|WTC from Church St.|
I was seven months pregnant, and I mean REALLY pregnant. I stepped out of the driver's seat to stretch my back and legs as my tank was filling, and I saw the World Trade Center across the river. Heavy smoke billowed up from the top of the building.
Immediately, I turned on the local radio. Nothing. The normal morning radio shows were on, gossiping about celebrities, playing music, being silly. I tuned to the local news radio on the AM dial, still nothing. I remember breathing a sigh of relief and chuckling to myself, thinking "They must be filming a movie. Hollywood is getting sophisticated."
I got in my car and drove into the Lincoln Tunnel. In those days, I was able to drive through New York City in 30 minutes, from The Lincoln Tunnel to the Midtown Tunnel that would get me to Queens. It was my new daily commute. I did it just the day before in less than an hour - which is a golden commute for anyone driving to work around NYC.
I was stopped at a red light just a block from the Empire State Building when Howard Stern on KROCK started broadcasting the news about the fire at the top of the World Trade Center. "How did the fire start?" "The police don't know and aren't telling people much...something about a small plane accidentally crashing into the building." Robin Quivers said, "It looks like a movie."
Because... it had to be an accident, right? Why would anyone think otherwise?
That's when news started trickling in. A plane was highjacked. It was flown into the building on purpose.
Then, the second building was hit. The radio hosts, all looking out their windows from the Empire State Building, gasped. "We're being attacked!"
Chills. Nausea. By then I was rolling into the Midtown Tunnel with the rest of the morning traffic. The radio shows were broadcasting ABC/NBC and other news network shows over the air, stating that this was a coordinated terrorist attack.
Once I crossed the tunnel, I pulled over on the highway, as did dozens of other cars, and I looked towards lower Manhattan and saw both the towers were up on fire. I pulled out my cell phone. No calls went through. The networks were flooded.
You don't really know the value of cell phones until the commodity is taken away, during an emergency, when you're far from loved ones.
I had to get to my office building. I had to call my husband and my parents. They all knew I drove across NYC to go to work. Again, I was 7 months pregnant, so big that my belly touched the steering wheel.
I arrived at my office building in Kew Gardens, Queens, and I learned that my building was taken over by an FBI department for JFK Airport. They took the whole building, and all non-FBI offices were taken over for FBI usage. No non-FBI people were allowed in.
The few pay phones on the street had lines snaking down the block. I needed to get to a phone. I had to talk to my family.
Luckily, for me, one of my good friends still lived in Queens with her family. I drove to her parents' house, and they took me in immediately.
I called my home, because my husband's cell phone was unreachable, and left a message with contact info for him to call me. He too worked an hour from home in the other direction, deep into New Jersey. I called my parents, and my dad was relieved to know I was safe. After a few more phone calls, I sighed a small selfish sigh of relief of knowing everyone I loved is safe and far away from the catastrophes. I was naive to do so.
The first tower falls.
My friend's older sister, her kids, her parents and I all watch the news in horror. It couldn't be. We've all been to the World Trade Center, dozens of times, with visiting friends and family. It couldn't have fallen. It's impossible. It's a ROCK of a building.
The second tower falls. The rest of the morning goes by in a blur of news programs. No one could speak of anything. We were all stuck in a trance. Bridges and tunnels were closed to everyone, leaving thousands of people stuck in NYC. More planes were highjacked. Flights were grounded for the first time in history. The military was gearing up. President and Vice President were being relocated. The U.S. was under attack.
An hour or so later (my time is blurry at this point), my friend finally came home. She was in tears. James, a very close friend of ours, had told her the day before that he was working on a cool electrical project at the top of the World Trade Center.
We all started crying. We didn't know anything yet, but everyone started praying.
* * *
In the evening, we learned that James was on one of the top floors of the North Tower. When the first flight hit and the smoke reached his floor, he immediately called his sister who worked in the middle of the South Tower. Cell phones were still working at that point. His sister told him that her supervisors were telling everyone to stay calm and not to panic and to stay at their desks. James told her to leave the building as soon as she can - don't listen to anyone - just leave.
She didn't waste a single moment. She survived.
* * *
The next morning, I finally got home to Jersey. Only the George Washington Bridge was open to traffic. When I got to my parents' house, my mother was a mess. She worked in the Jersey City financial district, in a building right across the river with a gorgeous view of the World Trade Center. It's so close to downtown NYC that you wonder why you can't just walk right across the river and be in lower Manhattan for a quick lunch. It feels THAT close.
My mom and her co-workers had front row seats to everything. They smelled the smoke. They heard the explosions. They saw the jumpers. The felt the earth shake as the towers fell. Her and her co-workers, all life-long friends, embrace one another on the street. People were on their knees, crying, unable to peel their eyes from the chaos. It took her a long while to get home.
When I saw her that morning and told her about James, she lost it. Although we didn't know anything specific because survivors were arriving in hospitals unconscious and being found on the street, we knew. He was on one of the highest floors of the first building hit. We just knew.
The U.S. military was on high alert worldwide. My brother was doing a peace-keeping tour in Kosovo with the Army reserves at the time. The Army rep told my mom his platoon was being relocated. We couldn't communicate with him. His fate was undetermined, and we wouldn't know much more about him for a couple of weeks.
My poor mom.
James's poor mother.
* * *
For months, maybe years, you couldn't be in New York City without feeling a little uneasy. It took a long time before I stopped holding my breath whenever I would cross a bridge or tunnel to go to work. There were threats and closures all the time, and single-line car screenings by the NYPD. Whenever they would pull a truck over for inspection, I'd drive by a little faster. Men wearing camouflaged uniforms were stationed at all the river crossings - soldiers armed with heavy rifles. We never had that before.
I stopped listening to FM radio. 1010 wins, NPR and other news radio stations on the AM dial were like the reality TV of today - virtual crack - you just quit it. You needed to know the government's next steps, the military's next move, what terrorist organizations are staking a claim, other terrorists activities around the country. You needed to know the theories and the opinions. Everyone in our circle of friends became news junkies. We no longer watched TV. We watched CNN, FOX, MSNBC - back when they would broadcast actual news instead of the sensational shows they do today.
Slowly, life got back to normal. There was a ceremony for James shortly after 9/11, and several months later at their local church. A packed house. Bagpipes made everyone cry.
A photo of James sits on my refrigerator door, and two photos of our group trip to Jamaica sit in a frame. What do I remember about him?
James was a great storyteller. He had a wise man's patience, that perfect timing that would keep you listening and wanting more. He told stories about some of the women he dated, his motorcycle friends, and his job as an electrician's apprenticeship working on projects all around NYC.
He was a horrible driver, and I laugh at this because he did this on purpose. His logic was, "If my driving looks bad, then people around me will notice and drive more carefully, therefore causing fewer accidents." This still makes me chuckle.
And, he made you feel like family. He gave you that natural warm and fuzzy feeling that few people give, effortlessly and without agenda. My husband recalls this the very first time he met him. We all do.
And that's how we'll remember him.
* * *
|James Marcel Cartier|
1975 - 2001