Editor's note: It has been 16 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Refinery29 has chosen to share the voices of women who survived, as well as those who lost loved ones so that we may never forget. This story contains details that some readers may find disturbing.
It was a beautiful, sunny day with a clear blue sky and not a cloud in sight. I took the express bus down to the city that morning with my younger daughter, Megan. She had just started high school in Manhattan, and the ride there was a typical one: She listened to her iPod, and my mind raced with all the things I had to do that day.
But as Megan got up to get off the bus at her stop on 72nd Street, she turned to me and said something completely out of the ordinary: "Mommy, I don't want to go to school today. I don't know why, I just don't want to go." I was stunned. This was something I had never heard from her, not even when she was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia a few years before. She had never once wanted to stay home from school.
"I love you, Mommy," Megan said as she made her way to the door. I managed an "I love you, too, honey" before the bus pulled away and headed downtown toward the World Trade Center, where my office was.
I arrived around 8 a.m. and went to my office on the 27th floor of the north tower. I was standing in the aisle by my desk chatting with two coworkers at 8:45 a.m. when the first plane struck our building. The impact was so great that I immediately looked up, expecting to see the ceiling coming down on top of us. It wasn't.
Frantic, I turned to my coworkers. "Oh my god, something happened; something really bad happened. We need to get out of here!" I shouted before running down the aisle to where our other coworkers were standing, unsure of what to do or where to go.
Although we had practiced thousands of fire drills, we had never left the 27th floor. We had always been told that if anything were to happen, someone would come over the PA system and tell us what to do. But we heard nothing. We were basically on our own.
I ran back to my office to get my bag. The phone on my desk rang and I answered it. I could hear my friend, Marie, who worked in the Albany office, on the line.
"Oh Marie, something really bad happened," I told her as I grabbed my things.
"Run! Just run!" she responded.
It was then that I knew the situation was dire and we had to move fast.
We had no idea what to do. We didn't even know which stairwell would take us all the way down and out of the building. We picked one, felt the door — it wasn't hot — then opened it. We saw people from the floors above already walking down. We got into the stairwell with them and started walking. It was a very eerie and somber experience. We were so scared. We had no idea what had happened or what was going on. The stairwell was dimly lit, and the dust particles made it difficult to breathe. I started coughing, and one of the men that I worked with gave me a handkerchief to cover my nose and mouth.
We got down about seven or eight flights, and suddenly, firemen appeared. They were loaded down with equipment — ropes, axes, and heavy raincoats. They told us to remain calm, keep walking, and that someone at the bottom of the stairwell would tell us what to do next. We were so grateful to them, and asked where they were headed. They responded that they were going up to the higher floor to get underneath where the fire was. We told them to be careful, and then we kept on walking. We didn't know at the time that these courageous men would lose their lives that day.
It took us nearly 45 minutes to walk down the last 20 floors. We had no idea that a second plane had hit the other tower as we made our way down.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs and exited the stairwell, I had no idea where we were. It looked like some old subbasement that was in shambles. It took me a minute to realize that we were in the lobby, which, only an hour before had been filled with people bustling across its marble floors on their way in to work.
What I saw instead was unbelievable. The tiles had broken off the wall, and the floors were covered with dust and debris. We struggled to find a way out, but someone told us which way to walk. When we exited the building, a man told us: "Run across the street and don't look back!"
I looked at my feet, which were surrounded by red puddles. Look at all that red paint, I said to myself. Then my brain switched gears and I realized it was blood, not paint. I had no time to think about what that really meant as I ran across the street and into the mass of people who were also running. Everyone looked stunned and in shock. People were crying and calling out the names of their friends and coworkers.
I turned to look at the World Trade Center. There were gaping holes in both buildings. Black smoke was billowing out of the holes. But before I could figure out what was happening, I heard a tremendous roar, a sound unlike anything I've ever heard before or since. Right before my eyes, the south tower began to melt down to the ground. It was like watching one of those TV demolitions — it just seemed to come down right on itself.
We started running. We were crying and screaming, frantic to get out of there. The smoke and dust was everywhere, and the cloud was moving towards us. Someone behind me was pushing me, and I was so afraid that I would fall and be trampled by the crowd. I was crying, shouting, "Please don't push me!" It felt like we were living in a nightmare.
That's when my friend, Amy, grabbed my hand and led me down one block and around the next to get us away from the smoke and dust clouds. She knew the area well because her family lived in nearby Chinatown. She led me to a funeral parlor owned by her family member, and they let us use the phone.
I called home, but no one was there. I could only leave a message saying I was okay. Later, I found a public phone and managed to make two more calls. I paged my older daughter, who was working at a nearby hospital, and I called my sister.
My sister answered. She was so relieved to hear from me, and kept asking over and over: "Are you okay?" I told her I was fine, and that I had to get uptown somehow so I could get Megan from school. As I hung up the phone, I heard another tremendous roar in the distance. I turned around to see the north tower collapsing down on itself. The horror of the day just kept continuing.
I began my walk uptown, more than 70 blocks. It was such an eerie journey. Huge crowds of people were walking, and yet it was so quiet. Everyone looked somber and in shock. Stores were giving out water and apples to the people making their way uptown.
It took me quite a while, but I finally made it to Megan's school. She had eventually managed to get through to her father, who told her that I was okay and was coming for her, but she was so upset. When we got outside, I told her I had to sit for a few minutes. My feet were bleeding, and I was exhausted.
Megan wanted to switch shoes with me. She told me to take her sneakers, and said that she would put on my sandals, but I told her no. She asked, "Mommy, how are we going to get home?" I told her, "We're going to start walking." So, again, I walked — this time, another 20 blocks, and with my daughter. Along the way, we stopped at pay phones to call home and find out if there were any buses or trains running.
When we reached 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, I found out that some trains were running, but only a few stops at a time. We figured that it was better than nothing, so we went down to the subway station and got on the first train that was going uptown. It took us a few stops; then we got off and got on another train. Finally, at about 5:45 p.m., we reached the train station closest to our home.
My family and friends had been calling all day; everyone was so worried. My godson came over to see me — he said he had to see me with his own eyes to believe I was really okay. My older daughter was stuck on Long Island, as they had shut down the bridges. She stayed at my sister's house until they reopened. She finally arrived home at around 10:30 p.m., walked into the house, sat on my lap, and sobbed.
During the next several weeks, we attended many funerals for coworkers, friends, neighbors, and firefighters. It was something we had to do to try to begin to heal. We had to say goodbye and pay tribute to those who lost their lives on this tragic day. It was so hard to return to work. My company had grief counselors come speak with us, and that's how we began the healing process.
Sept. 11, 2001, is a day I will never, ever forget. We do and should remember those who perished. As for the rest of us, the survivors, we have learned how to deal with it as best as we can. I have never been back down to the World Trade Center. I don't think I can ever return. I keep all of my memories of that day in my heart all year long, and on every Sept. 11, I bring them all back out, front and center, to deal with them again. I listen to the reading of the names and say a prayer for those who died. Then I put all my memories back into my heart, and go on.
I don't know why I was one of the lucky ones to survive when so many others died that day. I remember seeing images on TV of children walking up and down the streets near the World Trade Center in the days after. They were looking for their parents who had never come home that day. All I could think of was that it could have been my daughters looking for me.
I have to think that there was something more that I had to do with my life and that's why I'm still here. I am so grateful to be here with my family and friends. I will never forget what happened to our country that day, and all of those we loved and lost.
This story was originally published on September 7, 2016.