9.11.2011: Warplanes Over Manhattan

Elizabeth W. Hughes
5 min read
Warplanes Over Manhattan
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I was at home in my pajamas taking a much-needed “mental health day.” A newscaster was blathering on about city elections when something odd appeared in the corner of my screen: the tiny image of a plane running into the World Trade Center. For a split second, it didn’t seem like much—one more oddity in the insanity that is day-to-day life in Manhattan.

But then shit got really weird, and honestly, looking back, 10 years later, I can’t for the life of me remember most of what happened for the next few hours. But some moments are clear.

Thankfully, my landline was still working. My home phone was flooded with calls from co-workers, frightened for boyfriends and friends that worked Downtown. They were also frightened for themselves. While I was resting easy in my apartment way uptown in Spanish Harlem, they were sitting on the 48
th floor in an office building high above Rockefeller Center.

Tears streamed down my face as I heard the terror in their voices. The TVs had gone dead on the trading floor at the investment bank where we worked, and they couldn’t get any info about what was going on. There was palpable fear that Rock Center was a huge target. No one knew if it was safer to stay in the building or evacuate into the streets.

On the asphalt, traffic was snarling. The subways were spewing out people. The only way to go anywhere was to walk. Secretaries and shop girls were trudging tragically through Midtown, Louboutins in hand, making a break for Brooklyn and Queens by walking barefoot over the bridges and through the tunnels.

As the day progressed, things grew less certain. Even as a cynical New Yorker who had been raised to not believe the hype, it was scary to be on a small island while thinking your city—and perhaps your entire country—might be under attack.

I was stunned by what I saw in my neighborhood. It was lunchtime. Usually the vibe would be sleepy, the population of young professionals toiling away in their Downtown offices. But on this day it was filled with frantic people dressed in dirty, torn suits and covered in ash, shoes off, red-faced. It felt like a zombie movie. Then it hit me: They had run in terror for their lives from the falling towers of the World Trade Center all the way to 96
th Street. That’s pretty much the entire length of Manhattan.

I decided to head south down Second Avenue and find my friends. If it was truly the end of days, I didn’t want to be alone.

On my way south to Midtown, the traffic on Second Avenue changed from the usual buses and taxis to heavy equipment and emergency response teams. All the crosstown streets were chaotic with people on foot seeking public transport, yet there was none to be had. I was feeling pretty good about things. I had a wad of cash (the ATMs weren’t working because the phone lines were down), my passport, comfortable shoes and my dog.

Taking side streets to avoid the madness on the avenue, I convinced myself that things were cool. I even for a moment revisited that smugness that I’d really dodged a bullet by having the day off. Then I saw the fighter jets fly overhead. Planes like that never flew over Manhattan. The loud noise of the warplanes startled my dog. I sat on a stoop and cried.

Even though I hadn’t practiced a religion (other than devotion to St. Arnold, the patron saint of beer) for many years, I suddenly called to mind the beautiful, modern cathedral my mom used to take me to as a child. Dazed and confused, I walked into the church with my dog and sat down to pray. No one seemed to notice or care I had my animal in church. I don’t remember what I prayed for or how long I stayed, but sitting in that familiar place gave me the resolve to carry on.

From the church it was off to the neighborhood pub. Across the street from my best friend’s house, I figured I’d sit there and stake her out, maybe leave a note on the door to her apartment building. The place was packed, again the dog was welcome, and there was an odd camaraderie I’d never felt in New York before. People were together, smoking and crying and hugging. There was no credit card machine, and the food was running out fast, so the meal was on the house.

I wasn’t there more than 15 minutes when, with no communication whatsoever, my BFF arrived with a bunch of her co-workers. We camped out at a table for what felt like days, chain smoking and telling our stories, laughing and crying and drinking like it was the end of the world. We didn’t really understand what had happened or why, but we did know it was good to be together.

Elizabeth W. Hughes has since relocated to Albuquerque and writes a travel column for the Alibi . She can usually be found speeding away from the city with her dog, Dixie Belle, windows down, music up, in search of hot springs, cold beer or both.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Warplanes Over Manhattan

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