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I Was There When the Sky Fell 當日我在場

The No.2 train slowed to a halt. Inside the subway car, the overhead florescent lights went out for a moment and flickered back to life. The middle-aged Caucasian man standing next to me heaved an impatient sigh, bemoaning the frequent interruptions of an antiquated transport system. Suddenly the train doors parted and the crackling PA system issued a dispassionate instruction: An emergency has been reported in Lower Manhattan, all passengers must exit now.

14th Street, where I got off the subway train on September 11th

I climbed two flights of stairs and came out of the 14th Street station. It was one of those beautiful September mornings in New York. Cloudless blue skies and a few falling leaves. I looked to the south and there it was, the reason why my train had stopped: plumes of heavy smoke were billowing out of the World Trade Center.

I walked into a nearby Citibank branch to find out what had happened. “Some fool flew their plane right into the building, sweetheart,” the heavyset African American woman paraphrased what she had heard from the radio. In my head I had this image of a spoiled brat flying daddy's biplane and accidentally slamming it into a building.

Now what am I supposed to do with my plane ticket? I grumbled to myself as I tried to call Mei Lin to cancel our lunch. My friend and I were supposed to meet up on Wall Street after I finished my errand at the American Airlines ticketing office at the WTC. But my cell phone had no signal. It wasn’t my day.

An image etched into our collective psyche

By the time I walked out of the bank onto the streets, one of the Twin Towers was gone and the other one was burning furiously. Convinced that it was just the angle that put one tower behind the other, I walked from one side of Seventh Avenue to the other to get a different vantage point. That’s when I noticed that every car as far as the eye could see had stopped, and the drivers were all standing in the middle of the streets listening to the car radio.

Approximately an hour ago, two commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. The South Tower has collapsed, casualties unknown at this point. The sombre newscaster at WCBS announced.

I realized how wrong the bank teller and I both were: this was no accident. If I were in a Christopher Nolan movie, that would be the moment when the Hans Zimmer soundtrack came on and the brass instruments beat out a heavy chord. I looked around and saw people crowding around at every public phone, for cell phones were as good as dead. I rushed back into the bank and asked to use its land line. The Hispanic woman waiting in front of me stared unseeing at a blank wall, mouthing ay-dios-mio, ay-dios-mio non-stop.

20 minutes later I finally got to call Mei Lin, but I couldn’t get through to her. By the time I came back out on the streets again, the North Tower had also fallen. The World Trade Center was gone, destroyed, erased from the skyline.

There were simultaneous attacks on Washington D.C. and the Pentagon. The car radio continued to deliver bad news, and the situation got worse with each report.

There were now gaggles of people on the streets, steadily walking to the north and away from the suddenly unrecognizable Lower Manhattan. My survival instinct kicked in and I made a quick detour to a corner store where I bought two bottles of water and a few Snickers bars. And I began walking north, like everyone else.

The worst headline imaginable
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In spring 2001, I accepted an offer from a reputable New York law firm for an associate position, not bad for a Canadian law school grad whose knowledge of American law was limited to a course in U.S. constitutional law. On September 9th, I arrived in the Big Apple to spend two weeks looking for a place to live. On the second day of my apartment hunt, my broker found me a one-bedroom in a pre-war walk-up, not bad for a budding lawyer with massive student loans.

I was to sign the lease three days later, on September 13th, at the broker’s office in midtown Manhattan. Having accomplished my mission well ahead of schedule, I had no reason to hang around in New York and risk over-staying my welcome. At the time I was crashing rent-free at my friend Mei Lin’s apartment in Queens, and so I decided to fly back to Toronto a week early.

Since every major airlines had an office at the World Trade Center, I thought it was only appropriate to pay a visit to the famous skyscrapers — designed by Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki (山崎實) and known for their stunning symmetry and understated grace  first thing Tuesday morning to change my flight reservation. And since Mei Lin’s office was just across the street, I figured I would take her out to lunch to thank her for her hospitality.

That series of unremarkable decisions was what put me on the southbound No.2 train at 9:00am on that fateful day. If only I had left my friend’s apartment half an hour earlier, I might have been buried under 220 floors of concrete and steel, and my name might have been inscribed around the edges of the 9-11 Memorial along with the names of the other 2,975 victims. The extra 30 minutes of snoozing on my alarm clock had probably saved my life.

The 21st Street apartment I signed
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I continued my trek up Sixth Avenue. There were now thousands in the Great Migration to the north, some were sobbing but no one made a sound. Silence was the security blanket that wrapped around us and kept us sane until we found shelter.

Mei Lin’s apartment was on the other side of the East River and so my only option was my other friends Ivan and Sarah, who lived in the Upper East Side on 82nd Street and York Avenue. But that was 70 blocks away, or approximately five miles northeast of where I was.

I had just passed Madison Square Park when I spotted a northbound city bus on the corner of 24th Street taking passengers. I ran toward it and became one of the 60 or so lucky souls on board a bus designed to carry half that number. Some of the people who couldn’t get on became agitated and started to pounce on both sides of the bus, causing it to rock from side to side. The more aggressive ones tried to climb on top of the vehicle. I was scared out of my wits, for right in front of my eyes common sense had clicked off and lawlessness had taken over. An old woman finally cried from her seat, “let’s go, please, let’s go!” Then the bus started moving slowly, heading north, avoiding pedestrians.

Along the way, traffic lights became irrelevant, as did all the banks, furniture shops, pizza joints and other traces of civilization. When we reached the 42nd Street intersection, a pair of police officers stopped us in our tracks. There is a bomb in Grand Central Station — everyone get off the bus right now! They kept repeating those same words. The B-word set off an immediate stampede and everyone started to push their way off the bus and run for their lives. I ran as fast as I could, away from where the bomb was supposed to be, all the while hunkering down and holding on to my bag. It was a false alarm, but the evacuation left empty baby-strollers and shoes all over the streets. Right there and then I knew America was at war, and I was one of the city’s 8,000,000 refugees.

This isn't Damascus

Two hours later I arrived at Ivan and Sarah’s building. The security guard was long gone and I took the elevator straight up to their apartment. I rang the doorbell and Ivan, who didn’t even know I was in town, answered the door. “Come on in,” my friend urged, pulling me inside. On a day like this, a surprise visit from an unannounced guest needed no explanation or apology.

Later that afternoon, another friend of the couple's showed up at the door and together we turned their Upper East Side apartment into a makeshift refugee camp for stranded visitors. All day, the four of us did nothing but watched CNN, alternating between gruesome footage of the plane crashes and gut-wrenching pleas from families searching for loved ones.

All night, we felt the rumble of heavy dump trucks going up and down the island carrying debris from Ground Zero. We didn’t talk much, for one of us would start to cry each time we attempted a conversation. 48 hours went by just like that.

By the end of the week, I decided to take a 12-hour train ride back to Toronto instead of waiting indefinitely for the airports to reopen. But on September 13, the day before I left the city, I did the unexpected. I kept the appointment with my broker and signed a two-year lease when all of his other clients had backed out and walked away. Three weeks later, I returned from Toronto and moved into my small one-bedroom apartment, the place I would call home for the next five years.

The Wailing Wall

It is said that everyone remembers where they were on September 11th and every New Yorker has a 9/11 story to tell. I have told mine to friends and family dozens of times, an account of events that requires no embellishment. I wasn't covered in ash while running away from the collapsing towers, nor did I witness trapped office workers jump out of the windows and pulverize in front of my eyes. 14th Street was still a way from the Twin Towers. But none of that changes the simple fact that 9/11 was the single most terrifying experience I ever had.

It is also said that once bitten, twice shy. Even today, ten years after the day that changed the world forever, every loud bang or ambulance siren I hear raises the specter of another terrorist attack. It makes my heart skip a beat. And each time I take off my shoes at airport security, lose interest in a history book after realizing it was written before 2001 or find myself taking the office fire drills much more seriously, I am reminded of the sweeping and permanent impact the event has on our daily lives.

But if September 11th was the scariest day of my life, then September 12 would very well be my proudest. Say what you will about the Americans, but I have never seen a more united and compassionate people than those I encountered in the weeks and months following the attacks. From Harlem to Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights to the South Bronx, there were donations of every kind: money, blood, food, clothing and toys for the thousands of children orphaned by the attacks. 

Sanity and civility were restored almost immediately, and the early moments of panic and despair quickly gave way to kindness, gumption and hope. It was New York's finest hour and being a part of it filled me with complicated joy and infinite pride. That's why I decided to sign the lease and move to the city ten years ago. I did that despite — and because of — what I experienced when terror hit. And it remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.
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This article was published on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As published on SCMP.com

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