Each workday, I enter and leave through the Port Authority Trans-Hudson hub that sits right next to the World Trade Center. The six-minute train ride underneath the river lets me sort out my thoughts before my short jaunt to the building that houses Soap Opera Digest. At 6 p.m., I stroll back home past the New York Stock Exchange, gothic buildings and churches in the Financial District. As soon as I hit Fulton Street, I look straight ahead. There, the Freedom Tower stands prominently, and I have to tilt my head up to see the entire building with its newly placed spire.
As soon as I open the door to my brownstone apartment in Jersey City, I can see the tower standing alone in the distance. I am reminded day after day, time after time, of 9/11.
When it happened, I was a senior at Webster City High School. We had a two-hour in-service that morning and my mom was busy talking to my uncle Dave on the phone about some things that needed fixing in the house. He must have said, “Turn on the news!” because my mom hurriedly flipped on the small TV in my parent’s bedroom. She let out a small shriek and covered her mouth, as we both watched the second plane hit. I knew it was a big deal, I knew that this was horribly wrong but as a 17-year-old, I just felt numb. We went to school and many of our teachers nixed our studies and left the television on so we could continue to watch the coverage. During lunch and caf, we went back to talking about cross country, boys, our usual conversations. Why? We were kids, that’s why. It’s not easily digestible information that planes were being flown into buildings. That thousands of people had just died a couple hours ago. That there was so much hate.
As my senior year rolled on, I thought more about myself, as teenagers do, and kept up on the news when it fit my schedule. In the years following, I let what happened sink in. Call it maturity or finally allowing myself to unshield my eyes to the atrocities – it happened.
Since moving here, I have talked with native New Yorkers and people who lived here during the attacks. Where they were, people they know that had died – each person had a different story, but talked about it like it happened yesterday. When I first started working in Battery Park, I was very aware of the WTC site. After awhile, I started to get lost in my own thoughts and wouldn’t look up, the sounds of construction turning into background noise.
A couple months ago, I decided to watch 9/11 documentaries, like the ones produced by National Geographic. I watched YouTube videos of the attacks happening during the Today Show, of people getting off the PATH train and finding out about the carnage as they were getting out of the hub. I saw all the surrounding buildings that I walk by every day. I saw people sprinting down the streets that I walk every day. I pictured myself on one of my normal workdays, getting out of the train at the same time it happened. It’s now more real than it has ever been.
I have read the names of people at the memorial aloud; to fully understand that some of these normal people lived in the same neighborhood I do, probably frequented some of the same pubs, and hung out in the parks where I like to read.
Now, I don’t walk back and forth caught up in the music I am listening to or thinking about what I’m about to cook for dinner. I always look up at the Freedom Tower and think about that day and all the people affected. I think about the people trapped in the higher floors and others falling to their death. I see fire trucks daily on their way to some emergency and think about all those firefighters who climbed the stairs with all that heavy gear.
If living here has done one thing, it’s that I realize that life is truly a gift. One not to be wasted or squandered. It could have been any one of these people that I walk to work with, the sea of people heading off to their full-time jobs. Sometimes when something so horrific happens in a far-off place, it’s hard to take a walk in their shoes and understand that those affected are just normal people. Listening to their headphones, planning their grocery list, thinking of the weekend ahead.
If I didn’t let it sink in then, 12 years ago, I have definitely let it sink in now.
Carrie Olson is a former Daily Freeman-Journal writer and columnist, and currently writes a blog for the DFJ website, Girl of the Corn. She works in New York City.