‘I walked from the ash:’ 9/11 began in dorm near Twin Towers—and leaves deep collective pain years later

“Gesture” by Manju Shandler.

September 11, 2021. Thank you for being here today. Thank you to the artist Manju Shandler for “Gesture,” this incredibly moving installation here today at the Pelham Art Center (on view through Sept. 18).

Today we honor those lost on 9/11, reflect on our collective trauma as a city, state, nation, global community, and have an opportunity to share our personal experiences. Today marks 20 years since the attacks, a marker of trauma, pain, loss, grief, anger, fear and sadness.

I walked from the ash. For 20 years, I have been hiding feelings, trying desperately to sweep it all away, yet here it is, 20 years later and I have not forgotten.

I was 19 and had just moved into my college dorm at 84 William St. at the corner of Maiden Lane, across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank, about four blocks from the World Trade Center Towers. It was sophomore year; I had just finished the rigorous foundation year at Parsons School of Design, had spent time traveling Europe and painting in France over the summer. My family had hosted two exchange students from Russia during the summer, and I had just taken them to the Top of the World observation deck in August of 2001. There had been orientation, and classes had just started. My roommates and I were all so excited to be starting our majors, industrial design, fine art and fashion design at Parsons, anything seemed possible.

Monday night, we stayed up late with excitement, only one of us, Monica, had to be uptown at 14th Street at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

The bed shook with an enormous bang. “Ashley what was that?” “It was thunder, go back to sleep.” Bang, “Wait, the sky is blue.” I hopped out of bed and pulled the curtain back to see thousands of office papers fluttering in the wind. “What the hell is going on?”

Moments later, our neighbor was banging on our door. “Wake up. The World Trade Center is on fire!” We all scurried around, with “What?” “Why?” “There is so much paper blowing around.” We went to our neighbor’s room, and his room had a clear picture view of the two towers, enormous, right there out the window, on fire. We saw, we gasped, we exclaimed, there was fear, we watched flames, we saw figures fall and screamed.

We went back to our room on the corner, in an awe struck confusion. We got dressed and opened the window to hang out and see the building on fire down the block. We had been instructed to stay in our rooms. I believe someone counted who was on each floor. Jane and I were hanging around the window, and Ashley was speaking with her family in Oklahoma, when the tower fell. It crumbled, it crashed, just like in the movies, a plume of grey, brown, dark smoke, smog and dust rolled down the street toward us. We quickly got our heads in the window and closed it. The phones went dead in the building, and the sky went black.

The next few hours are a bit of a blur, but we were in our building. We lived on the 12th floor, and at some point, maybe right after the towers fell, we went to the lobby. I remember seeing one person in particular at that moment, covered in ash; she had been on the roof taking photos, she was hysterical, wanting to get out of the building. There was nowhere to go. It was chaos, and we were told to go back to our floor, get a bag packed in case we were allowed to leave, and to fill our tub in case something happened to the water. We watched the news and saw people walking and evacuating the area, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, but the National Guard wouldn’t let us out. When the phone was still working, before the towers fell, I know I had called my family, but I don’t remember what I had said, that I would try to get uptown, or something. Most importantly, that I was alive. It was before I had a cell phone. There was no social media, or camera phone. I don’t know when we had heard from our one roommate who had made it to class, but she had called us.

Trains were running free out of Grand Central, and she had made it home to New Rochelle and told us all we could get there if we walked to Grand Central. The bridges were closed; my family was in Rockland County. I had a boyfriend uptown at the Manhattan School of Music, and a friend from home at Barnard, so I had places to stay if I could get uptown.

“Gesture”

We were in that room for what seemed like forever. We could not see the building across the street. The ash was so thick. A bit after 5 p.m., one more building fell, the lights went out and we were told to leave.

“Cover your skin, put a dish towel around your face and start walking north.”

It was like walking through a whiteout of ash. Ashley, Jane and I stuck together and started our trek uptown. All of us with bandanas covering our hair, long sleeves, small bags that we could carry easily.

The dust on the streets, like a fine snow.

A block or two north there was a bodega with flowers outside, and the roses covered in ash I will never forget. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to pick them up. There was a policeman on the corner saying, “No, don’t touch, that’s looting.” We walked on.

Once we got above Canal Street, it was a different world. We could see the sky again, brilliant blue; children were playing ball. It was so strange. We just kept walking.

We got to Union Square, and there was a memorial started for the people lost, and it was heartbreaking. We cried, we hugged tightly. Ashley and Jane walked straight up Fifth Avenue toward Grand Central to get the train to New Rochelle. At that point, I heard the A train was running north above 14th Street, and I took that way uptown.

I remember writing in my enormous sketch book (the day book Parson Foundation students!) in a red pen, on the subway, of what had just happened. I think that book is on a closet shelf right now. I walked to Katrina’s house (actually now my sister in law) and hugged, and asked for a tooth brush and to get cleaned up. I called home and told them where I was. I called Ted and he came to meet me there.

I went to Ted’s house, or dorm, and I remember getting in the elevator and someone asked him if he had heard from who he was looking for. He hugged me tight with a “I got her right here,” and I was so enormously grateful to be there.

Our dear friend Sammy had an aunt in the neighborhood, and he said, this is all messed up, let’s go there and be together. There was some sort of beautiful meal, rich, comforting textures, and I knew we were safe. The TV played the same footage over, and over and over, and we had to turn it off. We had seen enough. I remember playing Boggle to do something else, anything to take help turn our minds off at the end of the day.

Maybe two days later, Ted and I tried going downtown, to see or hear anything about when I, or anyone who lived there, would be allowed to go home. Not yet.

I had only brought two days of clothes, and I remember going into one of those cheap stores on 14th Street to get tank tops and underwear. It’s like the lady at the checkout could read my mind. She knew what I was doing and why, and the epic sadness that was in New York the days that followed was brutally heavy.

I think it was the third day after that I got home to Rockland to hug my mom and dad. My dad had built his career on Wall Street, the financial district, and had worked on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center until he semi-retired a few years previously. He had had an office on William Street and was actually supposed to go to a meeting at the WTC on Sept. 12, 2001. He never recovered from the 9/11 trauma even though he was home that day. He ignored it and avoided conversations about it at all costs. He and his business partner, my godfather, lost many friends and colleagues that day and were deeply affected that day and the years that followed. Both of them are gone now.

I collected two of my roommates (it was tight quarters where they had been staying) and brought them to Rockland until we were allowed back to our dorm. It was about a week later that we moved back in and were handed a dust mask with a don’t-leave-home-without-your-mask guideline.

When we came back, I collected a bag of dust from our windowsill.

Collective mourning New York. What a tragedy. I can remember the smell so distinctly. Living near ground zero in the year that followed, we were all lost.

Living near ground zero in the year that followed, we were all lost.”

Art saved me. I got songs in my head and started writing and singing out loud as a three-chord wonder, mostly in the East Village and a bit on Murray Street. Art and music is where I found solace.

There were members of the National Guard everywhere, holding semi-automatic rifles on every corner and subway station. There is no way we will ever forget.

The lost-person signs were everywhere, in the train stations and on the fences, signs of hope hoping those lost would be found.

2,977 people died, 2,605 U.S. citizens and 372 non-U.S. global citizens. More than 90 countries lost citizens in the attacks.

Hate crimes happened everywhere, especially against the Islamic community, everyday occurrences. Lines of division scarred us and scared us. Conspiracy theories broke apart friendships and families. Friendships became strange with heated debates and hurt.

Deep collective pain. Trauma affects everyone differently.

9/11 for me has become a marker of pain, and I have tried to bury and ignore it for 20 years. I think about my friends who left New York, said they could not handle it, said they had to get away for awhile. I think about my friend who left school and shot himself a year later.

I think about how people try to escape the trauma of attack and sudden loss. During the blackout of 2003, I had barely stepped off the subway at 42nd Street when the lights went out. Thinking it was a fluke at first, I kept walking in the direction I knew the stairs were in. It stayed dark. I followed a light on a keychain flashlight. I heard screaming and walked the other way. When I came into the sunlight, a woman saw my face and reached for my arm. “It’s not happening again. It’s not terrorists. It’s a blackout.” She must have read the unknowing fear that had taken over my being.

Twenty years, and I have lived in 15 places, in three states. It’s like I have been trying to run away from something intangible, only now finding my footing.

Collectively, when things truly get terrible, I know New Yorkers will always be there for one another, New York Strong, United We Stand, and together we will continue to get through this.

Twenty years later, and I feel like the dust is still settling.

Collective trauma continues with our current situation.

As the dust settles, like a great phoenix we rise from this ash. We face our fear, our pain, our damage, and continue with love, respect, gratitude and an artfully lived life. Why else are we here?

On 9/11 every year, I ask you to hug, love, embrace your loved ones a bit closer. Share joy, smile, because we are able to be here, breathe, love and reset with all the best intentions.

Sending love now and always to those lost, to the survivors, families, the first responders and to every person who contributes, not just then, but now to building and enhancing places where shared experience and community can exist, thrive and co-create our shared world.

Peace and Love.

Honoring the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pelham Art Center hosted a public meditation and reflection Saturday accompanying the current exhibition”Gesture” by Manju Shandler. Executive Director Charlotte Mouquin gave these remarks as part of the event.