatre, today I’m going to write about my passion for New York City.
It’s the story of what happened to me on the morning of September 11th, 2001 – how it gave me a love and connection with New York City that I’ll never forget.
In the Fall of 2001, I was beginning my sophomore year at NYU.
In early September I moved into my new dorm, 200 Water Street; a giant 32-story high rise downtown in the financial district – 5 blocks away from the World Trade Center.
NYU was constantly running out of buildings to place their students in, so they would buy up any real estate they could whenever they could. When they leased 200 Water Street, it became by far the largest dorm in the U.S. (576 units)
I lived on the 14th floor, with giant living room windows facing south. On September 11th, we were in our second week of classes. On that Tuesday morning, I didnt have classes until the afternoon, so I was sleeping in, of course.
That is, until my cell phone went off around 8:50am.
It was my mom. She had seen on TV that the World Trade Center’s North Tower was on fire. She sounded concerned, but not frantic. She said “Turn on your T.V.!”
I didn’t have to – I looked out my windows and could see a huge cloud of smoke rising high in the bright blue sky. I saw the smoke, but not the North Tower, so I turned on the TV to get a better picture of what was going on. At this point, of course, nobody really knew anything, except that there was an explosion and the building was on fire.
Still on the phone with my mom, I said hastily “I’m going to go take some pictures, I’ll talk to you later.” I realize now this wasn’t the brightest idea.
I grabbed my disposable camera and ran down to the street. While I was riding the elevator down, the second plane hit the South Tower. By the time I emerged on Fulton Street, the scene was frantic.
I know it’s cliche, but I can’t help but describe it as a scene out of a movie – utter and complete chaos: people in shock, people crying, people who have fallen to the ground shaking. I vividly remember one man literally shouting for a doctor, trying to help a woman up. And this was still 5 blocks away from World Trade Center.
Fulton was a busy street that ran from my dorm directly to the World Trade Center. I slowly began to inch my way closer and closer to the World Trade Center, snapping pictures along the way.
There was broken glass everywhere. The impact of the planes hitting the buildings was so strong it shook the storefronts and shattered their windows.
The street was packed with people, all staring up in one direction. By this time I had heard from people on the street that it was a plane that had crashed into the second tower. But no one had any idea why, or how, or who was behind it. I remember hearing one guy in a group saying “This must be the Russians…the Russians are behind it!”
The most chilling part was that you could see people jumping from the top floors of the towers. Every time one of these tiny figures dropped through the air, there was a collective gasp from everyone on the street.
I was able to make it all the way to Broadway before the police stopped me and put up barricades. Broadway is exactly one block away from the World Trade Center. There is a church on that corner of Broadway and Fulton, St. Paul’s Church. I remember thinking it was completely surreal seeing the church spires with two burning buildings in the background.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
I began to hear a rumble. The rumble grew into the loudest rumble I’ve heard in my life, a sound unlike anything I’ve heard before. It shook every bone within me. My first and immediate thought was, “Oh my god, there’s another plane and it’s going to crash right onto Fulton Street”. It sounded like a plane was right above my head.
The South Tower was beginning to collapse.
The policemen immediately began shouting to everyone on the street, “Run! Run!” All of a sudden Fulton street was a mass of people running away from the World Trade Center, towards the East River, many people screaming along the way. I have no idea what I was thinking or what made me do it, but at that moment I felt compelled to take pictures, to document what was going on. I remember literally running for my life while holding the disposable camera facing it backwards over my head, snapping away. (You can see those pictures at the bottom of this blog post.)
It wasn’t until I was several blocks away that I turned around and saw the gigantic cloud of dust beginning to overtake the entire street. I ran for my dorm as quick as I could.
After running up 14 flights back to my dorm room, I walked into my living room and saw out my windows nothing but darkness. When I awoke that morning the sky was a brilliant blue, but now all I could see was dark, dark gray. The cloud of ash had overtaken all of downtown.
For the moment, we were told to stay in our rooms and turn off our air-conditioners. However I knew that we would be evacuated soon, and probably for a long time, so I began preparing a bag. I made myself three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and threw every snack I had into my backpack.
A couple minutes later, there was a knock at my door. “We’re evacuating! You must leave now! Walk north, towards the main campus!”
I grabbed my backpack, and headed down the stairwell, 14 flights. The stairwell was packed with students – 32 floors evacuating at the same time. I remember how eerily silent it was, and the somber look on every single persons face as we slowly made our way to ground level.
And I’ll never forget the moment I opened the exit door on the first floor and stepped out onto the street. It was like stepping out into a war zone. The air was filled with a haze of ash, and every surface was covered in at least 2 inches of ash. I had to pull up my shirt and use it to cover my nose and mouth to be able to breathe.
We slowly began our exodus north. At one point I remember there being a debate about whether we should walk over the Brooklyn Bridge or stay in Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge was packed with people trying to leave. Some people decided to go that route, but I chose to stay. It didn’t feel right leaving.
So I turned toward the center of Manhattan. And I am so glad I did.
I made my way to Broadway, the main vein of Manhattan, and began walking north.
This walk, from the financial district uptown to the village, is a walk that will forever cement in my heart that New York City is the best city in the world.
That morning, every New Yorker became “one”.
Every person on the street was looking out for one another, wanting to help any way that they could. There were the people emerging from downtown completely covered in ash, and then there were the businesses on Broadway offering any support they could. Businesses brought down their water coolers to help hydrate those that needed it. Every deli and restaurant was desperately handing out free bottles of water and sandwiches.
So many people came up to me and asked if I was OK, if I needed anything, if they could help in any way. I felt in that moment that, no matter what anybody says about New Yorkers, they have the biggest hearts, the strongest spirit, and the most sincere concern and generosity I’ve ever witnessed.
This continued block, after block, after block.
At this point, however, nobody on the street really had any idea about what just happened. From our perspective, the South Tower was on fire, then a plane had hit the North Tower, and then there was a rumble and a huge amount of ash everywhere. We assumed there was some sort of collapse, but how much? And how did all of this happen? And who was behind it all?
I remember there being these large crowds gathered around parked cars. These cars had their doors and windows open, with the radio blasting the news station. At the time, this was the only way we could get any information about what had just occurred. I stood in one of these crowds for a good 5 minutes, trying to make sense of it all.
I finally made it up to the NYU campus, and was told to go the college sports center, Coles Gym.
When I made it there, I felt a small sense of security and order for the first time. NYU was prepared for students coming from downtown. When I arrived there was table after table of bagels, food and water. They assured us they would take care of us.
I had tried several times to call my parents after I had last talked to my mom. However every time I tried I couldn’t connect – the cell network was down.
Finally, however, after arriving at Coles, one of my calls went through. I was able to talk to my dad for a good fifteen minutes, updating him that I was OK and relaying the events of the morning. It felt good to talk to him.
To be honest, the next few weeks were a bit of a blur, and probably warrants a whole other blog entry.
I will say that we were evacuated from Water Street for two weeks. We were not able to retrieve any of our belongings. When I had packed my backpack before evacuating, I had remembered PB&J sandwiches but unfortunately forgot my cell phone charger.
I got by the first few days by crashing with friends in different parts of the city. Eventually NYU made a deal with the Sheraton Hotel in midtown to house all of us “home-less” students. NYU also gave each of us $200 in cash for clothing, free meal cards, all new books, and a $50 gift card to Staples for school supplies. All in all, I was impressed with how NYU handled the situation given the circumstances.
While I can’t imagine what that morning represents for so many other people, for me it provided a completely new perception of New York City. I felt extremely proud to live in a community with people so strong, and so selfless, and completely united during one of the most tragic events in our history.
By Denver Casado
Denver Casado is a musical theatre composer/lyricist and founder of Beat by Beat Press.