I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the buildings. I wasn’t even in Manhattan. So why is my story of any interest to anyone, especially to those who lost loved ones on that eternally sad day. I don’t know and you might not care and that’s cool with me. My story and my day started and ended with a hug.
September 11, 2001 started out as any normal day. I was living at home and worked as a Freelancer in Television Production. I had a corporate shoot in Mt. Olive, New Jersey that day for Mercedes. It was located at a business park ironically named International Trade Center. Before I left my house that day, I gave my Mom a hug goodbye, told her I would be probably late depending on how well the shoot went. I got in my Ford Explorer and headed to New Jersey. I don’t remember much about my drive there; it was pretty uneventful. I remember seeing the Towers as I drove over the Verrazano Bridge, but didn’t give them much thought. They were part of New York and always would be. I got to the location and met the crew and we began to set up the lights.
A few minutes later, we heard that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers, we joked it was probably some rich guy in a Cessna who had a heart attack. My mother worked on Broadway a few blocks from the Towers and her office window actually faced the Towers. I finished setting up one of the lights and decided to call her to get some information. When she picked up she was hysterical and I thought she was being over-dramatic as she often can be sometimes. I remember saying, “It was probably a Cessna or something small, right Ma?” She was saying that people were saying it was a huge jet and her building shook. In the background, I heard a co-worker saying that people were jumping from the building. My heart sunk and I looked around the office I was in and saw others on their phones with the same look of shock on their faces. My Mom on the other end of the line, starting speaking loudly, “Oh my God, Oh My God!” The phone died. I quickly called back and got through to her. She told me another plane hit the second tower. I screamed, “Get the fuck out of the city, NOW!” Again, the phone cut out.
The producer called us over and told us his wife worked across from the Towers and said we were under attack. He cancelled the shoot and told us to go home. We quickly packed up our gear and hit the road. My phone was useless and all I had was the radio for information. I was speeding eastbound on Route 80, thinking I need to get home and that if we were under attack, they were going to lockdown the city and close the bridges and tunnels. I pushed my truck to the limit, driving on the shoulder every now and then. I averaged about 70-80 mph. I went from Route 80 to Route 280 and passed a cop car while on the shoulder. He pulled out and put on lights and sirens and I knew I was getting pulled over. I moved off the shoulder to the grass and he flew right past me. Others got the idea and soon the shoulder was just an extra lane of traffic. I tried my phone again and still nothing. I remember Scott and Todd from WPLJ reporting the first Tower had fallen and I was stunned. No way, that’s impossible, I thought. Nothing could bring that down. Partial collapse maybe. I thought, Ok, people are dead, its mass hysteria, they will rebuild the collapsed part of the Tower. I was angry. Terrorists. In New York. How did this happen? Why?
The Second Tower fell. The DJ on the radio says, “Downtown Manhattan is gone, both towers have fallen.” My Mother is in downtown Manhattan. I tried her again on the phone. Nothing. I tried to think about the situation. Ok, if they fell in one piece, if they fell over in one piece, surely they breached the Hudson River whichever way they fell. I was naïve. As many said that day, “It was surreal” I couldn’t fathom the Twin Towers which I saw a few hours earlier could possibly be gone.
I crested a hill on 280 and for the first time saw it with my own eyes. Smoke, nothing but smoke. Brake lights. Traffic became a crawl; people could not believe what they were seeing. I thought my Mom was dead. I lost it and just began crying.
The next thing I remember is just thinking that I have to get to Staten Island, I know people there, I could stay there. I raced as fast as possible to the Goethals Bridge, I paid the toll and was about to get on when cop cars blocked the road. I made a quick U-turn and headed for the Outerbridge Crossing.
I get to the Outerbridge and it is already closed, forcing me on to Route 9 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. I was pissed the bridges were closed and I came so close and then I felt shame for being pissed. I blew a red light trying to get ahead of a slow driver and once again got pulled over. This time the cop got out, He slammed his door and walked to my car. Before I could speak he started yelling at me. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You want to get killed?” I just apologized and said I am just trying to go home. I apologized again. He told me to “Get the fuck home.”
I drove for some time and somehow found myself on a service road that was adjacent to Newark Airport. That is when my phone rang. I picked up and it was my Dad who lived in upstate New York. He was glad I was safe and we knew my sister was in Brooklyn where she worked was safe. My brother was in midtown Manhattan and knew he was safe. He was glad I was in New Jersey and said he would let my siblings know where I was. I saw a cluster of cars parked on the shoulder and pulled over. I hung up with my Dad and found myself looking at downtown Manhattan, well I was looking at black and grey smoke. I had some signal bars and called my Mom. She picked up the phone! It was a terrible connection. I asked where she was and heard a crackled, static filled, “Brooklyn.” I told her I was in New Jersey and she told me to go upstate to my father, there was no way I was going to make it home. In hindsight, it was probably the smartest move, but I was determined to get home. I continued to drive north and was in standstill traffic somewhere near the Holland Tunnel. I wasn’t headed toward the tunnel, that was closed, just heading North through New Jersey. Local streets were flowing better.
At one point, I am stopped dead in traffic and the opposite side of Route 9 there is no traffic. Not one car. There was one man walking. He was covered in soot. His suit jacket was in one hand and his briefcase in the other. He was shuffling at a slow pace. He honestly looked like a zombie. All eyes in every car were watching him. Time stood still. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then something wonderful happened. A minivan approached him, the first car I saw on that side in a while. The man happened to be across from me and the woman in the minivan stopped and said to him, “Where are you going, sir?” He stopped and looked in disbelief and she repeated her question. He answered her, saying, “Home, I’m going home, I walked through the tunnel.” She asked him where home was and he answered, “Parsippany.” She told him to get in, he did and they drove off. I said to myself, “So this is what it takes, huh?”
I drove north all day, I found myself on the Palisades Parkway in the afternoon. The Tappen-Zee Bridge was still open. It was the only bridge open. My phone died and I had no car charger. I finally make it to the bridge and find myself in yet another traffic jam. I ended up spending over an hour mid-span on that bridge. All I thought was this bridge is going to get blown up. I was sweating and gripping the wheel. Every time I inched up, I thought ok, I am a little closer to land. That hour felt like a day and once my wheels were over land again, I zigzagged my way down through the Bronx and spent another hour going over the Whitestone Bridge into Queens. I was crying and praying, just get me off this bridge and get me home. I knew LaGuardia airport was closed, so I knew the parkways were going to be a nightmare. Before GPS and smart phones, I had a ton of maps in my truck. I was nicknamed the “Map Boy” because I never got lost and knew how to read a map. Once I was in Queens, I pulled over got out grabbed a map and found out where I was and how to get to my house by taking surface streets. I basically followed a south western zig-zag path toward Sheepshead Bay. My home. Every time I saw a red light, I made a left, then a right, then a left, then a right, just to keep moving.
I pulled onto my street at around 7:30PM. All my neighbors were out. I saw my Mom on the stoop with my step-father and my neighbors. I parked and grabbed my work bag and locked up my truck. My mother reached me halfway and I ended my day the same way I started my day. Hugging my mother.
Crying on her shoulder in the middle of street, I made it home.
I am beyond fortunate that my immediate family and friends were safe. I found out later that night that two old acquaintances from High School and College who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald died when the Towers came down. I keep them in my thoughts whenever I feel the need to complain about petty nonsense.
Like I said, nothing spectacular about this. I wasn’t a hero, but I know a lot of them and thank them every chance I get.
“I’m in Brooklyn.” — Mom