Administrator reflects on seeing 9/11 attacks up close

By Liz Brown, director of business operations for One Stop September 08, 2021

ELizabeth Brown familiarizes area educators on the benefits of Google application during the School of Education Professional Development Day

On the morning of September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m. I was gathering my colleagues to visit a client for a 9 a.m. meeting across the street from the Twin Towers.

I worked for i-Deal, a financial software start-up that was being incubated by Merrill Lynch and included investors Solomon Smith Barney, Microsoft and Thompson Financial. We were developing new software for issuing initial public offerings and debt. Solomon Smith Barney was not only our investor, but also our client.

That morning we were headed to the west side to meet with the IT representative for the trading desk. Merrill Lynch had given i-Deal a 100-by-50 foot space on the second floor of their building. It had long rows of tables, except for a few filing cabinets that cordoned off a make-shift break room and conference room. We could see from one end of the office to the other. The twin towers of the Word Trade Center were out our front windows.

As I was gathering my belongings we heard a loud thud. A colleague at the next table remarked that it eerily sounded like 1993. I was in college in Rhode Island in 1993 but I knew exactly what she was referencing — the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. It was a fleeting thought for me, as we had a meeting to attend and we were going to be late.

My colleagues and I made our way to the elevator and when the doors opened a couple of others from our office stepped out. My colleague Carmel had a look of shock on her face and she said, “the top of the world trade center is on fire!” When we stepped into the elevator I remarked to my colleagues that my mother would be sure to be calling soon. As a result of experiencing much tragedy in her life, my mother was a worrier. Whenever she heard a siren going down the street in the direction of my sister’s house, she would call my sister to ensure she was OK. Patti would pick up the phone, my mom would be relieved but say nothing and hang up. If my sister didn’t pick up, my mom would send my dad for a drive by. When my mom heard of a tragedy in NYC, she would do the same to me — only she couldn’t make my dad do the same drive by. Despite growing up in Queens, my mother knew little about Manhattan and had no idea where I worked in the city.

It was a short trip down the one story to the first floor. We exited our building and looked up. Above our heads the windows of the top floors of the world trade center had flames shooting out and papers were swirling through the air like a ticker tape parade. I was stopped dead in my tracks and I started to hyperventilate. All I could manage to say was, “people just died there.” My manager, Jonathan, who was from Britain said, “In London once they blew up a whole street. We need to get out of here.” That startled me, as I only thought it was a gas explosion. That was the first of many naive thoughts that day.

We started to walk northwest in the direction of Solomon Smith Barney, away from the trade center, and I honestly don’t recall if we were going up Church Street or Broadway. Crowds had started to gather on the corners but we plowed ahead. I decided I should proactively call my mom as this surely was going to be on the news. It took a few tries to get through but when she finally said hello the crowd started to scream. We turned back to see a ball of fire coming from the second tower and in our direction. We started to run. With my mother on the line hearing the screaming I could only tell her I was OK but I couldn’t talk more as I needed to get out of harm’s way. She had vaguely heard something on the news, she didn’t know I worked in that area and she wondered where my brother was. He worked in the building right next to the World Trade Center.

After running for a couple of blocks in a dress and strappy sandals, I realized the fireball was not going to reach us. We were a little off course at this point but still going in the direction of our client. My manager was a work-a-holic and seemed to still be intent on attending this meeting. I thought I could get through the meeting but would need to excuse myself to go home afterwards and collect myself. This was the time of texting through Blackberries, and, my manager finally contacted our client and the meeting was canceled. He was also able to text his wife, who informed us that the news was reporting the explosions were possibly a plane. We heard similar reports from the news that was blaring from the delivery trucks that lined the streets, still delivering packages as usual.

I tried getting in touch with my husband, Brendan, and was able to leave a message on his cell, when he didn’t pick up. The cell lines were all busy at this point and calling from a landline in Massachusetts my mother-in-law was the only person that was able to get through to me that day. She ascertained that I was fine, and then she kept in contact with my mother and husband.

We kept turning back to see the towers on fire but even worse, we saw people jumping. I remember Jonathan being aghast and naively I said, “I’m sure they have nets and trampolines. Who would jump if there wasn’t?” In the days and months after I would learn from colleagues that they exited the subway that morning only to have bodies thumping to the ground around them.

We decided to walk in the direction of my apartment on 14th Street and Avenue B. As we walked into my complex two tenants were on the roof and started screaming. That is when the first tower fell but we didn’t know that from the ground. When we got into the apartment we turned on the news and officially learned that the first tower fell. We used the landline to call loved ones and I filled up the bathtub with water just in case. My two colleagues had families in New Jersey and Long Island, and they left after a couple of hours to try to make their way home.

There I was alone on the 13th floor of my building. My husband worked in New Jersey and was stuck there at his manager’s house. It took hours to hear from my brother. He was the fire warden for his floor. He stayed until all of his co-workers were out of the building. Working next to the trade center, he saw bodies dropping right in front of his windows. I finally managed to get word to him that he could take refuge in my apartment. A short time later he appeared at my door with one of his co-workers. I was relieved that he was OK.

The rest of the afternoon was an odd mix of phone calls and visits from people from various parts of my life. A friend who lived on the Upper West Side offered to take me in. My sister-in-law’s best friend from childhood was in NYC on business and showed up at my door. A friend-of-a-friend was trying to find a place to go. We were glued to the TV and watched each replay in horror.

The trains and subways finally reopened late that afternoon. I was committed to staying in my apartment so that I could be reunited with Brendan. My husband was more level-headed at this point and knew he couldn’t get to me. Trains and cars were going out of NYC, but none were permitted in. My husband, mother and brother thought it best that I take the Long Island Railroad with my brother and his friend to my parent’s house. Begrudgingly, I did. As the train made its way along the island, we saw a huge plume of smoke rising out of the city. My brother was my hero that day.

My dad picked me up at the station. I stayed with him and my mom for a few days until Brendan could finally come to get me. I was appreciative of the care they gave me. A night or two after the 11th, it poured rain. There was still hope of finding people then. My mom came into my room in the middle of the night and we cried for those stuck in the rubble and the rain. We prayed for forgiveness from our God for the horrible acts of humanity. My hometown of Rockville Centre lost 54 lives in the attack. Despite that, I didn’t personally know any of them.

My husband finally got to me a few days later. We were scheduled to travel to Boston that weekend to attend his niece’s birthday party. His brother’s best friend was on one of the flights that slammed into the trade center. As much as we tried to celebrate Caroline’s birthday, it was a somber event.

We returned to the city. My husband went back to working in New Jersey, but my office was closed for another week or so. Certain that more attacks were coming, I was terrified to be alone. Our apartment was along the route that ambulances would take when they found bodies in the rubble. Even though it seemed obvious to me that no one was making it out alive they would blare the siren as they traveled to NYU Hospital all day long. I was shaking all of the time and by 3PM each day I would call my husband and beg him to come home. Similarly, I would wake him in the middle of each night and beg to get out of the city as far as we could go.

A couple of weeks after the event, our office was preparing to reopen. We were invited to test the waters and return for an hour or two. Everyone was swapping stories of what happened to them on that day. Though they all lived, many fared worse than I. I kept quiet and I just didn’t want to rehash it.

I vowed never to take the subway again as I felt it was a prime target for the next attack. I walked four miles to work and four miles back each day. For the first month or so, ash would fall on me as I walked.

The filters in our building were changed frequently. One co-worker wore a mask. We stayed in that office for 6 more months and then moved uptown. A move that was scheduled well before 9/11, thank goodness. As a diversion, I poured myself into work. Finally, I realized that my work wasn’t making the world a better place. I was scared to think about the future, but my husband and I found hope and decided to start a family.

I gave birth to our first son in December of 2002. He was born with a birth defect that was treated, but I wondered right away if it was caused by the air I breathed. Another co-worker survived breast cancer. Another had complications with her pregnancy and then died from cancer. There are days that I want to crawl out of my skin as I worry about the toxins that are in my body.

I wanted to move out of NYC immediately after 9/11. I really thought more attacks would become everyday occurrences. I wanted to be with my family but felt there were not enough forms of egress from Long Island should a serious attack occur there. Moving to Boston where my in-laws lived seemed like a poor idea because they would be a target, too. So, my husband and I settled on the Hartford, Conn. area. I couldn’t imagine that terrorists would target Hartford and if they did, we could easily leave the area.

I have definitely healed in the twenty years since the tragedy. I no longer shake. I don’t shudder or run when I hear a plane any more. I don’t cry when I hear a siren. For the most part though, I still wear sensible shoes so I can run away from danger at a moment’s notice. I keep a pair of sneakers under my desk. I try to only go as high as the sixth floor in a tall building since that is the maximum height a human can jump from and live.

I no longer resent beautiful blue skies on Tuesdays. I’ve endured other challenges in my life but the events of 9/11 have impacted me forever. I wish I could conclude this story with a silver lining but there is none. I was a witness to an unspeakable tragedy. Of course, I wish that it never happened at all, but since it did, being there helped me to understand what others who were not present that day never can. Perhaps, having experienced this, I am more compassionate to those who live in war-torn areas and are victims of violence.

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