20 years ago today I was on the 18th floor balcony of a midtown office I worked at. From there I witnessed the world’s famous twin buildings being on fire then crumbling. I was a young professional in my early 20s.
I could not believe my eyes when seeing and personally experiencing all this. It was like watching a horror movie, but actually experiencing it in real life. Even though I was far away from Ground Zero, I was scared not knowing what would happen next and felt bad for those who died.
A few months before that event, I had a dream where I, my family members, and other people were in some building in Manhattan and watching the city on fire. I thought it was just some weird dream and dismissed it.
Little did I know that it would happen in real life.
On the morning of September 9, 2001, I was home getting ready for work and had some weird premonitions that something bad would happen soon.
My gut feeling told me to take a camera with me. Back then we had no smartphones. You could take photos only with a film camera. Digital cameras were rare, expensive, and did not produce crispy photos like now.
My office had a balcony with a nice view of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. I always wanted to take a pic of the view. That day I thought to myself: “Why bring a camera now?” I assumed that buildings would always be there and I could take picture of them any time later. So I left my camera at home.
I also put on a new pair of shoes. My gut feeling told me that I would walk for a long time in the city and advised me to put on old shoes instead. I thought that it was ridiculous as my office was just a couple blocks away from the train station. So I put on my new shoes.
I dismissed those premonitions and thought it would be just a regular morning.
I arrived in the city, walked out of the Grand Central Terminal, crossed a few streets, entered a building, got in an elevator to ascend to the 18th floor, and came into the office. I did all this while something bad was already going on already. I was not aware of it and neither were many other people.
Keep in mind that there were no smartphones or social media back then.
So nobody on the train knew instantly what happened. Even not everyone in Manhattan knew right away unless they happened to be in Ground Zero or saw planes hitting the buildings or a smoke from them.
The first thing I got after I came in office was a comment by my concerned coworker that a building was on fire. I had a puzzled face because any building could be on fire. The coworker said it was not just any building but the World Trade Center! I got even more puzzled. Our office had the aforementioned balcony, so we went there.
My jaw dropped when I saw the WTC on fire.
I asked my coworker what happened. She said she had no idea. Another coworker joined us and told us that planes hit the buildings. I wondered how it was possible for planes to do that in broad daylight. It could not be an accident. The other coworker got an update that it was terrorists who did it. We were shocked even further.
A third coworker arrived and joined us. Our office had a digital camera. She grabbed it to take a picture of the WTC on fire.
It also reminded me about my premonition to take my camera with me. I did not realize that buildings would not be there forever and also people working there.
I was watching with horror as the buildings were burning and then crumbling so fast.
I was thinking about people being stuck there and dying. It was just right in front of my eyes. I wish I could extend my hands and help those people escape.
Not all coworkers could arrive at our office. All bridges, roads, and tunnels were closed. Public transit was shut down. For safety reasons, we were let go home from work. Especially that we were near the Empire State Building and the UN building that could be next targets.
My other family member also happened to be in the city and were let go home from work. They met me and we walked down around 20 blocks to stay at a family friend’s apartment. Nobody could enter or leave the island of Manhattan until the late evening.
We waited until after the Grand Central Terminal was open to go back there and to take the train home. When walking, I had to take off my shoes and walk barefoot as new shoes hurt my feet after long walking. It made me realize why I had this premonition that morning about the shoes.
Another scary part about that day was being deaf.
I was lucky to be with my coworkers sharing with me what was going on. It was impossible to use the Internet as the traffic exceeded the bandwidth.
It was also before smartphones. I didn’t have one, even a flip phone or pager that only started to be common that time. Even if I had a flip phone, it wouldn’t have the internet access and would be limited to phone calls or sending and receiving texts.
My coworkers filled me in while listening to the radio and calling their family members and our other coworkers.
Many TV sets in public places were not captioned. The new law to require all new TV sets 13 inches or bigger to include captioning decoders was just passed a few years earlier. So many deaf people watching TV in many public places would not be able to understand anything. You could see captions only on the TV at your home if it had a captioning decoder (either as a separate box or as a built-in chip in newer TV sets).
Emergency access was nonexistent for deaf people in Ground Zero or those stuck in the subway or traveling on that day. Many of them shared their frustrating and stressful experiences not understanding anything that was going on that fateful day.
A lot has changed since then, especially when it comes to using technology. Many of us now have smartphones that allow us access breaking news right away. More online videos are captioned. We can get emergency alerts on our phones.
However, we cannot always get real time announcements right away, especially when we travel. They are done mostly via audio. For example, we would not be able to access emergency announcements (or even most real time announcements in general) in a car, on bus, train, or plane, or at airports or train/bus stations. Those announcements are mostly aural only. It’s still a problem for many of us deaf and hard of hearing people.
It was 20 years ago, but it feels like it was yesterday.
I never forget the terror I felt not knowing what was going on and the thousands of people who were killed on that day. The things that I had premonitions about were trivial. Like not bringing the camera with or putting on new shoes. However, the fact that I had the dream and then the premonitions gave me goosebumps.
It also reminds me how short life is. Here’s a quote by Deepak Chopra: “For me and my family personally, September 11 was a reminder that life is fleeting, impermanent, and uncertain. Therefore, we must make use of every moment and nurture it with affection, tenderness, beauty, creativity, and laughter.”
A new tower, Freedom Tower, rose 1,776 feet from ashes to note the year the USA declared its independence. It was completed in 2014. The foundations of the old WTC twin buildings were turned into memorial pools.