Toby Leah Bochan
My 9.11 Story
Toby Leah Bochan
I left for work somewhere around 8:40 am, a bright warm day, and headed south from my apartment on 15th Street and 6th Avenue. My roommate, Amanda left at the same time and I watched her get on a bus uptown to 34th to meet someone for breakfast. Headphones on, I walked down 6th until 3rd street when I headed east. As soon as I got to the narrower streets, I noticed people in the streets, standing in the middle of the road, gathered in groups. I didn’t know what was going on—a robbery? An accident? But there were so many people, I took off my headphones and asked, What’s happened?
A plane hit the World Trade Center, a man told me. And I looked up and saw the mawing hole in the building, burning. As I stood agape, a woman beside me told me that she had heard the crash and then came outside. I hadn’t heard it because of my headphones. People all around me were on their cell phones—I kept walking south, the building in view, stopping next to a man who was broadcasting AM news out of his car.
Was it a big plane? Was it filled with people? No one knew—the news reported only A Plane has hit the tower of the world trade center. After a few minutes, I continued to walk south, still going to work, wishing for a cell phone but knowing I could get to a phone and more news at my office. People were out with cameras, videos, walking in pairs and still, many more people still walking to work, not seeing or continuing on. On Houston, I walked quickly east, stopping at every intersection to look south. The smoke and fire were clear even from a mile north, where I was. Black plumes and orange flames on what looked like dozens on floors.
At one particularly clear view, I stopped again and looked around for markets, thinking of buying a disposable camera. I thought it was tacky, but how often does a terrible sight like this happen? But there were so many people with cameras. I should just get to work, I thought.
As I crossed Houston, I stopped in the middle of the road on an island when I saw a giant ball of orange flame explode from the second tower. Ohmygod Bomb, I thought. Bomb. Not accident.
A man with brown hair wearing shorts on the island next to me on his cell phone dropped to his knees and screamed, Oh my god what is happening what the fuck is happening? and across the street, a woman started screaming in short bursts and the street was filled with audible gasps. The woman across the street didn’t stop screaming for a long time.
The explosion receded to a shower of glittering metal like a terrible firework falling down. Smoke and fire from the wound of the building.
The explosion was lower than the first. There was no way it was caused by the first, by some falling debris—it was too large for that—though that was my first thought.
No one knew what happened. Across the street, another man with a SUV was broadcasting the news. I crossed to him and listened to the news.
It’s terrorism, he said. This, it’s no accident.
The news said, A second plane.
Did you see the plane? But no one had. No one knew the size of either plane, though the news was saying 737 for the first one. No one could believe it—two planes. The second one had to be smaller, we thought. Some still thought: bomb.
Terrorism, terrorism, bomb, bomb like a chorus behind the chatter. What’s happened? Plane crash. What’s happened? The twin towers have bit hit by planes. Terrorists, oh my god, people in tears, clutching at their chests.
It’s on fire inside, someone said, and you could see the orange glow coming from inside the floors that had been hit, and above. Smoke in small pipes coming from the unhit side, escaping from the windows. Both buildings were in terrible flames where they had been hit and black smoke rose. I could hardly look away but to look at the people around me, largely in pairs, horrified.
I wanted to call my family, my friends, so I ran to work, where I knew I would have a view of the disaster and be around friends. It was just around 9:30, when I would have arrived on a normal day. Upstairs, people were gathered around the wide windows, watching both towers with the TV turned on loud in the conference room.
Did you see it from up here? I asked a coworker, Amy, who was visibly shaken. I saw the first hole from the ground and the second crash here, she said. Before I could start calling, my phone rang.
It was Daniel, calling from Yonkers.
How are you? He said.
Oh my god it’s awful, I said, and then, Do you know? Have you seen? I saw it all happen, I said. Do you know anyone down there? We didn’t. I love you was said and we went to call others. News filtered in. Two planes, passenger planes had crashed. Reports of hijackings.
The phones jammed, I tried to get through to my parents or to my roommate, but nothing went through. The twin towers sent up larger and larger plumes of black smoke, the fire spreading. Busy signals. Then, from the conference room, They’ve crashed on the Pentagon. What? Another plane? Another plane down.
Incredulous, I went into the conference room as reports came in of another crash. Rumors were speculating about more bombs downtown. 8 planes, 11 planes hijacked. Where were they heading? How could this happen. It was chaos. I don’t remember the order of the news precisely now. Something was said about the Chase building being hit or bombed. Sonya, a coworker, said, My uncle works there. Everyone was trying the phones, trying to get through. And watching the spectacular view from our windows.
Our division’s Vice President, Donna, called a team meeting, shouting with her raspy voice down the office. We gathered around, people in tears. I found Amy in tears and stood next to her. I took her arm and put my head on her shoulder.
After telling us what I had already heard from the news: Manhattan was shut down. Bridges, tunnels, subways, streets—Donna told us that we could go home if we wanted, but for those who lived outside of Manhattan, it might be better to stay put—there was no safe way home right now. Somewhere in the middle of a sentence, our office manager, Lorraine said, It’s falling down.
I and a handful of others immediately dashed to the windows again and watched an enormous cloud of smoke roll up and out from where the tower had moments before stood. At first, it was as if there was still a tower there behind the smoke—it was a thick column obscuring all view of what was behind it. But as the smoke continued to roll out it from the crash, it became clear that there was no building behind it. The news I could hear confirmed that one of the towers had collapsed. It was utterly unbelievable. I went to the conference room and looked at the single tower still burning as more news poured from the TV. The pentagon was burning, another plane down from Pittsburgh, the Mall in DC on fire, the capitol on fire, all flights but 11 grounded—those last 11 ‘missing’. Some of that was true, but I still don’t know all of it, a day later.
From my desk, I called Daniel again to tell him about the pentagon (or actually I must have done this before the meeting)—his sister was in DC—then failed to get through to anyone else. The whole time, I couldn’t stop looking at the lone tower. My whole life, I had known the twin towers. I had no idea what just one would look like. And could never have imagined one would fall down after both were struck by planes, hijacked by terrorists on a suicide mission.
I couldn’t get out of the building, but I somehow got through to my voicemail where there was a message from the president of the company regarding the disaster and a message from my mother saying only, She would pick up the phone for her mother. Toby, call us, we’re worried. As I listened to the second message the second tower shook.
Oh my fucking god.
In moments, the tower collapsed in on itself, the radio tower falling down on a scene that seemed fake—something out of a disaster movie. It fell and all around the office, people gasped and screamed and said Oh my God as we watched unimaginable disaster. Many were in tears. I could hardly move, clutching at my throat, struck dumb, the phone still in my hand.
Shortly after getting in touch with my parents, they resumed the team meeting. We were told it was no good to stare out the window. Those who seemed more together were asked to watch for those who were falling apart. People grabbed the nearest phones to call their families and friends. People who lived in outer boroughs were offered places to stay by those who lived in Manhattan. A woman went around asking if I knew if anyone needed calming down and shook a bottle of pills at me. Suddenly, a call went around, Does anyone know CPR? I didn’t nor did any of my near coworkers. Someone was found. I don’t know what happened then, but I believe the person was all right.
I finally reached Amanda and told her I would meet her at home—her boyfriend was on a plane from new York to LA. I called Daniel to let him know I was leaving the office—he would be stranded in Yonkers, kept out of the city.
I rushed through the streets where droves of people headed in groups, talking all of the same thing. It was all day as if there was only one conversation in the city, only one thing to think about.
By the time I got home, Amanda had heard from Greg, her boyfriend, that he was grounded in Kansas City and fine. I was relieved, as was she. Then for a time, we joined America in watching the news.