To My Fellow New Yorker

An average person is very conservative. He shops in the same malls, buys the same food, cooks practically the same breakfast every morning and takes the same train, going to the same work from Monday to Friday. I am an absolute none exception of a monotonous rhythm of life. Only suddenly, at one very significant for all Americans day, I began to feel sorry that New York’s life hassle makes us so exhausted and aloof to all the surrounding environment, including its people.
I used to take B train from the first stop in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to midtown of Manhattan for three years, occupying my usual seat, just for a split second acknowledging familiar faces, popping up in my car. They, in turn, would look back at me every morning out of the same mutual habit we all had. Once on board, everybody would assume comfortable position, opened some magazines or took a nap. By the time our train approached downtown Manhattan, our car would be filled to its full capacity, so all I could see were people’s backs, tightly pressed against each other. I was very happy to have my own cozy corner, held for almost an hour. One of the first stops there was Courtland Street, where almost third of our car was emptied out, and it was much easier to breathe and move around.
That somber morning, which came right after the most horrible day for all of us - New Yorkers, it was absolutely impossible to breathe at all. One never ending spasm was squeezing our throats and tears were rolling uncontrollably only from looking at the damaged train, which was left for a few years at Cortland Street station as a reminder of that day.
That first morning after unforgettable September Eleven of 2001 our car had become half of that third, which used to be dropped off at that station, slimmer. We rode to work on that morning and without a shame cried, openly looking at each other and trying to figure out, who of our everyday fellow riders would never ever enter this train again. For some reason, it was so hard to accept the thought that some of us would leave this train and only in less than an hour end up buried under the rubble of two giant buildings, so viciously destroyed by terrorists.  Was it that pretty young woman, who used to sit across and fix her make up every morning, so not to waste time for it in the office? Or, maybe, it was that clumsy middle-aged man in a baggy suite, who sat next to me and almost always slept on my shoulder? At that morning I wouldn’t mind him sleeping the same way, I even would be willing to put something soft for him, so my bony shoulder didn’t bother him. The puzzle, who were those unfortunate people, who left our car on that sunny September morning and went out towards their deaths, had been left unsolved forever. It seems that we are too busy with our own lives and temporary comfort to foresee the tragedy or, at least, give a smile to a person, leaving a car. It might happen that you will never see him again.
That morning of September Eleven in New York turned out to be very hot and sunny. I walked the streets of Manhattan and smiled at myself, looking at my comfortable slippers. Not too long ago our strict law firm had issued a new dress code memo, by which we were obligated to hide our toes and ware decent tops due to a nature of our business. The requirements made sense and were proper, of course, but we, in our financial department, had mocked it anyway, though none of us meant to disobey it. Even in the middle of September heat in Manhattan was still raging, making impossible to go out at our lunch time, because it seemed that all the pavements were steaming and wavering under the feet. I looked at my bare toes and solemnly promised to myself to bring some humble shoes tomorrow, hoping to get away from my bosses’ scrutiny for only one last day.
As soon as I entered my office, I saw a group of girls, crowded around Kristen’s desk and listening to the radio. They reminded me of some scenes from old soviet movies about past war times, when people would gather together in some places with precious then radios just to hear the last report from battle fields. My heart skipped a bit for some reason, even though I hadn’t known the source of the worry yet. It had turned out that only five minutes ago a plane, full of passengers, hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Our first reaction was an astonishment from the news; we started to discuss somewhat similar accident with the crashed helicopter, which fell to Pan American (now MetLife) building’s roof. City excursions had been forbidden since then, so that morning’s news seemed like the same accident to us. We were noisily discussing it, when suddenly radio anchorman’s voice announced that another plane had hit the second tower. We momentarily got frozen and stopped talking, looking at each other in disbelief.  Something much more terrible and not completely comprehensible yet had just happened only a few miles away south from us.
Slowly we went to our cubicles, the business day was about to start. Both my cell and landline phones started to ring at once and wouldn’t stop until that day’s afternoon: there were endless calls from my family, friends and even acquaintances from all over the world with natural worry about our well being, but the matter of fact was that I got absolutely paralyzed and disoriented since the first call from my husband. He had called me only twenty minutes later after he left our teenager son Max in his school yard, which was located only a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center. It was Stuyvesant High School, the tenth floor of which was facing the towers.
After my husband dropped him off, he swiftly crossed Lincoln Tunnel and approached his office building in Hoboken, New Jersey, which also faced downtown Manhattan across Hudson River. Getting out of his car, he saw the second plane attack. At the spot of the first attack a full-blown fire was already bellowing. His office building was built from glass and concrete, practically consisting only rows of wide windows, so he and all his coworkers couldn’t help watching all the tragedy, beginning from the second attack and to the very end, when both giants slowly went down, like a couple of matchstick doll houses.
My husband was calling me every fifteen minutes with the same question about our son. It hadn’t only bothered me but made my brain absolutely numb and useless. I endlessly dialed our son’s cell phone number and, again and again, listened to a metal voice of an operator. Only in half an hour someone had made me to stop doing it, because they went to our conference hall and saw on TV that the main city’s antenna for cell communications, which was located on the top of one of the towers, had fallen, and all wireless connections were terminated. My last and weak hope to find out about my son’s whereabouts had died away. All I had left was only to run between our cubicles on the twenty fifth floor to the conference hall on the twenty eighth with big TV set and catch every piece of news from uncertain and really frightened reporters. Nobody at the first hour of agony could clearly say, what exactly was going on and how it could possibly end up, as well as none of us had a slight realization of the real events. All I had in my head then was only a silent and persistent prayer, addressed to the school staff with hope that they wouldn’t let our children out of their sight, so they didn’t wander lose in local subway stations and near that dangerous site. Of course, they had to have common sense, but at an early hour of those events nobody could make any certain predictions.
I was not alone in my crazy frenzy. There was also Sandy, the secretary of our oldest lawyer. We were good friends, lived close in Bay Ridge and sometimes took a train together. Her oldest son Dan was working in Bank One, which was located on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center building. Her condition that morning was near nervous breakdown: he called her a few minutes after the first attack and said that the plane had plunged into his bank’s business hall, right next to his office. There were about forty people there, and the whole place was afire then. In the middle of the call he started to chock with an asthma attack and involuntarily dropped the phone. Only a few days later we had found out all the details of his fate, and it was impossible to listen to Sandy without tears.
When Dan began to lose this breath, he dropped the phone and half-consciously headed out of the room towards the elevator and bumped into the locked metal door. All the elevators, according to fire safety requirements, were summoned down to the first floor at the beginning of an emergency. He, being on the eighty seventh floor of that building, had no way out but by the stairs. Whole floor was engulfed in smoke and fire, so he started his slow descending and, in a few steps, almost lost his conscience, but the help was around the corner.
All emergency forces of New York had been mobilized during a few first minutes from the initial attack. All road and underground traffic were suspended, so there were no obstacles for emergency cars to approach the sight of the tragedy. That is why first crews of firemen and paramedics started to storm the first building very fast. They had a very hard task to run the stairs of the skyscrapers on foot and carry all the equipment with them.
Dan was comfortably laid down on the stretchers and carried by the two strong and cheerful guys. It took them almost twenty minutes to reach the ground floor. Once outside, Dan inhaled a full chest of fresh air and felt much better right away. He was still lying on the stretchers, when, looking up, saw a huge fraction of a panel, which was approaching him extremely fast. Instinctively he had rolled over from the stretchers on the ground, not even able to scream and warn the guys, who just saved his life, while the huge mass of concrete crashed with all its force, smashing both of them.
Dan’s bank had lost around eighty people that day. He happened to be alive together with the small group of a dozen or so survived coworkers only by slim chance and sheer luck. For a few following weeks he had to attend funerals, when some of the remains of his employees were found. Practically there was nothing and nobody to bury: almost all of them had been burned alive or exploded together with the first plane and its passengers.
Somehow his picture had appeared in a first edition of illustrated book, dedicated to these events a few months later. On the picture he was still sitting on the stretchers, probably right after the paramedics were killed. Sandy brought that book to the office and showed it to me, but, for some reason, to leaf it through and see the pictures I had neither strength nor guts.
For a few following the tragedy months our firm encouraged us to go to the church, located right next to Ground Zero, to accommodate people, who worked on clearing the rubble there, but, shamefully, I couldn’t force myself to volunteer. Even almost ten years later I get suffocated from a throat spasm and can’t approach that place without crying. This is what only I – an average, humble New Yorker – feel, but what about those people, who lost  their beloved ones under monstrous leftovers of the most significant American Twin Towers and other pains that day?
One more person, a sister of our coworker, had ended up buried there too. She happened to be a victim of a previous attack in 1993: then she was trapped in one of the elevators, rescued and taken out from the roof in a helicopter. On the morning of September attack, she was in her office in the second tower. When it was hit by a plane, all the elevators kept working for a short period of time, so all her coworkers went down in them. They almost forcefully tried to pull her out from behind of her desk, but she was so paralyzed with the fear to get to the same situation again that she wouldn’t move. Unfortunately, there was one huge mistake of a lot of people inside of those buildings: during some time, all the speakers of fire safety told them to sit and wait for further directions for actions, so many people had obeyed those commands and got trapped there. Only the ones, who didn’t want to sit, not knowing what to expect, and went down on foot, survived. A lot of people were also trapped on the top floors, which were above the ones, hit by the planes and consumed by fire, part of them either got burned inside or jumped out of the windows. Only a few, who could manage to get to the roofs, were rescued by helicopters. The rest had become hostage of the safety system, which in no way was ready to the fact that both giants would ramble down so unbelievably fast and easy.
It seemed to me that September Eleven morning would never end. Together with increasing danger of the first tower collapsing there was a possibility of complete loss of my mind. Without visible tiredness I was accumulating miles by running between my company’s floors in hope to get a message from my son and not to lose any information from TV. By that time, I got a call from my sister from Russia, who asked the same questions: “Where is your son?” I begged her to tell our parents and all the relatives that all of us were sound and safe, though I wasn’t hundred per cent sure about it yet.
Sometime around afternoon I was practically caught by our managing partner in the middle of the staircases. His daughter recently graduated the same school, in which my son was, so his first question was about his whereabouts. He had advised me to start walking there on foot instead of torturing myself by helpless guessing, but both of us looked at my slippers and decided that it would do me no good. I didn’t even have to hide my bare toes then: so absurdly not important they looked at that moment.
He had gently touched my shoulder and said: “Everything will be fine, be patient!”
For the hundredth time that day I had returned to my cubicle and saw a blinking light on the phone: finally, it was a long-expected message from my son! It was half past twelve, he was alive and safely out of danger. It had turned out that he forgot his cell phone at home, although there wouldn’t be too much use from it anyway. In order to call me, he had to wait in a very long line to the pay phone outside, while some time before that he had to live through such a significant and enormous shock for only one short hour, which had cardinally changed his attitude to the whole life.
At the moment of the second attack, he already had gone inside of the school. The first class was about to start, when the voice in the speaker commanded everybody to gather outside of the classrooms in the halls. There were about four thousand kids ages fifteen to eighteen in the school that day. The school building was relatively new, ten stories high and located by the banks of Hudson River. 
All the children were gathered together and sent to the top floor, where they spent almost an hour, watching unfolding horror of burning and swaying towers with their own eyes. Unfortunately, there was no way to escape it, because that floor was made only of big windows, facing the World Trade Center.
When both twin towers were caught on fire, the most horrible things started to happen: people began to jump out from the burning offices, located on top stories. They were plunging towards their deaths with desperate cries, holding each other’s hands. That entire scene was accompanied by the tons of lose paper, flying in the air: that what the poor children in the building across were forced to witness. The whole world was in a great confusion at that moment, not only my son’s school personnel.
There should be a great credit given to New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani, who fearlessly hurried to the sight of a tragedy at the first minutes after the first attack. He had managed a whole process of rescue operations, being in the center of those events.
Apparently, during that first hour it was too early to act out regarding the people in other buildings, surrounding the towers. Nobody could predict how exactly the events would develop, although slowly swaying and burning giants had already begun to threaten an inevitable catastrophe.
When the first tower began to rumble and drop its huge particles of concrete, all nearby skyscrapers also started to sway, responding to the resonance of the extreme impact of the shattered pieces on the ground. It looked as if a whole district was trying to support a stumbled, fallen neighbor, but all that it could do was just sadly bend towards it and watch what would happen next.
At that time my son’s school staff had received a command to evacuate the children via safety exits, which were located at the back of the school, leading to the river banks. My son told me later how amazed he was by great cooperation and calm of the thousands of people, who in a very organized manner walked out of their buildings, not pushing or screaming, but carefully supporting each other and watching a tiny space in front of them. They, probably, hadn’t fully grasped a reality around them yet. All four thousand kids from the school eventually were out and started to move up the river banks, towards midtown Manhattan. All the streets were empty, only some emergency cars kept speeding by from time to time, and one policeman per a corner was directing a procession. By the time when they were led out, the first tower had already fell apart half way, and a huge cloud of dust and asbestos began covering whole area around. That was the cloud, which had swallowed all shocked and bewildered children, together with other people, who happened to be around them.

The moment I heard my son’s message, I grabbed my bag and ran to an exit. Once again, I had bumped into the managing partner, who wished me good luck in locating my son. All I knew from my son’s message was that they were directed towards north of Manhattan, because all the bridges and tunnels in the city were blocked. The only one possible point of our meeting would be the Forty Second street pier on the West side. That was the only way out of the island, which led straight to New Jersey.
I don’t remember in how many lapses I had covered the distance from Central Park to that pier, it was of no importance then. What mattered was that my son would be somewhere there in the midst of a huge crowd of people.
It seemed that nobody had ever started working that morning: too shocking and paralyzing was the news of a tragedy. So, the New Yorkers, not completely comparing the reality outside of their offices and last reports on TV, were facing an uneasy dilemma. They had to get home somehow. At the middle of the day some transportation began to take people to the northern parts of Manhattan and Connecticut, but for the Brooklyn residents there was only one way home – via New Jersey. That was why the Forty Second street pier was enormously overcrowded. Whole local fleet of ferries was gathered there, and by the time I approached it, the first rides across the river had started.
I don’t know why, but for the second time that morning I suddenly had a feeling that I had seen this situation before and knew what to do. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside of our subconscious, or, maybe, even on a genetic level, some aftershocks of the sufferings of our ancestors during great wars are still sitting in us. Maybe that is why the first person I think of when I usually wake up on the morning of a D-Day is my maternal grandfather, whom I never saw in my life, and who died in a so-called “meat grinder” of 1942 in Russia. He was drafted to the war right from his plow and it’s hardly possible that he even had enough time to learn which way to hold a rifle. Probably all this had got under our skin from the childhood, we grew up on those war movies, but I also think that there is a genetic memory of a nation, and on that afternoon I had clearly felt it: like it was me, who used to be trapped in the middle of a huge crowd of overwhelmed people and knew how to act.
For the first time in so many years from the times of American civil war of nineteenth century something no less horrifying had happened on American soil again, even though Americans suffered a big amount of loss of human lives in the past world wars. But an average American hadn’t suffered the same hardships as did European and Soviet back then: he didn’t have to be a part of such crowds, searching for a shelter and hiding from bombing. That is why that September day was very terrifying and much scarier than some horror movie for him. The symbols of an American empire were so viciously destroyed during a short hour in front of his eyes, thousands of innocent people were killed, and the whole familiar to him world was turning into a pile of still warm debris of glass, metal and concrete.
I was looking at those scared people, remembering some fragments of Russian history, and not even for a split second had a thought that it was the time for Americans to try Europeans and Soviets’ shoes crossed my mind. Later I was forced to hear a lot of spiteful words from different sources about it, but personally I had never agreed to them. Everyone is equal in the face of a disaster and sorrow!
Perhaps, that state of d;j; woo hadn’t let me panic in search of my child. He, being sixteen-years-old, was almost six-foot-tall and already knew what to do in extreme situations. Apparently, he also had the trace of old hardships in his genes. It was he, who found me there. He and his two school buddies had approached me from behind and I, turning back to look at them, got really shocked. It wasn’t the way they looked, still covered with grey dust from that huge cloud that engulfed them when they got out of school. What took me a back, was their none stop talking.   
Again and again, they were reliving that morning’s events, which couldn’t find an appropriate place and settle down in their brains. The images of flying down people, their last desperate cries, theirs fear to face close death were still vividly and persistently rolling before their eyes.
All of us were so utterly shaken by unfolding events of the day, that a few years later I got myself in some embarrassing situation. My son came to New York from California for a college break and went to meet with his old classmates. Later one evening he was showing me fresh pictures from that reunion, and I asked him who was a tall guy next to him. He shrugged and said: “Don’t you remember Mike from September Eleven, whom we drove home with us for five hours?”
No, none of the faces or names stayed in my memory, they didn’t have any meaning then. All that was permanently fixed was a huge belch of smoke above the place on which only a few hours ago had soared two tallest buildings of New York. Without them, for some reason, the city seemed toothless from any angle of view. We had a very good place on the pier of Bay Ridge, right next to our house, from where the whole scene of that morning’s disaster was laying with all its bareness, spitting smoke for another couple of days.
Six months later my son made the picture, which I here; it was the day when two very powerful projectors were lit as a tribute to all perished lives. Whole that event was very solemn and breathtaking. And my breath still stops all the time I am approaching the memorial plug with the names of all the victims of the tragedy at Ground Zero Memorial. Nothing will ever cross it out from our memory or make us forget it!
Now, in the wake of another anniversary of September Eleven, some surveys are asking Americans: what meaning does that day have for them and in which way did it change them? As for me, I honestly say – it was the most terrifying day in my life! Yes, we had some unfortunate event of August Fourteenth of 2002 blackout, when almost all North-Eastern part of North American continent and part of Canada had lost electric power in the middle of the day. The first few hours of it were really challenging for all New Yorkers. We were practically awed and lost in space, not knowing what all of it was about, but eventually it had left us only with bunch of spoiled food in refrigerators. Is there any comparison between lost food and thousands of precious lives?!
How did that day change me? I don’t think that my world outlook had been substantially altered, no, but that day one more time had confirmed one of the old Russian proverbs: “when farmers are fighting, the peasants are suffering”. All these monstrous political games, based on nothing other than human greed, only sweep away millions of innocent lives from the face of Earth. It might be harsh to admit, but even pitiful, scared Saddam Hussein was only an unimportant pawn, caught into the grindstones of the most powerful, hungry machine of carving up of the world’s treasures. It is, probably, worth adding thousands of young Americans, who had gone only to make their living in the army after September Eleven events. I doubt that they wanted to kill innocent people of other countries. None of them thought about losing their live, not even knowing what the purpose of their sacrifices was. All this is getting so obvious for more and more people around the world after those years from that horrible day of September Eleven, and it gives me a great satisfaction.