9/11 Memorial in NYC.

The 9/11 Memorial stands on the World Trade Center site commemorating the 2,977 people killed in the attacks. Two reflection pools mark where the Twin Towers stood.

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via AP

Nation & World

Readers remember 9/11

long read

Moments of shock, horror, sorrow in New York, Cleveland, Cambridge

We asked readers of Gazette coverage marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to share their own memories of the day. Below is a selection of responses, edited for clarity and length.

“When I close my eyes, the image is clear as day”

I was a freshly minted M.B.A. beginning my second day of training at Merrill Lynch. I remember walking up the stairs out of the Park Place subway station and thinking how unbelievably clear and blue the sky looked.

We were in a training session at 222 Broadway when the first plane hit. The way our lecture hall was oriented, our backs were to the twin towers. We were so close we could hear the final rush of the jet engine and the impact threw us forward in our seats. One of the individuals running our training program stepped out a side entrance to a window and returned wide-eyed and ashen. Our lecturer continued for a couple minutes and then abruptly concluded the session, stating that he had been downtown when the WTC bombing had occurred in 1993 and wanted to go check on his staff.

Many of us headed up to the 16th-floor cafeteria, where there were floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the towers. As we entered the cafeteria, we were met with a picture of billowing black smoke and a steady rain of paper. We stood at the window in shock. We could see people streaming out of the ground-floor entrances, the fear and panic almost visible on their faces. I tried to call my father but couldn’t get cell-phone reception. I began conversing with my colleagues when all of a sudden one of the cafeteria employees began screaming. We all looked out to see people jumping from the building. To this day, when I close my eyes, the image is clear as day. One person in particular stood out. While most of those jumping were flailing their arms and legs, one particular man looked like an experienced skydiver. The dissonance of his calm demeanor and form with the circumstances was jarring, as he clearly chose to surrender to a death by impact over fire.

Off to the side, I noticed another friend who appeared to be making a phone call. I went over to see if I could borrow his phone but he was having connection problems as well. The whoosh of the second plane came. The impact shook our whole building and we witnessed the fireball from the tower. At that moment, any thought that we were witnessing an accident disappeared and we all headed for the stairwell.

The stairs were packed but we all descended relatively calmly and quickly. As we came out onto the streets, they were packed with people staring at the towers. My friend was living half a block away and wanted to go get his girlfriend, so a couple of us went with him. We made the mistake of turning on the TV when we got in his apartment and ended up glued to the coverage. After watching the coverage for a while, it occurred to us we needed to leave. We stepped into the hallway when suddenly the building rumbled like we were in the middle of an earthquake. We hadn’t realized the first tower had fallen until we got to the ground floor and the elevator opened to a hazy, dust-filled lobby. The doormen urged us to go back so we scrambled back into my friend’s apartment.

It was probably nearly 11 a.m. by the time we left the building. People were walking by coated in ash and there seemed to be at least an inch or so of ash covering the ground. We made our way past City Hall, where firemen were directing us across the Brooklyn Bridge. We had decided to make our way up to my apartment on the Upper West Side.

Every few blocks, people were gathered around radios listening to the coverage. We’d stop for a few moments, see if we could hear any meaningful update, and then continue to make our way north. We kept looking for a bus or subway station or taxi, but nothing seemed to be running. We finally made our way to the Upper West Side and everyone plopped down, exhausted from the day’s events. After a little rest, one of my friends found out transportation was still running to Jersey where he lived, so he left to try to get home. Shortly thereafter, my other friend and his girlfriend were able to contact a relative nearby and they left to go to there.

For the first time since walking out of the subway station that morning, I was alone. The adrenaline wearing off, hunger kicked in so I made my way outside in search of dinner. I walked over to Columbus Ave. and stood right in the middle of the street. I couldn’t see a single car driving anywhere. I stood there for a few minutes just taking in the eerie quiet of the cool evening. I still couldn’t process what had happened that day, but it felt important to not rush that moment of standing alone in the middle of Columbus Ave.

Spencer Lee ’95

“Seared into my mind forever”

I was just starting my second week of my first year at Brooklyn Technical High School. During my third-period history class, my classmates and I looked out of the window, and across the East River we could see huge clouds of black smoke billowing out of the twin towers. We just assumed that a rogue fire had spread throughout the buildings, until our principal announced over the PA system that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center.

Back then, none of us had smartphones, tablets, laptops, or any other way of accessing the news during the school day. The teachers and administrators made a conscious choice to shield us from the tragic news and proceed with classes as normal. But that day was anything but normal. Throughout the rest of the school day, the attack was all the students could think or talk about. We were nervous and scared and confused, and we couldn’t wait to just get home to our families to make sure that they were all present and accounted for. I was especially worried, because at that time, my mom worked at a law firm a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, and often went there for breakfast or lunch.

At 3 p.m., the school would not let anyone leave the building until they were sure we could all get home safely. Thankfully, by that time the trains in Brooklyn were running again, and I was able to get home quickly. I had never been more relieved to see my mom and siblings at home after school. My mom shared with me that she was running late to work that morning, and by the time she got out of the World Trade Center train station, the first plane had already crashed into the tower, and police were ushering her and thousands of other pedestrians toward the Brooklyn Bridge, back across the river to safety. Had she arrived in the area any earlier, who knows what may have happened to her?

For hours, we gathered together around our living room TV and watched in shock as every news outlet replayed the footage of the planes hitting the towers, the buildings collapsing, the bystanders running for their lives, the employees leaping from windows to escape the fires. Those images, along with where I was and how I felt while watching them, are seared into my mind forever.

As a proud native New Yorker, 9/11 is an extremely personal and heartbreaking life event for me. My mom and I used to eat pizza and watch dance recitals in the gorgeous World Trade Center Plaza, where the memorial and museum now stand. The twin towers were a beacon in the New York skyline, letting me know when I was close to my mom’s place of work so I wouldn’t get too lost. Now they only exist in my memory and old photographs. My brother and cousin have fought overseas in the wars resulting from that day, and both have suffered immensely as a result. So it is both sad and surreal to me that many of my current students (and those in their generation) largely think of 9/11 as a historical event before their time, to be read about in textbooks and experienced through museums. The attacks may have happened 20 years ago, but the pain and impact of that day will be felt by millions of people around the world for many more years to come.

— Hakim J. Walker, preceptor in mathematics, Harvard University  

“Turn on the TV!”

Sept. 11, 2001, was my mother’s 80th birthday. My sister and I traveled to our parents’ house in Cleveland for a surprise birthday dinner. We scheduled the dinner for Sept. 10 because we both needed to return to our jobs on the 11th—I had a flight to Syracuse, N.Y., the next morning, and my sister was scheduled to leave for Minneapolis in the afternoon.

The morning of Sept. 11 my sister dropped me off at the rapid transit station; I would take the train from the east side of Cleveland, through downtown, to the west side, where the airport was located. I got on the train and took my seat around 9. The woman next to me, who had a Walkman and earphones, saw my suitcase, turned to me, and said, “You going to the airport?” “Yes, I am.” “Honey, you’re not going anywhere,” she said. “All the flights got canceled because some airplane crashed into a building in New York.” “Well, that’s just my luck,” I thought (I always had bad travel luck), assuming it must have been a small plane that crashed accidentally. A few minutes later, the conductor announced that the train was going to bypass downtown Cleveland, and then the entire transit system was going to be shut down. I found out later that the plane that ended up crashing in Pennsylvania was still in the air at that time, flying west, and there was a concern that it might be targeting the Terminal Tower, Cleveland’s original skyscraper. The train hurtled through the station under the tower and over the Cuyahoga River, and then stopped at the West 25th Street station. I looked around at the other passengers. Several of them were studying Bibles they had taken out of their purses. One was a caregiver who was worrying out loud that she was going to be late getting to her client’s house. We all got out and milled around, wondering what was going to happen next. Then someone said that a bus would arrive to take us back downtown. I found a pay phone and called my mother and sister, who were eating breakfast. “Turn on the TV!” I said. Then we arranged a pickup spot. I took the shuttle bus downtown, walked a few blocks, and waited for them on the sidewalk. We didn’t have cell phones, and I am still amazed that we found each other. They picked me up and we returned home. My mother was shaken and pale. My father came home from his office, and we spent the rest of the day in front of the television, horrified. What I remember most is the sight of people jumping from the towers. I imagined the terror of beginning a normal day in the office and a few minutes later having to decide whether it was better to be burned or crushed to death or to fly out a window. That image still haunts me.

— Louise E. Robbins, senior editor, Harvard University Press

  “The hope I was carrying suddenly seemed very heavy”

I so appreciated reading Drew Faust’s memory of 9/11. I was sitting in a master planning meeting with Radcliffe’s administrative dean, Louise Richardson, and our architect, Nancy Trainer, when Tamara Rogers (then dean of Radcliffe Advancement) burst into the room to tell us a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was eight months pregnant with twins — and the hope I was carrying suddenly seemed very heavy.

Louise left that meeting abruptly. As an expert in terrorist behavior, she spent much of the day providing academic background to the world. I made my way home to Arlington to sit in front of the TV, wondering about the world we were offering those babies. Nancy Trainer went back to the Sheraton Commander, where she spent three days waiting for a train to bring her to her home and family in Philadelphia.

Our work together long complete, Nancy and I email or call each other every year on 9/11. Her then-teenage boys are now out of college and building their own careers. Those twin boys are now in college, and only know 9/11 from classes and our family stories about the sadness of witnessing that history. But Radcliffe is central to my memories of those days, so past and present intertwine freely even 20 years later.

— Kate Loosian, director of facilities management, Harvard Radcliffe Institute

“Sad, stunned silence”

I was working 100 miles upriver, along and high above the Hudson, at a most deeply 19th-century place. In the 1870s, American landscape painter Frederic Church created a picturesque estate on a hill above the Hudson River, called Olana. Church’s descendants continued living in the castle-like home into the 1950s, and it remained to that time much as it had been during Church’s own lifetime (he died in 1900). The state Division of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation took the place over and opened it to the public in the late ’60s. The property includes a museum shop, situated in what was once the Churches’ carriage house, where I worked part-time a few days a week.

In keeping with its commitment to historic preservation, there was at the time very little contact with the outside world at Olana. On that clear Tuesday morning, one of the staff had arrived a bit past 9:30 and brought with her the story that she had heard on her drive to work. Hastily, the six or seven people who were working that morning gathered in the little theater and we disconnected the video player from the lone TV in what was a marginally successful attempt to get a news broadcast by one of the Albany stations, 50 miles to the north. Listening closely as the grainy images of the smoldering World Trade Center towers reached us over the airwaves on that modest TV set, we all realized that the planes that had flown into those iconic and proud buildings on the southern tip of Manhattan had just a couple of hours earlier passed right by us on the eastern edge of the Hudson River.

By 11 o’clock, Gov. George Pataki had ordered all state facilities closed, effective immediately. Someone turned off the TV, I closed the shop and locked the big barn doors, and our small group left the property in sad, stunned silence, wondering what the 21st-century world into which we were returning had come to.

— Scott C. Stackpole, faculty assistant, Kennedy School

“We all banded together to help each other and our patients”

I was in my residency at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan; we could see the fires burning from the ICU windows. In an event that defined our residency class, we all banded together to help each other and our patients. Some went down to Ground Zero, while most of us manned the fort. Bellevue, being the hospital of last resort in NYC, is designed so that every room can be a clinical care space, so all the survivors (mostly smoke/dust inhalation) were accommodated in hastily converted conference rooms. Almost every patient that day was treated and released. It was inspiring to watch our chief residents band together to establish order, dole out assignments, and take care of us. We then had an eerie few weeks as people stayed away from the hospital to give us time to take care of the patients. Most of the existing patients were discharged to make room for victims, who of course never came.

One of our senior faculty described walking around and seeing an intern writing a note and then two hours later finding the intern sitting in the same spot writing the same note. Unfortunately the eerie, empty hospital meant we kept seeing news footage, and we had the posters of lost loved ones taped up in front of the hospital; even more grimly, we had to walk between the refrigerator trucks of the office of the chief medical examiner on our way into the hospital. It left many of us with the feeling we had failed to save lives (when in fact of course there weren’t any to be saved). All of us at some point found ourselves sobbing uncontrollably in a quiet spot in a hallway, but we learned to lean on each other and got through it as a team.

— Henry J. Feldman, assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School