Remembering September 11, 2001
By Linda Mallis
Linda Mallis spent 20 years working for financial giants on Wall Street. This is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to her granddaughter in the months following Sept. 11, 2001:
I don’t know why I feel so compelled to put my thoughts and feelings on paper. Maybe it’s just the release of such enormous emotion. Maybe it’s just to put away in a file I have accumulated about Sept. 11, 2001—newspaper articles, magazines with entire editions devoted to that date, numerous cards, letters and emails that I have received from family and friends, many of whom I hadn’t heard from in years but knew I lived in NYC on this tragic day. On many occasions, I have read and re-read love letters that my grandfather wrote as a young man courting my grandmother, or letters my grandmother wrote to me. Just as I’ve heard my parents speak of where they were on Dec. 7, 1941, maybe this will just be something that my granddaughter Riley will read someday, as a little old lady reminiscing over the history of her life and family, knowing that her grandmother actually witnessed one of the saddest days in American history. For whatever reason, maybe it will be somewhat of an emotional release to simply put my thoughts on paper.
September 11, 2001
It was a beautiful, crystal clear day that Tuesday morning. I remember thinking that on my taxi ride to work — that we were a good week past Labor Day, the official end of summer, and NYC still had such lovely weather. Having lived here only 3-plus years now, I still (and probably always will) dread the beginning of the cold weather. I even remember looking down that morning and smiling at the fact that I had on open-toed sandals. Because it was September in New York and still warm enough to wear them, but also because I was headed to work at Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street firm, and they had adopted a “casual” dress code. My boss, Gary Black, and I had just moved to Goldman three months prior, from another Wall Street firm with a strict dress policy. So I felt somewhat liberated that day to be wearing a long black skirt, open-toed shoes.
I arrived before 7:30 a.m. on that fateful Tuesday morning and got settled at my desk. Our entire floor (18th floor at 32 Old Slip) is panoramic views; all glass, so nice to be able to see out in any direction. I face southeast – a beautiful view of the East River and Governor’s Island at the tip of Manhattan. Just on down the hall, but slightly out of view from where I sit, is the Statue of Liberty. A quick glance out the window, and there she stands in all her glory.
Another few steps, a glorious view of the World Trade Centers.
I notice on Gary’s calendar that he has a meeting with the chief investment officer of our value products at 8:30 a.m. As she arrives, I’m heading up to the cafeteria on the 33rd floor for coffee, so ask them both if l can bring them a cup. Jim Wilson, a salesman on the Corporate Cash desk sits next to me, overhears the conversation and says he’ll come along for coffee. We head off, down the elevator to the main lobby, around the corner to another bank of elevators that will take us to the 33rd floor. I’m milling around trying to decide if l want a muffin or just coffee, and now don’t even remember what I decided. I only know that I had filled up one cup of coffee and looked up at the World Trade Center to see smoke billowing from the top and this glistening array of paper and debris. I don’t know what it is, floating in the air, the flakes being caught in the sunlight and somewhat resembling a ticker tape parade. As I found out moments later, the first jetliner had entered the WTC from the opposite side, so I only saw smoke, and debris, but only for a moment, and then the massive fire became quite apparent.
I remember standing there, stunned somewhat I suppose, not really knowing just exactly what I was witnessing. At about that time, a man came running into the cafeteria shouting, “A plane has hit the WTC.” I looked back up, now with a quickening in my stomach at the reality of what I might be seeing. I turned to find Jim Wilson and said to him, “Jim, look up — a plane has hit the WTC.” The last thing I remember about being there was Jim leaning on the windowsill, looking up in amazement, stunned really and not even responding to me as I repeatedly said to him, “Let’s go, let’s get out of here.” I don’t know why I thought I needed him to leave that floor with me. I just suddenly had such a feeling of dread. I dropped my coffee and left, ran for the elevators. I rode that elevator down to the lobby alone. I remember, without any real thought that this could be a terrorist act or a life threatening situation, thinking that I just wanted OUT. Out where, I don’t know, out of that cafeteria with that view, out of that building, I don’t know. There was definitely an overwhelming feeling of dread and fear without even knowing what was unfolding before us. It was as if my mind and body were steeling itself for something so horrific, and the adrenaline began to flow.
As I got off the elevator on 18 and rounded the comer toward my desk, everyone that was in the office (it was still early in the morning and not everyone had yet arrived) was lined up along the windows. Heading to my desk with the view of the East River, I look out and was shocked to see that in those few short moments, so much debris had fallen, that it was covering the East River.
I walked into Gary and told him that a plane had just hit the WTC. Never looking up from the window, he said he knew. Now, as many people were gathered around the television sets along the wall watching CNN, as were watching the view outside. I ran to the television, saw the coverage and listened to the commentators speculate about a private plane hitting the building. For whatever reason, I knew I wanted out of there, not even knowing where I wanted to go. I picked up the telephone, called my husband Stephen, and told him to turn on the television in his office. I then walked back along the wall as the number of people grew around the television set. We were watching the newscast, when suddenly we see the second plane heading for the WTC and knew with impending dread that it was heading directly into the Towers. A huge explosion followed. People began to gasp and scream. I remember looking up, as Gary and Chris Norton, who was then head of Institutional Business, headed quickly to their offices and picked up the telephone. I ran for my desk, now with tears in my eyes, knowing that no matter what anyone else did, I was getting out of that building.
Moments later, Gary began yelling across the floor “everyone get your things and get out.” At the same time, a voice came over the loudspeaker system informing us to evacuate the building immediately.
I went back to my desk, got my handbag and prepared to leave. I looked in my drawer and saw a Ziploc bag with the boiled egg that I had brought that morning for breakfast. I remember trying to decide whether to put the egg in my handbag and eat it once I got outside or whether to throw it in the trash. I even remember thinking it was likely I would not be back that day, and if I, nor anyone else would occupy the building for the remainder of the day, would the egg begin to smell? Did I really want to leave it there? In all of my irrationality, knowing I needed to get out, I was agonizing over the possibility of the smell of a rotten egg. Why did that even matter? But I did look around wondering if there was anything else there I might need for the day. I suddenly realized that once downstairs, I didn’t know how I was getting out of lower Manhattan.
With thousands leaving from our building, I knew there would be no available taxis. I emerged through the revolving glass doors of the lobby and remember looking down at all of the charred paper, wood and debris covering the walks and streets. I stared at it in disbelief. The World Trade Centers were a few blocks west and north of where I was standing, yet I couldn’t see the ground in front of me for the debris. I just stood there and stared. Days later, I wondered why I didn’t reach down and pick up a piece of the burned paper. Was it just too morbid to take a souvenir from an office where I was sure many people had lost their lives just minutes earlier? I now stood on the sidewalk in a stunned daze, as if I didn’t know where to go or how to get there. It was only a moment before reality kicked in, and I realized it was time to move … north, north, north. I was basically at the tip of Manhattan Island, south of the WTC, and had to head north to get home, some 9 miles in fact.
At some point, I looked up and saw three people that worked on my floor. We all immediately migrated toward each other. The need to be with someone you know, no matter how vaguely, was overwhelming. We all huddled together, not talking but having some sense of security in just being together. One of the men was from Lebanon. I looked at him, and he had stopped, just crying. I put my arm around him, just to tug him along. He broke down, saying he was just so ashamed. I asked him why, and he said because we were now certain that we were under a terrorist attack and people would look at him, not knowing what country he was from and blame him and his people. At that point, he began to tell me when he was in school during the Oklahoma City bombings, he got hate emails. Because he was of Middle Eastern decent, he was suddenly hated and suspected on his campus. As he talked and I listened, I remember us both walking as fast as we could, but instead of looking straight ahead, we both looked up and to our left, just watching the towers burn.
I will never forget looking up, not wanting to take my eyes off the burning towers, and at the same time trying to keep my footing through the crowd. As I continued to look up, suddenly the top of the south tower looked as if it was slightly beginning to tilt. In horror, I thought again, the top of that building really is going to topple over.
What followed was the loudest roar I’ve ever heard. It was as if you were underground in a subway station and 100 trains were coming through at the same time. What happened next was, of course, the unthinkable. I see it over and over again in my mind — the first tower actually imploding, crumbling to the ground with a roar that was deafening and unforgettable. The screaming in the streets that followed was equally deafening.
Everyone changed from that swift fast pace to a dead run. Someone I didn’t even know grabbed my arm, began pulling me and yelling, “Just run … run east … run east.” I remember running and running, not even quite sure where we were. I began to sob uncontrollably. I couldn’t even begin to grasp what I had seen. I just tried to gain control of myself. I felt as if my heart was going to beat out of my chest. I felt like I was going to choke. For a moment, I got so scared that I might not find Stephen, that I was on this island, and even though I was among millions of people, I had the most helpless, alone feeling that I’ve ever experienced. I remember running up against a brick wall, putting my face against it, sobbing and shaking. Within what seemed like only seconds, possibly moments of the unbelievable roar of the building collapsing and the throngs of people screaming and running, the city suddenly became eerily silent. Among the hundreds of thousands of people within your view, you could have heard a pin drop. It was the most eerie thing I have ever felt. Everyone was so stunned and shocked; there was not a sound. No one talked; no horns were blaring, absolutely no mid-day sounds of New York City.
At some point, I remember looking up. We were in Chinatown. Store owners were standing in front of their stores, and they were all looking up in disbelief at the remaining tower, still burning. Suddenly I was so hot I couldn’t breathe. I removed my jacket and tied the sleeves around my tote bag. I began to search through my bag for my sunglasses. I was crying so hard, I thought maybe no one would notice if l was wearing my sunglasses. Silly — what difference did it make? The entire city was in tears.
Suddenly, through the silence, another deadly roar, and the screams began again. I ducked and ran up against a building, continuing to cry, not even able to look up. I knew it was the second tower coming down; that sound was already embedded in my mind. I could not bear to look. The smoke and debris were flying and again amidst the screams, we began to run.
Through my panic, I notice that restaurants are closed, but many have moved tables out on to the sidewalk and had paper cups full of water sitting out. I remember thinking, “See, New Yorkers do have a heart.” You hear all of these nasty things about callous New Yorkers, and on that day, everyone wanted to do something. Thousands, so unprepared were running in the streets, yet restaurant owners had thought to put out water. At some point, two co-workers and I had wound our way to lower 5th Avenue, and I finally had my bearings. That gave me some sense of calm, even knowing I was still far away from Stephen. At least it now seemed his building would eventually be in sight. Once we reached 5th Ave and 18th Street, one of my colleagues had to head west to her apartment. By then, even though I was afraid, and didn’t want to be alone, I realized it was only 14 more blocks, and I’d be at Stephen’s office.
Finally, I remember looking up and seeing 28th Street and knowing I had Stephen’s building in sight. I began to run again, and for the first time, realized the pain in my feet. It was only later, in Stephen’s office that I realized I had 13 blisters on my feet from those open-toed sandals I was so proud to wear earlier that morning. Once Stephen’s building was in sight, I ran even faster and felt such a sense of relief to dash through the double doors and see the doorman still standing in the lobby. If they had evacuated Stephen’s building, the doorman would be gone. I asked if Stephen was still in his office, and the doorman said yes. I took the elevator up, suddenly beginning to tremble uncontrollably, wondering how much longer I could hold my emotions together.
Someone answered the office door; I don’t even know who, and I ran for Stephen’s office. At the sight of him, I fell apart. The emotions that erupted wracked my body, and once again, I began to sob uncontrollably. I just needed to lean on him and feel his presence. He continued to hold me with one arm as he dialed the phone with the other, returning phone calls to worried family members, telling them that I had made it there.
As we finally got into bed that night, well after 3 a.m., as exhausted as Stephen and I were, both physically and mentally, sleep did not come. I remember lying in bed still crying at the images embedded in my mind.
I thought of all the innocent lives snuffed out in a matter of seconds and minutes. I thought of how a couple loses a child in a sudden death, how that couple is never the same. We just had some 3,000 sudden deaths in our city. I thought of how you possibly begin to explain the events to your small children and grandchildren, how to deal with fear, how to live life, even though you are afraid.
The next day I arose to friends calling, and finally I agreed to meet Marguarite Stephanopoulos at one of the bloodlines set up by the Red Cross. They were set up all over the city in hopes of the rescue workers finding survivors. And true to the New York spirit, people had turned out in droves. The lines were blocks long of people wanting to give blood, only to be turned away because they could not handle any more supply.
The days that followed are truly a daze. I remember not wanting to turn the television off. I remember there being 24-hour coverage for days to come as facts came out about the terrorists. I remember being consumed by it all. I remember being unable to sleep. I remember continuing to smell the smoke, even see the smoke from our terrace some 9 miles away for days and weeks to come.
I don’t know what the gates of hell look like, but it has to be something similar to what I witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001. If you can’t look at life differently after something like this, then I don’t think you are human. We have to believe from the simplest thought, that the skyline of lower Manhattan will rise again, to a tougher thought, that people will be whole again, or we will lose our perspective on life. I think our assurance lies in our faith in God, and that through his grace, he will heal us as a nation and as individuals, and one day we will indeed be whole again. My deepest prayer is that God will continue to bless America and that my little Riley girl will grow up in a safe and secure world.