This essay, published on Sunday, September 11, 2017, is exclusive to Notablog.
This essay has been translated into Portuguese by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos. It has also been translated into Russian by Timur Kadirov, Uzbek by Sherali Niyazova, and Dutch by Justin Watson.
[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020; 2021]
NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photograph by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
It has been sixteen years. Sixteen years since that gloriously sunny late summer Tuesday morning gave way to a sky blackened by fire, smoke, debris, and human ash.
Looking back on that day, Sue Mayham confesses: "My heart doesn't break anymore thinking about how things have changed; it just is." But the events of that day had such a profound impact on her life that she still has been unable to complete the tour of the National September 11 Museum, which takes visitors below ground to the footprints of the Twin Towers, exhibiting all the horrors of that day. Horrors that no one can truly fathom.
Nevertheless, she has visited the Memorial grounds that occupy the vast space where once stood the Twin Towers. There is a sense of tranquility that she finds, sitting by "the survivor tree rescued by one of my [Brooklyn Technical High School] classmates Ron Vega." She can't help but "think of folks that unfortunately don't have the same opportunity." She can only count her blessings that despite breaking so many routines on the morning of 9/11, she is "very lucky and . . . proud of how we have recovered."
For Sue, September 11th has always had a special meaning, "but in a completely different way. 9/11 is the day after my birthday so for the past sixteen years I say that September 10th---my birthday, is the last day of the world as we knew it."
The world that existed prior to September 11, 2001 was the one in which Sue grew to maturity. A native Brooklynite, she first attended P.S. 241, a short distance from the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, before moving onto the Packer Collegiate Institute, where she remained through the eighth grade. She decided to take the entrance test for one of the city's elite specialized high schools, one which had only recently opened its doors to young women. She entered Brooklyn Technical High School in downtown Brooklyn as a freshman, and was among the first women graduates of the formerly all-boys school. She was actually in the third class in which women were included, in a school of 500 girls and 5,500 boys. For Sue, Tech was a school that thrived on the brilliance and energy of its student population, but it particularly nourished a young generation of strong, powerful, and brave young women. She would move on to Pace University, where she received a BBA in Marketing, preparing her for a career spent on Wall Street. She worked for numerous banks over the years, but on 9/11, the Bank of New York was her employer.
Precisely because September 10th
was her birthday, Sue woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001, "a
little hungover. A couple of friends had taken me out the night before right
after work." She had just "returned
from vacation and had no plans," and so at the end of a late night
of celebrating, her friends escorted
her into a taxi for the drive home.
The vestiges of a headache didn't prevent Sue from awakening on that fateful morning, a "gorgeous, sunny day," and the first day that she would exercise her right to vote, before going to work. It was Primary Day in New York City. Her polling place was at a school right near the subway. Sue had typically taken the Express Bus to work for nearly fifteen years. On a day in which nothing was routine, she decided to break the first of her own routines. "I figured, I'm going to go take the subway to work, getting off at the Cortlandt Street station"---a station that within a few hours would sustain so much damage from the collapse of the Towers, that it would be more than a year before it would reopen to passengers. And in another break with her morning rituals, she decided to walk through the concourse of the North Tower on the way to her Barclay Street office. This is something which she rarely if ever did; she shopped for shoes at 9 West, and even went to Duane Reade to drop off five rolls of film for developing, all pictures from her European vacation. "That now sounds so funny because obviously everything is digital, but I had film and the girl that was behind the counter was really slow. Three people in front of me got off the line so it made me like next or second to next. So I waited and I would have the pictures by the weekend." Those photos were never developed; in the events of the ensuing hours, they would be "lost for eternity."
She picked up coffee and a bagel and made her way to her office, on the fifteenth floor of 101 Barclay Street, just in time for an 8:30 a.m. meeting. Around 15 minutes or so into her meeting with four other people, she suddenly felt a strong vibration. Something more like a violent tremble. It was as if the whole building shook; their chairs bounced. Something was very wrong. She walked over to the windows facing south, only a block and a half from the Trade Center, and looked up at the North Tower, the very building she had just walked through. She saw a black "slice" through the upper floors of the tower, some 50 or 60 stories above her. Her first thought was that "something exploded in the Trade Center." Her first impulse was to call her best friend, who worked at One New York Plaza at the time. As she was explaining that something had happened at the Trade Center and that she was fine---not having a clue "how ominous that comment was"---her friend saw, from her own window, a second plane hit the South Tower. People immediately turned on radios, and it was clear something was very wrong. She immediately told her staff to "grab your phone chargers, grab any food or water that you may have at your desk, and to put on flat shoes [because] everybody needed to be able to run." Staff members turned off their machines as they moved as far north into the building as they could, awaiting instructions from senior management.
Sue could see adults "scared stiff" as children; she told them "to call someone they love and tell them that they're okay," given the tragedy that was unfolding on the streets below them. "Terror rolled through the conference room." where they were gathered. Sue had lost her parents by that point in her life, but she could envision her 85-year old father putting himself on a subway to "come to get me and bring me home. I wanted everybody to at least get in touch with somebody from their families" to inform them that they were okay, "because obviously at the time . . . there were still people traveling" on buses and in subways or walking the streets located near the area.
By the time the South Tower had collapsed, with the dust engulfing lower Manhattan, "collective fear set in and nobody wanted to be in the building anymore." To a certain extent, however, though they "were very very close," to the Twin Towers, they "were protected by 7 World Trade and by the Verizon building---so two other buildings would have had to have collapsed on top of us."
"But facts are facts,"
Sue emphasized, and "people wanted out.
So the word had come down that
if people wanted
to leave they could
leave. We were not allowed to stop anyone from
leaving. I wasn't going to be the only person who was left on the fifteenth
floor of my building---so,
I left too. Rightly or wrongly it is what we
did and people scattered. No manager thought to bring HR data with them---and that
was really the impetus for managers to have everybody's phone number and for
there to be call chains established, in the
management of emergencies,
subsequently were used quite a few times in the years after 9/11."
Hurricane Sandy was
example where this practice proved useful.
So there they all were standing on Greenwich Street, a couple of blocks up beyond Chambers Street and "a lot of the managers . . . were scratching down phone numbers or trying to put phone numbers into our phones---if you had a fancy one." Not even the managers had each other's phone numbers; this was a time when "home was home and that was private and unless you were really friends with your co-workers, they didn't have your numbers and you didn't have theirs."
Sue recalled that she and her friend/boss had walked north; "some people ran right for the Brooklyn Bridge so that they could get to Brooklyn as opposed to being in Manhattan." But the dust was blowing towards Brooklyn, and going north, they figured they had less of a possibility of being covered in ash. Walking north, however, wasn't a sure thing that you wouldn't be hit by debris. "All of a sudden, we heard a different sound and if you can imagine the popping of bubble wrap, that sound was loud enough to cause us to turn around as we watched the North Tower collapse upon itself." At this point, Sue and her friend/boss were running North with crowds of people, getting as far as West 23rd Street, so far that the ash didn't catch up with them. "It was bizarre because it was coming up Greenwich Street like a snowstorm, but it never got all the way to us." At that moment, if there was anything for which Sue was thankful, it was that she emerged from this catastrophe without having been covered with ash, toxic as so much of it was.
As they walked up the west
side of Manhattan, "storekeepers were offering water and snacks and trying to be supportive to anyone
getting away" from the debris that was once the Twin Towers.
Rumors were spreading almost as fast as the debris; there was a
warning that a gas main blew, but it
proved to be false. "We needed a rest and headed toward Madison Square Park. I knew that
it would be quiet and we would be far enough away from the financial district, and we
were able to sit down on a park bench and
just relax a little bit, and for the first time since we had left the
building we got some cell service and messages that had been obviously stored
but not released to the phones."
The first cell message that Sue received was "from a cousin in Kentucky," she recalled, "and I thought how odd; I don't talk to her on a regular basis as it is. But hers was the first call that I received after the disaster; how wonderful it was that she wanted to reach out to make sure I was okay, knowing that I worked downtown." Her boss got in touch with his family on Staten Island and was talking to his wife or one of his children, but "he was sitting there and and just crying with them and they were all so thrilled to be in touch again. I thought to myself: 'I can't really call my cats but I know that they are okay'." At the time, there really wasn't anyone Sue wanted to call; she was "more concerned about what happened to the rest of my staff and what had to happen now that we were safe."
By around 12:30 p.m., they were so hungry, and found a bar on the north side of West 23rd Street. The place was pretty crowded but they got a seat at the corner of the bar and ordered something to eat. Better than the drink or the food was the availability of an electric outlet; she had her cell phone charger, and powered up. The bartender actually came up to her; she figured she was in trouble. But he asked to use her charger because he'd left his charger at home. Relieved, she handed him the charger and remembered giving him the best tip that anybody could have ever given him that day.
As they sat there in the bar, people, complete strangers, were conversing with one another, and telling each other about their experiences. As they watched television, they learned that the subways were shut, the tunnels were blocked off to most traffic, and she had no clue how on earth she was going to get home. Her boss knew that it would be very difficult for Sue to get home under the circumstances, and called his wife and offered to put her up for the night. It was no night for anyone to be alone. They found an Express Bus running, and they boarded, and the driver stopped them from swiping their Metrocards; the city had dropped all fares to facilitate travel.
Sue and her friend/boss were so exhausted and it was miraculous how they were able to get down the east side of Manhattan, via the FDR drive, right into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and off to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island. The WTC site was out of sight, but not out of mind; not seeing it on the way home, it was as if the catastrophe never happened. But they "knew that there was a new reality," even if, "for a little while," they "were able to be completely outside of that Old World or the New World." When they walked into her boss's home, "we were greeted by his loving family who of course were delighted that he was home." Sue stood back a bit, "so that he could have his time with his loved ones."
But little realities
interfered; Sue realized she had no clothes to change into,
nothing to relax into, and
no bed to sleep in. Her boss's wife took her to the Staten Island Mall, with the
intention of getting her a few things, but the Mall was closed. At dinnertime! Just about
everything was closed. "That's when the reality kind of struck"
that the attack on the WTC "not only shut down where we worked,"
but fear "of
what might be next" seemed to shut down everything else. Except Costco.
"People were buying things that they probably didn't even realize that they
would ever need," filling up on supplies they might need or not need,
just getting supplies to give them a sense of
security. Sue got a pair of jeans and something to sleep in and
a shirt and underwear for another day.
They had a bite to eat, and her boss's daughter had baked some
chip cookies. "To this day," Sue says, "homemade chocolate chip cookies are a comfort food and, boy,
everyone really needed to be comfortable that night."
One of the most difficult things was watching the 24/7 coverage on television. But they needed rest; they knew that the world had to go on. The day after, September 12th, she and her boss were part of a team of First Responders. They had to get to Westchester, "but we didn't know what we would see when we got there. Obviously the number of people that were going to descend upon a hamlet called Chappaqua was unknown. Wall Street was closed. The stock market was closed. Most of the banks they dealt with were in the New York area and they too were closed. "But the rest of the world was open. We had to get to this new site so normal work could begin again as soon as possible."
Travel had to be set up. Carpools. Train schedules. "Anything that we could do to get the people that needed to be at work---to be as normal as possible---needed to have ways to get there. Not many people had cars and there was also going to be a parking problem because the space that we were taking over only had room for so many cars. The factory type building that we moved into in Chappaqua was not an office building. We needed to install window air conditioners, but there wasn't much air moving and those September weeks were very warm." Indeed, protocol was one of the first things that changed: "Us-dyed-in-the-wool Wall Streeters were wearing shorts and T-shirts to work. Someone finally figured out that an industrial fan might help circulate the cool air. So a day or so later, a delivery truck backed up to the back door and out came a 7 or 8 foot high industrial fan, placed right in the middle of our workspace." The managers were all asking "Howdja get that?"
"Our secret?" Sue revealed. "One of my staff was married to someone in the department that had the right connection . . . it always pays to know somebody!!"
Still, "I don't think anybody could have ever imagined that something as large and as shockingly devastating as this could ever happen." The task of making this new temporary workspace actually work was overwhelming. As Sue explains, "Imagine setting up an office for 500 people overnight. We had literally nothing but what we walked out of our offices with. Nobody took files. This wasn't supposed to be a shutdown. We had no idea what we were doing, so equipment was ordered (phone lines, computers, monitors, copy machines, fax machines, etc.), along with air conditioners and fans---and chairs and tables to literally house at least 500 people for what was an indeterminate amount of time. Feeding the staff was a gigantic feat. There was no kitchen facility in the building. Construction crews had to be hired to clear additional parking space in the surrounding 'forest', all while clients were calmed and ongoing operations planning was strategized." Moreover, "second-day responders would need working phones, computers that were attached to bank servers and other basics. We also figured out that there was going to be a lot of overtime so there were going to have to be people who were staying up in Westchester so that they would be able to get to work much faster because basically it was going to take a minimum of an hour for most people to get up to where the office was located." Other basic office machines needed to be purchased and installed. All of the infrastructure problems had to be worked out. We had clients all around the world that needed attention but we didn't have any of the paperwork or any of the original documents and contracts that we needed as they were all locked in the building that was part of the crime scene."
By October, they were able to "move the entire operation back to Manhattan," in a phenomenal space in Chelsea, where they remained for another nine months. It wasn't until June 2002, that they returned downtown.
"It would never be the same,"
Sue observed. "Better? Maybe. Fancier? Yes. More expensive? Absolutely.
would never be the same---cell phones, laptops, work-from-home strategies,
all policies and procedures never
considered on September 10, 2001, were the new reality. No
sense thinking about it ever going back to the way it was because this is now
the way it is."
Sue reflects on "the after effects of being there at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001; it is different for everyone. For me, I desperately needed to get back below City Hall. I needed to get back home, return to my reality. While I never considered therapy, I know folks who did or initiated anxiety meds. Some drank too much, ate too much, worked out too much. I consider myself lucky. I was in the North Tower not 30 minutes before. I questioned why I scheduled a staff meeting at 8:30 the morning after my birthday. The bus that I rode each morning brought me to Century 21 at 8:45. I should have been in the street.
"I am an only child, unmarried and childless. My parents were gone---I questioned why they didn't want me with them. Questions never to be answered. My personal takeaway? I don't question why I do what I do when I do it. I figured it was just 'time.'" Revisiting these events sixteen years later, Sue said, "was way tougher than I thought but the memories are crystal clear." Life has gone on.
But to quote fellow Brooklyn Tech alum, Harry Chapin: "There wasn't much more for us to talk about, whatever we had once---was gone."