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Earthquake stirs memories of day 10 years ago in New York City

September 11, 2011|By CAITLIN KELCH

Editor’s note: Caitlin Kelch is a marketing coordinator and analyst in The Herald-Mail digital department who was living and working in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. What follows is her account of that day and the impact the terrorist attacks have on her life 10 years later.

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To me, there is something deceiving about a beautiful late summer day. As summer ends, the skies take on a pristine blue shine on sunny days and the light appears nearly golden. This is when I start to get nervous.

On Aug. 23, the skies had that look. I was running late for work, answering throngs of questions from my 5-year-old daughter as I ran out the door to make it to an off-site training session. She was nervous about starting kindergarten the next day and I had butterflies in my stomach, too. I assured her everything would go well and that we’d finish answering all of her questions when I returned from work. As she followed me on to the deck, I pointed to the sky and said “Relax, sweetheart. Enjoy this beautiful day!” I got into my car and took a deep breath, anticipating the coming events of the day. I glanced at the sky uneasily because it looked exactly like that beautiful day in New York City nearly 10 years ago.

I have tried hard in the last 10 years to forget the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Memories of that day are horrible at best, but the things I witnessed that day in New York are still unfathomable to me. I was on the roof of my office building trying to get my staff to return to our floor when the second plane hit the South Tower. What transpired after that is difficult to put into words.

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As I drove to work on Aug. 23, I practiced my techniques of pushing that day out of my head as I do every year around this time. I told myself that my daughter’s first day of school would be an adventure for us. I listened to NPR, got my business news and prepared to meet the sales staff at a local hotel. I felt enthused as I worked with my colleagues throughout the morning. After lunch, we settled back into our meeting space and participated in some role-playing exercises. The trainer and a colleague sat in the front of the windowless room and bantered back and forth.

Then, the earthquake struck. Everyone in the room looked around confused, but things resumed pretty quickly. To me, it seemed like barely a pause. My body began shaking and I felt myself struggling to breathe. I grabbed my cellphone, but I had no service. I had been through this before and was convinced that something was terribly wrong. I spoke up and asked if we should notify the front desk. I had not felt an earthquake; I had felt an explosion. This was 9/11 all over again. I thought of my family and my daughter — were they OK? My panic was growing intensely.

As the group activity carried on, I got up and whispered to my supervisor, “Are you sure everything is OK?” She said she thought it was an earthquake but that everything seemed fine. I needed to know for sure. I needed to know because I had told my staff that day on the roof as smoke streamed into the air that everything was OK. I needed to know because even though we saw a plane flying dangerously low on the horizon, I told screaming mothers clutching cellphones that could not reach their families that everything was OK.

But it wasn’t.

I returned to my seat on this August day feeling like I was going to pass out. My supervisor saw the terror on my face. She escorted me out of the room and my body began to shake uncontrollably. I gasped for air and tears streamed down my face as that day in September came back to me in force. I remembered hearing that the Pentagon had been hit minutes after I finally got everyone off the roof. I remembered mothers screaming at me in Spanish that they had to go to their children in Queens. I remembered having to tell them they might not be able to reach them, that they should stay at work because we did not know what was going on.

I remembered their tears and faces when they left the building anyway. And I remembered running 36 blocks through a city where traffic noise and horns had been replaced by screams and sobbing.

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I saw on the TV on Aug. 23 in the hotel lobby that the Pentagon had been shut down and that we had just experienced a rare East Coast earthquake. All my brain heard, though, was that the Pentagon had been shut down. All the signals were there as they were on 9/11. No cell service, shutdown, deep blue skies, co-workers. I kept trying to tell my supervisor, who knew I had been in New York on 9/11, that all the signs were there and were triggering my response. She said she understood and just spoke with me gently until I was able to calm my physical reaction.

After 10 minutes, I was able to return to the room, but I struggled all afternoon to stay in the present. I couldn’t stop thinking about the events of nearly 10 years ago.

The events of the day came back to me, and I did not welcome them. I remember being completely alone in a city of more than 8 million people. As I said goodbye to my staff that day, I knew there was a chance I would never see them again. All we knew was that our city and our nation were under attack, and what waited for us in the street might kill us. As I ran from 26th Street to the apartment I shared with my best friend on 59th Street, I just remember my head constantly moving back and forth looking for people with guns.

Once I got to the apartment and realized my roommate was still sleeping, I struggled with how to wake her up and tell her something was very wrong. But we didn’t know what. Were we at war? Were we going to die? It did not even occur to me to turn on the TV. Once she was awake and asking questions, to which I did not have answers, she turned on the TV and it was clear there was no way on or off the island of Manhattan.

Our house phone was dead. Our cellphones were dead. We became paranoid that our water would be poisoned, so we began filling up pots and pans with water thinking the poison would not be in the pipes yet.

Then, we hid in the closet with the TV volume up so we could hear news broadcasts. We stayed there until 2 p.m. Even though we knew we were behaving strangely, we did not know what else to do. We did not know our neighbors. It just didn’t feel safe to do anything.

We finally got up the nerve to peek out of our door into the hallway. It was deathly quiet, with no signs of life. An hour later, we began to cry when we started talking about our families and how we could not contact them. We tried to work up the courage to go into the streets to find a working phone.

By 4 p.m., we held hands and left our dark building. It was beautiful outside — deep blue skies, warm sun and nothing but relative silence and heavy smoke that smelled of chemicals. It was surreal to say the least.

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We lived on the west side, one block from the Hudson River. At the end of our block was St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. By the time we reached the end of our block, we saw military personnel with rifles and road blocks. The officers we asked said our block would be shut down indefinitely because it was a hospital block. We asked if we could leave the block to find a phone. He said we could, but the phones were down, too.

We walked toward the river as the sun was preparing to set. We saw thousands of people lined up, waiting for ferries that weren’t coming. No one was talking. Some of the people in line were covered in white dust. Some were pointing toward the George Washington Bridge, where people were walking across trying to get to their homes in New Jersey.

We passed a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase who was white with debris from head to toe. His suit jacket was ripped at the shoulder and he had a bloody scratch on his face. He passed us three times until we realized he was just wandering, dazed and confused. We asked him if he needed help, but he did not respond. I don’t think he even heard us. I think about him nearly every day. I imagine him recovered, at home with his family, smiling.

We never found a working phone. We signed a list of names that an agency was collecting and posting on the Internet so our families would know we were OK. Eventually, our phone rang and we tried to reassure our families that we were OK, but we really did not have much to say. We were sad and angry and scared, and did not know how something so horrific could have happened on such a beautiful day. The contrast between the blue sky and the deadly smoke silenced us.

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I realized after the earthquake that my life, like so many others, was divided in half that day. There’s before 9/11 and after 9/11. I left New York in December 2001 and haven’t been back. The closest I have gotten is Bayonne, N.J.

I left because I needed a fresh start. I needed to be home. I needed family.

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