My experience on 9/11 is very similar to the millions of Americans who lived in the New York Tri-State area on that fateful day.
Simple twists of fate, blind luck and crazy circumstances which shaped our lives for years to come.
I was in Clifton, NJ and was from college and bored out of my mind. Ohio State back then was on the quarter system, so by September, everyone else was already back in school. The only person who was able to hang out was my friend Rich, who also went to Ohio State. So, we hung out a lot and tried to find ways to keep occupied, out of boredom. The day before September 11, we went to the Willowbrook Mall. I bought NCAA for my PlayStation 2 and we walked around aimlessly through Sam Goody, Waldenbooks and Pacific Sunwear. I looked at Rich and said, “Man we have to do something a bit more exciting than this tomorrow. Let’s go into the city.” Rich agreed and mentioned that he had a cool camera and wanted to try taking some awesome shots. I asked him what part of the city he wanted to go to. He said, “I have never been to the World Trade Center, how about that?”
“Sounds good, let’s go first thing in the morning,” I said. For me, going into the city as a broke college kid meant taking the early bus and spending as much time there as possible. I hated spending money on the bus or the train and not getting my money’s worth. So, I told Rich that we should leave at 7 am. Between the bus and the subway, we would probably get to the Twin Towers around 8-830 am. He agreed.
That night I talked to my girlfriend at the time, who was on vacation in Lake Tahoe. She was having a miserable time and was even more upset when I told her I was going to NYC the next day as it sounded a lot more fun than the camping trip she was on. I told her I would think of her and call her when I was at the “top of the world.”
As soon as I hung up, my phone rang again. It was Rich.
“Dude, I REALLY don’t want to get up early tomorrow, let’s go later,” he said. I was irked. “Man, you know how much it costs!” I told him. (Remember broke college kid) “And you can’t stay there late because your mom wants you home by 6pm. So, lets just go early and spend the whole day instead of half.”
Rich was more of a college soul than me and was adamant that we really didn’t need to go early. I tried to change his mind, telling him that he probably could get some amazing shots in the morning from the top of the World Trade Center. But he finally said, “Dude, I want to sleep in. We will go to NYC later in the day and it will be fun.”
I was irritated but also kind of agreed. Even though I was a morning person, it was kind of lame to go that early. I begrudgingly agreed and hung up the phone.
I woke up on 9/11 at 6am and jumped out of bed as my mom and dad both left for work. I flipped on the TV and was baffled that my parents, in the year 2001, still didn’t have cable. Flipping through the nine stations we did have, I settled on a local morning show and ate my cereal. The weather came on and I remember thinking, “Man, it is a beautiful day. That dude would have had amazing shots if we were headed there now.” I looked at the clock and wondered when Rich would wake up and what time we would head downtown.
Then I heard it.
Now, I have to stress, to this day I don’t know what “it” was – just that there was a weird noise outside. I thought maybe it was the recycling truck and popped my head outside. I walked around the house wondering if maybe something had hit the house or something. It was nothing. But I looked around and thought, “Wow, it is really nice outside.” There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was shaping up to be a beautiful morning in New York City and I was standing around in New Jersey.
I stood outside for awhile and finally went back into the house. I glanced at the TV, went to grab my cereal bowl, and then stopped. I looked back at the TV. This wasn’t right.
My eyes told me there was a big fiery hole in the World Trade Center. My brain told me that was impossible. It took me a good minute to process what I was seeing and hearing. The news reporters were speculating as it just happened but I knew that it was bad. I picked up the phone and called my mom who worked at the ICU, then-named Passaic General Hospital. She said she’d heard the news and was on standby and might be home late. I then called my dad who worked at St James Hospital in Newark. He told me that he was headed to the roof to see what was happening and to stay off the phone. I hung up, turned around to the TV and saw a fireball. The second plane had hit, and my TV went dead.
When I mentioned my parents didn’t have cable, that meant that the TV signal came through the World Trade Center. In 1993, terrorists carried out a truck bomb attack on the Twin Towers. While people died in that attack, their goal of toppling the towers didn’t go as planned. But everyone who didn’t have cable lost their signal (except for CBS which was airing the Wizard of Oz).
Now on this day, I stared at static and flipped frantically through the stations to see what was happening. All static. Even CBS wasn’t coming through. I then flipped on the radio and turned on 1010 WINS – the local news station. That is when I got confirmation that it was a second plane.
By this time, Rich called asking if I saw what had happened. I foolishly tried to explain it away. “This had got to be some type of horrible accident.” As I said the words, I realized how dumb it sounded. Rich, after a second, matter of factly said, “Dude, this is planned. Someone is attacking us.” He mentioned heading to Garret Mountain so we could see what was going on.
By the time he got to my house, the radio was talking about other hijacked plans in the skies. I ran out and jumped in his car. He had Howard Stern on. As I said what’s up, Rich cut me off and motioned to the radio. Howard and his crew were giving a live account of what was going on.
Rich started driving toward Garret Mountain which offered a great view of the city and took Grove Street. Now, from 6th to 12th grade, every time I went to school, I would do a little superstitious routine when my dad drove down Grove Street. I would look to my right and see the Empire State Building and then look further and see the World Trade Center. Not sure why I did it, but it was just something I made a habit out of. As we drove down the street that day, I looked over.
“Shit, stop the car!” I yelled at Rich. He pulled over and we saw the sight that would be seared into my head for the rest of my life. To see it on TV is one thing. But for the millions who lived in the area and saw that skyline every day, this was too much. Against a clear blue sky, half the Manhattan skyline looked as magnificent and radiant as ever. But there, were the two towers and so much smoke.
Other people started pulling over as well or slowing down to stare out their windows. To use the cliché, it was like a movie. Rich looked around and said, “Let’s go man, we can see better up at Garret Mountain”.
As we jumped in his car, someone on the radio, (I don’t know who) was talking about jumpers. We looked at each other then back at the towers. How bad was it that people were resorting to jumping?
It only took minutes to get to Garret Mountain. We parked and headed up the hill to the overlook. This was a spot that locals and tourists would go to get a magnificent view of the city. As we made our way to the trail up, a man came running down the hill. He was screaming, “The tower came down! The tower came down!” as he literally was pulling the hair out of his head. We watched him run to his car and quickened our pace up the hill.
When we got to the overlook, my jaw dropped. As if the previous view was bad enough, now we saw one tower and a lot of smoke. There were a lot of other people standing there. Some were crying, some were quiet. A few construction workers were loudly talking about bombing whoever did this to the Stone Age. I just stared at the remaining tower. It looked crooked at this point, and I knew it was coming down too. A cop showed up and started yelling that the park was closed, and we had to leave.
Some people tried to argue with him, but I didn’t want to look anymore. As I walked away, the second tower came down.
We headed back to my house and found that CBS was the only station broadcasting on my TV. We sat there transfixed trying to make sense of what happened. After a while, we decided to play PlayStation. I think it was just to distract us. I put in NCAA and we just sat there, not even playing, just staring like zombies. Rich finally said he had to go home, and took off.
When my mom got home, I was surprised. “Mom, isn’t your hospital on standby? What if there are a lot of casualties? There might be thousands of people wounded!”
My mom looked at me sadly and said, “There is no need, there won’t be many wounded…”
At 6pm, my phone rang. It was my girlfriend. I feel foolish, but I had forgotten about her. Cell service had been down and she was frantic, because the last thing I told her was I was going to the World Trade Center. To be honest, I didn’t even think about that (who could) until that moment. I tried to calm her down, but the gravity of my buddy wanting to sleep in and changing our day hit me hard. So many didn’t get that simple twist of fate. So many more were right there. So many more didn’t have the luxury that a couple of college kids on summer break had.
That night, I just sat in my room and cried until I fell asleep.
Two days later, after cursing at the news non-stop, my mom handed me a bag. From her years as a nurse, she had plenty of nursing supplies around and said maybe I could head into the city and donate them. I jumped at the chance as sitting around was driving me crazy. I had to help, even though I didn’t know how. I called Rich and asked if he wanted to go. He jumped at the chance too.
We took the bus (like we were supposed to two days prior) and headed to the Port Authority. As the bus exited the Lincoln Tunnel, it pulled over to the side of the road. The bus driver opened the door and said, “Bomb scare at the Port Authority, everyone off!” We stumbled off the bus and wandered around midtown. We eventually got to 5th Avenue where I saw people just walking down the street. There were no cars and people were just wandering around. I saw some people wearing masks (like we do now) and wondered why they had them on. I soon found out why. As we walked downtown, the smell became apparent. It wasn’t just the smell. It was the smoke, dust and pollution that the debris had kicked up.
As we got further downtown, it got worse. The best way to describe it is like this. Remember the burn pits in Iraq? Imagine it 100 times worse. That was the smell. I have no clue how the brave men and women who worked to save lives and clear debris handled more than a day of that. And wonder why we don’t help them now.
We walked down as far as we could and got to Washington Square Park. I saw a place that was taking donations and dropped off the bag of medical supplies. There was a makeshift memorial there and I went over there to look. I said a prayer, but honestly didn’t feel better.
A few military trucks drove by and everyone on the street started cheering. Then I saw a man walking around waving an American flag. He was smiling and giving everyone a thumbs up. I guess he was trying to brighten people’s spirits and give them something to be proud of. I wish I could say it worked but what I saw next changed my life forever.
We went walking further down and got to Houston Street then Canal Street. Streets were blocked and we were trying to see how far we could go while also trying to not get in the way. As we were navigating the streets, we turned and came across hundreds of people.
They were carrying pictures.
People were walking around frantically. Some had computer printouts with pictures and phone numbers on them. Some were carrying pictures ripped out of albums and frames. Some had framed portraits taken down from the walls. They were running around, showing pictures to people asking, “Have you seen my dad?” and “My daughter never came home, please look and tell me you saw her” and “Please take this, please look for my brother!”
An older Indian woman came walking up to me. She had a framed picture of a man. He was wearing a suit, standing tall and looking sternly at the camera. As an Indian American I knew that look. That was a man who came to this country with nothing and succeeded and wanted to show his pride. My dad and uncles had the same looks in their professional portraits. She walked up to me and said ever so softly, “I can’t find my husband. I don’t know what to do. He is my life. He is my whole life….”
I was 21 years old and to be honest, I was a very cocky kid. I thought I knew everything and was always the first to pretend I had all the answers.
But in that place, with those poor people, I realized I didn’t know anything about the world. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t even know what to tell them. I knew that at this point many of those people in the pictures had to be dead, but I also didn’t even know what to say or how to comfort them.
And for the first time in my life, I felt true hatred. I told myself I would do something one way or the other.
I wish I could tell you I went straight to the recruiting office and signed up. But I went back to Ohio State a few days later and struggled. School didn’t make sense and people pissed me off.
Within days I had beer bottles thrown at me from passing cars, I was called a terrorist, and was almost jumped. One of my roommates, Steve, wouldn’t let me walk to my girlfriend’s house at night and drove me there for a bit, even though it wasn’t far. When people would talk about how scared and angry they were, I would get mad. What did they know? I also was bothered by who didn’t make it. Why did some people get lucky and others didn’t? I read about close calls from survivors and unlucky breaks from families of victims. Classmates and people from my hometown that went through worse and lost people. Family that was there. It didn’t make sense. Classes didn’t make much sense either to me and I dropped out.
Several times I talked about joining the military but my family, my girlfriend or friends would talk me out of it. But the desire was still there. Eventually in 2003 I enlisted in the Marines. I didn’t ship till 2004 and even then, was flabbergasted to realize I had signed up to do paperwork. Yes, yours truly didn’t read his contract and signed up to do four years of paperwork for the 1st Marine Division. My final year, I got into trouble and was sent to a combat unit and deployed to Iraq.
By that point, I was a lot different. I didn’t have the hatred in my heart. In fact, like many, I thought we were actually going to help the Iraqis.
When I got out of the Marines in 2008, I was actually embarrassed of my service. I was a POG, didn’t have a CAR, only did one deployment, and honestly felt like I didn’t do anything of value.
To be honest, I wasn’t even a good Marine. I was unathletic, had to get an eyesight waiver to join and could barely shoot, didn’t know how to swim, and struggled with knee injuries and a broken vertebrae while in. I was pretty much the Anti-Chesty Puller and felt like a joke.
When people asked why I had joined, I would give them some answer about wanting adventure or wanting to travel. I felt stupid saying I joined because of 9/11 only to join years later and spend 7 months on the Syrian border.
And as the years rolled, I still struggled with my role. When we killed Bin Laden, I smoked a Cuban cigar but also felt like I had no part in that at all. When ISIS rolled through the border, I angrily wondered why we even bothered in the first place. When Afghanistan fell weeks ago, like many, I felt like it was a complete waste.
But it wasn’t. You see, one thing I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of people in this country that call themselves patriots. A lot of military aged, able-bodied men like to pronounce their zeal for America and devotion to our country. And there is this new thing where a lot of these guys like to label themselves as “alpha males”.
I guess that’s nice, but for me I wonder. Why didn’t they join? They are military aged, in good shape and claim to love America. But they sat around the last 20 years and sang that weird Toby Keith song and got mad at different people for perceived breaches of patriotism. But I guess they have to make up for the fact they didn’t serve.
I guess they will have to live with that.
And we veterans will have to understand our place too.
Are we all heroes? No.
But when our country needed us, we showed up. Men and women from different states, ethnic groups, religious, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, and other diverse categories. When America asked, we responded, “What can we do for our country?”
Photos courtesy of Joslin Joseph