Sitting on a couch in the Holiday Inn bar, I began to eavesdrop on a conversation between three co-workers. They had been on their way to a meeting in Boston that morning when La Guardia Airport closed and all flights were grounded. It was now 5 p.m. and they’d just heard that the subway was running on a limited route and planned to go back into the city. I introduced myself as a newspaper reporter from Florida and politely inquired if I could join them.
The thought of sleeping on the hotel lobby floor indefinitely made me nervous. If I could find my way to my photographer’s home near Union Square I’d feel safer. My new friends were concerned about being marooned on a train that might stop on its tracks before it reached Manhattan. Yet they made the decision to try it and paid a limousine parked outside the hotel to drive us to the nearest subway station.
The neighborhood surrounding the airport was in decline, but the trip turned outright terrifying once we boarded the train: Young men resembling the cast of “Deliverance” sat across from us. Evidently, they didn’t see people dressed in business attire/carrying briefcases very often and studied us, mouths agape, for the entire ride. I turned my wedding rings around, avoided eye contact and prayed that I’d live long enough to get off the train. Even more frightening than the train’s occupants were the scenes framed by its windows. Billowing plumes of smoke from the Twin Towers spiraled skyward, though we could smell the fire even when we couldn’t see it.
When we reached Union Station, an exceedingly kind woman (whose business card I forgot to ask for) boarded a bus with me and pushed me out at a stop – near the address I barely remembered – of my photographer’s home. I still regret not thanking her properly, with flowers, a letter, hell – a trip to Disney World. In my stunned state, I’m not sure I even asked for her name, but I remember her face to this day and remain indebted.
When I reached my friend’s apartment, Barbara, her husband Peter and daughter Shane were huddled around the television, hoping for answers. I grabbed the first bottle of beer I saw and let my knees buckle, as I slid into a chair. I’d made it to a safe haven and I was grateful.
I awoke the next morning to a shockingly quiet city: Roads were barricaded, traffic stopped and pedestrians absent. The silence was deafening.
My photographer friend wanted to get closer to Ground Zero and – waving her police pass and camera equipment – she could do just that.
So we walked the deserted streets until our throats began burning from particles in the air. Stopping at tiny Korean grocers (the only stores open) to buy water, we met countless police, fire and rescue people who were there, too. They nodded and smiled at us, and in a city once known for its rudeness, I felt an overwhelming connection to its residents that day…a sense of humanity amid the horror. Each of us was grateful to be alive and perhaps, to be able to help.
Trucks loaded with tired, dusty rescue workers ending their shifts drove past police barricades and I watched in amazement as people on the street burst into applause. I still cry when I think of it.
Renee Garrison is the award-winning author of The Anchor Clankers.