Ellen B. Manigault
In August 2001, I began working as a temporary employee in the Law Department of the Port Authority of NY/NJ in the North Tower on the 66th floor. It was supposed to be an indefinite assignment. I had been there for over a month when on Monday, September 10 at 6 p.m. as I was ready to leave the office, something kept telling me to take everything with me. The feeling became even stronger and more intense. At first, I thought it was because as a temp, my assignment could end at a moment's notice. I would not be able to come back the next day to retrieve my personal items. As it turns out, it was because I was not going to make it upstairs the next day.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, it was a bright and sunny day. I was trying to get to work an hour to half an hour early (8-8:30 a.m.) as I normally did. I decided to go a different route to work that morning. I was trying to catch the train when a woman stepped in front of me causing me to miss the train. When I arrived at the last stop of the E train (World Trade Center), I proceeded to head to the first set of elevators that I would normally take to get to my desk on the 66th floor. Once I got to the elevators, I heard a few people (including WTC workers) say that the elevators were not working. Not knowing what to do, I decided to go outside to call my office to see why the elevators were not working. Things seemed calm as I passed through the stores in the basement, but as I got closer to the escalator located near the Borders bookstore, I saw people running up and outside the building.
When I came outside of the North Tower, I saw people watching the building intently. I didn't know why until I looked up and saw fire. I wondered what caused it. I watched in horror as people were jumping out of different windows looking like rag dolls as they waivered down into the pavement or nearby buildings. Next, I saw a plane (United Airlines Flight 175) strike the South Tower. I just could not believe what my eyes were witnessing. It was like having a nightmare and needing to wake up.
I saw even more people jumping out of windows in the South Tower. Then came an explosion from the North Tower which sent me and many other people running far away from both buildings. Glass and debris fell from the explosion. As I was running toward Fulton Street, I noticed body parts along the way (horrifying as you can imagine). A woman running next to me was struck by a piece of glass that fell from the explosion. She was bleeding but it wasn't bad compared to the body parts I had seen during the run.
I made it to Broadway and Fulton Street right in front of the Chase bank. I realized that my cell phone wasn't working and decided to use a pay phone. Apparently, everyone had the same problem and there were long lines at the pay phones I had seen nearby. As I waited on line, I decided to turn on 1010 WINS to find out what was going on. I heard the words "possible terrorist attack" as I waited. After about 15-20 minutes it was finally my turn. I called my father as he was asleep to let him know that I was okay. I told him to turn on the television to see what was happening where I was down in Lower Manhattan. I later learned that it was a good thing I had called my father because the phone kept ringing nonstop all day long from friends and family wondering if I was alright. I also called my agency to let them know that I was okay.
After I made my phone calls, I learned that all trains and buses in the area were shut down. At this point, I was standing in front of the J&R computer store, as many others were, and I watched both towers burning in horror. All sorts of things were running through my mind. I kept thinking about all the people who were still in the buildings and that I could have been among them if it wasn't for the lady that stepped in front of me when I was trying to catch the train that I had missed. Since there were no trains and buses running, I thought how am I going to get home now? I felt that if the buildings were to fall forward, sideways, or backwards, none of us in the area would survive. I continued listening to 1010 WINS and learned that the Pentagon was also struck. I then realized this truly was a terrorist attack; three planes that struck three different buildings. I felt horrible about all the innocent people aboard those planes and at the Pentagon. My mother had taken a flight that morning to Bermuda, but something inside told me that she was okay; it wasn't her plane.
I felt like there was no place to go but to stand and watch this horrible sight. Then finally the South Tower collapsed, which sent everyone running. I was about to run when a man grabbed me and said, "Don't run yet. You'll get trampled over." The man and I stood and watched people run as a huge black cloud slowly approached our direction. As it got even closer, the man turned to me and said, "Now would be the time to start running." I started to run but the huge black cloud overcame me. Once I was caught in it, time stood still. I could not see nor hear anything. It was pitch black and there was dead silence. I started to use my arms and hands to feel my way in front and at my sides. After a few seconds of darkness and silence, I heard two women talking ahead of me as if nothing had happened. I also started to hear cars pass by when I realized I was on the Brooklyn Bridge. One truck stopped and the driver told me to get in so he could take me to safety in downtown Brooklyn. He picked up a few more people along the way. While riding in the truck I was nervous that the bridge would be the next target. I was also constantly coughing. The driver handed me a rag to use to clean myself.
I didn't know what I looked like when I arrived in downtown Brooklyn. Several people stopped to stare, ask me questions and/or give me hugs. I was shown how I looked in the mirror and I finally understood why. I was completely covered from head to toe with the debris from the South Tower collapse. I stopped by a construction site where workers turned on a hydrant for me to rinse the rag and clean myself. They also gave me iced tea to clear my throat.
Now began the journey of finding my way home to the Bronx from Brooklyn. I was on autopilot and could not think about what had happened. I just wanted to go home. It took me eight hours, a normal work day, to get home. As I finally got home, I gave my father and sister a hug. I was overcome with so much emotion and agony of what happened that day.
As I look back, I am thankful for the woman who stepped in front of me causing me to miss my train, the man who stopped me from running once the South Tower collapsed, the man who brought me to safety in downtown Brooklyn and the construction workers who gave me iced tea and turned on the hydrant. That was divine intervention. At the same time, I am saddened by the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives and their families who had to try to put their lives back together again, the people who are becoming sick, those who became sick and died as a result, and all those like me who had to witness this tragic event in history. I reflect on these things every time I make my annual trip to Ground Zero on 9/11 at night to see the two beams of light that represent the former World Trade Center.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Bin Laden's death makes it bittersweet because it doesn't change anything that has happened nor does it bring back all those who lost their lives. On a positive note, 9/11 shows us how hope, love, freedom, and the human spirit shall prevail.