September 11, 2001 was ten years ago. To me it seems as though it was yesterday.
When someone mentions that date I am instantly transported back in time. My day started out quite uneventfully. I boarded MetroNorth for my daily commute to downtown Manhattan. I had recently gotten a job with a small law firm at One Chase Plaza and took the subway from Grand Central as I had done the few weeks I was on the job.
I recall being a little annoyed that the subway was a little slow that morning as I exited at the Wall Street station at 8:48 a.m., a few minutes behind my normal schedule. As I emerged to street level, I was greeted with dark smoke.
I was a bit confused and thought the building the subway was under was on fire so I quickly ran across the street to the other side. I looked up and it was then that I saw the first World Trade tower ablaze. Someone told me that a plane had hit the tower only a few minutes before.
The response was rapid. As I moved down the street to get a better view, I came across a fireman on the corner of Liberty and Wall Street holding back traffic to let a fire truck through. People were all over the street and the fireman said to us, "Stay back people, let the truck get through so they can do their job." The image of the ladder truck rushing to the towers has stayed with me, the men hanging off the back as they moved to the site. I did not see the number on the truck and during these ten years have often thought about what happened to the men that were on board of her.
I stood for a few minutes on Liberty Plaza watching the chaos and confusion that enveloped us all. I saw dark objects falling from the stricken tower, only to realize later that these objects were people falling to their deaths. I got on my cell phone (mine was one that actually worked because my number was a Connecticut number, not a New York exchange) and called my parents. My dad answered the phone and I told him to turn on the news and that a plane had hit the World Trade tower. At that point no one thought terrorism. We thought a plane had somehow accidently hit the building. Assuring my dad that I was safe, I hung up the phone.
I turned and saw a woman who seemed a bit confused. She stated that she worked in the Deutsch Bank building and had stopped to get a cup of coffee in the store across the street when the plane hit the tower. There was panic and in the rush to get away she had fallen and had been trampled on. She asked if she could use my phone to call her husband, who worked uptown. I told her I could do one better than that. She could use the phone in my office. As we walked to the building, a short block away, memos and other correspondences rained down from the South Tower. I noticed an airplane ticket on the street and decided against picking it up. I wondered if it was for someone on the plane.
We reached my office on the 58th floor. We had a bird's eye view of the Towers, only two blocks away. As the woman called her husband, I stared at the smoldering building. Suddenly a large plane circled from New Jersey, hitting the South Tower. I saw the people sitting in their seats as the grey plane crashed with a bang through the building, the nose coming through the other side in exploding ball of flames. Momentarily confused I suddenly realized that the first plane was no accident. These planes had deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center buildings. I yelled to my co-workers to evacuate the building. We were in a tall building and who knew if we would be next.
I started to take the elevator and then thought twice about that. I started down the stairs, 58 stories, each step taking longer as more and more people flooded into the staircase. When I reached the 5th story someone from security got on the intercom and stated that there was no emergency and we should go back to our offices. I recall thinking that he was crazy, but noticed a few people going back to their floors.
I finally reached the ground floor and looked for my co-workers. We had no emergency plan in place and did not have a rendezvous point to meet. Not seeing anyone, I mingled in the crowd for a few moments. I decided that the best thing to do was to start walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge. All the while I kept looking up at the Towers and the sky. I heard rumors that there were six planes that were hijacked. I panicked when I realized my sister had left that morning for Florida on an American Airlines flight and my sister-in-law commuted via the Path train and took the subway under the Towers. My brother-in-law is a pilot with Delta Airlines and I did not know whether he was flying that day. I managed again to get through to my parents. My mom had not heard from my sister or sister-in-law but informed me my brother-in-law was not flying that day. She also told me that there were other planes involved but that information was sketchy. I kept walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge but there was a sea of people. I kept looking to the Towers, the smoke billowing down. Papers fluttered to the ground around us. I kept thinking to myself that this could not be real, that I was dreaming. But I was not dreaming.
I escaped the area ahead of the falling debris from the Towers. It is still surreal to me. I kept walking uptown. There was a silence that surrounded me. I had one momentary lapse as I called some former co-workers and started screaming into a corner pay phone about what I saw. I quickly regained my composure and kept walking to Grand Central Station. When I finally got there I discovered there were no trains running due to bomb threats.
I panicked and decided I would walk to the Bronx. I had to get out of New York. So I kept walking, reaching 87th Street when I saw an Express Bus for the Bronx. I flagged it down. Miraculously he stopped and let me on (but not before I paid $2.00). I got out at Co-op City. I called my parents once again. They got in their car and drove to get me. I got in the car. I was in shock. I still couldn't believe what happened. I finally got home. It was 3 p.m. I crawled into bed. I was numb. I couldn't think about what I saw. It didn't happen. I was dreaming. It was not real.
But it was real.
Much is written about that day. Everyone has a story about where they were or what they were doing. I was a first-hand witness to the murder of many innocent people -- but little is written about the days after. I worked for a law firm. We were back in our offices a week after September 11th. The smell was horrific. I could not get off at the Wall Street subway station so I walked from the Brooklyn Bridge subway station to my building. Armed soldiers with their weapons and bomb dogs patrolled the area. I worked in a war zone.
For months, I kept thinking that we should not have to be there. The walk from the subway was a quiet one. Many businesses had closed. When I got to the building I would immediately go to the ladies room and gag from the air I had breathed in.
I passed the smoldering wreckage every time I left our building. A lot of people came to look, gawk and take pictures. I recall that it made me angry that they were doing that. This was a burial site and a crime scene. How could people take pictures? Why couldn't they respect the people who died there? I would escape to the South Street Seaport so that I could breathe the salty air from the waterfront. It was a war zone, make no mistake about it. But we continued working as if nothing had happened.
Today, ten years later I still think of that day. I can honestly say that I have thought about that day every day since. Every time the news reports a suicide bomber in another part of the world I wonder how people can live each day with the threat that they may not come home alive. I pray that my nieces and nephews, who are approaching adulthood, will be able to work without fear for their safety. I hope that those who wish to destroy will realize that we are all human beings with the same hopes and dreams for the future of our loved ones and that they will respect human life and not kill with reckless abandon.
Today, not a day goes by that I do not think of the young men and women who are in harm's way in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. I cry for those that have fallen and the families they leave behind. September 11th has transformed who I am. Although ten years have passed, it is as though it happened yesterday. I think it will always be that way for me.
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Karen Fassuliotis has lived in Greenwich for 45 years and graduated from Greenwich High School in 1974. She has her own law practice in Town, is on the RTM representing District 7 and is the current Health and Human Services Chair. She left her position as an attorney for the law firm in downtown Manhattan two years after September 11th.