Jake’s 9/11 Story

Jake’s NYC/9-11 Story
(Originally written on 9/11/2002)

Many people over the course of the last year have asked me “Were you in NYC on September 11?” Over the course of the last 12 months, I have had a hard time answering that.

On the one hand, I want more than anything to erase the memories from my mind. To eliminate the negativity that surrounds NYC for me. This is as much as survival mechanism than anything, since I still traveling into the city every other week or so.

But on the other hand, I was one of the very very lucky ones. I still get to come home to my beautiful wife, and see my wonderful family. Since that’s the case, I have this sub-conscious need to try to explain the true horror of that event to the other people around the nation and around the world that I meet in my travels.

In some minor ways, I think the country has been brought together in a way that it hasn’t been since World War II. Patriotism, whatever that means, is at an all time high. You can feel it and see it, even beyond the American flag stickers on our SUVs. I saw this great commercial a few night ago that showed a row of house (no people present), and the voiceover: The terrorists tried to change America. Fade out, fade back in on the houses…every one of them with a flag outside the door. Voiceover: They did. [Watch the video]

The worst part for me is not reliving the horror in my head, it’s seeing the profits being made off of the tragedy, direct and indirect. It’s easy to chalk up the idiots producing the horrible “Eagle crying in front a flag” T-shirts as assholes trying to turn a buck. That’s sick, pure and simple. I doubt any of the people making money off of those shirts were hit by flying body parts as they ran for their lives from a collapsing building.

http://news.lugnet.com/general/?n=33092 (2nd to the last paragraph)

But those assholes are the easy mark. What about the journalists? For them, this is there chance at stardom. It’s their own personal version of Mike Tyson in his very own strip club. I read a story recently about Paula Zahn. She lives in Manhattan, and has several kids who attend school there. The story was all about her action on 9-11. The writer made this big deal about how as soon as she had picked the kids up from school after the first plane hit, and dropped them with the nanny, she headed down the scene. She wasn’t doing rescue work, she wasn’t looking for her husband, she was on the clock for her new network, Fox. That’s right, she threw the kids at the nanny, picked up the phone and called her boss to find out where he needed her to report from. (Keep in mind that hadn’t actually set foot in the Fox offices as an employee yet, and wasn’t supposed to for several weeks)

During a situation like this, what kind of sick jerk drops their young, scared, confused children off with a non-family member and heads down to check out the carnage? I know Donna and I were scared to death of leaving our home… no one knew ANYTHING about what was happening, and what was left in store for us. Make no mistake, she wasn’t “brave”, she was self-centered.
Let me tell you our story, one of the less important stories, but perhaps interesting nonetheless. Like I said this is a hard story for me to be comfortable telling. Not because of the content of the story, but because I’m not sure that it is appropriate for me to tell it.

Moving to NYC

September 2000 was a big month for Donna and me. We went to California on vacation, and during that trip, we were engaged.

Two days after our return to Dallas, I was on a plane to NYC to interview with LEGO, a company I had dreamed about working for since I was a kid. I got the job, and in October 2000, Donna and I moved to Brooklyn. We sold both of our cars, since there was no need to have them, and we both rode the subway into and out of Manhattan every day.
The job was a lot of fun, and the office was right downtown. (Canal and Varick for those of you familiar with the city)

NYC was a fun city at first, but it’s novelty wore off quite quickly. We were living in a VERY small apartment, and paying $1800 for the privilege of living there. But hey, the place had perks… I got to see the landlord buck ass naked . We were able to “recycle”, via homeless guys going through our garbage. NYC is a very difficult place to live; everything is difficult, from doing your laundry, to buying your groceries, to walking the dog. Everything.

After about 11 months in Brooklyn I was able to relocate to Enfield, Connecticut, about 3 hours from Manhattan, and the site of the only other US LEGO office.


The Wonderful Broken Toe

On Sunday, September 9, Donna and I were finishing our packing for the move to Connecticut. The moving van was supposed to show up on the morning of September 12, and carry us away to the rural expanse of Enfield.

That day, I accidentally kicked the door jam of the bathroom while moving stuff around. I broke my pinky toe, which I didn’t really realize until much later that day.

Donna and I only weeks before had found a nice movie theater near Battery Park. This theater was directly across the street from the World Trade Center, right off the West Side Highway. (The West Side Highway is where the masses of people had the signs up thanking the rescue workers)

The movie theater and restaurant (building in upper right corner)
http://www.imagestation.com/album/?id=4292342779&p=4265037128&idx (image 14)

West Side Highway

[See the view]

After hobbling off the subway to the theater, and past the WTC, we watched Rock Star. There was an Applebee’s next door and after the movie we had dinner, literally in the shadow of the WTC. We walked back to the subway and passed underneath the glass walkway between one of the towers and one of the smaller buildings.

The next day, my toe was hurting, but I went into work anyway. It normally was a 30 minute trip, but that day it took about 1 hour. The worst part was standing on the Chambers street platform, waiting to switch trains.

(http://www.imagestation.com/album/?id=4292361559&p=4265356928&idx – Photo 72)

By the time I made it home that night, I told myself that I would only go into work if my toe felt better.

The next morning – September 11- I woke about 7am to a toe that was feeling worlds better. Donna had already quit her job, and was working on finishing our packing. But for some reason, I had a strange vibe about going into work. I decided to stay home. At about 8:50a, my boss and I were chatting via instant messenger, and he told me that a plane had hit the WTC. This news barely raised an eyebrow at first, since I was thinking that he meant a Cessna had clipped the huge antenna on accident, or something similar. Nobody knew anything yet.

As Donna and I turned on the TV, we were sucked into the vortex of sadness that turned out to be 9-11. As we watched the newscasters get up to speed, I was relaying info to my boss who was in the office without TV or radio (and all the news sites were down).

As we watched, the second plane hit. I IMed my boss:
“GET OUT NOW! GET EVERYONE HOME! This IS NOT an accident!!!!”

Several of my co-workers were on the sidewalk in front of the office trying to figure out what was going on and watch the second plane fly overhead and then hit the 2nd tower. You see, our office is about 20 blocks from the WTC.

Our office is just out of view on the left of this image [Link to Archive.org]

Then the Pentagon. Then Philly. Then the towers collapse. Then nothing. Which was worse? It started to hit me, really hit me, over the course of the day that this was not Beirut. It was not Columbia, this was my home.

When they shut off all traffic going below 14th street in Manhattan, our office was about 20 blocks below 14th. All of our employees were told to immediately go home. They could only walk north to get home.

About an hour after the 2nd tower collapsed, the media was being pulled back, CNN set up shop on the balcony of some building overlooking the West Side Highway. One one side of the screen was the ruins of the WTC, and on the other was the theater and restaurant we had been at two days before. Over the next few days, I would occasionally see footage of people running from the collapsing buildings, and running past my office. To this day, I still see clips of certain things that identify the scene as coming from my office building. (Keep your eye out for a sign on the top of the building that says “Altanta” in big red letters. That is across the street)
But that wonderful broken toe. The toe that still gets sore every once in a while. The toe that kept me out of the city that day. Gotta love that fate. The subways shut down completely. The buses were being used for getting rescue workers to the scene. The tunnels and bridges were all closed. Every one of them. No one in the city at all, other than emergency personnel. To get out you had to walk. I heard later that co-workers who lived just down the street from us took more than 4 or 5 hours to walk from Downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn. Thank my lucky stars for my broken toe. I still wonder how long it would take me to get out the city, back to my new bride, hobbling with my broken toe.

At one point, we went out on the stoop to check things out. Our normally extremely busy street had no cars passing by. No bicyclists. No dog walkers. People were out milling around, not really sure what to do. You could tell most people weren’t really comfortable going any further than their own stoops. At one point, we walked to the end of the block to get some lunch from the corner quiky mart and saw a cop. Just one guy, on his own. It dawned on me, that this was probably the one beat cop for many blocks. That day was the perfect day for committing a minor crime… who was going to stop them?

The entire sky was smoke gray from the fires, and everything smelled of smoke.

All day long, friends tried to get through to us. We asked those who did to call others around the country to let them know we were OK. So much communication ran through the basement of the WTC that when it went down, much of the phones in our area did too. Because of this, we didn’t really want to tie up the phone so that others could get the same calls we did. Of course, we wanted to talk with our families, and they wanted to talk with us, which didn’t make things easier to cut the call short.

So later in the day, our new neighbor came down to see if we were home. She and her husband had moved in only a few months before with there incredibly happy 6 month old baby, James.
The father works in one of the skyscraper downtown. He walked out of the subway tunnel shortly after the first plane hit. He told us later that there was this “snow” of small white flakes. He couldn’t tell what it was, and as he looked around, he noticed that, in typical NYC fashion, no one was paying any attention.

Once in the building, he stopped by his desk, dropped off his bag, and headed up to the 50th floor to get coffee from the deli. He noticed two co-workers staring out the windows, and joined them, coffee in hand.

Now keeping in mind how close other skyscrapers look 50 stories up, they are looking out the window at what looks like a huge fire. As they are chatting about what might be going on, they watch the second plane hit the second tower.

Without a word, all three of them drop their coffees on the ground, and in unison run to the stairwell. To hear him tell the story, it sounded like they were already on the stairs before the coffee hit the ground. The way the story was told later, I’ve always had a vision of them turning around and running out the door so fast that their coffee cups still hung in the air, cartoon style.

Once they were at street level, his two co-workers said they were running north. Since they were only a few blocks from the water, he told them he was going to the ferrys. He made it on a ferry, just barely, as it left for New Jersey.

Hours later, he was finally able to get a hold of his wife and tell her he was alright. She stopped by to see if were home, and I played with the baby while Donna tried to calm her nerves. Not wanting to be alone, she invited us to dinner. This was wonderful invitation, since we didn’t have anything to eat, and weren’t really comfortable going out to eat.

The next day

So the next day, we called the movers to find out when we could get out. Since everything was closed, they couldn’t get from the Bronx (where they were) to Brooklyn. But they told us that they would keep trying all day until and if they could get here. We sat in a packed apartment, watching news coverage for the entire day. Everything was packed, and it could be any minute that the movers showed up, so we couldn’t unpack anything. No one knew if it was safe to be out and about, so we couldn’t go anywhere.

We watched the news. We watched all day. We couldn’t deal with anymore about this tragedy, but we also were scared to turn off the news, in case something else happened and we needed to know about it in order to get out fast.

Moving Day

On September 13, the movers showed up to get us the hell out of there. I have always been very thankful that the movers left their families for the day, amidst great confusion and fear, to help us out.

We arrived in Connecticut that afternoon and by late afternoon, the movers were on their way home.

When events like this happen, it makes you re-assess your world view. Makes you question your beliefs, your needs, your view of the world – what’s important and what’s not.
I was still fairly numb from 9-11, only two days later as Donna and I started to unpack. As I took my first trip to the dumpster, one of our new neighbors jumped in his car (about 200 ft. from the dumpster), speeds down the street, and sticks his head of out his still running car and says:
“You know you need to break those boxes down before you throw them in the dumpster, right?”
Now, a combination of my numbness, and my certain lack of hearing made me ask him to repeat. So he did. No introduction. No “welcome to the area”. Nothing. He just stuck his fat little head out of his stupid little car and instructs me on the Dumpster Details.

I walked over to him and stuck my hand out and said:

“Thanks for the info, we are just moving in from NYC. My name’s Jake, nice to meet you.”
You could tell he was at a loss because he had just realized what a little punk he was. But why should the fact that 2 days before I had been so close to the worst attack in American history been the reason he realized he was an ass? What does it take to get people to rethink how they approach the world? This guy lived 3 hours away, and it was still too far for him to be affected! But by God, he has an American flag on his car window. That makes it all OK…

Back in the saddle

Just a few weeks after 9-11, Donna and I were on a plane to Chicago. I had business on Monday, so we both went up for the weekend. It was a great trip, and we didn’t do much, except get away from the East Coast and hang out with each other.

I dropped her off at the Chicago airport on Sunday evening. One of the hardest things I had to do in my life was walk away from her as she walked into the airport.

A few hours after she left, some whack job carrying a bag full of knives was arrested just a few gates down from where she boarded hours earlier. Thankfully, I didn’t hear about that until after I was already back home with her.

Our NYC office was closed for a week or two, as it was below the 14th St. cutoff. Once they moved the cutoff lower, the checkpoint was actually across the street. A fence running along Canal street was covered in ribbons and Thank you posters. Our office building for many months was covered with missing people pictures and children’s drawings. Every time I would come back to the city, once every other week or so, I would walk out of the subway tunnel and be slapped in the face with those visuals.

A restaurant called “Nino’s” was a place I ordered from several times a week when I lived in NYC. Their Spagehtti with Vodka Sauce and sausage was awesome. They were on the first floor of our building. After 9-11, they closed their doors to the public, and served (at their own costs, and with donations) only the rescue workers. I heard recently that Nino’s is about to open again, after going bankrupt. That’s dedication.

My first trip to NYC after 9-11 was a hard one to make. The trip was smack dab in the middle of the Anthrax scare. I nearly had a heart attack that afternoon when I went to the bathroom and notice white powder (Ajax, I’m sure) on the seat of the toilet. Looking out the office windows onto the entrance to the Holland Tunnel revealed two dump trucks blocking the entrance. When a rescue worker pulled up, the cops verified identity, flagged the dump trucks to move aside, and the worker drove on. The train station was well staffed with National Guardsmen and women toting M-16s and handguns.

For months afterwards, the city had a strange vibe. I have no idea how to explain it, or if I even can. It just seemed weird. Riding in the cab and looking out onto the streets held a certain uneasiness. Walking down the street was weird.

The hotel I was staying in the one night I would spend in the city was now frequented by rescue workers. Every night I would come into the hotel and inevitably run into a group coming or going. Either direction, you could tell that they were stuck in this weird world between happiness and depression. The all had these looks; the look of a smile trying desperately to get out from behind a solemn expression. You can sense that they felt letting a smile loose was inappropriate.

And to be clear, these run-ins happened until early June. June: 10 months after 9-11. Ten long months of walking into hell on earth every day. These workers wore shirts from all over the country. Maine, Arizona, California, and more. Away from their families for months during unsure times simply to possibly give another family some comfort. Patriotism is truly alive, whether we cynics want to believe it or not.

Traveling post 9-11

If you know me, you know I travel quite a bit. Lots of people have asked me what it is like to fly travel now. In a word, long and tiresome. Every plane trip seems to suck more energy from me than before.

Recently, Donna and I met up with family in Tulsa. On the way home, the Middle Eastern man sitting next to us was reading a novel in Arabic (I assume). It took a great deal of effort to first assess whether he offered any threat, then since he did not to talk myself down off of a racial prejudice platform.

[

EDIT

, 9/11/15: I removed some language that I wasn’t very pleased with regarding profiling and the TSA. In short, what I can now easily summarize as is this: The TSA is a joke and we should all be ashamed of the money we allow to be spent on it.]

The epilogue: 9/11/2003

But life goes on. In the blink of an eye, here we are a year later. I’m still far from over it. We all have our “things” that get us, and mine is hearing the words “Let’s roll”. I watched an interview with Todd Beemer’s wife this morning that made me tear up. As far as anyone can tell, these two had the perfect life. Happily married, three kids (one of which is a baby) and seem to care about each other a great deal. What did this poor bastard and his cute family do to deserve this?

Every time I think I am past it, something triggers a reaction. Watching the semi truck with the last WTC beam wrapped in black and an American flag go by the office was tough.

The last time I was in Penn Station waiting for the train to take me home, I saw that there was an exhibit set up with some rubble artifacts. They had three steel beam that used to be part of the skeleton of one tower pointing up into the air. They look like someone had taken a match to thin plastic. They literally were melted. Melted steel.

I made the mistake of re-reading some of the LUGNET posts today. (LUGNET is the biggest adult LEGO fan site) That conversation reminded me of the day like nothing else has. This was a group of people all over the world, some of whom I have met in person, stopping dead in their tracks to check on people they have never met in person. Honestly and truly worried for the safety of friends they have only talked to in text on the computer.

This re-telling of my little small part of 9-11 took me a year to write. Many times I wanted to document this story so that I never forgot it, but there was always something holding me back. I never felt quite right saying anything about how I might have felt when there were so many others that lost so much more.

Please don’t ever forget the impact of this event. I hope it never happens, but there is always the possibility that a bigger, more deadly event will overshadow this tragedy, but this is the one that changed the way the world works. Our world will never again be the same.

Assume the best about your neighbors, and remember our neighbors are now all over the world. Go out of your way to be kind and friendly. Nothing, and I do mean nothing is as important as being a positive person.

LUGNET Posts about 9-11