CHAPTER ONESeptember 11, 2001
I gently opened my eyes, reached over to the alarm clock, and tapped the snooze button a few minutes before six. It was still pitch-dark outside my east Brooklyn apartment, but daybreak was steadily advancing, about a half hour away.
As a smile formed on my face, I stretched my arms above my head and kicked the covers off. I was feeling invigorated that day. I’d had an especially deep, peaceful night’s sleep.
It was a crisp, clear morning with a cool breeze filtering through the screen of my open bedroom window. The forecast was calling for a gorgeous, late-summer, eighty-degree day; my plans for a long-anticipated October vacation with a coworker to Miami, Florida, were going to be nailed down during my lunch hour; and my boyfriend, Roger, and I, were once again a happy couple. A bitter argument two weeks earlier nearly destroyed our relationship, but we had reconciled over the weekend. We were excited. Our reconciliation hadn’t just salvaged our six-month romance; it had breathed a renewed passion into it. We felt more confident than ever that we were meant to be together.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had nothing in the world to be unhappy about. Life was good. Really good.
I took a short but warm and relaxing shower, then quickly brushed my teeth and combed through my closet for a cute outfit. My blissful mood dictated my attire as I slipped on a lilac blouse, my favorite black skirt, and two-inch high-heeled shoes. Since my days as a child on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, I loved to dress up. It didn’t matter if I was going to church or playing outside with friends—taking care of my appearance was always important to me.
After applying the finishing touches on my makeup and hair, I took a deep breath and paused for a few seconds in front of the mirror to validate that I looked as good as I felt: beautiful, confident, energized. I smiled. Yep, I was ready. I clasped my watch on my left wrist, flipped off the bathroom light, and hurried into the kitchen to snag my keys, purse, and sunglasses off the table. I pressed the glasses firmly against my face and bolted out the front door, swiftly making the short jaunt through the radiant sunshine down Fulton Street and arriving at the train station in the nick of time to board the 7 a.m. train into Manhattan.
Overall, it was a pretty typical Tuesday morning. The only thing out of the ordinary was that Roger, who normally rode with me, was already in the city, having left much earlier than I to get a jump on some extra work he had at the office. Other than that, it was the usual, uneventful ride with the same unassuming strangers who accompanied me each day. The train made its two usual stops—at Chambers Street and at Broadway-Nassau where I got off at about 7:50 a.m. It was roughly a block away from the World Trade Center, a seven-building complex in Lower Manhattan. I worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the sixty-fourth floor of the 110-story North Tower, also known as One World Trade Center or Tower One. It was one of those skyscrapers so colossal that it made you dizzy if you stood outside it and looked straight up. I had to take two of its dozens of elevators just to get to my floor.
I exited the elevator into the lobby on the sixty-fourth floor, walked through one of the four glass-door entrances to the office area, and headed for my desk. When I got there, I dropped my purse onto the chair and glanced at my watch: 8:05 a.m. Ugh! Five minutes late, and I still hadn’t logged in for the day. I hustled as fast as my not-made-for-running stilettos would carry me to the other end of the floor, carefully weaving in and out of people along the way, to sign in.
The Port Authority, around since 1921, manages a lot of the infrastructure in the area that pertains to transportation, such as bridges, shipping ports, bus terminals, and airports. Its mission, simply put, is “To keep the region moving.” I’d guess about seventy to eighty of the company’s more than one thousand employees who were based in the World Trade Center worked on my floor, including top managers, architects, and engineers. I was an administrative assistant through a temporary-employment agency and had been working for the Port Authority since the beginning of the year. Though secretarial work through a temp agency may not sound the least bit glamorous, I took tremendous pride in every aspect of my job—typing important documents, setting up high-level meetings, answering the phone, running errands, simultaneously working for two bosses. My desk was in one of the dozens of drab, gray, high-partitioned cubicles in the middle of the expansive floor. It wasn’t much to look at outside of the personal stamp I put on it with family photos—including a picture of my daughter, Kimberly—and a couple of small green plants, but it served its purpose. The management-level employees occupied the plush, private offices around the perimeter of the floor, which featured extravagant picture windows with spectacular views of the city.
After signing in, I made the trek back to my cube and booted up my computer. Knowing that was going to take a couple of minutes, I hopped on an elevator again, this time for a brief ride down to the forty-fourth-floor cafeteria. Though on a natural high that would have easily carried me through most of the day, my stomach was impatiently growling at me for its daily cream-cheese bagel and hot chocolate. I smiled and quickly said hello to a few coworkers I passed who were down there eating, but I didn’t have time to hang around and socialize.
I got back to my desk and was able to take one small bite of my bagel and a tiny slurp of hot chocolate—the makeups of my daily breakfast—when the rat race suddenly, but predictably, shifted into high gear. Multiple phone lines lit up like a Christmas tree. A pile of mail, thicker than my bagel, was tossed on my desk for me to sort. I had a letter to draft that one of my bosses left behind the night before. It was an efficient system, and I rarely experienced time during the day with nothing to do. Keeping busy like that was something I enjoyed about my job . . . that, and the people I worked with.
At about 8:35, Susan Miszkowicz strolled over my way. Susan was a civil engineer who worked a couple of cubes down from mine and had become a great friend since I’d been there. She was in her late thirties, single, and lived with her mother in Brooklyn. She was generally a pretty quiet person with stunning blue eyes and a gorgeous, short hairstyle that I had always envied. She was also a leader in her profession, having belonged to the Society of Women Engineers and serving at one time as the president of the organization’s New York Section. Susan was a very nice, intelligent and beautiful woman.
She asked how I was doing as she made herself at home next to me, casually leaning back against my desk, half sitting, half standing, and holding a large mug of steaming coffee with both hands as if it might try to escape. She had stopped by to relieve a little early-morning stress by venting a little about her boss. It was nothing spiteful, just the conventional frustrations we all have now and again with those we work for. She knew I was busy, but just like she was always there to lend an ear when I needed her, I was there to listen to her. And anyway, after eight months of working at the Port Authority, I had become pretty good at multitasking. A friendly chat, phone calls to answer, a letter to type, mail to sort, a bagel to eat . . . no problem.
Susan talked between sips of coffee. The more she vented, the more lighthearted she became. We chatted for about ten minutes, and she was getting ready to head back to her desk when her voice stopped cold in midsentence. My fingers, which had been idly typing my boss’s letter, froze in sync with her sudden silence. My desk phone rang, but it became background noise as I was sucked in by a startling sound in the distance. I let the phone go to voice mail.
“Did you hear that?” Susan said.
“Yeah, I heard it.”
It was a fleeting but strong noise that sounded eerily familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’d never heard a live gunshot before—only on television or in the movies—though I was pretty sure that was not it. It was more like smashing glass. That’s what it was—a shattering sound. But the entire exterior of our building had glass windows. It could have been above us, below us, or maybe it wasn’t in our building at all. It could have been an explosion in one of the other buildings in the complex. The South Tower, the twin to our tower, was right next door. Susan looked at me with the same clueless expression that I’m sure I had on my face.
“What was . . . ?”
Those are the only two words Susan could muster before she was abruptly silenced again, this time by a firm, steady vibration that rumbled beneath the floor, across the ceiling, and through the walls, shooting through like a perfectly pulsating drone, from one end of the room to the other.
Boomboomboomboomboomboomboomboomboom . . .
I instinctively snared the edge of my desk with both hands, thumbs on top and fingers underneath, as I forcefully pressed the soles of my shoes against the vibrating floor to brace myself. Susan slid her coffee cup onto my desk and hugged a wall of my cubicle. I heard several short screams and gasps from coworkers. Many more may have been drowned out by the noise. Everything and everyone shook violently and uncontrollably, enough that we were jolted an inch or two into the air. It rolled through just once, like a massive, single wave. But that was only the beginning of the chaos.
The moment the reverberating stopped, the entire building seemed to sway from top to bottom.
“Oh God!” Susan cried out, her voice trembling with fear and arms still tightly wrapped around the wall. One hundred ten floors of rugged steel and solid concrete, with thousands of human lives in its bosom, gently rocked . . . baaaack and forth . . . baaaack and forth . . . like a tree in a light wind. It wasn’t strong enough to toss us around or knock us off our feet, but it was enough to terrify us. More screams and cries of distress echoed throughout the office.
That entire sequence of events—from the shattering noise to the rumbling to the final sway—lasted fifteen, maybe twenty, seconds. It was that quick, though it felt much, much longer. After the building stopped rocking and returned to its stable, upright position, I cautiously stood up. Still holding on to the desk with one hand just in case there were more chilling surprises to come, I fretfully gazed around the room. Mystified faces slowly emerged over several of the cubicle walls. Nobody appeared hurt. Nothing had toppled over that I could see. But that didn’t stop some people from instinctively gathering their belongings and heading straight for the exits. It wasn’t a mad rush. People seemed relatively calm. More than anything else, there were just a lot of bewildered looks darting around the room, accompanied by steady murmurs, as people speculated about what might have just happened.
What began for me as an especially happy day didn’t feel so auspicious anymore. Skyscrapers were not supposed to move.
© 2011 Genelle Guzman-McMillan