It started as an average day. I stood in the nurses station with colleagues as we prepared for rounds on our patients. I worked at New York Presbyterian - Weill Cornell Psychiatric Hospital in White Plains, New York. I worked on the Adolescent Inpatient Unit.
At 8:26 am someone said that a plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We all filtered out of the nurses station to watch the unit television in the community room. Looking at the faces of my colleagues, I was aware that we each were frozen and horrified by what was playing out in front of us as the tower burned and black smoke billowed out of the top floors of the building.
I remember thinking immediately that it was an attack and not a mistake. Then, at 9:03 am, we watched in intensifying horror as the South Tower was hit. Fear filled me as the reality of the situation unfolded. Somehow, we started and completed our rounds on our patients. I have no recollection of how we got through it but I do remember a staff member informing us of the Pentagon attack at 9:37 am, and shortly thereafter at 10:03 am we learned of the downed plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I only remember snippets of that sorrowful day, but I remember all of us walling around like zombies.
Prior to my career as a clinical social worker, I was a paralegal and administrative assistant for 18 years at National Economic Research Associates, a consulting company whose parent corporation is Marsh McLennan headquartered on the 93rd and 100th floors of the North Tower which was directly in the path of the first hijacked airliner to hit the World Trade Center. On that day, I obsessively thought about people I knew at headquarters and feared for their lives. I remember repeatedly scanning my brain for anyone else I knew who might have worked in the Towers. That thought expanded outward to who did I know who had people in the Towers. I later learned that 358 of my former colleagues at Marsh McLennan were killed in that event.
At about noon at the hospital, all essential workers were filtered into the auditorium. I remember thinking that I had never been in the auditorium with so many colleagues at once before that. We were told that we would not be able to leave at the end of our shifts because we were expecting patients from hospitals in lower Manhattan to be transported north to us so downtown hospitals would have space for survivors. Our services would be needed for patients and families coming to us throughout the day.
Most of the rest of that day is a blank. I just remember it felt like I couldn't walk without great effort, and my mind was curiously unable to focus or function. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion. Everyone's facial expressions were blunted and eyes were blank, if not red and tearful.
At 7:00 pm, we were filed back into the auditorium and told we were able to leave. It became apparent throughout the day that there were few survivors, and there were no patients to transport north to us.
Throughout that day, I spoke with my husband who worked across the Hudson River on the New Jersey side. He crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge every day to go to work. Following the second plane crash into South Tower, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed all of the bridges and tunnels under their jurisdiction, including the Tappan Zee Bridge. This act was precautionary until some sense of the scale of the attacks had been determined by U.S. intelligence agencies. We know now that the four hijacked planes were the entire planned attack - but that was not known at the time. There was widespread fear that there might be additional waves coming. Consequently, my husband had to drive north on the western side of the Hudson River until he could find a way to cross to get home. He finally crossed at the Mid-Hudson Bridge from Highland to Poughkeepsie. I remember that he got home very late that evening.
The bridges were reopened within a day or so. My husband was able to use the Tappan Zee Bridge again to go to and from work. The site of the fallen Towers could be seen from the bridge marked by the smoke and dust-filled skies seen for weeks thereafter from the regions around Manhattan. My husband and thousands of other commuters reviewed the horror of the rubble twice a day going to and returning from work.
Today, 20 years later, we remember and honor all those lost on that horrible day. They are cherished mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children, relatives and friends. The days after the attacks, we were a unified nation; we were not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, or Muslims. We were a nation, and we cared for and protected each other. We need to find our way back to that unity. May it never again take such a horrifying and devastating event for us to embrace our common humanity and care for each other.