September 11 Digital Archive

[Untitled]

How has your life changed because of what happened on September 11, 2001?

After witnessing and experiencing the attacks in New York City on the morning of September 11th, I was forced to re-define what I believed to be humanity's capacity to hate, but also to love. I had to re-define my concept of good and evil. I had to re-define my thoughts on the ability of humans to cause such destruction, but also the ability of humans to heal and rebuild.

How will you remember the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks?

On September 11, 2001 I was working at a commercial photo studio located downtown on Washington Street. One of my responsibilities included opening up the studios in the morning, and on that day we had several high profile photo shoots scheduled, so I would be opening the studios at 7am with a full day ahead.

While standing on the elevated subway platform in Queens, waiting for the 7 Train, I watched the golden sun rise to reveal a crisp, beautiful clear blue sky. On the previous evening, my father and I had planned on going to the Yankees game, but it rained heavily, so the game was postponed, and we decided to go again the next night. I was happy to see such nice weather because it meant that we would be able to go to the Yankee game.

It was business as usual as I got on the train, and then transferred at 42nd street to a downtown E Train. It was common for the E Train to be filled with people going down to work at the Trade Center and in the Financial District, and the morning of September 11th was no different. Sitting next to me on the train that morning was a group of Merrill Lynch trainees who seemed to be headed downtown. A woman sitting across from me got up to give her seat to an older gentleman who had gotten on the train at Penn Station. The woman had a bright smile on her face, and I thought to myself, "She is going to have a good day today".

Upon my arrival at work, I found that I would be training a new girl from Alabama named Heather. She had just arrived in NYC a few days earlier, and lived close to me in Queens. That morning we had 2 photo shoots going on. One was with Heidi Klum for Italian Vogue and the other was with Harvey Weinstein for Entertainment Weekly. In addition, we had a commercial casting which was expecting to see 50-100 children over the course of the day.

I got Heather situated to start answering phone calls, and when the casting agent arrived, I signed him in at exactly 8:45am and went to unlock the studio, which was located in another building around the corner on Jane Street. No sooner did I unlock the door and begin walking back to the main building that I heard a loud boom, which immediately echoed through the streets. All of the pigeons in the neighborhood flew from their perches. I hadn't ever seen that before, and it stood out. Walking down Washington Street, the towers were directly in front of me, but when I heard the boom, I didn't look up because I assumed that the noise was from a truck on the West Side Highway which was only one block to the west.

As I was about to open the door and walk into the main building, the general manager of the studio grabbed me and shouted, "The World Trade Center is on fire!" We turned to face the buildings and sure enough there was a large hole and fire on the upper floors of the north tower. The plume of smoke had just begun and there were papers flying around in the air. It was so soon after the impact that we didn't hear any sirens yet, and I said "This must've just happened". The streets were still so quiet, but that would soon change.

Within minutes, all Hell had broken loose. We went into crisis mode at the studio as children and their parents had already begun to arrive. The children seemed calm, but the parents were crying and in hysterics. We turned on the television and that was the first time we had heard about a plane hitting the building. I immediately thought it was terrorism. I never thought it was an accident because from my perspective on the street, I could tell that it was a direct hit right in the middle of the building. And it was a huge hole. It was not a small plane that had accidentally crashed. This was intentional.

A small crowd had begun to form on the corner of Washington and Jane, and as I stood there looking up at the clear blue sky, I thought about all of the newspaper articles I had been reading around that time in the NY Post about Bin Laden and his intent to attack America. I mentioned it to one of my co-workers and I said, "They got us". A moment later a huge fireball erupted from the south tower. We didn't see the plane hit. We only saw the fireball. People were screaming in the streets and there was now a steady parade of fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars headed downtown toward the towers with sirens wailing. There were emergency vehicles that I had never seen before which looked like military vehicles. They were all racing to get downtown, and in retrospect, many of them were racing to what would become their final resting place.

Amidst all the chaos, Heidi Klum arrived for her photo shoot, but no one else on the crew had shown up. She was visibly shaken and upset, and was in hysterics. I put my arm around her and brought her into our studio cafe where she was making frantic phone calls. Around this time, we got word that the Pentagon had also been hit. There was a lot of confusion. People were saying that there was a car bomb at the state department and that there were more hijacked planes in the air, presumably on their way to NYC. This was when fear set in. People had begun to evacuate lower Manhattan and were walking past us. At times, crowds of people were running up Washington Street because there was fear of gas line explosions.

We decided it was best to drive Heidi back uptown to her hotel in our equipment van. The photo shoot with Harvey Weinstein was cancelled because he was stuck in New Jersey. The kids casting, which had already begun, was cancelled, and there were a few remaining children who we needed to re-connect with their parents. Our employees were calling their parents, some of whom worked in the Financial District. As all of this was going on, someone told us that one of the towers had collapsed. We went outside and stared in shock and disbelief. Moments later the north tower crumbled to the ground as we watched. Amidst the cloud of debris, you could see the shattered glass reflecting the bright sunlight and it sparkled. I immediately thought of Obi-Wan Kenobi's quote from Star Wars, when he learns that the planet Alderaan had been destroyed, "It was as if millions of voices cried out in horror, then were suddenly silenced."

The next hour or so is a bit of a blur. We were all in shock at what was happening. People who had evacuated the towers began making their way uptown. Some were covered in sweat. Some were covered in dust. A few people had blood on them. I remember giving a cup of water to a businessman who had been at the trade center and said it was a war zone. All the while, the police and fire trucks continued to race downtown. All you could hear were sirens from all over the city.

Around noon, we decided to close the studio, and go home. I had to get back to Queens, so I offered to bring the new girl Heather with me. We walked up 12th street, and I remember seeing lines of people waiting to donate blood. We passed St. Vincents and saw a large crowd of doctors awaiting the arrival of incoming patients. As we walked through the city, people had their car stereos turned up, and there were people listening to the news. It was a warm day and so nice out, but when you looked south, all you could see was smoke rising from the World Trade Center site. I remarked that I felt like I was living in a movie.

While we were waiting to cross the street at one point, a city bus pulled up that had come from downtown. The doors opened up, and everyone who got off the bus was covered in dust and debris.

We walked uptown via 2nd avenue and when we got to the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel, we noticed that they were allowing cars to go through. It was then that we were stopped by WPIX reporter Lolita Lopez, who helped us flag down a town car to go through the tunnel.

The car dropped us off at the other side of the Midtown Tunnel, and Heather and I went our separate ways. Since I had no cell phone service, I stopped at my local neighborhood Chinese restaurant so that I could call my parents to let them know that I was home safe. From Queens, I could still see the huge plume of smoke rising from lower Manhattan. At home I was reunited with my wife, and we spent a few moments hugging and crying. It was the first time that I had expressed any emotion all day.

We didn't know if the ordeal was over, or if it was only the beginning of more attacks, so my wife and I took some cash out of the bank and went to the grocery store to stock up on water and canned food.

The days that followed found us all mourning the loss of the towers, the loss of our neighbors, and the loss of our innocence. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing funerals for police and firemen. The city seemed to ban together, and we found a unity that I had never seen before. My father was working for Con Edison at the time, and was spending 16-20 hours a day working to get the lights back on in lower Manhattan. Their main sub-station was located in the basement on WTC 7, and it was completely destroyed in the collapse, so they were literally running cables through the streets.

I volunteered to help with the staging at Yankee Stadium for the memorial service on September 23rd. It was my way of contributing to help out the families and friends who were directly affected and who had lost loved ones in the attack. No matter what race, religion, or culture you were from, were were all united in our grief, and the memorial service was a fitting tribute.

I personally didn't feel a sense of normalcy until the Yankees started playing baseball again. Once the playoffs began, it was like the whole city was able to take a break for three hours to forget about all of the terror and sadness. The Yankees played their hearts out for the city of New York, and for our country. Those were some of the best baseball games I have ever seen. They had a deeper meaning than just baseball, and when Derek Jeter hit a game winning home run in the early morning hours of November 1st, it was the first time I had experienced any sort of joy since before the attacks.

To heal from all of the pain and sadness, I wrote poetry to express my feelings. In December, I took my video camera down to the Ground Zero site and shot footage of the recovery efforts. I would continue to shoot video at Ground Zero every year afterwards on the anniversary of the attacks.

I still miss the towers so much and I miss those days before 9/11. When I see the towers on television, it makes my heart sink. This was our backyard, and the victims were our neighbors. I will never forget the sacrifices made by all of those men and women on 9/11.

I Love New York!
God Bless America!





Citation

Mathew Demek, “[Untitled],” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed December 14, 2017, http://911digitalarchive.org/items/show/96790.