Remembering September 11: A Personal Account of 9/11/2001

Guest writer Cara Winter shares her first-person account of running from the World Trade Center
By Cara WinterPublished on 09/11/2016 at 9:02 AM EDT

Today at GrokNation, we join the world in remembering the attacks of September 11, 2001: we remember the passengers on the four planes that were used in terror attacks against America, and the people who died at the Pentagon, in the field in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed, and at New York City’s World Trade Center. Fifteen years later, the 9/11 attacks still emotionally echo for us, as individuals and as a nation. Many of us have stories of having been close to one of those tragic points of impact: here’s one story, from screenwriter and playwright Cara Winter.- E.K. 

From the author: This was written in 2011, on the 10th Anniversary of what became known as “the attacks against America.” Since I wrote this, my feelings have changed a bit: I don’t dread early September or the media reminders, or the flag-waving the way I used to. As time passes, I recognize more and more that it is becoming another national commemoration day, like VE Day: something more removed and less personal, even to some of us who were there. Moving forward is healthy, I think: I’ve been through two-plus years of therapy, and I think writing it all down, going step by step through it that day, is part of what finally helped me put it in the past. Plus, time has helped too. It was 15 years ago. But of course I still think about that time. I will always think about that time. But as time passes, I’m hating a bit less and remembering a bit more, all while moving forward. – C.W.

I hate 9/11. I hate it. I really, really, really do. I hate that I spend the whole day with chest pains and a knot in my throat. I hate that my best friend and brother and parents always stop whatever they’re doing to call me and remind me how glad they are that I’m alive. (Yes, I hate that. Don’t stop doing it, but just know that I hate that you /we do this… I wish I weren’t one of those people who feels lucky to be alive.)

And I hate that this year, on the 10th Anniversary, it was a beautiful day here in Chicago (where this transplanted New Yorker now lives), looking exactly the way it looked 10 years ago – and I spent the daylight hours checking the sky for low-flying jet aircraft.

Ten years ago, I was fresh off a summer stock job (best ever), home, happy, and unemployed. A family friend had asked me to volunteer for his daughter’s City Council campaign – would I come downtown on the Sept 11th to hand out flyers in Lower Manhattan? Sure, I said. I’m there. Butt-ass-crack early in the morning. Didn’t wear sensible shoes, wore “Nice” shoes. Debriefed by Mike, given flyers with which to go a-flyer-ing, and dispatched to my post: The World Trade Center.

6:00AM. 6:30AM. 7:00, 7:30, 8:00… standing and trying to hand out Manhattan City Council flyers! Everyone I met said “just voted” or “from New Jersey, thanks!” as I tried to get rid of my flyers. Felt kind of a like a failure. A failure who has to pee, whose feet are killing her, and who is in need of stronger coffee. Decided to go into WTC Tower 2 – down into a sublevel, one of the many sublevels – to find coffee and bathroom, at about 8:20.

Pre-coffee, post-bathroom: someone is running. More running people. Several people are waving an arm at me, “Get out, get out of the building!” (by the way, I felt NOTHING, thank you sublevel engineering), and so I followed them, out some doors, glass doors I think they were, maybe? And I look up and there is a HOLE in the tower with black smoke billowing out of it. The one I just exited. I am looking straight, and I mean STRAIGHT UP, at it, my neck could not go further back towards my butt, and I just am amazed. I look around. “What happened?!” I ask a stranger. They say, “I heard someone say it was an airplane.” WELL, I thought, IF SO, THAT IS THE SINGLE WORST FRIGGING PIECE OF PILOTING IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND – or something that effect. IT IS A BEAUTIFUL DAY, NOT A CLOUD IN THE SKY (which is one of those expressions you remember your parents’ friends saying, from childhood, isn’t it?)

My first thought was that my relatively new boyfriend, Warren, should know about this – he’s a journalist, I thought, maybe he can ‘scoop’ the story. I literally thought that, “I’m going to give him the Scoop.” It was kind of cute, thinking that, right?  I looked down for my cell phone – oops, right, FORGOT IT AT HOME. Borrowed a cell phone from someone nearby; I got through, but I got voicemail. I didn’t even leave him a message. Then I start kind of wandering. I’m thinking, “Okay, I don’t really know what to do. I would like Warren to know about this, but he won’t pick up his cell phone. Maybe I should find a payphone.” Already in 2001, those are freaking scarce. I start walking, not thinking about which direction. I come to a building, ask the doorman to let me use their phone, and he says “No.” The only NO I heard all day, of that kind, when someone asked for help and the answer was “No.” He must have had a good reason, but I thought “Bastard.” I come upon a maid. Seriously, a maid, a small woman in a maid’s outfit, black dress, heavy-duty black work shoes, white apron, the whole bit. She’s crying. Hard. She has no purse, no backpack, no coat – why would you, it’s 80 degrees out – and she’s standing there, paralyzed, weeping. “Those poor people!” she cries. I push that thought away. Go away, that thought, of the people – I mean, sure there are people up there, but there are firemen on the way, and they’ll get out, and it’s going to be OK. But she’s really upset, she’s taking it all in and letting it all out, and it’s doing her absolutely no freaking good. So I say, “You should just go home. Go home and be with your family. Where’s your purse?” And she still doesn’t move. So I say, “Come with me, I’m going to take you to the subway.” I think I *might* have given her a couple of dollars for the subway, but I don’t remember, maybe I was just wishing later I had? But at any rate, she walks with me.

A few moments later, I realize I have no idea where the nearest subway is. We keep walking. Then I see a Park – it was Rector Park, in hindsight I know it was, but only from looking at a map – and I see a Park Ranger. I say, “Hi, this woman is very upset, can you make sure she gets home OK?” and the Ranger kind of ‘takes ‘her and says, “Yes, okay.” I say, “by the way, I am all turned around, what is the nearest subway?” and the Ranger points me to the West, “The N/R is that way.”

I start walking west. I get to West Avenue; I am south of the towers, I am in the middle of the median. Traffic is completely stopped and everyone is just looking UP. Then……….. that sound. The sound that we know now was a jet engine approaching from the North. Everyone including me turns towards the noise, and BOOM. Seriously, it really does look the way it does in the movies, I think, or thought later. The man nearest me shouts something profane – I mean, it was something like “you motherfucking assholes!!!!” or something like that, it was really profane using several epithets strung together. He throws his bag on the ground. He grabs his head w/ his hands. I think I did too, grabbed my head, because when something unbelievable happens you must always check to make sure that your head is still there. That you are not dreaming, your head is still there, and yes, this is happening right now. Suddenly, I have my high school Vice-Principal’s voice RINGING in my head, from those fire drills : “Get as far away from the building as if you were to lay it on its side!” and I’m still pretty much looking straight UP at these two towering infernos, and I’m thinking, those are maybe a quarter of a mile high, or so – yeah, I should maybe get home. I realize as I’m thinking this, I am now booking it, as fast as my poor, sore feet in my nice shoes will allow me to move; I get to where I now recognize streets from working at JPMorgan, and I know there is an N/R at Rector. I’m thinking “I have got to get on the subway, there is no way I can walk home in these shoes from here.” And besides, I think that it might have been a scud missile. I don’t know, but I think that’s what it would sound like. And maybe there’s more coming…

I get to the N/R. The streets and steps of the subway station are littered with charred paper. Papers are floating down around me, still burning. People look frantic. I realize I must look frantic, too. I think I am frantic. I dump Mike’s daughter’s glossy pamphlets in the trash. Almost immediately I regret that decision; I almost started to dig into the trash to get them back, thinking ‘Maybe they’ll find those in the trash and think I had something to do with the attacks!’ The subway arrives from Brooklyn, saving me from the ‘crazy’ that I know I was just thinking. Doors open. Several hundred people emerge from the train, OF COURSE like they do EVERY MORNING, and I think something like ‘Do something to help them all! But something not crazy!” because they’ve been on a train from Brooklyn for 30+ minutes and have no idea what’s happened – so I shout, trying not to sound crazy: “Don’t get off the train, there’s been an explosion at the World Trade Center!” …but no one listens to me. ‘Poor crazy girl’, their eyes say, ‘happens all the time here in the big city, perfectly respectable looking people suddenly go bonkers; well, I have to get to work…’ All but two get off the train. Two, sport-fleece-wearing German tourists with impeccable taste in eyewear, listened to me, and they get back on the train. Perhaps I “saved” them……? But if so, that means my batting average is fucking awful, so … they chose, I did the best I could, and two of them chose to stay on the train.

The train doors shut, and it continues North. I wait for an announcement, but none comes. Next stop, Cortland Street, which is underneath the WTC, on the Easternmost edge. I can’t remember if we skipped that station, or not. We may have actually stopped. I remember one girl – maybe she got on the train at Cortland? – she’s dressed in pink from head to toe, fabulous sunglasses, perfect hair, manicure – except something is off about her. Oh, right, she’s sobbing and holding herself, a little. I nod to her; I’m still panting, edgy. A gorgeous, tall, African-American man in this lovely suit (it’s funny, the details you remember, and the ones you don’t) asked me what happened. “I don’t know, exactly. There was a huge explosion at the World Trade Center.” And he looks concerned. “Are you OK, do you need anything? I think I’ve got… ” and I am filled with gratitude that someone freaking cares (and, not to beat a dead horse, doesn’t appear to think I’m crazy.)  He offers me gum. I’m sure he was wishing he’d had water to offer, because surely my mouth was dry, but gum was the best he could do. For some reason, I declined. I’m sure my mouth was dry, but maybe I’d thought, ‘Now is not the time for gum. This is not an appropriate time to chew gum. Chewing gum is far too casual for what’s going on, right now…’ There is a moment’s relief after he extends the gum, but then I realize I have to SIT on this train a while! All those stops… Prince Street, 8th Street, Union Square… my anxiety starts to build… he asks me maybe another question or two, clearly concerned, but I’m distracted because I can’t move the train faster, and I’m stuck down here, what if there’s been more missiles or explosions, up above? What if we get trapped down here? I can’t be underground any more, I decide. (As I write this, I’m referring to a map of the subway system, and I realize I should have transferred at Union Square!) By 23rd Street I’m really shaking. I think the nice man probably said ‘goodbye’ or something when he got off the train, or when I did.

Finally it’s 28th Street and I can’t stand it any longer, I have to get above ground. I come up above ground; everything is relatively peaceful in this area, no local bombs as far as I can tell; I can still hear sirens, tho. I start walk-running to 32nd in my ouch, fucking, ouch, freaking, god-damn shoes that I should never have worn. I think at some point I took them off, and walked barefoot. (I still do this sometimes, and I always worry that people will think I’m crazy.) I get home; I climb the stairs, shouting “Warren! Warren?” but even as I’m shouting I’m pretty sure he’s not there. I open the door – and he is not there. His breakfast is abandoned half-eaten at the table, and the camera gear he’s borrowed from Blake is gone, and there’s no note, and he’s gone down there. He’s gone down there, to where Mrs. Wrobleski our Vice Principal had told us to run away from. He’s gone down there. I turn on the TV. The TV, as we all know, knows all. At this point I understand they were planes and not missiles. They sure sounded like missiles, I think, but OK, the TV knows all. I pick up the phone to try to reach Warren. I cannot get through to him. I want him to know I’m OK. I need to know he’s OK. Oops, just realized, I’d called him from a payphone at 8:00AM to see if he wanted to meet me for lunch later, “I’m at the World Trade Center!” so stupidly childlike and happily! …and now he thinks I’m still down there, because I can’t get him on his cell to tell him I’m home! Maybe he went down there to take pictures, and then look for me?

At some point, I watch with the world the first tower collapsing, and that is the point at which everything gets very fuzzy for me. I remember I was just lying on the floor for a long time. I don’t remember talking to my brother, very vaguely talking to my Dad, I mostly know that I did because they both have talked about it in years past. At some point I heard a door to the building open and shut – “Warren?” I shouted, and ran to the door – nope, a neighbor, don’t recall her name – she said “Are you looking for your husband?” I said “Yes, and he’s a photographer, a news guy, and I don’t know where he is!” and she said, FIRMLY, she took me by the shoulders and she got right up near my face and she said, “HE’S GOING TO BE FINE.” I am very sad that I never knocked on her door to thank her for making me feel better, that day.

I don’t remember how long it was before Warren got through on a landline. It seemed like infinity. It was infinity. Finally he calls – he’s done taking pictures but has to wait for them to develop. (Pre-digital, wow.) “COME HOME NOW!!!” I remember screaming at the selfish bastard, WORKING, at a time like this! “I can’t. I have to work for just a little while longer, just hang in there, and then I’ll be home soon.” I have never loved anyone so much in my life, but in that moment I hated him. I didn’t want to be alone for one more second. I think I was still on the floor when I heard him come home. I think he probably held me. I don’t remember finding out about the other planes, the other disasters in DC, PA – I must have seen them unfold… because all we did was watch the TV. But I don’t really remember ‘processing’ it all. At some point the Mayor – bless his deep-red, Italian-American, goddamned hard-as-nails HEART; that stalwart man in his unflappable, thick-New-York-thug-like, Father-like accent, said, “Go give blood, that is the best thing you can do, right now…” and I wept, that someone so Freaking Awesome (bear in mind, I’d hated him before) was going to take care of us, all. We watched the TV some more, waited for more reports, more news… I may have dozed, a little. I remember being really COLD.

At some point in the afternoon, we heeded Rudy’s instructions and struck out to give blood. We walked over to the NYU Medical Center (or was it Bellevue?) and we said, “We’re here to give blood.” And they turned us away. “We have enough,” they said. Enough?! I thought. I’m sorry, what are you talking about, you have enough? Are you crazy, how can you have enough? How could there ever been enough blood, for THIS? I thought. Then I realized…. they weren’t taking in any wounded. There were no wounded. Hospitals weren’t frantically putting people back together. They weren’t actually using any blood; they did, indeed, have enough. We walked back home. I probably wept. I probably wept, but I don’t remember, because I don’t remember not weeping. I don’t feel like I wept all the time; but at the same time I don’t remember not wanting to weep. I don’t remember not feeling scared. I don’t remember going to bed that night.

I DO remember not wanting to get out of bed, the next morning, or the next, or the next 1000 mornings. Waking up was SO HARD, afterwards. I also remember, for weeks after, walking over to my new part-time job at my old school, CAP21 – it was a comfort, being there, it was a version of ‘home’, my old school – which is probably why I kept going in to my little, part-time front-desk job. Because to get there, I had to walk past the Armory, where they were sending Loved Ones to post their Missing Posters and register their Missing Persons. For months, until we moved away…. I walked past 2,600 Missing Persons. I couldn’t help it, there was no path I could take to work, where I would not encounter ROWS and ROWS of smiling Missing Persons. And they were always smiling, these Missing Persons. Their Loved Ones had used pictures of their Missing Persons from wedding albums, or taken at frat parties; from trips to Cancun, from engagement parties, and first days of school, or little league, or a bah mitzvah. One after another, always smiling… 2,600… “Have you seen so and so??” with height, weight, cell phone, contact info, 2,600 moms, dads, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, one after another, after another, and no one ever came to take any of them down.

For a very long time, these 2,600 smiling faces accompanied me on my walk to CAP21; they watched me dodging raindrops when the Autumn came; they watched me slipping on ice, that Winter; they watched me hailing cabs, perhaps to escape the weather, but perhaps to escape them. And I watched them fade a little, the contact info smudged and drippy from rain and snow, the paper buckling, puckering; their faces becoming less and less clear, each day. I remember when we moved to Midtown months later, they were still all there, faded but smiling out at us, from the time when they were alive. And I tried pushed pushed, pushed the feelings of sadness away. I pushed them down, as far as they could go. I was helpless and stupid, just stupidly lucky to be alive, and I should feel happy – happy to be alive – but I don’t.

It’s been 10 years (almost 2 of which were spent getting some really, really good therapy) and I still can’t comprehend most of ‘it’ – the death, or the ‘reasons’ the terrorists did it, or which-person-in-the-CIA-missed-this, or which-foreign-government-gave-money-to-the-enemy, any of that. I will always have more questions than answers, on this. Nor do I understand any of the death that has come after. I felt one burst of “let’s nuke them!” and on 9/11 and then it passed; I cannot comprehend answering pain and violence and woe with more. Governments find it easier, I guess, because they’re all just cogs in the wheel, they have a huge machine made of ‘higher ups’ propelling them forward, they’re just doing what they’re told, doing what the ‘people’ demand, etc. Again, none of which I understand.

9/11 is a pain that burns my eyes and throat, like getting a face full of hot smoke. There is no flag-waving, no chest-pounding, at my house on 9/11. We just hate it. I hate it. I hate 9/11.

cara-winterCara Winter, a screenwriter and playwright based in Chicago. holds a BFA from New York University / Tisch School of the Arts, and is a member of Actor’s Equity Association and the Dramatists Guild of America.  Her original TV pilot EVOLUTION won 1st Prize in the 2015 People’s Pilot, and was a Finalist in the ScreenCraft Pilot Launch competition, and is being pitched to various networks and production companies.  Her spec THE NEWSROOM: BROTHERS IN ARMS won 1st Prize in the 2013 Spec Scriptacular, and was a 2nd Rounder at the Austin Film Festival. She is also a Contributing Editor for She is writing a new play based on the true story of WWII’s most famous spy (in development with Lotus Theatricals in Chicago), in addition to a novel and a full-length screenplay. She’s also just a little bit addicted to Jill Soloway’s Transparent.


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