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A Strong America

‘We’ve Been Attacked’: A Personal Reflection About Sept. 11, 2001

Writer told her boss, 'Turn on the news' — and all she could think of was home

I was just three months into a new job in midtown Manhattan as a publicist for a classical music producer and conductor when the planes hit the towers on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

As I emerged from the subway platform that morning, silvery plumes of smoke billowed against the clear blue sky, but with my mind in classic work mode, I paid little attention.

I was too preoccupied with getting ready for the busy concert season ahead at Carnegie Hall.

When I reached my office, I learned a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, only a few miles away. Moments later, at 9:03, a second jet bound for Los Angeles slammed into the South Tower.

Seconds later my boss, the conductor, emailed me from his home; he had not yet heard.

“Turn on the news,” I urged him. “We’ve been attacked.”

At once, I realized the enormity of the situation, but felt frozen. That something so heinous could happen to thousands of innocent souls was unfathomable, surreal. What to do? Whom to call? Where to go?

It was all a blur.

Pandemonium gripped Gotham like a horror film — only this time, it was real. Television networks were reporting that people were plunging from the twin towers, jumping out of windows rather than burning to death. With every vivid detail, my urge to flee the madness overwhelmed me.

I remember flying down 12 flights of stairs, but the rest is hazy, like the East River veiled in fog.

Running toward my apartment on the Upper East Side in my strappy sandals, I watched as throngs of resilient New Yorkers trudged like refugees across the 59th Street Bridge, a span connecting Manhattan to Queens, while fighter jets hovered over the New York City skyline — a stark reminder that the world as we’d known it had — in an instant — changed forever.

My Greek immigrant parents, who had arrived separately and legally on these shores, witnessed the atrocities of war firsthand on their respective islands of Aegina and Leros, during World War II. They never imagined their children would live in a time when terrorism would loom ominously in their lives.

“America the free,” my father, a patriot, would proudly proclaim, a gleam in his eye. His words now seemed meaningless.

Come home,” he pleaded over the telephone.

With the newly imposed flight ban, Seattle — where my parents lived — seemed a world away. And for the first time ever, along with legions of others, I was trapped on Manhattan, when all I yearned for was to be home surrounded by my family, where I felt safe.

For three nights I slept on the bathroom floor of my apartment in a fetal position, as far from the windows as possible, uncertain about the immediate future. Thank God my roommate, a commodities trader at the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT), which was demolished on 9/11, happened to be on vacation when the attacks occurred.

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I didn’t lose anyone close to me, but an acquaintance of mine lost her brother, and another woman I know lost her husband. Still, the collective grief was almost unbearable. It’s still hard.

Three months later my father passed away. Mom said he couldn’t accept the fact that the United States had been attacked; his emotional state declined along with his physical health.

I remained in New York City, but vigilance was now my new default, as fear sidled next to me on airplanes, subways, busses, and taxi cabs.

A couple of years later, my husband George and I were headed uptown on the No. 6 train after shopping at the mega J&R superstore on Park Row in Lower Manhattan.

Somewhere along 59th and 68th streets, the jam-packed subway came to screeching halt. We, along with our fellow straphangers, stood drenched in our own perspiration — it was August in the city.

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Terror, meanwhile, coursed through my veins. And I thought the worst — that our time was up.

I looked at George, although I didn’t say anything. “We’ll be OK,” he said firmly, as he reached for my hand.

Twenty minutes or so later, we started moving again. Someone had mistakenly activated the emergency brake, we were told.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Still, I had aged a lifetime.

And I could hear my father’s voice — it was time to go home.

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter. A version of this article first appeared in The National Herald two years ago.