614 writer David Lewis, a New Yorker for 33 years, recalls the day that changed America
Spending the first 33 years of your life in New York City can both adore you to its city life and harden you to the world. It is a dichotomous relationship I have with my hometown. On one hand there is love—museums, beauty, energy, passion, diversity; and the other, hate—stepping in dog shit, getting mugged, rude behavior.
You see too much, too soon, too often. I am no exception. I have seen a lot. I witnessed a man being shot ten feet away from me. I have the battle scars that have made me tough. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what happened on 9/11.
I was in NYC that day, when it became the spiritual epicenter for everything that happened, from the Pentagon, to a rural field in Pennsylvania, to the Twin Towers.
The month had started like any other fall month—with one exception; on Sept. 1, I got married in Central Park at Tavern on the Green with an accompanying horse and carriage ride. It was the quintessential “New Yawk” event.
I returned from my honeymoon in Paris on Sept. 10 and had a serious case of jet lag. On the morning of Sept. 11, after not sleeping a wink, I decided to do my laundry in the early morning hours. I walked up from the laundry room of my Upper West apartment building (five miles due north of the Towers) and went outside to get some air.
The front of the building was hustling with pedestrians and car traffic. Not a cloud in the sky. Crystal blue. Crisp air. After about 20 minutes, I heard this rumbling noise coming from two and half blocks away, over the Hudson River. Then it built up to a sonic-sounding streak of energy only a low flying jumbo jet plane could make. That was cool, I thought, and went upstairs, not giving it much more of my time, until…
I walked into my L-shaped studio with my wife watching the news. It was around 8:47 and there was talk of a plane hitting the World Trade Center’s North Tower, a place I have visited several times. It was initially reported as a small plane hitting the tower. I glanced at my wife, our eyes squinting as they met. How could that happen? Well, it couldn’t. We watched the replays. It was a big-ass plane. I turned to my wife and said, “I heard the plane when I was outside. It was just a few blocks away from us.”
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I looked out my bedroom window to see billowing smoke coming from Battery Park. Black plumes of death. The darkness juxtaposed against the blue, cloudless sky dropped my cheeks. Then I turned to the TV to see the second plane throw a dagger into all our hearts. The South Tower was supposed to be OK. They said there was no need to evacuate. They were wrong.
Who the fuck did this? Who can I go yell at, or better yet, scream at? Then this pain washed over my body like a heavy wave enveloping me as I swam too deep. People jumping off burning buildings? Really?
I felt helpless. And it was a helplessness I have never felt before. I called my mom, who lived a block away. I called my sister, who lived cross-town. I called friends all over the city to see if they were OK. My city was burning—and I didn’t know what to do.
Wanting to feel empowered, my wife, a friend, and I ran uptown to the local hospital to give blood so all the hundreds, or thousands, of survivors could get nourished. But the nurse at the door turned us away. She said they had too much blood and nobody to use it on. I wasn’t prepared for that.
The loss of control was eating me up. So, we ran downtown towards the billowing smoke. We saw tanks roll down Fifth Avenue. We watched the replays over and over of the planes hitting the towers on a jumbotron TV in Times Square. As we neared Union Square, two miles from the burning towers, we were stopped by police and barricades. Nobody was getting any closer to the flames unless you were essential. I wasn’t prepared for that. In New York, you can be anywhere, anytime—but not this day. Not this time.
We walked back uptown snice all the subways stopped running. Soot filled the air, making each breath feel like I was living in a 1950s Pennsylvania coal town. I coughed and thought of all the people coughing in the towers right after the planes hit. People gave us water to wash away the filth and soothe our throats.
I was deflating with every step as I walked further away from Ground Zero. My New York resolve. My toughness. My ability to see disturbing things and brush them off was waning. After hearing about a post-it note that blew off a desk in the South Tower after the building collapsed and fell in in Brooklyn, a good distance away, I sank deeper. What saved me the days and weeks after the towers fell was volunteering. I handed out water. I thanked every firefighter I saw.
But then I had a thought. I have spent my entire life forming the callouses to get through this. Maybe not today, but tomorrow I will feel better. I got behind my New York-ness and rallied with others. We can show the nation that we got their back. That we have the resilience to bounce back with force, like a rubber ball hitting a wall.
My best friend’s mom, a tough single mom from Brooklyn, would tell people, “That Dave Lewis, he’s a survivor.” It was the ultimate compliment to get, from one New Yorker to another. I should’ve been prepared for that. But even for a tough New Yorker, it was a day that challenged everything we believed about ourselves and our beloved city.
It was a gut punch to the Big Apple and the nation, but us New Yorkers—we are survivors. We dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up and put one foot in front of the other. The towers came down; but New York rose up. And that is something I most certainly was prepared.
They were there.
When the two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11th, the tremors were felt from 500 miles away here in Columbus. Residents were rocked to their core and have their own stories to tell. Here are just a few:
“The [Columbus] Dispatch was sending me to New York City to cover a big fashion show. Last minute they held me back and sent some other people. I was disappointed. On the morning of September 11th, I was in the shower still stewing about not being in NYC. I was getting dressed to go into the office when I see the planes go into the Twin Towers. I was shocked beyond belief. But also relieved because the fashion show was 12 blocks from the World Trade Center. The Dispatch sent a van to NYC a week-and-a- half later to pick up staff and bring them back home.” –Marshall Hood
“I was in the 5th grade and remember being in class when the story hit. Another 5th grade teacher walked into my classroom and whispered something into my teachers’ ear. She let out a loud gasp, which was followed by moans and tears. I would later find out that her son worked in Tower 1 and had lost his life. Both teachers immediately left the classroom. Shortly after, a third teacher walked in, went over to the tv and turned it on the news. Then she announced to the class, ‘Everybody put everything away and watch. You may not understand what is going on, but this is a day you will remember for the rest of your life.’” –Bryan Gasaway
“After the planes hit, I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment and I drove up and down 270 for a good half hour, trying to decide if I should go pick my kids up from school on the way home. No one knew what was going to happen – was the situation going to escalate? – but I didn’t want to panic, overreact or needlessly scare my kids either. What a day.” –Mary McPhail
“I was teaching 8th grade American History [at Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington] and had the first period free. I was watching the Today Show and grading papers when a special report came on. As I watched replays of the first plane hitting, I said, “That pilot must’ve been blind.” When the second plane hit I said it must be an attack. This is not normal. I went upstairs to teach my second period class and had to explain to the students what was happening and that I was leaving the tv on – class will be different. We watched together. I answered questions the best I could. Students were crying on my shoulders. It was the worst day of my 42-year teaching career.” –Kim Rhodes