I will never forget my first trip to New York City. It was at the beginning of my sophomore year at Brown. Earlier that week, I decided to wake up in time for breakfast at the dining hall for the second time ever. As I stood in line, the girl in front of me told the woman serving her that she was sad because a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. It was September 11, 2001.
I didn’t think much of it. I assumed that the plane was a Cessna or some variation thereof, and that the only injuries (if there were any) were those of the pilot. It was sad, but not so sad that I didn’t enjoy my waffles in the eerily empty cavern of the dining room.
It wasn’t until I got back to my dorm that I realized something worse had happened. As I walked down the hall, I passed an open door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw to guys watching television. I thought it was a bit early to be up watching TV, but I didn’t give them a second glance.
As I strolled by, I heard a voice call out “Are you watching this?” I didn’t realize it was calling to me until one of the guys came to the door and called after me again. “Hey! Are you watching this?” I stopped. Suddenly it dawned on me that the plane the girl in the dining hall was talking about could have been slightly larger than a Cessna.
“No.” I told him. “What’s going on?” He motioned for me to follow him into his room. I sat down next to him and his roommate and turned to the TV. For the next two hours, we stared in silence. First one blazing tower fell. Then the other. Two more planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. We were speechless.
Classes were canceled that day. Everyone milled around the main green, not sure what to do or say. Our parents called. Some asked whether we could see the smoke from Providence (we couldn’t), others asked if we were safe (we weren’t sure).
That evening there was a candlelight ceremony for the victims. The next day there was a panel discussion during which various professors guessed who was responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In the ensuing days there was a pall over our university, our city, our state, and our country. Classes resumed, life ostensibly went on, but things didn’t feel the same.
That weekend I had the chance to travel to Manhattan with a group of people from Brown to see Ground Zero. I remember agonizing over whether to go because I had a lot of studying to do. In retrospect, it seems strange that I would have let something so trivial get in the way of witnessing the aftermath of such a pivotal event, but maybe something in me wanted some normality after the shock of September 11th.
In the end I decided to go. I drove with a group down to Queens, where we dropped off our things and set up sleeping bags on the floor of a church. Then we made our way into Manhattan.
Our first stop was Union Square. I had never been to New York City before, so I had no frame of reference for how much it changed after the September 11th terrorist attacks. But I had been to big cities before. I had seen how people walk past one another in the street without making eye contact, rushing to get from one place to the next.
Manhattan was not like that after September 11th, 2001. People walked, but with less certainty. They looked at one another as if seeking answers to the whys of the suffering taking place. Some even stopped to talk, to sit, to stare. Others brought candles, flowers, poems, and memorabilia to lay at the foot of steps, fences, railings, and anything else that could hold it. It was completely surreal.
After walking around Union Square and looking at the newly made memorials, we took the subway to Ground Zero. About two stops before we arrived, we started to smell the smoke. By the time we got to our stop, the taste of acrid metal had filled our mouths.
When we got off the train there was a thick haze in the air. The metallic taste grew worse as we approached the wreckage. The area directly around the Twin Towers and Ground Zero was fenced off, but we were able to walk around the perimeter and see some of the damage from the edges.
Burned buildings with giant metal beams sticking out were surrounded by concrete rubble and debris. Even as I witnessed it first-hand, I still had a hard time believing it had actually happened.
We made our way along the streets, keeping close to the fence as police officers directed us to the next subway station. As we descended onto the platform, my mind tried to wrap itself around this new reality.
Back in Providence, the process of normalization continued. I studied, finished college, started my career, and, like many others, slowly adjusted to the new political landscape facing the country and the world.
Ten years later, I still look back on my time in New York after September 11, 2001 as life-changing. I have been to Manhattan many times since then, and have seen the city regain its strength and confidence. The post-9/11 flowers and candles have been replaced with more permanent memorials, ensuring that every person that remembers where she or he was on the day the Twin Towers fell will not forget the events of that day.