First-hand account of 9/11


This piece was originally published by Time magazine the week of 9/11.

At the Wall St. train stop people were covered with papers. A plane crash. That’s what everyone said. Then a boom. Everyone ran. I ran to my office and called my brother in the Midwest.

I wanted to be closer. At the corner of Church and Broadway, I angled my way through a large, packed crowd to get the best view. We talked about people jumping. The police stood behind the yellow tape. Minutes later, there was a boom. I thought it was a bomb, so I crouched, but people ran, so I ran. I couldn’t see anything. I don’t know how far I ran. Couldn’t see where I was running. Didn’t know if I was in a street or next to a building. Didn’t know what street I was on. No one could talk because the dust filled our throats. After about ten steps I tripped over a pile of people and then people tripped on me.

I laid there. The only sound was the falling of dust and debris. No one moved under me. The weight of people on top of me got heavier. I couldn’t breathe. I knew we were all going to die in that pile. I pulled myself out of the pile. My slip-ons slipped off. I stood up and saw nothing. Not even an inch in front of me. I put my hands out and felt for something. I bumped into the brick side of a building. I bumped into milk crates. I stopped. I had no idea what to do, and I knew everyone around me was suffocating. I thought about my mom and dad, they would be so sad to hear that I died. I thought about my husband. Just married and I will not get to live my life with him. I thought about my brothers. They would cry. I told myself to just keep trying to find a way to air, but I didn’t believe I would live.

I bumped into something that I could feel the top of, so I lifted myself up. I worried I was going into the back of a dump truck, and I was scared I’d be trapped. I didn’t know if there was fire, or a bomb. I didn’t know how to protect myself “? find air. Go up? “? so I didn’t know for sure that a dump truck would be bad. I think it was scaffolding. I think I jumped over piles of bodies by climbing scaffolding.

I pulled myself into a building. What building? I don’t know. And I took a breath. I took two breaths. I was sure the building would be bombed. I looked for stairs. I kept thinking I needed clean air. I found a bathroom. I didn’t realize I wanted water until it was there. Four men inside. Two fighting over the faucet. I shared the toilet with another man. We drank almost the whole bowl.

Once the four of us were calmed by water and air, we ventured outside the bathroom. We walked up stairs. Slowly. We checked doors behind us, left them all open. We got up only one floor. We waited. I cried. They shared one can of apple juice.

The intercom in the building announced stay where you are. I was so relieved to know people knew we were there. The intercom announced again and I thought another bomb would go off and I’d die. I cried. The guy with the apple juice put his arm around me. I wondered why no one else cried. The intercom announced to go down the stairs. I picked up a wastebasket: I planned to fill it with water. Planned to use it to shelter myself from the next bomb. (I still had no idea the building collapsed.)

In the lobby of the building someone gave me a Nantucket Nectar and told me to vomit. I walked outside the building with the drink in my wastebasket. There was no one around. White everywhere. The four of us had nowhere to go. I couldn’t remember where I was. I walked toward the water. Police directed everyone north. I asked a woman next to me, “Where are we going?” She said, “I don’t know.” She had no dust. She looked so steady. I followed her. This was the beginning of her long protection.

She said, “You can walk home with me. You need a shower.” I coughed. She asked why I was carrying a wastebasket. I said, “In case there’s another bomb.” She held onto my arm as we made our way next to the river. In Chinatown, she bought me shoes. At the Bowery we finally found a payphone that didn’t have a line of people. So she called her husband and I sat down next to my wastebasket. It was the first time I sat down, and I started crying.

We resumed walking. Sometimes we ran. I made sure to keep up and I didn’t tell Teresa that I was worried that I would faint. I drank Nantucket Nectar every time I got dizzy.

At 59th St. a plane went overhead and I screamed. In front of Bloomingdales. There was no one there from Wall St. I knew I looked crazy. I screamed anyway. I reminded everyone there were no planes allowed to fly. Someone said, “It’s the army.” I came out from under my wastebasket and kept walking. Theresa’s apartment was 71st on the Upper West Side. Where everyone looked fine.

In the shower, dripping debris down my body, I remembered one more moment under the rubble. When I couldn’t breathe. When I couldn’t see. In the middle of the dead quiet was a voice. He said, “Is there anyone here? Can someone hold my hand?” I reached out to the voice, and held his hand. It was shaking and the skin was old. I squeezed and then I let go.

41 replies
    • Kim Cardinal
      Kim Cardinal says:

      I just found your 9/11 post after all these years. I cried throughout…just so human. The old hand that asked to be held. I was ruined when I read that. I hope someone was able to help that man. Then there was the woman who led you to her apartment…I really have nothing else to say, except I have experienced your life through that post and this has changed my life.

  1. Janet Meiners
    Janet Meiners says:

    You are so inspiring. You write from an honesty and realness that always amazes me. Really, I love your blog. Your blog has impacted my life. After this crazy year in my career I stopped being so afraid. I read about your values and what security means. I start to breathe again and some of the debris comes off. I find what I need to keep going. Something you capture so beautifully in this telling.
    You are making a difference and I’m really glad I can witness it. Sometimes my friend Jason says people attack you or your ideas. I can’t even get that. All I see is a very courageous woman with the guts to share what she’s made of with the world.

  2. Greg
    Greg says:

    This is a good post. It seems real…honest and emotional. Do you still think about that day?

  3. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    I’m reading this post, seven years later, and I can hardly believe only six people before me have commented on this.

    I live in Little Rock, Arkansas, far removed from the rubble. I was in college when this happened, and I still remember what I was doing when my friend burst into my dorm room and said, “We’re under attack.” This is the first time I’ve read a first-hand account, and I’m not entirely sure why. That day, and in the days that followed, only the fear of it all felt real. My friends and I went camping to get away from the TVs and the news that weekend, and I decided to become a vegetarian–as though that was the one thing I could do to make my mark.

    I am now pregnant with my first baby, and when I read about you thinking about how sad your parents would be, it made a pain in my heart that I’ve never experienced. I’ve been reading your blog for nearly a year now, and I’m glad you lived.

    • New Yorker
      New Yorker says:

      Brooke, you didn’t live through what Penelope did. You have no right to make that kind of judgement. I was horrified by your audacity. Do you know there were probably a million thoughts and emotions running through her head after that experience. I can imagine she sat down on her computer and wrote down whatever came out. I can imagine that it was helpful to her in some way as a release after her horrific ordeal. She’s a writer. I’m disgusted by you! I guess when your go through a life threatening event you should consult Brooke to find out how you should act and think. And of course get any blog post you consider writing pre-approved by her, too. Unbelievable.

      Penelope, thanks for sharing your story

      • Jim
        Jim says:

        “I’m disgusted by you” ???

        What? I think you need to re-read that comment. I don’t see anything judgemental at all. I think you are seeing prejudices where there are none…..

        • New Yorker
          New Yorker says:

          Jim you’re right! I wrote that comment using my iPhone. Only after I posted it did I realized I had replied under the wrong comment. It was supposed to be in response to a comment further down which lambasted Penelope for writing about her experience the day after (see Mary Calire). There was no option to delete my comment!!

  4. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Penelope, this was wonderful. My breath caught with the last line. The day and the people deserve to be remembered. I’m glad you wrote this.

  5. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I almost couldnt breath myself, its as if I was in all that dust and debris with you. Keep writing, I’ll be reading.

  6. Kat
    Kat says:

    Sitting here at my desk in corporate America, trying not to let the tears spill down my face after reading this. I was there, I was at the Wall Street stop, and the corner of Church and Broadway; we were probably walking near each other that morning, I was so lucky that someone made me go into a building right before the first tower fell. Otherwise I’d have been choking on and covered in debris as well.

    So glad you made it. Just found your blog. I’ve written a couple of times about 9/11 on my blog as well.

  7. L LoPresti
    L LoPresti says:

    Jesus. I came on here looking for relationship advice or something I think I don’t already know about men and women. I don’t know what to say-I choked up reading this. Seems like so long ago. I hope your okay now. Thanks for your heart P. My God what an ordeal.

  8. Mary Calire
    Mary Calire says:

    I write this 8 years after that horrendous day.

    I lost a very dear friend in the crash at the Pentagon. I am still tormented by thoughts of her last moments of utter terror with no escape from the engulfing flames. Undoubtedly her last thoughts were of her husband and children whom she would never see again. Of course, she was not alone. Thousands of people DIED that day. As you noted, some even took their own lives rather than suffer a more horrific death. Rescue workers died in selfless efforts to save others. And among the survivors were hundreds of men and women with serious physical and emotional injuries. The ripple effects are innumerable. Thousands lost parents, spouses, sons, daughters, siblings, and friends.

    Yet, you were sitting in front of a computer within 24-hours of this epic nightmare POSTING TO YOUR BLOG about how you climbed over bodies to save yourself from suffocation. Survival instincts. Understood. But this account reads as almost self-congratulatory, as if your tenacity was superior to those who were simply unlucky enough to have landed at the bottom of the pile. Several times you describe crying, screaming and needing comfort. Again, who wouldn’t? It must have felt like hell on earth. But then you went on to cheapen the one moment of human connection in your story — taking a dying man’s hand — by using it as a maudlin tag line.

    I am genuinely happy for you that you survived. No one should have died that day. I just find it astonishing that nowhere in this account is any expression of gratitude for the gift of your life nor reflection on what September 11th wrought for so many less fortunate souls.

    • chris
      chris says:

      Give her a break. She wrote this the day AFTER 911…not yesterday. I’m sure what she was basically feeling at the time was shock…still wondering if, in fact, she had actually made it out alive.

    • Scott
      Scott says:

      I’m so glad you wrote this, Penelope. Beautiful, touching. Thank you so much.

      The response by Mary Calire is utterly callous. She completely missed the mark.

    • Rebecca
      Rebecca says:

      You judge and condemn Penelope for writing about her experience immediately following 9/11, a day that is seared into the memory of us all, and a day that, for Penelope, and many other survivors, was a nightmare of epic proportions, unimaginable to those of us who weren’t similarly trapped, or almost killed. And yet, in the first few sentences of your comment, your priority is to tell us how aggrieved YOU are, and how YOU are haunted by the thought of your friends’ death. Your focus is, in spite of your comments to Penelope, on YOU. So, save the judgement, please. We are all driven forward, many times in unthinkable situations, by our quest for life, for self-preservation. Our basic human instinct and will is to live. How dare you, who did not personsally lie beneath that rubble, or wander through it, thinking you would never get out, judge a person who, like your friend, was there? I think your anger and judgement is misplaced. You need to seek therapy to help overcome your feelings of anger towards survivors who do not express your idea of appreciation or gratitude, or whatever it is you find so aggreigous in this post. You have no right to tell Penelope, 24 hours after surviving 9/11, how she should feel, react or write. You are sad.

  9. Silvana Vivas
    Silvana Vivas says:

    I have read and watched many, many 9/11 accounts since the tragedy happened, and it’s pretty safe to say I’ve become numb to them. Reading them has no effect on me. Your account just moved me so much. I finished reading, and sat there, thinking, and my eyes welled up with tears. There was no trite crap about patriotism, no talking about heroism, just raw in-the-moment emotion. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  10. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Incredible post. The story of 9/11 is something I don’t read often. I was a junior in high school, living in Iowa, when it happened. I lived in New York for two years after college on the corner of Rector and Washington. I lived just blocks from the WTC. I’m sure that your experience and my experience of the same six blocks are entirely different. My uncle, who works at the Bank of New York, can’t believe I love the FiDi. I think it means something entirely different to him than it means to me.

    The area is growing. It is young and hopeful. It is like these two things are completely separate in my mind. But to hear you speak of Broadway and Church on that day reminds me that this tragic event happened at the same place where remarkable things (love, first jobs, new friendships) happened in my life.

  11. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    Your website is kind of like Wikipedia — I start reading one post and then end up 15 posts and 3 hours later wondering what just happened.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. You have experienced SO MUCH that it’s hard to comprehend just as an outsider. I’m not sure how you do it.

  12. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    Any chance what you heard was actually bombs? I have heard a lot of eye witnesses say they were convinced that explosives were detonated at the towers. No need to answer me here, it would be awesome to hear your opinion through email though.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      Nathan – going on “eyewitness accounts” to label something a bomb as opposed to just an explosion (you know – from all of the fires) is crazy. Most people wouldn’t know the difference anyway and on a day like that their senses and abilities to recall are virtually worthless.

  13. Erica
    Erica says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. I feel so much better because I too thought it was”war.” When the first tower went down our building shook and the lights went out and I ran under my desk like they taught us in the third grade (I’m a post WW2/Korean War kid); but I felt so foolish because I am probably older than many of the people in my office were and they don’t know about “war” drills–called when I was a kid “shelter” drills.  I kept waiting for the bombs to fall on 9/11.  On this anniversary of 9/11, 2011–God Bless. Erica

  14. jordan 4 white cement
    jordan 4 white cement says:

    You can definitely see your skills within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

  15. Monae Myers
    Monae Myers says:

    In the first account you have a father speak about his daughter calling telling him a plane crashed into the world trade center, he’s experiencing a shocking moment. In the second account is the actual daughter speaking about her terror and confusion of what is happening to her.

  16. Sammie
    Sammie says:

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation however I find
    this matter to be really something that I feel I would by
    no means understand. It seems too complicated and very wide for me.
    I am taking a look forward in your subsequent post, I will try to get the cling
    of it!

  17. michelle lopez
    michelle lopez says:

    Thank you for sharing. Don’t even recall how I ended up on your site reading this post. First time on your site. Wasn’t the plan . . .my husband was a first responder (NYPD) on 9/11, I worked in the city in Times Square then in my former career as employment lawyer/career counselor/advisor, originally from Madison, Wisconsin . . . so many similarities. This post brought back a lot of memories most importantly it made me remember why I decided to embark on a path different from the one I was traveling on. Been stuck lately, doubting, questioning myself, my thinking . . . needed to read this post to remember. Thank you

  18. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    I had not read this before today. I was in NYC the day and week before with all the women in my family celebrating our mother’s 70th birthday. Even though we had all been to the city many times before, we were tourists in every sense of the word. The photos of that trip are bitter sweet. It was such a normal day that day, and we considered staying another day. Instead we boarded planes and scattered throughout the country. The events of that day impacted me to my very core. Your ability to share your experience is remarkable. Keep sharing – keep connecting. We all need it.

  19. Zoe Potter
    Zoe Potter says:

    Dear Penelope,
    I was just a three week old baby when 9/11 happened. I get my information from stories news reports and eywitnesses like this one but I know it was hard for everyone having their innocence shattered and their freedom taken from them. When I was in class on 9/11/11 ten years after it was a cloudless day and it seemed normal but then I looked up and thought ‘No this isn’t a normal day.’ Some people blame the origional president for the attacks but he wasn’t responsible. the People who ran into the flames never came out, the people that went to Afghanistan never came home.

    Thanks for your time,
    Zoe Potter.
    P.S. God Bless America.

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