WHAT I LEARNED FROM 9-11

What I learned from 9-11.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years since September 11, 2001. When it happened, I was a third-year student at NYU preparing for the first day of class. I was doing my makeup in my dorm room when my roommate and I heard a loud, low rumble that echoed through the concrete canyons of 14th street. Both of us paused, confused because it seemed to be coming from above us. Yet that was so inexplicable and disorienting that I assumed it was a big truck passing by and went on preparing for my day.

“You guys! Hurry and get in here! A plane hit the World Trade Center!”

15 minutes had elapsed since we heard the noise, and now another one of my roommates was yelling from the common area where she’d just turned on the TV. This part of the story is probably familiar to you; if you had the television on, you likely experienced it the same way as we did. The shock and sadness at what you thought was a horrible accident. And then the disbelief as a tiny speck appeared on the right side of your screen just before the second tower bloomed yellow, orange and red.

It was no accident.  

I didn’t know what to do except go to class, so I joined a shellshocked throng of students in packed elevator as we put on our stoic, “I’m a New Yorker” faces, and hurried off to our classes. I was going to be late, but I figured my professor would give me a pass that day.

The sky was a surreal September blue as I hurried down 3rd Avenue with the black smoke billowing from the twin towers creating the only clouds in the sky. Looking down the street, the low buildings of the East Village framed them perfectly. I wondered how long it would take them to be fixed, and what they would look like while that went on.

I tried calling my mother on my new Motorola flip phone, but instead got a message from Verizon that all circuits were busy. I put it away and reasoned that she likely wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway with all the emergency vehicles streaming down the street with their sirens on. Sometimes I wonder how many of the first responders who sped past me died within the next 30 minutes. 

When I got to class, we spent maybe five minutes going over the syllabus before the professor shoved his printout aside and interrupted himself, saying that there could be nothing more important than what was going on just a mile south of us. It was around that time we heard the security guards – who were listening to a radio newscast downstairs – start yelling. The first tower had collapsed.

Unable to believe that it had actually happened, we trudged up two flights of stairs to a top floor study area which an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center through its windows. And there it was: a single tower belching black smoke. Someone pulled out a zoom lens and began passing their camera around so everyone could have a better look. When my turn came, I looked through and noticed the radio tower at the top of Tower One swaying. Before I could even tell my classmates, it collapsed, the weakened floors exploding outwards in a sickening, death-gray firework. 

At that point, there was nothing to do except go back to our dorm rooms and watch the news.  

In the days that followed, I felt many things: grief, disbelief, but also guilt because this horrible thing had happened in my city, but I was untouched. I didn’t know anyone who died in the attack, but multiple students on my floor had lost parents. A friend who was a recent grad lost everyone he worked with at Cantor Fitzgerald, but was spared because he’d been late for work that day. Frantic loved ones wallpapered the streets around my dorm with flyers asking “Have you seen my father/wife/daughter?” Yet it was like I was moving through my city in my own little bubble of sadness, untouched. How had I gotten so lucky? 

Over the years, that sense of guilt has turned into gratitude for all my life has gone on to be. There was no one event that caused me to turn that corner, but it’s hard to feel anything but grateful when I look back at all that I’ve grown and learned since I was 20 years old. What’s more, I likely never would have left New York had 9-11 not happened. Had I never moved to California, I never would’ve met Scott, had James, or forged the friendships that have defined my adulthood.

Perhaps more than anything else, 9-11 was the single college experience that prepared me best for my adult life. To this day, I draw on those memories for strength when I’m confronted with anything scary or difficult; it taught me to sit with discomfort and fear in ways I never would have learned otherwise. But most of all, it reaffirmed that we are all connected, and that random acts of kindness are the most valuable things we have to offer.

When I think back to that awful day, I of course remember the sickening sound of a jet passing low over my building, the horrible tilt of the second tower just before it crumbled, and the screams of grief as a man walking down the street in front of me discovered that his sister had died. But what I remember even more vividly is the barkeep who ran out the door to catch that man as he collapsed to his knees in the middle of the sidewalk. Or the stranger who protectively threw her arm around my shoulder as we hurried up 3rdAvenue after the attacks. And I’ll never forget the fierceness of the hug my dad gave me when he was finally able to pick me up and take me home the next day. 

Maybe my brain has done me a favor by allowing the most traumatic parts of the experience to recede, or maybe it’s simply drawing my attention to something even more important than the tragedy itself: that love and compassion prevailed in the face of hatred and evil. 

As the years pass and my memories become murky, that part of my experience remains crystal clear.