Eleven years ago today I was on a morning train from Washington DC to NYC when news began filtering in on passenger cell phones…supposedly, a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Strange. (Maybe the weather? Fog?) I’m running late – I should have left an hour earlier, but I’d decided to sleep in a bit. But everything is fine. I’m going to have breakfast and go shopping at Century 21, that great discount fashion store, next to the World Trade Center. No one is expecting me until later in the day, when I am supposed to attend a gallery opening that the folks at Conde Nast Traveler have invited me to.
More news starts coming in. Another plane – the second tower. (No, that must be a mistake. They’re still talking about the first one, of course. Someone must have gotten confused.) We are still barreling towards Manhattan in a half-filled train, drinking coffee and flying through the crisp green fields of northern Pennsylvania and then the edges of New Jersey. The sky is a perfect late-summer blue. But a guy in front of us is getting concerned. He was talking to his mom who works in the tower, then his cellphone died.
Another man – he’s young but has white hair – is starting to get hysterical. “We’re under attack”, he’s saying over and over to himself and anyone who will listen. Crazy. This is the guy that someone would slap back into reality if this was a movie, I think to myself. When the steward passes through the train car, we ask him. “Is something serious going on in NYC?” “Everything’s fine”, he tells us calmly. And still we’re blasting through the countryside on our way to the city.
Then, unexpectedly, the train comes to a careening, screeching halt. We’re leaning forward in our seats, our bodies still in forward motion, as the train begins reversing its course. There is a loud metal-on-metal grinding as the gears begin to move backwards, picking up speed, now moving into the past at the same speed we were once going forward. A strange, surreal feeling. Do the trains behind us know we’re coming? Are we about to crash into the unknown?
Back at the Philadelphia station the train stops. But the doors don’t open. We wait, bonding with the other people in our train car through hesitant eye contact and a few nervous words and laughter. We’re trying to understand. Someone passes their cellphone up to the guy who lost contact with his mom. He’s in tears now, worrying about her. But the phones aren’t working now and the phone gets passed back again. Then the doors slide open and we are urged, over and over, to exit calmly and quickly.
The train station is wall-to-wall people moving in every direction. I look up and see the silhouettes of machine-gun carrying soldiers in the catwalks. Is that normal? It doesn’t feel normal. I go towards the car rental companies, but there are hand-written signs everywhere – “No More Cars Available”. Okay.
I’m starting to go into calm, survival mode. What needs to be done? I want a map of the city and a phone charger. I have a gut feeling I’m going to need both. But it’s early and the shops aren’t open yet. Near the cellphone store I see the televised images for the first time. Burning towers. Then news about the Pentagon. What? The Pentagon? It’s sinking in now. The guy on the train was right. We are under attack. (We’re under attack? I don’t even know how to think that thought. It’s a completely foreign concept…) But the targets are lining up in my head…the Trade Center, the Pentagon…high value, high body count…I’m seeing all the people milling about in the train station, thinking about the Liberty Bell, and Philadelphia’s other symbols of freedom. I’m seeing the guards in the rafters. I know I don’t want to be in the train station anymore. No. I want to be away from crowds and buildings with names.
As I’m heading for the door I hear the order coming in over the loud speakers – “Evacuate the train station”. I’m slightly ahead of the curve, but only by seconds. I’m still in a teeming crowd, finally outside but it doesn’t get any better. The streets are filled with people, too. They’re evacuating the office buildings, also. Later I realize its because of Flight 93 – but in the moment it’s completely surreal. Four-lane roads and sidewalks completely filled with people, all moving more or less together, away from city center, but with no real destination. I need a destination.
I decide that if I’m going to die, or be stranded, I’d like to do it at the Ritz-Carlton. I don’t know why exactly, but it sounds comforting, so I unfold my map as I’m bumping along through the crowd. I find the Ritz on the map. Its just a few blocks away.
There is a small crowd at the desk, but there is an empty sofa in the lobby, so I park myself there. Gather my bags around me. I get on a waiting list in case a room opens up. Not likely, since no one can go anywhere. Then the Ritz-Carlton staff wheels a television into the lobby for all of us who are stranded there to finally see what’s happening. Those images play over and over.
I’ve talked to my mom in Georgia – interrupted her Tuesday morning prayer meeting to say “Mom, you’re going to hear about bad things happening, but I’m okay.” Now the cell phone signals are too overwhelmed and no one is getting through. I’m in a quiet, surreal bubble, in the Ritz-Carlton lobby. It looks like a war zone, even in here. There are bags and backpacks and people piled up in little groups. A completely unrelated fire breaks out in the construction site next door, and Philadelphia fireman are walking through the main entrance in full gear. There is a fire engine parked at the door with lights flashing.
The staff is calm and smiling. They bring us homemade cookies on a silver tray. I wonder if the world will ever be the same.