“Where Were You When All Hell Broke Loose and Those Planes Hit the World Trade Center? I was on the B-Train”

BY: Cherry Maggiore – “The Freak of Nurture”

Chapter 12: Taking the Train to the Border

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Today marks the 17th Anniversary of the Greatest Tragedy of the 21st century.

Let that sink in.  17 years since we all awoke to a beautiful crystal clear blue-sky morning on our way to work or to school or to wherever the day was going to take us.  When you think about the millions of people in the country that had their alarm set to wake them to their regularly scheduled activities as they did the other 364 days of the year.  There was no warning.  No hint.  Nothing that could ever prepare us for the tragedy that would single-handedly wake the entire nation to the moment when our collective lives would change forever.

There are memories we want to keep close to our hearts and those that we bury deep in our psyche in order to survive; in order to move forward.  Often, we don’t talk about the tragedies of our lives.  We keep them filed away lest we drown in the sorrow.

However, 17 years later, I thought it was important to reflect on this incredibly life-altering “event.”

We all have our individual tragedies, but that day we collectively experienced a tragedy that affected literally every single person in some visceral way. There are moments in history when we can remember the exact details of where we were, who we were with, the smells and sounds; a complete sensory memory.

If you closed your eyes right now, can you bring yourself back to that moment?  Can you remember what you were doing before you came into the knowledge that a plane hit the World Trade Center?  Can you remember how you felt when you realized that it wasn’t an “accident” but a purposeful act of terrorism that was about to spread across the country?

Think about it.  It was a Tuesday.

When I close my eyes, I recall that I was getting ready for work.  At the time I was living in Bay Ridge in my first apartment.  I was working for Teen People and had just met my ex-husband.  We just started dating.

17 years ago, my life was really just beginning.  I had high hopes for my new relationship, and I loved my career trajectory.  We just returned from Rock ‘N Shop, where we traveled across the country to host events at malls for teens, just in time for back-to-school shopping.

Life was good.  Great, in fact.

Now, think about all the hope you had for that day.  All the plans and the To Dos.  Grocery shopping or dinner with friends.  Maybe you were going to a new class after work. Perhaps you were reuniting with a lost love.  Whatever it was, think about the innocence you approached your life with that morning.

Flash forward to the moment you realized that our city, our country and our world had changed forever.  The unraveling of our safety.  It is mind-boggling how in that one moment as those planes hit, everything else fell away.  The To Dos, the grocery shopping, the meetings were all forgotten, they were meaningless.

Nothing else mattered but safety.  The safety of ourselves, our family and friends.  Who was safe?  The worry. The fear. The horror.

There is likely someone reading these words right now that lost a loved one.  And there are no words to ever express the sorrow I feel for your loss.  I mourn for you.  I pray for you.  I send my love and hope for your healing.

My memory of 9/11 is of a horribly tragic event and an awakening.  And it is not lost on me that I am one of the lucky ones that is here to remember and be able talk about it.

I woke to the strength and perseverance of the human spirit.  I awoke to what is truly important in life.  I awoke to the hero in each of us.  I woke to my faith.  I woke to the fact that all over the world no matter who you were or where you lived, we prayed, mourned and healed together.

The crazy thing about tragedy is that it leads to healing.  And as we heal, we grow.  What I have found most interesting about going through moments of despair, is that we all rise.  We set that alarm again with the hope that we don’t face another horrific event.  But now we open our eyes with a sense of preparedness, even more so with a fierce sense of gratitude.

Today I woke wanting to share my story about September 11th, 2001.  Today I woke wanting to talk about how that moment forever changed me, for the better.  Today I woke wanting to go back in time to that innocent morning and see how far I’ve come.  Today I woke feeling blessed to be alive.

This essay was written seven years ago, on the 10th anniversary of 9/1, as part of my friend Mimi’s son’s 911 Stories Project.  I invite you to join me in remembering and sharing your story.  I encourage you to remember the lives lost on that day, the heroes that saved so many people by giving their own lives and to give thanks for every single person in your life.

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9/11 – Remembered from the B Train

Written by Cherry Maggiore, 9-11-11

So much can change in a year, let alone 10.  So many choices were made on that day…some regretful and some thankful. But there is not one person in NY or the tri-state area or in the world for that matter, that lived past that day unaffected; not one person that doesn’t remember where they were when the first plane hit.

I was on the B Train.

While suspended on the Brooklyn Bridge, the train full of Brooklyn commuters couldn’t wait to get on the bridge; that is where you actually got cell service, not to mention, the most beautiful view of the city.   It was always my favorite part of the day–going and coming.  You can see the whole skyline and on a day like September 11th, 2001, it was no different.  The day before rained really hard, and so the blue sky, warm sun, and crisp air were a welcome start. I just finished putting on my makeup; like any real commuter, every second counts.  And as we approached the bridge, I looked out the window as I did every morning for five years.  And for five years that damn train always slowed to a crawl while making the “little engine that could” effort to get across. It was almost like the conductors didn’t want to rush it…like he or she loved the view as well.

But what we saw was so much different than every morning before.  Suddenly as people stared out the window I heard gasps that turned into whispers, fingers pointed and then loud exclamations.  I got up and looked out the window; I couldn’t really see what everyone was staring at from my seat.  As I stood up, there was a full view of at a gaping wound. A black hole — and it was eye level.  The bridge was precisely the level where the largest hole I have every seen infected one of the most famous buildings in NYC.  There was a moment I thought we were going to get pulled in as if a portal to Hell had opened up.  As I looked around for someone who might have an answer, I saw mouths that were open, eyes that were wide, the smell of sweat and fear.   Suddenly, that enclosed car felt like a coffin.   And as we got closer to the seeing the entire hole…the full view … we all went silent.

There are experiences in life that mark you as only great joy or deep sorrow can. Experiences that make a timestamp in your mind — and when given the chance to remember, you can transport yourself to that very moment and relive it. This is one of those experiences that I did not want to relive.  And that is why for ten years, I have not been able to write about that day — despite the fact that I have journaled important events throughout my life.  This, tragically, could not be allowed to surface without the potential of that hole consuming me again.

Strange to now write about this — what would you call it — event? This happening? Occurrence?  Or, as reported, this “act of war,” “terrorism.”  I think back to the moment I saw the hole where the plane hit and having no context or idea of what happened and then seeing parts of a plane in that hole.  I thought that maybe that it might have been a pilot’s mistake.  Like some stupid little airplane that got lost the week before might have resurfaced and just taken the wrong route and plunged into the tallest building in NYC.  We didn’t get service that day.  And no one could connect with what was happening until I got to Rockefeller Center.  I walked off that train with little facts or knowledge about what I just saw.  Clearly, I knew something wasn’t right and that people probably got hurt, but I could never have imagined what was to follow that frightful sight.

As I walked through the train station, it just felt different…it was quiet.  Not dead silence — but a nervous quiet, energy infected Rockefeller station. Security started to flow through the space at a quickened pace.  Worried faces, furrowed brows, suspicious glances.

As I made my way to the office at the Time & Life building, there were people running everywhere; usually, the only person running was someone late to a meeting or some crazy person running from ghosts or a thief running with his get for the day.  This time, of course, the running was different, it was urgent, frenzied. As I made my way up the steps to daylight, the air hit me and then I started to hear rumblings of information …” a plane hit one of the twin towers”…” what an idiot, how could you run your plane into that building”…”there is smoke and major fire at the twin towers, and massive debris from the plane that hit”…”people are being evacuated”…”not sure what happened but it’s major”…

As I got into my office on the 35th floor, I found my team in front of a TV in my boss’ office.  “What happened?” I said.  “I just saw a HUGE hole in the Twin towers…looked like an airplane hit…”  and they pointed me to the TV where we watched that building burn, still thinking it was some pilot error.  And then the truly unthinkable happened; the next deliberate act, witnessed by millions of people:  we watched as the second plane hit. And it was then that we knew this was not an accident.   We screamed out; some of us cried, others laughed out of disbelief. I just whispered, “no, no, no.”

We still couldn’t believe what we were watching; not three miles from where we were, the entire world was upside down.  The absolute awe and denial and confusion forced everyone to simply just, watch.  Like it was some movie or TV show; totally surreal.

They started to gather us up.  People took their time, not wanting to believe or maybe stupid enough not to realize that we were at risk; especially in a tall building on the 35th floor. And then suddenly the nightmare got worse…we witnessed the first tower fall.

It was like a sinkhole had just opened up and ate up an entire building.  Shock.  Fear.  Panic.  We all started to PANIC.  Anxiety attacks, rapid breathing, tears.   Odd exclamations that we were going to die. Oh, that was me. I realized I was losing it and someone had to talk me down. Verbally slap me out of this attack so I would MOVE.  Down 35 flights we ran.  RAN.  Couldn’t wait to get down to the ground.  Could breathe once I was there, with legs trembling. Everything just trembling. People with cars had their windows down as groups gathered to listen to news reports that we were being attacked.  That NYC was under attack.   Now, this was our only connection to what was happening. Bridges shut down. Trains not working.  NO cell phones.  NO hard lines.  We are on an island…stuck on an island.  Panic again.  No way to know if everyone was ok?  No way for them to know I was ok and not on that bridge being sucked into that gaping hole; now, a gravesite for thousands.

Sadness, just deep sadness. Then fear; terrible, paralyzing fear.  Where will they hit next? Then, we heard about the PA plane, then the Pentagon. Now, I looked around at thousands more people who could be the next target, including myself. Looking up at the sky for signs of another plane.  Looking at vehicles to see if car bombs were going off.  Looking at people wondering what side they were on.

My friend Janis takes my hand and says “Let’s Go, NOW.”  “Where? Where do we go now?” Uptown…uptown?  Like it was somehow the safe haven.  “We have to walk uptown.”  So we walk.  Now, it’s not weird to walk in NYC…in fact; we love to walk.  But today, there were thousands of people walking uptown, like a parade, through Central Park — with a beautiful blue sky, warm sun, and crisp air filling our lungs…while the other half of our city burns in darkness and dust.

The silence around as we walked through Central Park was palpable. No one spoke, except to comfort the crying person next to them.  Or to ask for more news. Or if you had cell service.  They talked of nothing else.  Our lives were now consumed with terrorism, with fear.  Our innocence — and maybe our arrogance — lost forever.

Then the ghosts came.  The people covered in dust and debris from the towers started making their way uptown. They reminded us that the blue sky and fresh air around us hadn’t made its way downtown…that we were stuck on an island in absolute madness.  We just moved along through the park and landed at my friend’s 400 sq foot apartment.  And waited.

There was a hole in the earth when those buildings fell. We all felt empty.  Those towers have been here since before I was born. They were always a symbol that I lived in the biggest, “baddest” city in the world.  A city where I felt removed from the terrorism that plagues the rest of the world. That is why I refuse to move from America…No war is fought on our soil.  And then, we are under attack – and one of the things you count on is suddenly torn away.  It’s like someone took a limb.

I felt the loss.  Great loss starting to shower down and become a reality.  People who were making their way uptown would stop and cry…while others tried to help them. They were frozen. They couldn’t explain. Nor did you want them to.  You heard rumors of people jumping from the upper floors; stories of bodies on the ground; talk of people running from the tornado of debris.  You didn’t want to know.

The aftermath was massive.  The repercussions of this terrorist act were experienced everywhere you went, with everyone you spoke to, and in every way possible.  I remember the burly man on the B train when I went home that Friday night. This man told me what he saw was “the most horrible nightmare…a mass murder…a horror film that I could not imagine.” He just started talking and then crying. And I thought: seeing this grown man cry somehow made the loss more real, more devastating. There was a woman at work, pregnant with her first child, who lost her husband in the black hole.  He was a firefighter, who ran into the building to save lives.  GOD— why?

I am a spiritual person, not a religious one. I don’t have blind faith, which is why it was really fucking hard for me to accept or understand when so many said: “God was there that day.” I guess it depends on which side of 9/11 you are on. The side that died or the side that survived.

But God was on my side that day. Thank God…I didn’t lose anyone close to me.  I got out of the city safely.  But when I went back, I decided to put myself to work helping at the volunteer centers…trying to help families locate their loved ones who were still missing…seeing the hope in their eyes.  But when the hope died along with their loved ones, I moved on.  Then I stood on the West Side highway cheering on the workers, police, and fireman sorting through the remnants (or now evidence) of the massive crime scene…to keep their spirits up, to know we care.  And week after week, life started to return to a new “normal.”

I sometimes think about fate and how people say “that was meant to be”…but is that only true of good events?  I can’t help but think back to that day and wonder was this some sort of twisted fate? Could fate be that cruel? Could the same fate happen simultaneously to 2,996 people? But I move on and deal with my destiny.

Gladly, the end of this story is also a beginning. And I am grateful that the plane didn’t hit the train and that the train didn’t get sucked into that hole and that we got out of the building alive and that there were no other incidents in NY and I got home to my family, and my family was ok.  I am glad my fate was to be safe that day.  I am blessed to be on this side of fate.

Unfortunately, I was scarred that day; that day I did lose something.  I lost security; I lost the safety and trust I once felt in this city, in this country.  Not safe now and never again.  And I will never forget that day; I will remember what I saw, and that is why I no longer take the B train to work, and I no longer travel on the bridge. I drive through the tunnel and somehow feel safer.

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herry Maggiore is the proud single mom of her 9-year-old super-sassy daughter (aka Miss Sassy Pants or MSP) and 15-year-old pug baby (Tiki Barber); in addition to being an award-winning senior marketing executive at NBCUniversal.

Beside her side hustle as the Freak of Nurture, she also started a home design company after being inspired by renovating and designing her 1880’s home in NJ.

This insanely curious and passionate “multi-potentialite” can be found dancing the Argentinan tango, swing and Hustle every Saturday, cooking her family an Italian Sunday dinner, singing and air drumming at concerts or searching for her next adventure.

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