On September 11, 2001, the world as we knew it changed forever. As a new attorney settling into my desk in a midtown office with a view of the World Trade Center four miles south, it meant little to me when my then-fiancé mentioned earlier that morning that he would be taking a securities exam at the Marriott World Trade Center, part of the WTC complex. What unfolded, as we all know, was an unfathomable tragedy, the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed. To accurately describe any of what happened that day and what was felt is nearly impossible; even decades later, the emotion is often overwhelming. And yet, alongside the unforgettable tale of loss and grief, so too exist many stories of hope, resilience, and unbreakable bonds of friendship. This year, my now-husband, David, will travel back to lower Manhattan with two former co-workers to honor the memory of that day twenty years ago. The bittersweet reunion is rooted in reflection of what was lost and in gratitude for the life that continued. He graciously accepted my invitation to share what it means to him to hold space with these eternal friends on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. — Lara
It was early. Traffic was light. My taxi flew down Broadway.
It was the first time I’d ever been below Canal Street, let alone the World Trade Center, in the four months since I’d moved across the country to become a New York City resident and chase my dreams.
The morning sky was gloriously blue and clear. Like the Californian I really was, and not like the New Yorker I desperately wanted to be, I remarked about the sky to the driver. The cabbie looked at me in the mirror and met my remark with indifferent silence. I didn’t take the hint and continued to talk about how this was the first time I was going to see the World Trade Center in person.
Maybe I was just a little nervous. If I didn’t pass the regulatory examination being administered in the basement of 3 World Trade Center I’d lose the job that I’d just started one month earlier. I talk too much and too fast when I’m nervous.
When it was time to pay the taxi driver and exit the vehicle I gave him a $20 bill and left the cab without speaking. I thought “now I’m a New Yorker” to myself. I’m a quick study.
The Twin Towers stood directly above me. Each one was 110 stories of concrete, steel and glass. My fear of heights caused my stomach to hit my feet for a flash. I entered the Marriott and descended to one of the basement levels.
I settled into a desk with my pencil and paper ahead of the exam’s 8:30 am start. I looked around the room. There were about 100 of us. I nodded at the Australian and the Latvian I had met and briefly befriended at the prior month’s welcome event for the incoming Associate Class of 2001. The proctor announced the start of the test and we all began.
Sixteen minutes later, the room rocked with a sudden jolt like an earthquake. It was months later before I learned that the jolt was from American Airlines Flight 11’s landing gear falling onto the Marriott’s roof. Eighteen minutes after that, another, softer rumble. Soon after, a New York City policeman in plainclothes entered the room to announce we needed to leave everything and immediately evacuate to street level, which we did.
I couldn’t comprehend what I saw. A flaming, jagged gash across the near top of the North Tower. What seemed to be men in suits falling headfirst from the sky. Smoke pouring from a huge hole in the South Tower’s face.
Sirens blared everywhere. Determined-faced policemen and firemen directed me and the other evacuees to head south away from the complex while entire engines of firemen headed into the mess.
When the towers collapsed, a huge debris cloud washed over us. We tried to take shelter underneath parked cars. An army reservist suggested we military crawl over to the Brooklyn Bridge and walk across to perceived safety. I thought it better to jump into the East River and swim.
I have never written down anything related to my memories of 9/11 until now. I can still remember what I was wearing and how the debris cloud smelled and tasted. I can also remember how much immediate regret I had that I hadn’t told my fiancée I loved her when I said goodbye that morning. And how much I knew I wanted to fix that by making it home and promising myself I wouldn’t do that again. I felt extreme fear but I was resolute that I would crawl out of this hellscape with a handful of other basement evacuees and that we would survive.
There were 2,996 lives lost directly because of 9/11. Each one mattered. Each one had families and friends of their own that suffered as a result. The impact is incalculable and overwhelming. My 9/11 story is little and comparatively insignificant. I was one of the lucky ones. NYPD and NYFD got me and thousands of others out of harm’s way.
The Marriott World Trade Center was destroyed at 10:28 am ET when the North Tower collapsed onto it.
For nineteen consecutive September 11th’s, the first thing I do when I wake up is send a message to that Latvian and that Australian. I acknowledge the anniversary. I then let them know how much I love them and how cool it is that three people from completely different places, cultures and backgrounds became lifelong friends. I usually comment about how beautiful our lives are and how magnificent the world can be. And I end on a note of gratitude. Gratitude for the chance to continue to earn the lives we were spared.
It usually takes about 20 seconds before the first reply comes in. And maybe 30 seconds after that for the next. For all I know both the Latvian and the Australian write them ahead of time but just wait until I send the first before they send theirs as replies. Tradition and all that.
This year, despite each of us living in three different places thousands of miles away from each other,, we are traveling to lower Manhattan to honor the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and to celebrate twenty years of closely bonded friendship.
I don’t think about 9/11 every day. In fact, I don’t think about it often at all. The passage of time and the living of life will do that. But when I do think about it, I always get to a place of visualizing and remembering the experiences the three of us have shared since that fateful day.
We were three brand new transplants to New York City who experienced a searing trauma together. We became an inseparable trio. We didn’t have survivor’s guilt. We had a collective hunger to make our time count and to live our lives with a heightened sense of purpose, of celebration, of acknowledgement, of expression, of achievement, of community, and of love. I’d like to think that we have done that — that this American, this Australian and this Latvian took that challenge together and have created wonderful lives. That we are good people worthy of the luck we were granted.
This year I may shed a tear when I walk into the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which now stands where the Marriott World Trade Center used to be and directly above where the three of us sat together in a basement not knowing our world was about to change forever. I’ll shed more tears when I think about the terrible tragedy that unfolded for thousands, if not millions of people, whose stories were either snuffed out or radically altered for the worse.
But those tears are going to turn into tears of joy and gratitude. Below is the note I sent last year, at 8:46 in the morning 9/11/2020:
To K and J — good morning, boys. It’s a beautiful one, just like it looked 19 years ago. 19 years ago today we solidified some really close friendships. Today is a day when I need that reminder that life is good, that there is beauty on the other side, to never give up, and to stay positive. Sending you big hugs and a wish for drunken storytelling and a wonderfully endless night that echoes with joyous laughter for all eternity. I love you, good people. I love the lives we’ve built. We are in this together. We persevered. We made it. Let’s keep going and keep making it count.
I’m so excited to hug my friends this year. It’s a beautiful life.