I am a 9/11 Survivor. On this day, every year, I reflect. To say this is the only day that the memories come to me would be a lie. Every day that I travel into Manhattan, I view the skyline with awe. When the newly constructed World Trade Center hits my view, I am instantly reminded of that day and what I felt. The images flood my mind. Sounds return to my perspective and my sense of smell is triggered. I relive moments of it several times.
This is not a sad story. The memory reminds me of Life. It reminds me of what I felt when I sensed danger and I listened to the voice in my head to leave quickly, but calmly and others would follow without a panic.
I arrived just before 9AM to the South Tower PATH Train station from Exchange Place in New Jersey. When the train arrived in the station we walked out as always, up some ramps and stairs to the basement level of the WTC. I could smell a sort of gas in the air, but it wasn't cooking gas. I didn't know what it was at the time. It was jet fuel from the North Tower attack that had transpired just minutes before we arrived.
I decided something didn't feel right and wanted to get out of there immediately. As I got on the the PATH train escalator, it felt very strange having no rush of people around me, as for some reason people stayed congregated close to the Hudson News stand, likely in confusion of the aroma of jet fuel we could smell strongly from the North Tower. We had no idea anything had even happened yet. There was no real way to know. I moved with purpose, hoping to inspire the others, who normally ran up the escalators like bulls let out of a pen, marching in dark suits and me in my bright yellow t-shirt, artist in training heading to class at NYU. I moved and slowly other followed.
As I reached the top of the escalator, it was clear something very wrong was going on. There was not the usual crowd of morning workers, and it was eerily quiet, as most of the downstairs was already getting word to get out of the building. We were the last PATH train from New Jersey to know we should have never come into the building as far as I know.
I saw a few people run past me in a panic. I was then approached by a security guard who swung his arms, motioning for us to all get out of the building. I looked behind me at the mall area, and just a bit down the ways from the GAP, I saw grey smoke billowing in and people coming from the elevator area, hoping to get out. From what, I still didn't know, but I sure as hell didn't need an explanation.
I turn to run in the direction the security guard pointed me to, now the only exit option I have, past the Chase bank and Victoria's Secret, past a subway entrance to the N,R,W., down a long mall walkway, up some steps and out the revolving doors.
I had walked this route hundreds of times by now. I already knew my way. It was time to get the hell out of here and put my childhood action movie watching skills to the test. I've rush through these notoriously traffic filled halls running late to classes and dates so often, I can make it out quickly before anything else happens, I reasoned. This was the real deal as far as I could tell.
I started to sprint along my exit route. Once you are sprinting, about three stores in, you come to a corner. You must make a quick right turn and avoid getting trampled most days by people running to work from the subway entrance as you pass. Today, I had a clear shot as I was passing Victoria's Secret. The voice repeating in my head, "if you move, they will follow you."
As I get closer to my turn, I see faces starting to appear in the subway door entrance. Another train was still making stops for the MTA. I guess they hadn't got the message to stop the trains yet either. I see the people's eyes as they notice me sprinting in their direction. I make a quick decision and cut my corner a hair quicker, just missing the cascade of train riders, as they fall in line behind me like a school of fish.
I could feel their energy as I ran down the long stretch of mall, past candy stands and beautiful clothing. The light from the doors was still a distance away, but I knew it was there.
No one was saying a word in the initial sprint. We all moved as one body. Calmly, but urgently, we sprinted together, all determined to get out. Suddenly, someone in the back of the pack screams in panic, "There's a bomb!" Dammit! Why did that asshole have to panic. We were doing great. That was my first thought.
Immediately after, my vision went completely white. It was as if I was taken away. I saw nothing but white and I thought I was dead. Then the voice immediately kicked in again. "You are not dead. This is not how you are going out. It would destroy your family. Now move!" said the voice.
When my vision came back I was filled with colors and light. I could see in near panoramic vision. I lowered my head and turned on a turbo boost of speed I didn't even knew I had. I could feel every person's energy, and they all did the same. We were once again one unit, and I was running to the only exit we had leading the ones who followed to the quickest escape out of the building. I felt powerful and bright as the adrenaline came into my body. No one spoke anymore. I can still hear the speed pick up in their footsteps as I turned on the speed. We all felt it together. It was inspiring.
As we crossed the next perpendicular hallway, which is formed from a strange square design used to get more vendors in the building, I saw now black smoke coming from just past the Annie's Pretzels. I was approaching the end of the run. I jumped up the series of steps leading to the doors and was the first to reach the doors. In my past I would have felt like I won the race, but this was no race. It was a run for life. I go through the doors and slowly others are reaching the exit. As I look on the streets to understand what has happened, I notice debris and upon first viewing the North Tower, my mouth fell open with a "Wow!" in complete surprise at the reality of what I was now witnessing.
"What the hell happened?", a man said, in awe of the crazy scene in front of us.
I turned to him and said in the most honest way possible, "9 o'clock in New York City baby. You gotta be ready for anything."
Not but a few minutes later as I was a block away surveying the damage, the 2nd plane hit the South Tower I just got out of, covering the people standing beneath still exiting the building with debris, fire and bodies. I, and a few dozen others, had just avoided that fate by moving when we did. That choice saved us a second, even more devastating reality. For that, I am incredibly and eternally grateful.
My story is not one I always share, because it is deeply affecting for a lot of people. It triggers something, because it is a story we all share. It is because of this that I share it with You. That day, we knew life and death were closely tied and are in a constant dance with every thing we do. That day, I was changed, but I did not yet know how completely. In time, it would reveal itself.
I hope the day is a day you remember when we knew life was not guaranteed. No one is promised tomorrow, so love the people in your life and around you everyday, as anything truly can happen. The new tower reminds me of that lesson every time I see it. It is a nice reminder in a crazy town with a sad history that life is what you see and the choices that we make. It reminds me of the true kindness we expressed for weeks after, and to not forget that, because that was so very important. That one has been my biggest lesson. We all want to see each other happy.
We are at a crossroads. We have choices to make as a society. I am choosing to pursue happiness and find the truth through art to help reach people who feel like we are stronger together than we are apart. We have a new history to write. One that can unite us in ways we all cry for. I hope to help lead the charge for unity and love.