Twenty years ago, the 9/11 attacks changed the world.
We asked our readers to share their stories of that tragic day, which, in ways big and small, shaped all our lives. The anniversary summoned complicated responses: Grief and trauma, certainly, but also gratitude, faith and a sense of deep investment in community.
These are your stories. The excerpts below have been edited for clarity and length.
‘I was across the street’
David Shulman: I was across the street when a United 767 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. At an instant I knew it was terrorism and I ran to the ferry back to New Jersey. The ferry was so full that it seemed like it would sink into the Hudson.
Cell service was over-loaded so I couldn’t reach my wife. On the New Jersey Transit ride home we all looked out the window to see that the World Trade Center no longer existed. I finally reached my wife and kids who were already home from school. We all hugged and we all cried.
Because the High Holidays were only a few days away, a new prayer entered my personal liturgy. “Avienu Malkeinu — grant me the strength to be a good husband and a good father.” I figure if I got that right that would pretty much keep me from going too far astray. Learned you can’t hug your loved ones too much, and you can’t say “I love you” too much.
Brian Kaye: I live in Brooklyn Heights and was out taking my morning run over the Brooklyn Bridge when I noted the thick smoke billowing from the North Tower. Soon after I observed another plane strike the South Tower, and my body began to shake uncontrollably. Sadly, I observed people leaping from the towers and I frantically ran home after the police announced that the Pentagon in Washington was hit by another plane. I phoned my parents in Washington and they hadn’t heard or seen anything about the attacks.
I was shocked that if I raised my arm, I could easily grasp burning pieces of paper floating in the air. I was completely shaken to my core. Life is tenuous and short and this represented the worst of humanity that I could imagine.
Howard Dietch: I was working at 11 Penn that day and we watched the disaster unfold at the windows facing south. At first no one understood what was actually happening. People were crying, praying and freaking out.
This was our generation’s Pearl Harbor. Never would we feel as safe or protected.
Jonathan Gellman: The events of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center occurred just a few blocks away from my office at that time. I arrived a few minutes late for my job, as I had voted in the mayoral primary that would end up being canceled and rerun. As I left the subway at the Fulton Street station, I was startled by the sight of people rushing around in a frenzy. The scene was so strange that I thought maybe there had been a shooting.
At my office, news reports directed people in lower Manhattan to assemble close to the East River. I did so after making one stop: I went to a drugstore and bought a disposable camera, as I sensed, without knowing the cause, that an event without parallel was unfolding and I wanted to capture some sense of that event’s meaning or memory. After walking across Fulton Street, I took a picture of a crowd on Cliff Street. In the center were two black shoes more than ten feet apart, which seemed to have been left behind by owners leaving in haste.
With the subways closed, I joined a relatively orderly mass exodus of people walking uptown. Minutes later, I heard a loud sound, looked back, and saw the North Tower collapse.
I stopped at my mother’s apartment near East 21st Street to assure her that I was OK and to call my family in Riverdale. I then rejoined the throng heading uptown. Back in Riverdale, at my wife’s suggestion, we went with our two 3-year-old daughters to Wave Hill as a refuge from the televised loop of disaster. We gazed at the Hudson River and the Palisades, restored as an idyll despite having their airspace violated earlier in the day.
‘I was in the White House’
Peter Maer: I was in the White House at the moment the planes hit the towers in New York. As a White House Correspondent for CBS News, I was on duty filing reports for the radio network. The White House, usually the focal point of news, was something of a footnote that morning as President George W. Bush was in Florida.
Like so many others, my colleague, veteran CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante, and I were stunned to see the coverage after the first plane hit a New York skyscraper on a clear autumn day. When the second plane struck, it was clear the nation was under attack. Soon the shouts of uniformed Secret Service officers sounded through the White House. “Out, out, everybody out,” they shouted with a sense of urgency. White House staffers and reporters streamed out of the building, first to the North Lawn and then through the Northwest Gate and on to Pennsylvania Avenue.
We asked for your 9/11 stories. Here’s what you shared.
The eyes and weapons of Secret Service officers were trained to the sky. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw thick smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon, which we would soon learn was also a terror target on that awful day. Emergency vehicles were racing through the streets of D.C. with lights flashing and sirens blaring. In my first report on the unprecedented moment I described a scene, “verging on chaos. The streets are near gridlock and very worried-looking people are rushing out of government offices and other buildings.” It took some time for the impact of the moment to truly sink in. Days after the attack, CBS News Radio produced a series called “Changed Forever.” That title has stood the test of time.
Michael Kraft: I was a senior advisor in the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism and was standing with Ambassador Frank Taylor. Within a minute after the first plane hit, Taylor, a former Air Force Brigadier General, was on the phone with the FBI. One of our foreign service officers, a former Navy pilot, joined us. The TV reporter was babbling about possible pilot error. We knew that was very unlikely — it was a clear day and the flight path along the Hudson River was sufficiently far from the Twin Towers.
Suddenly, the second plane hit. The Ambassador then immediately contacted the State Dept Operations center and we scrambled together the adjoining command and communications center room used for such events. Not long afterwards, my son called from Boston to say he heard a radio report that the State Department as well as the Pentagon had been hit. I made a quick jog around the building and there were no signs of an attack.
All summer long, before the attack, we were receiving reports of a possible major attack, though no details. As a colleague described it, there was a lot of static.
Vicki Abernathy: I was in my office in Washington DC when a co-worker came to my door in tears. He had just called a NYC-based member of our project team, who answered his call, thinking that his call to his family was being returned. We gathered around the TV in time to watch the 2nd plane hit World Trade. Later, we could see the smoke from the Pentagon through our office windows as rumors kept coming about additional airplanes on their way. By the end of the day, we could account for everyone — even those we lost. Although the company I worked for at the time is long gone, a group of us touch base each September 11.
‘I am a child of the post-9/11 world’
Rina T: I was seven, and while my memories are fragmented, 9/11 is so strong in my head that I think it might be the first time the concept of a country really entered my mind.
My elementary school, a private school in Gravesend, Brooklyn that was started by Jewish refugees from the USSR and mostly catered to our community, had a rooftop playground. We would have a small recess between classes and I remember going up somewhere around nine-ish and us children noticing clouds of smoke in the air. The teachers quickly ushered us down. I recall someone turning on the TV and whispers of panic amongst the adults. They told us nothing.
Hours later, I recall the bus dropping me off on my block, and my mother, bizarrely unkempt and harried-looking, quickly snatching me up and taking me home. Months before she had been laid off at her job across from the Center due to the dot-com burst.
I think it was likely the first time there was some sort of breaking of this American ideal she had as a refugee here. Suddenly the safety and promise of the West was gone, and the area she’d worked in was in ruins. For people who wanted to run from political instability, the attack introduced the idea that the place they ran to was not immune from the same problems.
Rabbi Jennifer Gorman: My spouse, Chaplain Sean Gorman, and I had recently transferred to Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in Jacksonville, N.C. On September 11, Sean was scheduled to depart for Mountain Warfare Training in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I had decided to spend the High Holidays with my parents in New York. My father flew to North Carolina to drive with me and my children. On September 10 we left Lejeune heading north. It was our intention to stop overnight at Andrews Air Force Base. We took turns driving, and, though it was the middle of the night, as we neared Andrews I was wide awake. I made the decision to keep going. If I got tired I’d wake my dad, and we’d get home a day earlier.
As we crossed the Verranzzano into Brooklyn, I turned on the radio to get the traffic report. My father woke to the sound. It was just minutes later that 1010Wins broke into their morning news with a report from an employee who’d witnessed the first plane hitting the Towers from her apartment. I remember them questioning her about the size of the plane, which she insisted was a full-sized airplane. As we drove along the Belt Parkway, the Twin Towers came into view. We could see the smoke billowing from the side. The image of that smoke is burned in my memory.
Meanwhile, Sean was in the air on a US Marine Corps flight. When asked if I was worried, I replied, “He’s in the safest place he could be. He’s on the ground somewhere in America with a battalion of US Marines.” But we wondered if they might just go straight from training to Afghanistan. (They did not.)
Just under a week later, I led a Rosh Hashanah Healing Service. There wasn’t a lot of healing that year. It was a space to share fear, anger, and pain. It was also a space where prejudice and racism emerged, and my role changed in those moments from pastor to chastiser and educator. 9/11 was born out of these things. We would not sink to that place as a response. We would, and did, maintain a space focused on caring even in the face of such hate. In the weeks that followed, New York was a little different. New Yorkers walked a little more slowly. They made eye contact with strangers. We got used to seeing soldiers in the subway.
9/11 is part of me, as it is for everyone. Shortly after, I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter. None of my children — my boys were then 4 and 1 — would get to grow up in a world where America was at peace.
‘Living a good life was the best revenge’
Judi Reiss: We lost our 23-year-old son in the North Tower. This has had a profound impact not only on my husband and my own lives, but on our children. I was home alone when the phone rang. It was Josh’s roommate from college and the roommate’s girlfriend, who Josh had introduced to each other. Brooke told me a plane had gone into the Tower and she couldn’t get Josh on the phone. My world changed and so did I. It took years of counseling and tears ( and anger).
I was able to do what Josh would have wanted: Get even! I decided to make my life count and matter both to my family and my community. Living a good life was the best revenge.
Marcia Pascoe: Our 30th wedding anniversary. My husband took the day off from work. A lazy morning. A noon hour concert. An early dinner at a country bistro.We plan. God laughs. We were aroused by a phone call from our news junkie sister-in-law: “Did you see the news??? Turn it on right away.” We were in time to see the second tower hit. Of course, plans were altered.
Forward 20 years. Not fast forward. We did enjoy those 20 intervening years — children wed, grandchildren, semi retirement. Our 50th wedding anniversary. We plan. God laughs. COVID-19 influences all of our activities.
A family trip? Not now. We hope next year, but…
It is customary at Jewish weddings to remember sadder times, particularly the destruction of the Temples, by breaking a glass. I did not know that on our significant anniversaries, the glass would be so shattered and the sound would resound throughout the world.
Despite these trials, we have been blessed. We recognize and appreciate how lucky we have been. We continue to celebrate life and the milestones life brings. Differently but with joy. Each of our lives moves forward. How we bring meaning to our lives is our choice and our mission.
Ted Steinberg: On 9/11, my father had been in the ICU for a week with severe pneumonia. My mother and I heard the first reports about the attacks as we were driving to the hospital, and, of course, we were very upset. At the hospital, every TV was showing the events as they happened, and patients and staff were transfixed. By a strange turn, that was the day that my father’s condition began to improve, so my mother and I alternated between watching the horrors on the TV and the improving numbers on the monitors that were measuring my father’s vital signs. It was a strange sensation, contemplating the events of that day and thinking about their implications, while at the same time feeling relief that my father was recovering.
‘It was still smoldering’
Rabbi Sara Rae Perman: Most of my story has to do with the days after 9/11. I live about an hour away from Shanksville, Pa. and was serving a Reform synagogue in Greensburg, Pa. I received a call from a congregant who, after hearing about the crash of the plane in Shanksville, said we had to go.
I called the Red Cross, explained who I was and offered my services and those of my congregant. They called me back and asked us to come to Shanksville for a training session. I was in one area meeting with a Red Cross chaplain along with several other clergy, mostly from the small churches in the area. I was later asked to come back the day that Rosh Hashanah began and said I couldn’t. But I did go between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to meet with families who wanted to go to the crash site. It was still smoldering.
Ann Kranis: I was at Maimonides Hospital to visit my husband, who had suffered a heart attack two days earlier. David was scheduled to have an angiogram that morning. When I walked into the Cardiac Care Unit, all eyes were on the TV monitor above the nurses’ station. It was showing the plane flying into one of the Twin Towers. I cried out, “My daughter works on a high floor in that building!” I immediately called my younger daughter, Miriam, who was home with her 16-month-old son and asked if she had heard from her sister, Emily. She had not. The kind nurses gave me the phone number to their nurses’ station. I gave it to Miriam and told her to call me as soon as she heard from Emily. And then I waited.
After what seemed like forever, Miriam called. She had received a call from Emily’s fiancé. Because the family had visited David in the hospital the night before so that I could go home and get some rest, Emily had been delayed getting to the train. The first train that came was very crowded, and she decided to wait for the next one. As she approached the World Trade Center, she saw people running away from the site. Someone told her what had happened. Cell service was unavailable. She walked back toward the Brooklyn Bridge, but it was closed. There was a long line at a public phone at City Hall. She called out, “I work in the Trade Center and my father’s in the hospital with a heart attack. I have to let my family know I’m alright.” The crowd let her go to the head of the line. She called her fiancé, told him she was okay, asked him to contact the family. Emily was one of just a couple of people who survived from the firm she worked for.
Ita Mordetsky: Living in West New York, N.J., my apartment overlooks Manhattan. I stepped out on the balcony, a cup of tea, admiring the beautiful blue sky. I turned to return back into the apartment, I noticed the first tower on fire, and a few minutes later the second tower on fire.
A few minutes later, the phone calls start to come in from family and friends in Tel Aviv, Brazil, California, Florida. I start telling what I saw, I hear my words, but nothing makes any sense.
Make sure you talk and see your family and friends. Life is short.
Sandy Meyers: I was working as a social worker at a very large nursing home in the Bronx. It was a tall building built on high ground, and from the high floor where I was, we watched the towers burning.
Like everyone, I was very scared, not only for the chaos unfolding, but also because my husband was on a plane that morning flying to Chicago for a meeting. He did phone when they finally landed after being rerouted. At his hotel there was a list of guests going to different locations as no planes were flying. So he and a couple of others rented a car and drove back to the N.Y area. To this day on each anniversary he and the person holding the meeting speak and reminisce, and express gratitude for life.
I keep wondering why it takes a horrific attack for us to come together as one and help each other in every way possible. I can’t help but contrast this with the current divisiveness in our society.
‘I should have brought her home’
Jan Moidel Schwartz: I was working that morning in my home in suburban Boston. I received a call from a local friend who told me to put on the television. As soon as I saw what had happened, I called my brother, my only sibling. He worked for the City of New York in lower Manhattan. He told me he was standing outside his office building and didn’t know where to go, or how he would get home, as he lived in Brooklyn and the subways were shut down. Right then, his boss came outside and told him to come home with her, as she lived within walking distance of their office. She was his guardian angel.
I then called the Solomon Schechter Day School where my daughter, my only child, was in the fifth grade. The school told me all the kids and staff were inside and safe, and to come at the regular time to pick her up.
When my daughter got into my car that afternoon, she asked me why I hadn’t come to get her. I said I had called the school and was reassured that everyone was safe. She looked at me and quietly said that all the Israeli children in her class had been picked up by their parents. That was a knife in my heart. One feeling, one strong regret remains with me: In hindsight, I should have brought her home.
Ilana Benson: It was a gorgeous morning. I couldn’t ever remember seeing a bluer sky. I was racing to Krispy Kreme to pick up donuts for the honors math class at Heschel Middle School, where I had just begun student teaching. The class was studying a topic called “fair division” which examines situations such as dividing an object with an uneven shape — like a single donut — into two (or more) equivalent pieces. I figured it would only be fair to bring enough donuts for the entire class.
We asked for your 9/11 stories. Here’s what you shared.
In our small math class, there did not seem to be any students with a parent who worked downtown. But in the halls, there were sounds of sobs and shuffling feet. The students in my class looked at each other uneasily in search of some indication of the right way to behave. One student mumbled “Osama bin Laden” under his breath, long before news agencies had any real clue.
My supervising teacher stepped out and returned with “good” news. It seemed that the parents of all the students in the middle school were accounted for.
There would be no lesson on “fair division.” One student lifted the lid of the donut box and they all helped themselves to the sticky treats, chewing and swallowing in utter silence.
Myra Garber: I was a teacher at Long Beach Middle School, Long Island, NY. I was on duty in the Dean’s office. He called me in to see something on his computer. We looked in stunned silence at a smoldering plane in the side of the World Trade Center. The school’s emergency codes were told to teachers, but we were also told to try to keep things normal and not upset the students. All day long parents called and then claimed their kids, hugging them extra tightly. On my way home, at the end of an interminable day, from the Loop Parkway I saw the fires and smoke in the distance for many days.
Linda Fenton: It was the day of the primary election for city offices. I was warden of Precinct 2, and the polls had been open since 7 AM. The policeman on duty had a small portable TV to help while away the hours of what we knew would be a slow day.
He called me over — “Hey, look at this.” It was the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. Soon, parents began arriving at the school to pick up their children. A teacher wheeled in a big TV to the auditorium. After the votes were counted, I went home. I was numb. The most amazing thing was the quiet. No planes were flying overhead. We watched the loop of the destruction until we could no longer take it.
I checked with my New York cousins. He had walked from the Financial District to their home in Long Island. She had arrived in the city when the first plane hit, turned around and took the train home. Another cousin’s grandson was born on the 10th. His mother and aunt walked and carried him home from the hospital on the 11th. The hospital was sending home patients to make room for the expected deluge of patients from the disaster.
Ettie Zilber: Serving as the General Director of the American School in Barcelona, I was home that day, with my husband, due to the Catalan National Day. Our phone rang; it was our older son calling from Puerto Rico, with one exhortation: “Turn on the TV!” We watched in disbelief, shock and dread. Our younger twins were at university, one child not far from the towers and the other, not far from the Pentagon. After a few hours of futile attempts to make contact, our older son succeeded and told us that the kids were ok. During that time, I was already convening a meeting of my school board and administration to put in place our security procedures to protect our community from any other type of threat to American targets.
Joan Talkowsky: It was one of the first days back at work as director of the Temple Sholom Early Childhood Center in Cedar Grove, N.J. It was a beautiful day. Parents were bringing their children to school, when one mother, after bringing her son, rushed back in to tell us that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. She left, and shortly ran back in again, took her son, and told us about the second plane.
Immediately, two teachers ran out of the building: one, whose sister worked for the Post Office on the ground floor, and the other, whose brother worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald on the top floor. The former sibling was okay and her sister returned to work. The latter sibling became a 9/11 victim, and his sister didn’t return to work that entire year.
‘On U.S. soil the magnitude of the attack hit me’
Randi Jablin: I was in Israel on a Jewish Federation Solidarity Mission. As you most likely recall, no one was visiting Israel in 2001 because of all of the terrorist attacks that were taking place there at that time.
We didn’t understand what was happening. It was all so sketchy as our tour guide shared information as it came in in bits and pieces. It was almost dinner time in Israel. Sadly, now we joined Israel in knowing what it felt like to be a victim of terrorism. Throughout the remaining three days of our trip, Israeli shop and restaurant owners, as well as citizens, put out yahrzeit candles and flew their flags at half staff. They genuinely mourned with us. We were like one big family.
It wasn’t until I was on U.S. soil that the magnitude of the attack hit me.
Hadiyah Carlyle: I was scheduled to fly out from Seattle, visiting my son, his wife and their two young daughters. However, the day before I changed my reservation to Friday instead. My family was going to the San Juan Islands north of Seattle for a mini-vacation. Since, at that time there wasn’t a fee to change reservations I wanted to wait until the family came home so I could play with my granddaughters for the last time before going back to Brooklyn.
At 8:00 am I was in the Queen Anne city pool doing my normal laps when the radio blasted something about the towers. When I got out I asked the lifeguard what was going on. “Oh, something about a fire at the World Trade Center in New York.” I was working for the City near the WTC when we had to evacuate from a fire several years before so I wasn’t concerned.
I didn’t leave that Friday. Friends said don’t come home. I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A few blocks from the fire station were first responders. Most of them died.
New York was not the same. That December I moved to Seattle. I helped raise my now four grandchildren through the years. They are now almost all grown.
Jaime Bedrin: I was 24, a brand new reporter in a brand new town — I had just moved to Charlotte, N.C. from NYC. I was a reporter for WFAE, the local NPR affiliate. One of my first stories from 9/11 was about a local rabbi and his High Holiday sermon. He had already finished writing his sermon in advance of the holidays. On September 11 he ripped it up. Or at least that is what he told me. I don’t remember exactly why I pitched the Jewish holiday angle for a story, but I suspect I needed comfort in a time of extreme chaos and knew I would feel soothed in a synagogue. I remember the rabbi took me aside and asked me a few questions about my recent move from NYC. I started to cry.
‘Written in 2001’
Toni Kamins:I wrote this early on the morning of September 12, 2001.
Yesterday, like many of us, I watched in utter amazement as two airplanes deliberately crashed into first the North Tower and then the South Tower. But unlike most of you I watched it from my bedroom window barely three-quarters of a mile due north. Some time later I felt my own apartment shake and ran to the window just as the South Tower collapsed. Then the North Tower went and finally #7 World Trade Center. The heavy dust and smoke, even nearly a day later, is all that is left. Yesterday it was at what was the full height of the buildings it replaced. As it begins to dissipate it only reveals the huge hole that has been punched in the skyline.
We asked for your 9/11 stories. Here’s what you shared.
I am numb. I think this is what shock must be. I can’t cry, I can’t really think. Yesterday at 8:45 AM I was at my desk for over an hour working on what I’d been working on for the past few months…..promoting my just-published books. I was going to a celebratory lunch at the Union Square Cafe with some friends. Tonight was to have been my book launch party at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, across from the World Trade Center.
And I fear that I shall never feel normal again.
Flash Rosenberg:Written on Thursday, September 13, 2001.
Tuesday morning, when I get the news, I am in the midst of showing a photo portfolio to a potential client for a Bat Mitzvah. We switch on the TV and see, live, the second plane crashing into the Tower. Oh my god. And then we politely finish our meeting. Business as usual, like some dumb, cosmic prayer for it to not be so bad.
I spend most of the day telling people I am all right. Most of the reassurances go to my connections from out-of-town. My function is to be “The Person You Know in New York.” It becomes like some national civic duty to be All Right. Every single message of “Yes I’m okay!” gives a face to those outside. I am like a metaphor for all of New York City to my friends and family, allowing them to experience a moment of relief in the midst of being horrified.
As I pace around inside the fairy tale of my own safety, I feel like some version of all the seven dwarves at once: Lucky, Guilty, Weepy, Eerie, Goofy, Ready, Talky.
Wednesday I finally gather the nerve to take a walk around my block. A patrol of my little patch in this city I love. I am surprised to see my corner fruit vendor all set up. How did he get here? He explains he parks his cart in Manhattan, so all he has to do is take the subway in from Queens to join his produce. “It is too important for me to not come in.” he says, “People need fruit in a disaster.”
Hedi Molnar:Written in 2001.
Just dropped Rachel at school. She is 6, in first grade at our neighborhood school. Sitting in the car, with coffee and bagel, listening to WNYC. Report: plane hits WTC; it’s a horrible accident, I think. Second plane hits, I know it’s terrorism.
I am headed to nearby Bloomfield from Verona, NJ, to pick up my Uncle Gerry, a Holocaust refugee, like my mother, who died in 1967. We are heading to be interviewed by Kurt Landsburger, a Jew who emigrated from Prague in 1939. He is a successful businessman and writes a weekly column for The Verona-Cedar Grove Times.
Kurt wants to write about my uncle and mom, who came from Germany in 1935, as unaccompanied minors, and how my mother’s determination brought her parents to the U.S., just before war was declared. We tell our story and during the conversation, Kurt’s son calls from Washington, to report the Pentagon was hit.
My husband, who works in aerospace defense, is on a business trip. He’s at the main manufacturing facility for fighter jets at Boeing, in St. Louis. All travel is frozen. Fortunately, Michael is with three colleagues from N.J.; they have a rental car. But they wait until the next morning to start driving east.
In 1993, the first time the WTC was bombed, we lived in Battery Park City. From our balcony on South End Avenue, we watched the helicopters hover around the towers. Michael’s cousin, Frank, worked at the WTC for many years, and in 2001, at the first report of trouble, he ran out of the building as fast as he could. My brother-in-law, working nearby, walked north, covered with debris.
I took comfort that my dad, who died in July 2000, didn’t have to endure the pain of 9/11. He survived the Holocaust. As a Second Generation Holocaust survivor, I have innate hypervigilance, whether paranoia or real. Let’s hope it keeps us from harm.