I sometimes look back at 9/11 and wonder if my memory of it has altered and if the reality was different than I recall. It was such a long time ago – I had wrote about it on my laptop at the time, but unfortunately lost it before backing it up and never ended up writing about it again. I was in Manhattan for only my 2nd time, and the first time was nearly 10 years prior, so basically only knew it from movies. I was living in London, England at the time and we had flown in to watch Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Concert (Imagine – it was the most expensive ‘pop’ concert at time – and tickets for second level seats in Madison Square Gardens were $100… ). He had two concerts and the second one ended around 11:30pm on September 10th. We ended up going out to eat or something, and then I went back to my hotel which was a couple blocks towards Central Park from Times Square. I think it was the Hilton, but I could be wrong. What I do recall is that it was real high and that if you pressed against the window and looked towards the towers, you could see them.
The morning of September 11th (that’s what it was called then), I woke up really early – I was probably still on UK time, and since I couldn’t sleep, I turned the TV on – it was a few minutes before 9am, so the first tower had already been hit, and news was showing pictures of the tower with smoke spiraling out. Commentators were talking about how they thought it was a twin-engine plane or an out of control freight plane, but no one really knew much. I was thinking ‘stupid amateur pilots’ and started dosing off again. So while I was drifting in and out of sleep, I half thought I was dreaming, I heard the announcement of the second plane hitting, Bush making an announcement, a third plane crashing into the Pentagon… I finally snapped wide awake. It wasn’t a dream, it was really happening. I was sitting upright and just staring at the TV. It was weird. Just a couple days earlier, I was at the top floor of the Twin Towers taking the typical tourist pics, and now watching on TV as they were burning it seemed like a completely different world. I got up and looked out the window. There were crowds down below, but they didn’t seemed to be running around, but more like me, just staring at the smoking towers. I squeezed my face to the window and tried to get a better view of the towers. How do you know what to do in that situation? There are no references in life. I was a bit like a zombie. I walked over to the bathroom, got in the shower (who does that?? I guess I had to be clean??) and just stood there. I can’t recall what I was thinking at the time, but I remember just standing there, not freaking out, not panicking, but just standing there for a bit. After some time, I finally got out, got dressed and by then, one of the towers had already fallen.
I don’t know how I found the address, but somehow I found out where the Canadian Embassy was located. It was just a couple blocks away, and so I headed towards it only to find a sign posted on the door of the building stating something to the effect of ‘Due to recent events, our office is closed. For Emergencies, call 613-xxx-xxxx” — Really?? To this day, I’m still ticked that the Canadian government left Canadians to fend for themselves on that day. You know that if the same thing happened in Toronto, that the Americans would evacuate their citizens in seconds. For all we knew, it was going to be all out war, and bombs going off all over the place, and we were given a 613 number to call “for emergencies”, which obviously nobody picked up anyway… I remember that my friend who was working at CTV at the time interviewed me about it a couple days later and there was some other media coverage, but I have no faith that if something similar were to happen, that Canada would be any better in responding now.
So on that morning, we were left to just take care of ourselves. I was staring at the towers, and just naturally started walking down towards them. It was unnerving. I don’t think people really knew what to do. It wasn’t like people were frantic – the news I watched afterwards made it seem like everyone was running throughout the city and I’m sure that was the case near the towers, but as I walked from Times Square, people were not panicking. There were so many who were just going about their lives. I even remember this one guy outside the Empire State building still running his cart and selling hot dogs, all the while listening to the news on his portable radio. I was in a daze though, just watching people and watching the towers. I finally tried calling friends from my cell but all the lines were down. I think it was more likely that the networks were at capacity but I was able to text. It’s easy to forget that back then nobody used to text in the US, and so the text channels were completely open. I was basically texting friends in London asking them to relay to my parents in Canada to let them know I was ok.
I was still just walking towards the towers in shock and at one point I just stopped and stared. The second tower was coming down. I could faintly hear it, but you could feel the rumbling in the ground. I honestly couldn’t comprehend it. I few years earlier I had been in Vegas for the ‘Great Implosion’ where the city purposely imploded the Hacienda Hotel and I was awed at that. This was numbing my brain. 80 floors just crumbling down (apparently it took something like 10 seconds). I was closer now and you could see fire trucks rushing everywhere and helping evacuate people from buildings. I finally stopped going any closer. I think my brain finally kicked in and the fear factor took over. I couldn’t understand how the firefighters were still going in. There was smoke everywhere, and you could smell the burning building to the point that it was nauseating. The fact that they have not been invited to the Anniversary commemorations is ridiculous. I started to notice more chaos and people trying to get out of the area. Somehow there were taxis about but in typical NYC style they weren’t stopping, so people were getting in front of them and even more shockingly for NYC, people were stopping cabs to help others in. A couple of us stopped a cab to help a pregnant lady get in, and some old-folks home was being evacuated so we were helping to guide them. Nothing was normal – strangers helping each other out, but at the same time when I stopped at Starbucks on the way back up to Times Square, they charged for a bottle of water. Worse, when I finally got back to the hotel, they told me I had to checkout.
I remember being told ‘Sorry, but we need to free up the rooms for people who have reserved them for the next nights’. Seriously?? Every transit route in and out of the city was closed. But hotels were kicking people out if you were already in them to clear them for others. That’s when I was even more annoyed at Canada. Some friends of mine were also in town, and so 8 of us ended up being holed up in a room at the Time Hotel (the pic of the bedroom looks exactly the same today!). I didn’t even know half the people – just all friends of friends – 2 Muslim, 2 Jewish, and the rest Hindu or Sikh – go figure. I remember we all just sat there watching the news. My recollection is that until the second day, they weren’t saying ‘Muslim’, and even when they did, most senior officials were reminding the news anchors about Oklahoma’. When I see coverage of it now, it seems my memory may be wrong. I was actually super annoyed at our cleaning crew for throwing away our newspapers. Since everything was shut down, no outside papers were making it in to Manhattan, and no papers printed in the city were making it out – so the papers we had were fairly hard to find. Mind you, you could probably find them on line somewhere now.
I think we were in that room for about a week until our flights started up again. I was on Virgin Atlantic, and they must have had the lowest priority to get out of the city. I went to the airport twice just to be sent back. We were like sheep being herded back and forth. There were two Irish girls who befriended me who still keep in touch with who were also in the same situation so at least there was some company. The atmosphere in NYC was so odd – everyone within Manhattan was actually being fairly nice (other than corporations). We would watch on tv about how mosques were being bombed in Queens or how a Sikh person in Texas was attacked, but it didn’t seem like Manhattan. In Manhattan it was like everyone was thinking, ‘we’ve already gone through hell. Lets reflect a bit.’ There were random vigils on streets. I remember going to meet some people for prayers – it didn’t seem odd at all and there was no fear factor and that as Ismaili Muslims we just went and prayed and no one was concerned about random violence. I don’t recall any anti-Muslim sentiment within Manhattan at all at the time. I don’t know if that would be the case today. Back then though, people were just looking for ways for it to be calm.
Every day you would hear about another potential threat – Grand Central Station was evacuated one day, some other station was evacuated another day. So when you went out, it seemed everyone was trying their best to keep civility. Only a few restaurants were open – we went to Tao most nights, and this one night we were at the W Hotel, and the staff were unbelievably nice, almost like being at a resort rather than hoity-toity restaurants. When you went on the streets there were almost no cars about. I remember at one point, just a parade of military tanks driving down through Times Square, and I think the first couple nights there wasn’t a single car driving – kinda like that scene in Vanilla Sky. Definitely a rare few days!
Each day though, the news was getting more intense and the White House speeches were get more passionate. I don’t think it would have made a difference of who was in power, there was no real choice but to lead people to rebuild morale, and people’s only reference of the types of speeches or atmosphere to build are from movies. By the time I was leaving New York, it was starting to operate again – Wall Street was opening again, stores were open. New Yorkers were becoming New Yorkers again. Unlike what all the media you read about it now, it seemed like that one week in New York City was not rare because of the attacks, but for me, also because of the quietude. I have never been back to New York since, although I have been tempted more so lately. Not scared of it, but I do think that I would find it a bit of a jarring experience. My memory is of the somber blanket over the city in that last week I was there, but as said earlier, maybe my recollection is not even reality anymore. If someone could score me tickets for SNL, well then I think my mind would be made up to go back…