20 years anniversary since the terrorist attacks. A New Yorkerโ€™s experience on 9/11.

The story of someone who lived nearby.

Interview by Kasumi Abe
Photo by Thomas Svensson on Pexels.com

“Each evening I heard a bagpipeโ€™s lament, and the tears flowed.”

Elisa (72): actor, artist

โ€‹โ€‹It has been 20 years since the terrorist attack of 9/11. Ground Zero is engraved with the name of my friend who did not evacuate from the building.

I told my daughter, who is 25 now, whenever we need to pass by the memorial, we should not use it as a thoroughfare. We must be mindful and show respect. It’s not just a park or plaza.

September 11, 2001. I can still remember everything that day.

My apartment was just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center and at the time of the 1993 explosion, my house was shaking from that bombing. Thatโ€™s how close my house is to the towers.

It was a beautiful morning on September 11, 2001. I was planning to bring my daughter who was five years old to her new kindergarten, and to stop by the swimming pool afterwards.

Both the kindergarten and the swimming pool were nearby. I wore shorts over my swimsuit, and I only brought my keys. I left my wallet, cell phone, ID at the apartment. I took my daughter by bike and headed to her school only a few blocks north on the bike path, across West Street from the World Trade Center.

It was a very beautiful morning, a cloudless blue sky, warm fresh air. I was a little worried about my daughter because it was her first full day of school, and we were still in mourning for my mother who died only a few weeks earlier. I watched my daughter from outside the classroom for a while to see that she was okay. 

My daughter looked fine, so I headed for the staircase. As I approached the middle, I heard people screaming from below. I could not hear what they said, but I realized that something was wrong. I thought a shooting incident or something serious had happened. I was scared and ran back up the stairs.

There was a big hole in one of the towers that I could see through the large window in the hallway near her classroom, with flames and black smoke shooting out from it. People in the school started rushing up and down the corridors. The teacher closed the blinds to hide the scene of the towers from the children. The children had seen the plane enter the building, and people jumping and falling from the building. I was terrified by the sight that was almost like the end of the world. I was afraid that the building would collapse towards us. At that time I was thinking: โ€My mother just died, Iโ€˜m going to die too.โ€ 

Everyone thought it was an accident at that time.

Most of the children’s parents had already left and some of them worked in the twin towers. We didnโ€™t go out of the building until the police ordered us to go, which was over an hour later. The principal requested all the children to be brought to the auditorium to watch a movie. My daughter still remembers the program, Arthur, a cartoon series from PBS. After a while, we were instructed to evacuate the building and headed to PS3 on Christopher Street. The few adults who were present walked with the remaining children.  I held four childrenโ€™s hands and started walking uptown on the West Side Highway, which did not have any cars.

The street was full of people fleeing from the buildings, from the elementary and middle school, and Stuyvesant high school next door to us. I donโ€™t remember hearing any sound, but it must have been so loud it deafened me. It forced me to turn around, and I saw the huge World Trade Centers crumbling down, like giant sand castles at the beach. It was a horrific but incredible sight, and everyone was staring in disbelief. The children screamed and cried. Gray smoke was spreading from there, and the whole sky became dark. I pulled the children’s hands and we started running uptown on the highway. We got further away and thankfully the wind was blowing south so we were not chased by the smoke. After walking about 2 miles we finally arrived at PS3, where I entrusted the children (except my daughter) to the police, teachers, and staff of the new school.

Elisa at her current apartment. She had lived in the former apartment for 35 years, until six months ago. (c) Kasumi Abe
Elisa at her current apartment. She had lived in the former apartment for 35 years, until six months ago. (c) Kasumi Abe

My two adult sons lived in Brooklyn. I know that they worried about us, but I didn’t have a cell phone nor wallet.

There was another parent from the kindergarten class who walked with us along the way and suggested to me, “I’m going to pray at a Buddhist temple on 14th Street. Would you like to come and pray with me, and use a pay phone there?” We went there, prayed for everyone, and I finally got to use a phone. However, I could not remember any numbers because I was in shock. I called directory assistance and I finally talked to my sons. They were so worried. They had called the school and were told that I never came to pick up their little sister. That was because I was already there so I did not sign in to take my daughter. That confusion made them think I didnโ€™t make it. They were so relieved that I had their sister, and that I was not hurt. The woman who walked with me gave me $5, and my daughter and I bought yogurt, milk, and a box of Cheerios. We ate sitting on a curb on 14th Street.

After that, I carried my daughter on my back and headed to my son’s apartment, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn. It was a hot day, and bottles of water were being distributed free by school children from the Yeshivas at the Brooklyn side of the bridge. When we got to Brooklyn, the buses were free, but they took a long time to come, and they were packed. We waited over an hour to get on. My son’s apartment was in Carroll Gardens and we finally arrived around 5 pm. We were delighted to be together again.

At the apartment we watched the news on television. It was then we learned about the multiple attacks, the numbers of deaths, speculations of causes, etc.

I did not get back to my home for a week. We did not have clothes but friends brought some for us. Schools and offices were closed for a while.

I was finally able to return home a week later. I had a hard time returning home because I didn’t have an ID with me. I wasn’t allowed by the police to get into the area, but my neighbors told the police that I was a resident there and I was finally able to return my apartment.

My apartment building was labeled a crime scene. A part of the airplane broke the window and plunged into a neighborโ€™s apartment. And I was told that the roof and some apartments had body parts. The concierge from my building did not evacuate because there was an older man living alone on the second floor who was unable to leave. The concierge was courageous and compassionate, and he stayed in the building with that infirm gentleman.

I was supposed to return back soon that morning, so I left the windows open. Everywhere in my place was covered with thick dust and debris. When I picked up my cell phone one week later, I could see the outline on the table.

I couldn’t live in the apartment for a while. I often returned to clean and repair. We got an air filter, but the mattresses, couch, furniture, toys, and other things were no longer usable, so I threw away a lot of things.

From my window, I could see the smoldering ruins of the collapsed World Trade Center. Even four or five months after the attack, it was not extinguished and looked like remnants of a huge campfire.

We could hear the mournful sound of bagpipes every night, up to the 20th floor. Every time I heard that music, I knew that another body or remains were found. A flag would be draped over a hearse, and I would drink wine and cry. It seemed endless. 

It took several months before we returned home to live. We celebrated Thanksgiving that year at my house. My daughterโ€™s school reopened four months later in January 2002, but when I went back to kindergarten with her, I could not remember where the classroom was. I realized then that I was still in shock.

I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in September, 2015 and had chemotherapy and radical surgery. My hair fell out and I lost weight. A few years later, in September of 2018, I lost my granddaughter in an accident. This experience was even more painful for me than the others.

Sometimes I couldn’t feel anything. I couldnโ€™t taste anything. When I went to a movie and saw scenes with violence and abuse, I couldn’t stop crying and had to leave.  PTSD. 

I diagnosed with cancer 14 years after 9/11. I never smoked. Many first responders who rescued and reconstructed have also been diagnosed with various cancers. 

Why do I talk to you about my experience even though it was so traumatic that I still cry as I speak about it?  Itโ€™s important to share these experiences. These stories from witnesses are important. We need to know history. 

My 78-year-old friend, who was a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, died last year from  COVID-19. He told me about his experiences when he was a child. They were powerful memories and I learned so much from him. I don’t know the histories of my own parents and grandparents. Perhaps they didn’t want to talk about their stories because they didnโ€™t want to remember. A lot of terrible things have happened in history, such as slavery, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, prison, starvation. However sometimes people don’t believe in anything other than what they actually see. So if it happened, if we saw and experienced it, then it is important for us to tell other people (especially the younger generations) so that it is not forgotten, and not repeated.

September is the birth month of my daughter and one of my sons. It is the start of the new school year. It is also the anniversary of my granddaughterโ€™s death. And 9/11. I try to stay balanced, with good memories and bad ones. 


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