I remember it was a very clear day. Not a cloud in the sky as I pulled up to Cindy's apartment building at 7:30. I got out of my car to take off my jacket and realized there was something on my beige suit pants - of course. It was a full day of law school classes and then work on the main campus in the Office of Undergraduate Admission immediately after for both of us on that Tuesday, beginning with Tax Law at around 8:50 am.
I remember our tax professor wasn't there, which was odd because she was always early to class. When she swooped in late she apologized. There was something wrong with the trains heading out of the World Trade Center, she told us.
I remember Russ Cote talking at the back of the classroom, sitting in the top row, closest to the door with his laptop open. I remember him saying, "holy shit," and rushing over to the large window at the other end of the classroom. I remember him saying, "holy shit, a plane just hit the World Trade Center. It's on fire." I remember a few other classmates rushing to see and reiterating Russ', "holy shit" statement just as Dean Hobbs came into our 3rd floor classroom and said, "We need to evacuate. All Federal Buildings are being evacuated." Our school was attached to a Federal Building.
I remember grabbing my book, my notebook and Cindy and heading to the hallway to our lockers. I remember everyone speculating what happened as we stuffed books and sweatshirts into our backpacks. I remember knowing what had happened already and I remember feeling very sick.
I remember stopping in the student lounge where the news was on the large TV. Cindy gasped, "Brad is down there," she said. I assured her that he probably wasn't. And as we watched the replay of the second plane crashing into the south tower, one of the other women in the lounge realized her husband was there, working on the 77th floor.
I remember Dean Hobbs coming in and comforting her while telling the rest of us to get out of the building, we were under orders to evacuate. I pulled Cindy by the hand. "Let's go to the car and call Brad."
I remember the sirens, already, even in Newark as Cindy and I rushed with all of our books to my car parked in the NJPAC lot, a block away. I remember trying to call my friend Sam who took the train downtown every morning to go to his law school in NY. I couldn't get through. No calls were going through. I remember telling Cindy as she sat crying in my passenger seat, we'd call Brad from a landline when we got home.
I remember leaving Newark and looking in my rear view mirror at the NYC skyline that had been pristine and sparkling in the clear, blue day only 90 minutes before this. It was now a cloud of smoke. I remember thinking we were in some movie remake of Escape from New York.
I remember getting back to my apartment and immediately turning on the TV just in time to watch the south tower fall. I remember Cindy was hysterical now - she couldn't reach Brad. I told her he wasn't there, but I didn't know. I told her the trains stopped at 8:45 and he wasn't even leaving for work until 8:30, he was probably just stuck in Hoboken or Jersey City with his camera, doing his best to capture photos for the Associated Press. That made sense.
I remember calling Sam over and over and calling my fiance who was working in Jersey City. Where was everyone?
I remember seeing the planes hit the towers and explode over and over again, the people running, covered in white ash.
I remember my phone finally ringing around 2 pm. It was Sammy - he made it uptown. He had been exiting the World Trade Center from the train as the first plane hit, but he was fine. He ran and kept running and now he was in Brooklyn.
Then it was Pete calling about an hour later. He saw both planes hit from his office in Jersey City, directly across from downtown. He saw people jumping from the buildings to escape the fire and flames, but jumping to their deaths. He saw the people - both survivors and bodies come across the Hudson as a triage station was set up near his building. He saw the first tower fall and the second. He hitchhiked up the NJ Turnpike with a co-worker and a nice guy drove them to New Brunswick. He was at the old fraternity house, if I could come get him. I remember asking why he didn't just try to come home to South Orange and he said, "I couldn't think. I needed to go. The smell...it was like a barbecue and burnt hair..."
I remember Brad, who as I suspected, had never made it all the way to the city, came to my apartment to get Cindy around 4:30 and I left on an adventure to New Brunswick to recover Pete. I remember the Garden State Parkway was empty. I remember the guy on the radio telling me that the governor had issued a state of emergency and only essential vehicles would be permitted on the roads. Oops.
I remember reaching the fraternity house on College Avenue and hearing about so and so who didn't make it out or was missing. The guys sat together drinking crappy beer and smoking on the front porch. I sat down too and took a cup of whatever was in the keg and lit a Parliament. Every so often the silence was broken with someone yelling the F-word and declaring "this was bullshit."
I remember not saying a word but feeling the darkness of the world enveloping me and I was scared. I remember telling Pete, we should get home and seeing his face. He was scared too.
I remember the two days following 9/11. There was no school, no work. The super from my building knocked on our door one night and asked if we knew where the people in 303 were. How about the guy in 306? They hadn't been home since Tuesday morning.
I remember trying to return to business as usual in the days and weeks later. I remember my boss telling me someone from the FBI might want to talk to me about some of the international students I admitted to the undergraduate school over the last year. I remember being told to hold all applications from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and North Africa and put them aside. I remember thinking maybe I didn't want this job anymore.
It's difficult to believe that all of this happened 17 years ago today because I remember so much. I remember my drive from South Orange to Newark on Route 280 - how I loved to see the NYC skyline each morning because it reminded me of my grandfather and theater and excitement, and how for weeks, it was a cloud of smoke. I remember the burning smell. I remember the non-stop news coverage. And I remember the fear. No one spoke about it; we just felt it.
On this day that many of us remember so well, I still feel that pit of anxiety in my stomach, still. That desire to just cry over lost friends and family, over a lost sense of security hits me by 8 am every September 11th. I hate that this world is a dark place, full of dark, evil, psychotic people. But on this day, I also remember how the country came together. I remember that we still have our guys overseas hunting and fighting those dark, evil psychos. I may never feel as safe as I did on September 10, 2001, but there is some security knowing that as Americans, we fight back, we never give up and we never forget.