9/11: 20 Years Later, I remember this day as a child in New York City

September 11, 2001

20 years ago, on this day I left my house, took a bus and went to my school in Queens, New York. Yes, I along with my family was living in New York at that time. My mother, a homemaker, stayed home while my father and my sister left the house to take the metro for their workplace and college respectively in the borough of Manhattan, NY.

The commute from my house to the school was about 20 minutes by bus. Probably a 5 minute walk from home to bus stop and then bus stop to school. When the day started, I had my usual concerns for the day. I was a teenager living in New York, who moved from India two years ago. I was at the peak of my teenage and self-doubt. I had an accent, was not at all good-looking and had given up on fitting in. I felt all the other girls in my class looked better than me, they did not have an accent which made them stand out.  Studies wise, mine was a school well known for Humanities. I did well in all subjects. But I was struggling with Chemistry.

This is how we feel about our life and ourselves. We focus on our petty concerns because we have no idea that something so devastating could happen next.

I thought the worst that could happen that day was a lesson in Chemistry I did not understand, or  a look at the popular girls in class and wishing in my heart that I was them.

Our first class was going on when the history teacher announced that a plane had hit one of the Towers of World Trade Center. It was a bizarre news for a bunch of sleepy students on a bright, clear day. It was difficult to make sense of it.

“What do you mean, a plane hit the towers?” A girl asked.

These are words you never think you would utter in your life. The teacher went on to say it was presumably a terrorist attack.

“It is sickening to think that this happened to innocent people, all they did was get up in the morning to go to work.”

There was some silence.

“Did anyone die?” A boy asked.

The class was pin-drop silent. The teacher took a moment to respond.

“Thousands of people work in that building. We don’t know yet.”

The silent room suddenly became very noisy. Everybody started talking to the person around them.  The teacher was the kind who loved to talk. It was an interactive session. The kids spoke their mind, their theories, their fears. He listened. He responded.

The next class I remember that day was Biology. By that time the second plane had hit. Both towers had collapsed.

The biology teacher simply announced, “I am sorry. I will not be able to teach today.”

She had tears in her eyes but she was composed. She stayed in the class while the students spoke to each other. She stared at everyone, expressionless. I do remember a couple of kids tried to speak to her. But she did not talk much.

Everybody responds to trauma differently. While the History teachers was all about talking and sharing, the biology teacher was completely silent. She was just not in the state to talk.

There was a huge window in the classroom. All we could see was a lot of smoke from far away. It seemed like the whole city was burning. I started feeling anxious. What was happening there? What happens when two enormous buildings fall? What was the extent of the damage? How many people were affected? I know my father’s office and my sister’s college was not too close to the World Trade Centre. But the extent of the damage was not known. What if they had a meeting there? What if they were walking there for some fateful reason?

The Pentagon hit happened. How much more? How would the day end? It was announced on the PA system that we would not be allowed to go home and will be made to wait in school until it was ascertained that it was safe to leave. Television screens in the cafeteria were playing the same terrifying visuals again and again.

I had read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had heard that terrorist attacks happen.  But they happened in history! They happened to other people! They happened in another part of the world! This was New York. It was a superpower. How could this happen? How could all this be real? Will I be able to go home today? Will I make it? 

It was a time when only rich people had cell-phones. I certainly did not.  Phone connections were jammed that time. Nobody was able to call anyone. I was desperate to speak to my family. The bargaining had started.

Just let them be okay. It’s okay if I am not able to speak to them. They should just be okay. Its okay if I have to stay in school all night. Its okay if my sister and father have to stay wherever they are tonight. Just let them be okay. Mom was home in Queens. But what if more attacks were planned? What if she was not safe either?

There was a huge queue at the pay-phones. Distraught students were talking to their family members. I waited for my turn. I called my mother on the home landline. She told me my sister had reached my father’s office and they were both okay. They will return home together. I told my mother I will be stuck in school until they allow us to leave. My mother told me she already knew that because other moms had told her that their kids said the same thing.

I don’t remember the exact time we were allowed to leave from school. But it was not too late. I remember it was still day, maybe 4 – 5 pm. In the bus I heard names of a “terrorist organization” taking responsibility. My knowledge of terrorist organizations up to that day was close to zero. A girl from my school told me her mother works in the World Trade Centre. I looked at her, horrified. I asked her if she got a chance to speak to her mom. “No, but I think she should be okay. She was on the lower floor. So must have got out.” The girl said quite matter-of-factly. I was surprised that she did sound more concerned. Was she is shock? Was she in denial? Was she just a positive person?  One guy on the bus said that another attack had happened in the city. Someone said it was just a rumour. It was all very strange , unreal and chaotic. It was as if we were in a Zombie movie.

As I got off the bus, I was scared to walk to my building. What If the building was gone like the World Trade Towers? What if I see smoke instead of my building?

I reached home. My mother gave me my meal.   After few hours my father and sister also reached home. My family was safe.

But there were so many that were not.

The next day was declared a holiday. The streets were empty. Quiet. Morbid. It smelled of smoke. It smelled of death. It smelled of devastation. I was 13. It had a terrible impact on me. Over the next days, we heard stories. Horror stories. I heard that a woman was driving near the Towers when a human head fell on her car windshield. I heard a man saw someone jump to his death. I heard that some 200 firefighters went inside and did not come back alive. I heard that people in the buildings were told to stay where they were, some tried to go down the elevator but were told to go back up and the one button they chose to press in the elevator determined their life and death. Some children lost both their parents. One day my sister came back home crying because she heard about a woman whose husband was missing but the woman was so sure he would come back, it was just sad.  I heard that there were some school kids in one of the plane. They were travelling for some competition, they were winners. They must have been so happy that they won and were representing their school in a big city like New York City. Such a proud moment.  The kids who lost the competition would have wished they won. To think that those children died in such a horrible way… There was a term my late grandmother used that still gave me goosebumps.

Kaal bula raha tha

She said this for everyone who died because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. People who walk right into their death.

For many days after that day, I felt that there was smoke around. Maybe there was. Maybe there wasn’t. I don’t know. I felt scared walking from the bus stop to my home building. I was scared any plane could hit any building, any time.

Anything could happen!

There were stories of kindness, bravery and courage also but the magnitude of the catastrophe was so much that it was hard to focus on a handful of positive stories.

I recently watched the movie, ‘World Trade Center’, probably few weeks ago on Netflix.   I never had the courage to watch any movie on this terrible event. It took me 20 years to be able to watch something of that day.I have been a writer for over seven years now. I could not write about this before. I have thought of many times. But I just could not. It was too much.

And I am the lucky one who it did not impact! What must be the state of those who lost their everything that day?

 I read today about a girl who received different body parts of her father over the years, and had to bury him again and again. I could not read the full story.  There are such tragic stories that one finds it hard to believe that something so bad could happen. I appreciate the U.S. media which was very sensitive. There were no gory pictures taken. They respected the privacy of people who had died, those who were injured and their families.

There is no positive way of ending this article. But all I can say is that life is fragile. With every bizarre thing that could happen to us, it is a miracle that we are alive. A miracle that deserves some gratitude. As we sit in our homes, with our loves ones complaining about a number of immaterial things, something to remember is probably that no matter how bad things are, there is something to be grateful for.  Be grateful for you home, be grateful for those you love.  Be grateful you are alive. That is enough for now.

We are meant to live, but we are also meant to survive.

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