A personal recollection

What I saw 9/11: Grim scenes, the smell of carnage and signs of hope at Ground Zero

What I saw 9/11: Grim scenes, the smell of carnage and signs of hope at Ground Zero

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The New York City SAKS FIFTH AVENUE store windows were blacked out and poignantly read "WITH SADNESS." Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The "World Trade Cross" still sits at Ground Zero where it was found and mounted on a concrete pedestal in October 2001. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The author's photos in her scrapbook from Ground Zero. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The view looking south on 5th Avenue on 9/11/01 right after the towers fell. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Streams of emergency vehicles whizzed by towards downtown. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The author's 9/11 scrapbook Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The author saved all her letters she received from friends and family after 9/11. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Ground Zero a few weeks after the attacks. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The Tribute in Light is an art installation in remembrance of the September 11 attacks.  It initially ran as a temporary installation from March 11 to April 14, 2002 and has continued to run annually on September 11th. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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An encouraging email from a friend that was working for the President at the White House in Washington D.C.  The author saved every email she received from friends and family about 9/11. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Countless shrines filled the city.  Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Images of the missing haunted the city. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Time Inc, the company Meredith Riddle worked for at the time of the attacks, raised money to buy a new fire truck for Engine 23.  Engine 23 was the Firehouse of her friend and coworker at Teen People Magazine whose husband was a firefighter and first responder who perished on 9/11. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Pieces of the towers that remained barely standing. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The American flag stood tall above Ground Zero. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Smoke filled the streets. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Flowers placed in memory of the fallen. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The enormous scale of the rubble and debris was unbelievable. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Just a few weeks after 9/11 is the view of the Washington Monument behind the gnarled Pentagon. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The author took this photo from the balcony of her sister's boyfriend's (now husband) apartment on Sept. 3, 2001, just eight days before the New York City skyline forever changed.  Photo by Meredith Riddle
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Many months after 9/11, on a flight from Houston Hobby back to New York La Guardia, the author took an aerial view of Ground Zero. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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The view in front of the iconic Flatiron Building with the mushroom of smoke in the background. Note the gold clock in the photo. It was exactly 11:15 a.m., 47 minutes after the towers fell. Photo by Meredith Riddle
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With no time to turn off her computer as her building evacuated, the author's instant messages written during the attacks were still on the screen when she returned to work days later; their panicked words were frozen in time.  Photo by Meredith Riddle
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I was 24 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and working in New York City at Teen People Magazine on the 35th floor of the Time & Life building in Rockefeller Center.
 
It was a crisp and clear September day. It was early, and people were still making their morning commute. I was already at work, sitting at my desk. Seemingly out of nowhere, at exactly 8:45 a.m., my boss screamed my name in a tone that I had never heard reserved for work emergencies.

I ran into her office, and she was standing in front of her television. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. My tears came immediately, and I remember that I said, “Oh my God, it’s Pearl Harbor.”
 
My boss looked at me and said she was sure it was just an accident. I knew it wasn’t. I knew it was likely that I would know someone who would die that day. And that, I told her, was why I was crying.

“I’m from Texas," I said. "There aren’t that many of us here in New York, and I know a lot of them.”
 
I was still with her when we watched the second plane hit.
 
I was frozen in total dismay until my ringing desk phone snapped me out of it. It was my dad.  He asked me if I was OK, and then told me to get out of the building. "And take the stairs,” he said.

 Life has changed much in the 10 years since the attack. Now that this grim anniversary is here, the grief is still profound, but America has risen above the ruins.

At about 10:30 a.m. I was walking down Fifth Avenue toward home, toward the dust. In an instant phones were overwhelmed and all communication was lost. Although there were hundreds of people on the street, at that moment I felt completely isolated. 
 
It was then that I realized that the day would go down in history, and it needed to be recorded. So I ran into an electronics store and told the man behind the counter that I needed to buy a camera. Any camera. As I walked toward home, I took pictures of everything I could.

I watched as the towers fell and lower Manhattan was engulfed in ash and debris and a mushroom of smoke filled the air. 

There are many things I don’t remember from that day, but I will never forget that smell. The smell of the chalk and carnage that filled our apartment for months. Just when you thought you had a break, the wind would shift and the smell would suck you right back in.
 
People ask me, what do you take away from that day? In a second, we learned that shared values like commitment, compassion and community are actually real. 
 
The very thing that the terrorists sought and seek to destroy were and are at the very pulse of where I worked then and where I work now at CultureMap: Our mission was and is to entertain, inform and connect people with religious diversity, journalistic impartiality and creative freedom.

 The only thing moving on the streets were ash-covered dump trucks taking debris uptown. The only sound you hear are sirens and fighter jets circling the city from above. 

Scars are deep and memories are still vivid. On that beautifully crisp and clear day I was filled with dread, because the city as I knew it would never be the same. The firehouse next to my apartment lost many of its men. My coworker's husband died. Many of my friends' coworkers died.

However, I knew many people that survived. I knew that we had been beaten down, but I knew that New York City wouldn’t lose this fight. New York can’t be defeated. Life has changed much in the 10 years since the attack. Now that this grim anniversary is here, the grief is still profound, but America has risen above the ruins.
 
This is history that my grandchildren will hardly believe. But as strange as it seems to say it, I am so glad I was there. I am glad I am here now in Houston to tell the story. And I am glad that I helped to record the transition of Ground Zero in a scrapbook I have kept of the event. 

I will always love New York, now more than ever. Below are some excerpts of my correspondence from New York:
 
Sept. 13, 2001
 
"Wanted to let you know I am alright. The surge of emails and calls have been amazing, and I am sorry that I haven’t been able to get back to each of you. 
 
The stories I have heard are horrendous and very emotional. One of my friends’ husbands is a firefighter and is still missing. Everyone has their own account and individual stories as to where they were at the time, who they know and their thoughts.
 
I was in my building in Rockefeller Center when it happened and we evacuated around 10:15. I frantically and aimlessly walked alone for about five hours, not able to contact anyone, as did most of the city. Phone lines were jammed, people huddled around parked cars listening to the radios and strangers crowded stores watching the news. I was on Fifth Avenue most of the time walking downtown, towards home, taking pictures and listening and watching the ambulances and buses and the frantic people. Smoke filled the air. Streams of emergency vehicles, empty buses and army vehicles whizzed by. 
 
Just last month I moved to the Village with Monica and Kathryn to 7th street. As you may have heard on the news, vehicles are not allowed below 14th street and in order to pass the police on foot, you have to show proof of residency. Our apartment is filled with the chalky smell of carnage and smoke. I will never forget this smell . . .
 
Walking to work today was only silence. Not a car in sight as I walked towards Second Avenue subway, and the only thing moving on the streets were ash-covered dump trucks taking debris uptown. The only sound you hear are sirens and fighter jets circling the city from above. 
 
Words fail me when asked how I feel. However, the patriotism of the city is overwhelming. Shrines are everywhere, people are giving away water and cookies on the street to passersby. Police on every corner. 
 
Hope everyone is OK and will talk soon …

Love, Meredith"

Another Anniversary - Sept. 11, 2002
 
"Phil sent me this today from a reading at St. John’s Church in Houston.  One of the readings was particularly powerful, and I wanted to share it.
 
'… and so we pray that there will be those who offer a listening ear, a healing touch … help us to find the hope that lies beneath what our hearts can see and our ears can hear … Help us to hold fast to the belief that there is still goodness in the world … help us to trust again … Mend once again our brokenness, and guide us towards the path of peace.' - A Reflection, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley.
 
As I look out at the New York City sky, the same feeling I felt came over me as it did minutes before 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. I thought, it is one of the most beautiful days here in the City – so crisp. I love it here.
 
God knew we needed sun again on Sept. 11, 2002, one year later.
 
Last year, the streets were loud and you could not tell the difference between the smoke and the clouds.
 
But as I look up, there is not smoke; only white clouds.
There are no yells; only birds.
And all you can hear is the sound of bagpipes,
And bells, bells, bells … "