For tour guide, 9/11 sparks new tale in New York

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We were in love with our new New York apartment, especially the 300 square foot terrace with its panoramic view of Lower Manhattan. Because we lived on the 24th floor, we felt like we were floating in the sky.

Licensed tour guide, I was delighted to live in the heart of the historic financial district. Over the years, I had taken thousands of tourists to the World Trade Center complex, where we would take the 82-second elevator to the 107th floor observatory and enjoy a view that spanned 75 kilometers in all directions.

Life seemed perfect for me and Brian, my husband for a little over a year. Much like the Twin Towers stretching a quarter mile in the clouds, we felt like the sky was the limit for us.

But barely two months after moving into our dream apartment, Brian shook me to wake up yelling something about the World Trade Center. I jumped out of bed and followed him to the patio. Thick black smoke billowed from the north tower, just six blocks away. Emergency vehicles rolled down the West Side Highway – flashing lights, blinking sirens. I looked down the street. People were running in all directions, some directly in traffic.

Suddenly something caught my eye. I saw a plane fly low, too low. With a deafening roar, the jet dove like a hawk and tilted to the left, its nose pointing straight at the south tower. We felt, rather than seen, the impact. One moment we were standing on the patio, and the next moment I woke up on the living room floor.

Our apartment in the sky suddenly felt very vulnerable. Brian grabbed our dog, Gabriel, and we ran to the stairwell. After rushing down the 24 flights, I opened the exit door to the street. It wasn’t until then that I realized I was barefoot and was wearing my nightgown. My husband gave me his socks to protect my feet, and we joined the crowd fleeing the burning buildings.

Through traffic we headed for Battery Park. But soon after we found a bench to rest on, the ground began to shake violently. I heard a rumble like a freight train, and thousands of people in the park started screaming when we realized that one of the towers was falling.

I froze in terror when a mass of something hit me in the face. It was as if someone had thrown a sticky bucket of sand at me; grime filled my nose and mouth, covered my pajamas, and covered every pore of unprotected skin.

I slowly opened my eyes, trying to shield them from anything on my eyelids. Brian hadn’t moved, but he looked completely different – like a standing mummy. Everyone around us was covered in the same sticky yellow goo.

Dodging thick clouds of smoke blowing straight into the park, we took shelter near an old fort and hugged its stone wall, trying to catch our breath. Gabriel collapsed on the floor exhausted. Covered in grime, struggling to breathe, we realized we were stranded at the tip of Manhattan Island with no obvious way out.

“Brian, do you think we’re going to die?” I asked, shocked that my life was over at 31.

“Maybe,” Brian replied sadly. He took my hands and we prayed to God together.

After the prayer, Brian led us north. As we tried to find a way to safety, the second tower fell with another devastating thunder, sending more clouds of smoke and grime into the atmosphere. We eventually found ourselves on the banks of the Hudson River with thousands more who had gathered by the water’s edge.

At one point, we realized that boats were heading towards us, even though we weren’t near a loading dock or ferry terminal. We followed a crowd and were able to board a ferry that had stopped at the edge of a pedestrian bridge.

After three hours of terror, a wave of relief washed over me as we pulled away from shore and crossed the Hudson. I looked back at the Manhattan skyline. The Twin Towers were gone, the New York City skyline was forever changed.

It took weeks before we could return to our apartment. When we finally got home, I had the courage to go out onto the patio. The beautiful and impressive Twin Towers were gone, replaced by a gaping black hole and a pile of rubble.

I’m still a New York City tour guide and always take tourists to the World Trade Center site. But now I take them around the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, where I stop at the reflecting pools and tell my story. I share my experience because thousands of others cannot.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and against the Pentagon in Washington, DC, remain the deadliest acts of terrorism in history. Almost 3,000 people from more than 90 countries have died. More than 6,000 people have been injured and people still suffer and die from cancer and other illnesses linked to exposure to the toxins released when the Twin Towers collapsed. Physically, it took New York City years to fully rebuild the areas damaged on September 11, but the emotional effects of that day can never be fully mended.

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11, may our memories of what we lost on that terrible day inspire us to work for unity, mutual respect and world peace. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, we are a global community whose lives depend on and affect each other. May we never forget the ties that bind us together.

Christina Ray Stanton of New York is an author, tour guide, and founder of the nonprofit Loving All Nations. http://www.lovingallnations.org

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