At 9:20 a.m. on September 11, Kristina Sunde (’01) stepped off the subway at Canal Street in lower Manhattan, wondering why the conductor had just announced that the World Trade Center stop was cancelled. Her morning commute from her 163rd Street apartment to Canal Street, where she attends classes at the New York Academy of Art, usually takes 45 minutes, not an hour.Then she looked up and saw the twin towers in flames. She ran five blocks to the safety of the academy’s building. “It’s usually an incredibly crowded, busy area,” Sunde said in a phone interview last Saturday. “But there was just silence. It was unreal, just absolute silence.”
Shortly after Sunde fled uptown, Carol Hinz (’00), called her boss at Calloway Editions, a small book publisher in the West Village, to say she’d be late. As she walked to the subway near her Brooklyn apartment, about four miles away from the World Trade Center, she noticed that the air was unusually hazy.
“The wind was blowing toward Brooklyn,” she said last Thursday by phone. “The ash just kept getting worse. At that point, my eyes started hurting. I was covering my mouth with my jacket, and a lot of people had on masks because it was really hard to breathe.” When Hinz reached the subway station, workers in orange vests turned commuters away and handed out bus maps.
She again called her boss, who told her that the towers had just collapsed. “Go buy some groceries,” he told her. Stunned, Hinz said simply, “Okay,” and immediately bought some canned food before going home.
Both Sunde and Hinz left their apartments that morning expecting another typical day. But in the weeks since the terrorist attacks, they and fellow New Yorkers are struggling to remember what “normal” life feels like.
Sunde said her parents just helped her move into her apartment a few weeks ago, and they knew how close her school was to the area known as “ground zero.” She immediately reached for her cell phone, “but of course it was impossible for anyone to get through. There were lines wrapped around blocks for payphones, people offering $100 to use whatever phone they could get to.”
She and her classmates stood in the street, holding radios to their ears and watching the World Trade Center burn. Before the towers toppled, she saw people trapped on the highest floors jump to their deaths. “After the south tower crashed,” she said, “which was actually quieter than you would imagine, it sounded like thunder—[academy officials] tried to hussle everybody into the building.
“Literally everybody’s jaws were on the pavement. It was just so incredibly unbelievable.” She continued after a pause, “The towers were 110 stories each and they cut the clouds. I mean, I’ve seen mountains do that.”
As she walked uptown on that day, away from the disaster, “The more normal it seemed. But you could tell who had seen anything that had happened down there, just by looking at their faces. Everybody was in a state of shock.” When fighter jets started patrolling the New York skies, some people on the street panicked. “I heard people saying, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to bomb us.’ That state of fear is still very present. There are policemen patrolling every single subway stop.”
Despite a new persistent fear in New York, Sunde has noticed a change in the way New Yorkers treat each other. “People in my building are so much more outgoing and friendly. They are more willing to say ‘excuse me’ if they run into each other.”
On the day of the attacks, she witnessed a scene that amazed her. Somewhere on a street in mid-Manhattan, two men shouted angrily and pushed each other. Sunde watched a well-dressed businessman approach them and say, “Hey, let it rest. Let it rest for today. Just pick it up tomorrow.” To her astonishment, the men glared at each other, paused, and walked in opposite directions. “It was unreal, because typically I’m sure they would have just beat the crap out of that guy.”
Sunde recently walked south of Canal Street to pick up art supplies, but she had to show identification to the police and National Guard troops guarding the area. She said that formerly ordinary activities like running errands now seem potentially perilous. “Living here, it’s altered the way you walk down the street. It seems to me that it’s impossible not to be affected because every time you hear planes go over, you’re reminded. Things just sound louder. Every time you hear a plane lower to the ground, you just pray.”
Before September 11, Carol Hinz loved to bring visitors to her roof so they could take in a breathtaking view of New York’s skyline. The World Trade Center’s towers “completely dominated the skyline,” she said.
The night before the attacks, she went for a walk. “It was just gorgeous. It had rained, the sky was so clear, and the air was very easy to breathe. So the first thing I noticed when I went outside [on Tuesday morning] was that it seemed incredibly hazy. I was like, ‘What happened? It was so clear last night.’ “
She heard snippets of conversation as she walked to the subway—something about the Pentagon, then the World Trade Center. After she realized that going to work was out of the question, Hinz retreated to her apartment and tried in vain to call friends and family.
Ascending the stairs to her roof, Hinz was stunned by the new skyline before her. “I went into shock because all there was was smoke, and there was so much smoke. I just kept hoping, ‘The smoke will clear and they’ll be under there. They can’t be gone.’ “
That night, “I sat around the TV, which is what everyone did. You couldn’t do anything but sit there in shock and keep talking to people about it.” Her roommate Victoria, who changes trains at the World Trade Center for New Jersey, rode the subway with her boyfriend that morning. The couple “got out of the train station and got above ground right when the second plane hit. There was glass shattering everywhere, and people jumping. When they got home, they were so, so in shock.” The boyfriend works for Merrill Lynch, which had offices near the World Trade Center. He is now working out of a cramped midtown office, alternating shifts with colleagues.
Hinz recently visited Union Square, where students at New York University have set up a huge memorial that “keeps growing and growing.” The memorial is so large that people have begun leaving chalk messages on the sidewalk. Hinz said she’ll never forget watching a little girl of about seven crouch on the ground with a piece of chalk. The girl asked her father how to spell three words, scrawling the message “Let’s Save Love.”
The mood in New York is “slowly getting more normal,” Hinz said. “It’s still in the forefront of everyone’s mind. There’s no resolution at this point. But I think people are less frightened and more trying to go back to what is normal.”