I witnessed 9/11 in New York at age twenty. A decade later, the experience feels remote. I’m now living in a different city, married to someone I didn’t know then, taking care of a daughter whom I certainly couldn’t have envisioned, and pursuing a career I hadn’t at that time considered. My account below reflects the surreal, shocked numbness that permeates my dusty memories.
In September 2001 I was giddy to start my junior year as a film major at NYU. I’d spent an idyllic summer in Vermont as a counselor at Keewaydin Camp, an experience packed with rites of passage in my twenty-year-old brain. My college roommates Neal and Matt were also counselors in adjacent tents; we worked with “Wiantinaug” 13-year-old campers. My girlfriend of almost a year Lindsey was at the sister camp across the lake.
Back in New York, I was convinced I was ready to write the next great American coming-of-age screenplay. All the pieces were in place. Matt, Neal, Bobby, and I finally scored a quad apartment in Third North, a massive dorm consuming Third Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. Our friends, twins Giancarlo and Vincenzo were down the hall, and the six of us met up daily for profound pop culture analysis, Twin Peaks episodes, anda forty or two. My transcendental epiphanies in Vermont had me filling notebooks with scenarios and fragments of dialogue. And we had Finnerty’s, our loud local bar that aggressively refused to card us.
Lindsey broke up with me in the Third North courtyard our first weekend back in New York. I started waking up at 4 a.m. and scribbling the lyrics to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.” Whenever I saw Lindsey, I ducked out of the room to throw up. When my stomach settled, I switched back into self-centered artist mode, determined to channel my ennui into Truffaut-level greatness.
The larger world felt hazy and far away. George W. Bush somehow became president. Over the summer Timothy McVeigh was executed. Jason Kidd got traded to the Nets.
September 11 was the first Tuesday of the new semester and the first day of my Advanced Production Sound class with my mentor, Chat Gunter. The class was on the 9th floor of 721 Broadway, the hub of Tisch. I arrived a few minutes before the scheduled 9 a.m. start time but found nobody there except a hastily written note: CLASS CANCELLED.
I took the elevator back to the ground floor and walked outside. The weather was clear and gorgeous and with suddenly two free hours ahead of me, I sat on one of the benches just by the building’s entry and pulled out my Discman for another rotation of The Bends.
Matt Gubler, a classmate, walked over. “D.B.! You see what’s going on?” I said I didn’t. “There’s a fireball in the middle of the World Trade Center. Nobody knows what to do about it.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Gubler had a reputation for practical jokes.
Together we turned the corner from Broadway to Washington Place, between West 4th and Waverly. We walked the half block to Mercer Street which offered a direct line of sight downtown. The burning towers, about a mile and a half away, rose epically higher than anything else in sight. Maybe a hundred other pedestrians stood in the same area, staring at the buildings. At some point Gubler left. More people came to watch.
I didn’t have a cell phone. Most of my friends were getting them but I was a holdout, unattracted to the idea of being constantly reachable and accountable. I walked a half-block to a payphone outside Pizza Mercato on Waverly Place and called home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. My dad picked up and told me what he was seeing about the airliners. He didn’t know how they were going to fix it. I guessed at some kind of operation involving helicopters with firehoses. Extreme fear belied each of our voices. We hung up and I re-entered the gathering mass of helpless pedestrians.
Thick smoke completely blotted out the vast blue downtown sky. Then a massive silent rupture overwhelmed one building. The smoke thickened and somehow appeared to seize and buckle. At least one woman on the street released a guttural scream that belonged in movies. Then the blackness drifted apart, revealing only blue where a World Trade Center tower had stood.
I froze. At thirty blocks away, we didn’t need to make a run for it, but we were close enough to realize that we had just seen people falling out of the sky. Thousands of lives ended.
The other tower continued to burn and I peeled away from the stunned crowd. I walked slowly, aimlessly toward West Fourth Street. Who did this? Where should everyone go? I thought of my roommates who were probably still asleep. They needed to know— but what could they do about it? They needed to know… I made a U-turn, walking in a haze back toward the Pizza Mercato payphone but the line now was eight deep.
Then I was in Washington Square Park, watching the second tower. There was nothing to do but watch. The possibility that a tower could fall had not registered until it happened. Now the nightmarish realization that the second tower would collapse as well seemed to pervade the silent mass in the park. I don’t remember shouts when it fell. Everyone walked in separate directions. There was nothing left to look at.
I moved toward my dorm. When I hit Astor Plaza, I saw the enormity of the evacuation of downtown Manhattan. No cars could drive on Lafayette. Instead the entire avenue was packed shoulder to shoulder with New Yorkers walking briskly uptown. No running or shrieking. The mood was solemn and businesslike. I joined the sea.
A radio in a police cruiser parked on the sidewalk, all windows down, blared 1010 WINS. I clamored with others to listen for news. There were other hijacked planes. They said “Islamic terrorists.” I moved on.
When I got to my dorm, I wasn’t allowed up to my room. All students were led into the dining hall where we all watched Aaron Brown on CNN. I didn’t see my friends. Brown was interviewing Tom Clancy in studio. The climax of Executive Orders, one of Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, had featured terrorists flying a plane into the Capitol. The crawl at the bottom of the screen kept announcing that anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people pass through the World Trade Center daily. Someone near me murmured that Whitney Houston was dead, in an incident unrelated to the attacks. An NYU staffer announced that blood was desperately needed and that anyone who could donate should go to St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village.
The line at St. Vincent’s wrapped around the block. A guy offered me half of his sandwich, saying we all needed to have something in our stomach if we were going to give blood. A hospital official came out and screamed that there was a priority for O positive— universal blood donors. I stepped forward and was rushed to the front of the line. I stood anxiously with about fifty other O positives, but few of us were taken inside.
After an hour the hospital ran out of supplies to accept blood donations and an employee entreated anyone who could do it to walk to Martin Luther King, Jr. High School near Lincoln Center—about 50 blocks uptown— where they could accommodate us. We all left at once.
The frantically erected Red Cross operation at the high school also had nothing left to receive blood donations, but did offer paperwork where you could sign up to get called later for volunteer work. I was never called, but about three years later the Red Cross sent me an elaborate thank you package for my service.
It was now mid-afternoon and I still didn’t really know what was going on. I headed home to find my roommates and make calls. Like everyone else, I spent the night in front of news coverage, convincing myself that President Bush was the right man for this job.
All day I had walked the scarred city alone, yet most of my memories of 9/11 are in first-person-plural. “We” New Yorkers, strangers on any other day, had wordlessly bonded to one another in shared terror and witness-bearing. In the following weeks, as “United We Stand” signs and American flags became ubiquitous, the true, palpable sense of unity we’d briefly glimpsed would fray and evaporate.
Wednesday, September 12, 2001 was eerie. The giant United Artists movie theater at 13th and Broadway opened its doors all day long. Free movies, popcorn, and soda. In a stupor, I watched Jeepers Creepers. I decidedly avoided Requiem for a Dream and Apocalypse Now Redux.
The authorities put up a blockade across 14th Street so no cars could drive in Manhattan below that line. If you needed to walk below 14th Street, you were supposed to show ID. I felt some strange credibility since the sticker on my NYU Card announced my residence at Third North, below the line, but no cops ever actually asked to see it.
By Friday, NYU classes still hadn’t resumed. NYU’s Water Street dorm, where I’d lived the previous year, was so close to Ground Zero that the 1,200 student residents weren’t able to return to the building for weeks. The university’s fitness center became an ad hoc shelter.
New York City was absorbing the magnitude of a sadness that would linger for years. Patchwork memorials appeared on streetlight poles, subway platforms, and walls of buildings. The main corridors of the Union Square station were overtaken completely with missing person photos, signs, and dedications. Police and fire stations were wrenching to look at. Flowers on sidewalks. The city was a graveyard.
Neal invited me to join him and Lindsey in their departure from the city. We’d be going to his hometown Tenafly across the George Washington Bridge. I accepted. The next day my dad drove up from Cherry Hill and picked me up. Around exit 14 of the Jersey Turnpike, Ground Zero came into view. In the towers’ absence, the still smoking craters offered a sickening substitute.
Dan Brown lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and their beautiful little girl. He teaches High School English, and in addition to writing as a HuffPo Contributor, you can buy his acclaimed memoir The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle wherever books are sold. He did not write the Da Vinci Code, and he’s okay with that.