Five years ago today I was in Hebrew class when it happened. A couple of miles north of Ground Zero on New York City's isle of Manhattan I sat in the second row on the left side of a room on the fourth floor of the Unterberg building at the Jewish Theological Seminary struggling to keep awake during 8:20 AM Hebrew on a morning I negelected to bring coffee. It was my first week of college; I'd learn by exeperience to be caffinated for morning classes and late nights in Butler Library. I was roused by a loud noise, a sonic boom above and later the wailing many many strange-sounding sirens attached to emergency vehicles racing south on all the north-south avenues that they could manage. I thought nothing of either, I was too tired. Refreshed after our mid-class break (Hebrew classes were two hours long so the teacher would give us a 10-15 minute break in the middle) we returned to class, well, some of us anyway. A few tarried and brought back the report that a helicopter had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, apparently an accident. I was brand new to New York City and in my naïveté I thought maybe helicopters on occasion accidentially run into the tallest buildings in Manhattan. By this point I was awake, and now I was wide awake. I suddenly realized through chatting with my friends and classmates (because though the professor tried to continue teaching, she was unable to control the class this morning, this needed to be discussed) that maybe this doesn't happen so often; that area of Manhattan is a no-fly-zone. Yet another student came back even later and said that there was a burst from the second tower. I immediately cried foul and asked the teacher to be excused. I carried a portable radio with me every morning (to listen to Howard Stern) and tried to get the news, but ALL stations were completely out. I realized that because communications towers need to be as high as possible, in a place like New York City with so many tall buildings, they would need to be on the tallest. WTC. This was no accident, this was terrorism and I felt that JTS as the most prominent Jewish institution in the western hemisphere was a very good target so I hightailed it out of there. For the first time since I arrived in New York, I wanted to call home, to let them know I was okay, and as I didn't at that point own a cell phone, I headed to my dorm at Mathilde Schechter Residence Hall two blocks and one-and-a-half cross-towns away. I called from the basement/bomb shelter. I feared that I would have to use it as the latter. It was the first time I talked to my immediate family since I arrived in New York but it was not the last time they heard from me at 6:30 in the morning Pacific Time. Pretty soon everyone followed my lead as the Residence Director ordered everyone that was in the building at the time, the population of which was strangely large for that time on a Tuesday morning but was probably fueled by people having similar ideas that I did, as well as those who either didn't have, or, more likely, slept through 8:20 Hebrew. Everyone was evacuated from superterranean floors and sent to the basement where people joined me for NBC's coverage of the unfolding events in the TV lounge (Thank God we had a TV in there and it's not like the spooky crypt that is Goldsmith Hall's basement). I couldn't believe my eyes when the first tower fell. Only one Twin Tower? It looked so odd, so lonely. And then there were none. Just two nights before I was on the Staten Island Ferry, returning from a Celebrity Softball Game at the AA Yankee Stadium in Richmond and noting the beauty of the two towers bathing majestically in the moonlight and the two long reflections in the water. I was one of the last people on earth who would ever witness that beautiful sight. 30 hours later, it was gone.
This day I lost my freshman innocence and had to grow up very quickly to the realities of the world. I also was privy to a side of New York that is rarely seen. Manhattanites of all breeds took off their masks and their reservations. Amidst the papers and ash that were falling from the sky (and yes, the wind did bring them to us) people were congregating in the streets and hugging each other and asking of the welfare of perfect strangers. I could feel the warmth in people who are normally so cold. That very night we held a midnight candlelit vigil at Columbia and the megaphone was open for people to express their feelings. The person who spoke immediately before me was covered head-to-toe in soot. He had escaped the towering inferno and was caught in the advancing pillars of black smoke when the buildings came down. Because all streets were closed, he had walked all the way to Morningside Heights after helping others down there. I didn't know how to follow his comments but I still allowed myself to pour out my feelings.
The world has become a different place because of what happened five years ago today and even now we still feel the pain. Hatred caused those buildings to come down. May we rebuild and see peace.