I had 57 days of sobriety on September 11, 2001.
I am actually embarrassed when people asked me where I was that morning, because was still under my covers in New York when the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. I am not an early riser but was literally jolted up in bed when my apartment started shaking immediately after the second plane hit at 9:03. My radio was on and I could make out something being said about the World Trade Center, though it took me a few minutes to hear what they were saying.
When I finally absorbed the announcements, I screamed ‘Holy Shit!” and ran up to the roof of my hi-rise apartment building in Brooklyn Heights, about three miles across the river from lower Manhattan. I opened the door onto the asphalt roof and the first thing I noticed was the brilliant blue sky – almost like crystal with not a cloud in sight. The brilliance of the sky soon contrasted what I saw to the west – heavy charcoal black smoke billowing from the upper floors of both towers.
All I could think is that there were people in those buildings. I just held my hands to my mouth and kept saying “there are people in there” while shaking and sobbing. It was all so surreal.
My neighbors had run up to the roof, as well, and they all seemed to be in varying degrees of shock, too. Peter, the young computer geek from the 4th floor had a small radio next to his ear and would give us updates, while pacing back and forth on the roof. Marilyn, the middle-aged waitress wearing her blue bathrobe, was holding her hands to her blonde head while staring across the river. As we stood facing the west, we would only take our eyes off the horror to look at each other, trying to process it all.
The silence was broken by gasps of “Oh my God” when the South Tower fell at 9:59 am. Then there were no words for at least a minute or two. We were each individually trying to come to grips with what we had just witnessed. The unfathomable had just occurred before our very eyes and it was terrifying. . A few minutes later Peter reported that a plane had hit the Pentagon.
I realized we were under attack looked up into the crystalline blue sky to see if any more planes were coming. I decided that it might be safer to go down to my apartment, since we could get hit again at any moment. I rushed down one flight to my apartment and turned on the news. The pictures being broadcast seemed like they were coming from a war zone. People were covered in ash and running through the streets of lower Manhattan.
The second Tower fell at 10:28. I watched it collapse on the television screen, but it still didn’t seem real. I had already spoken to my parents and my brothers, so they knew I was safe. I also called my sponsor but couldn’t reach her.
After about an hour of watching the coverage, I knew I had to do something. I called my friend Joan and we decided we would meet at the hospital to donate blood. As I walked over to meet her, the streets of downtown Brooklyn were eerily quiet. There were only a few people out on the street, and those that were walking seemed to be in a daze. No one was talking.
Joan and I reached the hospital around noon and were greeted by a NYPD officer standing outside the Emergency Room. We asked where we could go to donate blood for the victims of the attack. He just stared at us, his eyes were filled with tears. “There don’t seem to be many survivors. We stopped taking blood thirty minutes ago.”
Walking back to Joan’s apartment, I kept looking up at the sky. It was one of the most perfect days in terms of weather, yet it was the most awful day I had ever experienced. We turned on the television and watched Mayor Guiliani at a press conference. He was surrounded by NYPD and FDNY and they were trying to present a united front. All I could notice is that he was sweating. He was trying to be strong and encourage NY’ers to stay strong, but I just kept staring at the drops of perspiration on his forehead. He was scared just like we were.
After about an hour I walked down to the Promenade, which is directly across the East River from downtown Manhattan. The wrought iron fences were already covered with flowers and there were candles along the walk. Most of the benches were full, people were hugging each other and some just stared straight across the river.
I found a spot on a bench and just collapsed. The black billowing smoke had turned white as it made its way to Brooklyn, and it included debris and reams of office paper. Everything that had been in those offices was now making its way over the East River in tiny little pieces. Including the people. I can still taste the bitterness of the dust – it was gritty like sand and permeated my mouth even though I was covering it with my hands.
By far one of the worst things was the wretched, awful, and horrible smell that permeated the air. At the time, I had been a prosecutor for 11 years and had experienced some awful crime scenes, but this was beyond comprehension. People were covering their mouths and noses. It was a combination of the fuel from the planes, the remains of the building and of course, bodies that had burned. I cried even harder.
At one point, I looked up and questioned God and his mercy.
“You lost me today, God. You had me for 57 days, but you lost me today.”
I could not fathom the fact that God would let something this horrific happen. I was done.
A few minutes later, I was still crying when I heard “Susan, are you okay?”
I turned to my left side and there was a woman that I had recently met at one of the meetings. I couldn’t remember her name, but I knew her face. She was about my age with straight brown hair and a Nike t-shirt. She was trembling. We just hugged each other. She then told me that she had just checked with the church and there was going to be a meeting that night. I assured her that I would be there.
After she walked away, I turned back to the sky, tears still streaming down my face and said, “I am back. Thank you God for restoring my faith.”
Once again, sobriety got me through the unimaginable.