9/11: Digging myself out of the debris

I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. At each anniversary that passes I write my story, and each year it changes a little. This year, I have been thinking about that moment when I accepted death.

I was at the corner of Liberty and Broadway when the first tower fell. I was too close to the building to be able to see what was happening. It sounded like a huge bomb, and it felt like a snowstorm of dirt. Everyone ran. But in just a few seconds, the world became dead silent and no one could see. I crawled over piles of people. My mouth was full of dust and I could barely breathe. I had no idea where I was or how to preserve myself. I thought I might be the only person alive. As breathing got more difficult, I settled into the idea of dying.

Time got very slow and I seem to have had an hour’s worth of thoughts in seconds. At first I worried that my family would be sad. But then I was disappointed. I would not see my brothers as adults. Would not know what I was like as a mom, or what it was like to grow old with my husband. My to-do list was overflowing with things I wanted to achieve, things I had been looking forward to. But the minute I thought I was going to die, that list didn’t matter. I was sad that I would not get to hang out and watch family life unfold.

It’s surprising because like almost all New Yorkers, I was not the hang out type. And in case it’s not clear from the obituaries and essays that have come from 9/11, the World Trade Center did not attract the slow-lane types.

Like many New Yorkers, I went to a World Trade Center recovery group. The groups were divided into the kind of trauma you experienced. People who watched the scene on TV were not in the same group as people whose spouse died. I was in a group with people who were there the ten minutes or so before the Tower fell. Some of the people in my group felt the impact of the plane while sitting at their desk. Some of the people ran from their building and were splattered by body parts from jumpers. All of us felt lucky to be alive.

All of us vowed to make life more meaningful after 9/11. Almost all of us changed jobs to do something that gave us more personal time. The few of us who could, had a baby.

Now I know that if I die tomorrow, what I’ll regret is not getting to watch my life unfold. So I have been changing my life, a little at a time, to give myself more time to watch life go by. I made a career change from Wall St.-based business development to home-based writer, I had two kids, and I encouraged my husband to reject jobs with long hours. We vowed to cut back our spending 70% to create a more simple life.

But cutting spending is not so easy, especially in New York City. It required making a lot of difficult choices. Finally we decided we could not reach our goals without moving. So this year, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I am making a new home in Madison.

Sure, I’m still competitive and ambitious when it comes to my career, but what 9/11 gave me the strength to make the scary decision to slow things down. Slowing down means missing opportunities, missing a chance to shine or a serendipitous meeting. It’s hard to simplify life because a complicated life is so stimulating. But nearly suffocating in the rubble showed me that what I want most is to be present: Consciously watching while my life unfolds.

Posted in Fulfillment, Knowing yourself, No image, Parenting, Productivity, World Trade Center
9 comments on “9/11: Digging myself out of the debris
  1. Jeremy says:

    Wow. Not sure what to say, really…just went back and read your past posts and they’re so intense and powerful.

    Also, I love your approach to creating a more meaningful life with your family — thanks for sharing your reflection and experiences.

  2. Penelope Trunk says:

    Thanks, Jeremy. Your blog has turned out to be a nice resource when it comes to creating that life.

  3. Benjamin Strong says:

    Penelope,

    As I prepare for a morning run up the Hudson, past the World Financial building, Winter Garden, and back to Battery Park I am reminded of the sacrifices made by both the dead AND survivors. I wasn't in New York on 9/11. Instead I was trying to rush here. I am a former firefighter who lost two close friends.

    On 9/11 I was working for the Federal government in Washington, DC. We saw the Pentagon get struck. We were told our building, along with the State Department, was targeted by a truck bomb. I worked in an emergency services unit of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (when it was still a good agency to work for) and stayed on the job for 36 straight hours.

    I was in New York a few days later and lived out of the Marriott Marquis for almost two months. They gave us rooms at a discount; it's the only way we could afford the rates! The one thing I remember clearly is the Olive Garden restaurant let us eat lunch and dinner for free. To this day, when I pass through Times Square, I stop in and ask for the manager. I tell the manager how thankful I am of their hospitality and generosity. I wouldn't recommend Olive Garden as a "top New York restaurant” to tourists, but if you are even in Times Square, stop by and just say "thanks”.

    I am going to stay away from the Trade Center site today. I will probably go to mass at the St. Seton Shrine instead.

    Like you, Penelope, I have moved on. I actually moved closer to New York to ensure my family was closer to their family. I have taken inventory and decided working long hours, breaking my neck for my job was less important than playing catch with my sons, going out to dinner with my wife, our spending an extra 20 minutes running along the Hudson instead of pounding out meaningless memos on this computer.

    Hug your family today. Look forward to another year of recovery. Be proud to be a survivor. But never forget those that died.

    I am sorry this sounds so melancholy. Keep up the good work with the blog. So many of us look forward to your advice, rants, and opinions each day.

    L’Chaim!

  4. T-Jones says:

    I sent an e-mail to Penelope about my experiences working as a security guard on 9/11/2001. It was probably one of only three such improbable surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Just having finished a 10 hour shift, I remember being awoken to conversation over the radio about WTC.

    Difficult in a lot of ways, especially for someone who at the time walked a nightly route towards, around, and through tall buildings, among them The John Hancock to a security assignment.

    9/11/01 was the second major event behind New Year’s Eve Millenium ( DEC 31 1999 ) I had the misfortune of working on and the days after.

    As I told Penelope, the nights after 9/11 were somewhat of a concern needless to say, but like any other person doing my type of job, I felt I had to put my personal feelings aside and do it no differently as before.

    – Tom
    Haverhill, Mass

  5. finance girl says:

    Hi Miss Penelope, I remember reading about your experience 5 years ago (via Bus2.0 still, I think?).

    I remember thinking, whoa (and then some).

    So glad you are here with us today. So glad to see all the growth and good things since then. Blessings to you and your family.

  6. Bill C. says:

    wow

    That’s pretty deep. I had considered the people that got killed and I considered the people (like myself) that live here and showed up on the scene later. I had never considered the people that FELT LIKE they were going to die….. but didn’t.

    I saw the people covered in “dust” on television. A friend of mine was in Brooklyn on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, and she described to me seeing all these people walking across the bridge covered in dust. I never thought about things from the inside of that group.

  7. patti says:

    Hello. I stumbled upon your site this morning as I was contemplating my wannabe writer’s life. Fate. Then, I came across this entry.

    I live in Texas, as does my family. My husband took an unexpected business trip to New Yorkthree days before 9-11, and on that horrible morning he called to tell me one of the buildings in the Trade Center had been hit. And from there the day unraveled.

    He had plans to fly home later that morning. He couldn’t get out for a week.

    When 9-11 rolls around every year, we all have our remeberances. I am gateful my husband came home. I know how close we came to losing a life that we had built and cherished, and I feel for those who did lose what they loved.

    I have been rooting around your site and nodding my head in agreement.

    Don’t know if you will see this comment, as it is an old post, but I wanted to pop in and say hello.

  8. Larry Brauner says:

    While my World Trade Center experience was far less dramatic and not at all life threatening, it nevertheless completely changed my life.

    I was in midtown when the towers fell. We watched from a TV in the office. Then we spent the rest of the day trying to get home.

    The World Trade terror and tragedy, as well as the ensuing anthrax scare, had a strong psychological effect on me which lingers today.

    I lost my job shortly thereafter partly because of anxiety about coming to work in Manhattan. And although I love New York, I no longer enjoy going into the city and don’t know if I’ll ever work there again.

  9. jim says:

    Thank God you survived. What an amazing story. I wonder if future generations will understand the impact of 9/11.

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