living with 9/11: a personal recollection of coping but never forgettingPosted: September 13, 2011
Joseph – 10 years ago we had to evacuate our office and walked home in all the silence that was still so loud. People all over. I remember hearing someone on the corner of my building saying over the phone names of some friends that were known to have died. You went to the store and bought some water, bread and canned food! We stayed the whole day in my apartment and did not know what to expect! I remember you slept on the sofa and we had no clue about anything. It will never be forgotten and my heart goes out today to all the people that died, their families and friends. Luv, Hulda.
ON BOARD PR 853, Philippines – Hulda Pjetursdottir, Halldor Thorteinsson, Greg Lentini, Ro Bhalla, Paul Ferrigno, Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson, Terrie Edwards-Aoki.
These were the people I was with in the Madison Avenue office of Kaupthing New York, Inc. in Midtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001 – a day which will forever remain seared in my memory.
It was the second day of my second week at the boutique investment bank – 2 months after finishing business school. I can’t remember how the day began so it must have been unremarkable. I would have taken a bus from Valley Cottage, New York to catch the 6:05 am Metro North Commuter train across the Hudson River in Tarrytown. I would have arrived at New York City’s Grand Central just before 7 am and I would have walked the 10 minutes to our office building and would have been at my desk at 7:05 am.
The first vivid memory I have of the day was checking e-mail on my computer. I was seated just in front of Hreidar. The regular morning conference call among investment banks was on speaker phone with Ro, Greg and Terrie as direct participants while the rest of us would casually listen in. The call was into its 16th minute when I thought I heard someone say there had been an explosion somewhere. 8:46:30 – that would have been American Airlines Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
I then remember all of us starting to watch what was happening on local TV – WNBC Channel 4, the New York affiliate of NBC. It took a while before news crews were able to get a shot of the smoke that was billowing out of the North Tower. I remember my first impression upon seeing the first shots on TV – it seems like a small fire. Indeed, the first reports were that of a small plane crashing into a building. It was a confusing time. There were calls from the folks at the North Tower into the TV station that were being aired live.
Somehow, even before United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, I remember thinking – this has to be deliberate. I don’t exactly know why I thought that or what led me to think that but I did.
Then I see this dark bird-looking “thing” on the right side of the TV screen and then – BOOM! Well, you didn’t really hear the BOOM but I see this massive explosion of yellow and gray. At that point, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a deliberate act of terrorism. In the seconds after that, you couldn’t quite comprehend what you were seeing. You know it’s not a movie. You feel what can only be described as shock and I’m sure I recoiled and shuddered at the sight of the explosion.
I remember calling Jo-Ann to say I was okay. Of course it was just past 6 am in Los Angeles where she was by this time. I had woken her from her sleep and had no clue of what I was talking about. The only thing I could say was turn on your TV. It was a good thing I called her then because soon after that phone lines became jammed and remained so throughout the rest of the day.
I returned to watching TV with the guys and were soon greeted with a shot of the Pentagon on fire. We couldn’t quite understand what we were seeing then as NBC’s Washington DC affiliate just cut into the World Trade Center footage without warning.
It was probably at that point that we were told to go home. Our building was being evacuated. No one really knew at that time what was going on and there was fear that other targets in Manhattan could be next.
By this time, however, there were already reports that Manhattan was being shut down and all public transport in or out of the city was suspended. Hulda told me I could stay at her place as long as it took.
I remember walking down the stairs, going up to Fifth Avenue to begin the 60-block walk to Hulda’s apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was when we were turning to go north on Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street that I first got a glimpse of the burning towers. At some point, I glanced back to see that only one tower was left. Further on, I glanced back and all I could see was the blue sky where the towers used to be. It was then that I realized what surreal meant – seeing, or in this case, not seeing something that was supposed to be there but no longer was. You could see but your mind could not comprehend.
We ate boiled hotdogs for lunch and dinner. Boiled hotdogs are apparently an Icelandic specialty as per Hulda. I cannot remember now what we did for most of the rest of the day. I remember Hulda being interviewed by national Icelandic radio. I remember having finally being able to reach my aunt whom I was staying with and telling her I was okay and that I was spending the night at Hulda’s place. I remember being anxious every time we would hear jet engines overhead – this time, however, these turned out to be jets of the US Air Force or the Air National Guard. I would have finally drifted off into sleep from exhaustion and probably still in a state of shock.
The following morning, I remember waking up early to try my luck at hopefully getting a train ride home. As I trudged the 60 blocks back to the Grand Central Station, I vividly remember seeing New York streets as empty as you’ll probably never see it again. The city that never sleeps apparently slept in or remained glued to their TVs. All I saw were some people walking their dogs (maybe a form of stress therapy) and the doormen of apartments.
I finally am able to get home and remain pretty much glued to the TV the rest of the day and night.
I return to work on Thursday, September 13 only to find the office locked. Hulda had apparently not been able to get through to my phone to say that work had been called off until Monday the following week as the markets were closed anyway. So I go home and continued to watch TV.
The sensory overload finally caught up to me and suffered a panic attack that night. 9-1-1 was called and there was some commotion outside the house when a police car, a fire truck and finally, an ambulance respond to the call. The ambulance brought me to Nyack Hospital where I was injected with Valium. And then, I feel – heaven. Yes – Valium (especially when injected directly into your bloodstream) has that effect on you. Eventually I am cleared to go home that same night.
I remember going to mass that Sunday and saw the largest ever gathered congregation in that church up to and since that Sunday – September 16, 2001.
The next several weeks were quite difficult. Despite the markets having opened, investment banking activity was practically non-existent.
I still couldn’t really sleep well and continued to feel very anxious. This led to a serious inability to sleep. I eventually decided to see Ground Zero myself hoping to exorcise my own demons.
When I get there, the barricades had still not been pushed out enough. You could still see the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. I said a silent prayer for those who had died and left.
The panic attacks have come and gone. The anxiety has come and gone. But I have not forgotten and probably never will.