Today marks the ten year anniversary of the first time I ever prayed, but I’ll get back to that in a second.
Back on September 11, 2001 I was working in New York City. I was a couple blocks north of the Empire State Building off Fifth Avenue.
I remember September 11th being a beautiful, sunny day. I got in the office around 8:30 and started catching up on email. A little before 9:00, one of the tech guys in the office sent an email around with a picture of the World Trade Center and it had smoke and fire pouring out of it.
My first thought was why would some jackass doctor a picture like that and pretend he got an email from CNN.com?
But it seemed odd that a usually serious guy would send it, so I tried to go to CNN.com myself. I couldn’t get to it.
Soon after, I joined some others and we turned on TVs in the office and started watching the live coverage as the second plane hit.
It was surreal, it was impossible. Each day, as I exited the PATH train at Herald Square, I’d always look south to the Towers. I loved seeing them down there.
Years before, I lived in Jersey City, and I took a bunch of pictures of my puppy Mickey in front the Towers from across the Hudson River.
This could not be real. And just a mile or two away from us.
At the time, the landlines were still working, and I was able to reach my wife Vicky to let her know I was OK, and that I was thinking about how I’d make my way home.
I figured it was crazy in the streets, but I didn’t want to sit there so close to what I figured was the next logical target… the Empire State Building.
My second daughter, Lexie, was due a couple weeks from then, and I was thinking there might be widespread attacks in the city, and maybe I should stay where it was seemingly safe.
But I’d be a lot more comfortable if I could just escape from New York.
My decision was made when I watched the South Tower collapse on TV. I was totally freaked out, and I gathered up my things. Nobody else was leaving yet, and I let my supervisor know I was on the way out. She told me not to leave. I left.
But before leaving, I checked the NJtransit.com site to see if trains were still leaving from Penn Station to New Jersey. It said things were running on schedule, so that was cool.
As soon as I left the building and started walking down Fifth Avenue, I was looking right at the North Tower as it began to fall.
People were screaming, some were collapsing to the street. I don’t know if they were dropping to their knees or fainting or what. It was too much to process to have this all in front of me.
I’ve seen the video so many times over of the North Tower collapsing, and the way it looks like confetti is falling in the sky. That view, that smell never go away.
After lingering to watch a little, I started sprinting west on 34th Street towards Penn Station.
I remember it struck me weird. I was going as fast as I could, and some people were just strolling along like it was any other day. It seemed like they were in slow motion and blurry.
I ran down the stairs and escalators straight into the first Jersey bound train I saw. I didn’t care where it was going. I just felt lucky, because I was one of the last people on, and then the doors closed.
The train was usually very vibrant, but people were speaking in really hushed tones if they spoke at all.
Back to my tenth anniversary of praying.
It wasn’t something I thought about. I simply lowered my head. I said a prayer.
I was asking for an answer – for a path back to my wife Vicky and daughter Caity, and unborn daughter Lexie. And to my friends and the rest of my family.
Moments later, the train started moving. People were hugging each other, cheering. We felt saved.
About fifteen feet into it, the train just stopped. They killed the electric entirely, but wouldn’t let us off. There were no announcements, and it heated up quickly in there.
Maybe ten minutes passed, and they announced that they wanted to sweep the train tunnels for explosives. They told us to evacuate the train station.
When the doors opened, I was in a seat near the exit, and I bolted faster than I ever had in my life. Up sets of stairs and into the sunshine on the 8th Avenue side of Penn Station.
I just ran and ran towards the West Side Highway. I wanted to get away from any targets, and Penn Station/Madison Square Garden could be a big one.
I found myself on a line of people about ten or so blocks long. They were waiting for ferries to cross the Hudson River. As I waited, I saw people running and walking up the street. They’d been coming straight from the World Train Center, and many were covered in ash and whatever else.
Hours passed, and I couldn’t get a cell signal – nobody could. I was out of communication for so long with Vicky, and then I finally got to board a ferry bound for Weehawken, NJ. As we sailed, we went south a little on the Hudson River – down towards the Towers.
Time seemed like it was suspended on the water. When we finally docked across the river, I felt a sense of relief. I finally got a weak signal and was able to reach Vicky to let her know I was on the way home.
There were a bunch of buses waiting there, and I jumped on one. They took us over to the Meadowlands, where the New York Jets and Giants play.
After we got there, it turned out there wasn’t a plan to get people further. They just kept going back to bring more and more from the ferries.
I called Vicky again to let her know I was safe, and I’d be getting out of there at some point.
After a while, I started thinking I was going to possibly have to sleep in the stadium parking lot if I didn’t do something. I noticed some of the stadium employees leaving, so I thought maybe I could hitch a ride closer to home.
I had a piece of paper in my bag, so I wrote out the name of my town, Millburn, and started trying to get anybody to let me jump in their car with them.
Minutes later, a station wagon was passing and it already had too many people in it, but the driver stopped and let me squeeze in, too.
He dropped each of us off one by one. The first stop was Maplewood, NJ, and then he brought me to the commuter train station in Millburn, NJ, since my car was there.
I think I was the first person out of all of the people in my giant train parking lot to return, because it was still packed. This was 4:00 in the afternoon or so.
The only thing I could think was how many of those cars wouldn’t have people returning to them ever. Many of the folks in my town worked on Wall Street.
All of these people I would see on the train every day; it haunted me that some were already gone.
So I got in my car and drove a mile to my home. When I walked in, Vicky looked like she saw a ghost. Mickey and Caity thought it was just another day with their greetings. Lucky for them.
I don’t think I slept that night, and I walked to a newspaper box to get a copy of the New York Post the next day. I read that issue once a year.
It has such haunting photography of people leaping from the Towers and all.
Like I said, back on September 11, 2001 was the first time I prayed. But I’ve prayed regularly since then.
I am so grateful I found a path home that day, and I pray now for everybody we lost right away that day, as well as for all of us still here.