Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So what happened to the girl? (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 5)

It’s a strange thing, to know someone for about 6 hours or so, and then to find yourself searching for them with no idea of where they were or even if they were alive. I had Kamilla’s cell number, but knew that she didn’t have mine. I had tried many times to call her on her on the 11th with no success. I trying again over and over on the 12th, hoping that she would pick up and that my search would be ended in a happy manner.

Later that evening with one more call, after a few rings, instead of it ringing and ringing and ringing like it had for the phone calls before, she picked up the phone. I had been so distracted with the thought of where she was when the towers were hit Was she in the building? Was she even alive? That I forgot that she had no idea about my whereabouts and my fate. She was so relieved to hear that I had never made it there as we had planned and expressed the frustration of not having a way to get a hold of me. She had started to think that she might never know my fate.

What really had worried me about her situation was that she was at a hotel in the Canal Street area, which is close to the World Trade Center and where all the devastation was taking place. After the terrorists attack, the lower part of Manhattan was completely shut down to anyone except for emergency personnel where Canal street cuts across, so she was close, but still far enough away to be safe.

So what happened for Kamilla that morning? To my relief, she had slept in a little, and by the time everything started to happen, she was at a distance that kept her safe.

With everything that had happened, we had to see each other again, if only to celebrate our fates of that completely unbelievable couple of days. The next day was the Thursday, a day where things started to get back to ‘normal’ in the city, so we made plans to meet late afternoon in Times Square. I have to say, it was one of the strangest ‘reunions’ I’ve ever had. We had a great evening, going for a nice dinner and then a Broadway play (getting tickets to anything was easy as there were so many people who had previously bought tickets but couldn’t get there to see the shows), but there was one moment that always will stand out for me. As I wrote earlier, it was a strange reunion – we had only known each other for a handful of hours, but suddenly through the events of September 11th, we knew our lives would be intertwined forever. What was so memorable for me was that she thanked me. She felt for sure she would have been up in the towers early that morning on September 11th if she hadn’t met me. But we did meet, and we went up the night before. And for her (and for me) that changed everything.

In my last few days there in New York, I continued on to explore the city I had been so anxious to see. Over the next few days, I was witness to some very remarkable events. I can so vividly remember waiting at a subway stop, watching a few individuals posting letter-sized notes on the walls – these were hand-written notes that included a picture of a loved-one from one of the twin towers that was missing. With each day, more and more appeared. I also remember seeing how so many of them were from the same company, an organization that was located near the top of one of the towers. It was strange, as I looked at so many of the posted sheets, the people of the photographs looked back at me, and in most of them, they looked so happy. They all looked like regular people, like you and me. It was so hard to believe the fate that they had met, and what their families had to deal with. It made me so sad.

I also remember later, on the Thursday after my evening with Kamilla, riding the train back to Heike and Jen’s place. It was somewhere around 11 pm, and on the rail car I was in, I was the only one except for about half a dozen firefighters, just finishing a shift that I would guess was at the World Trade Center. They were absolutely covered in dust and grime and looked as tired as anyone ever could. This was still a time where there was hope to find more people trapped in the rubble and debris. If there was one thing I didn’t see in their eyes, it was hope. It was one of the quietest times in my life I can ever remember.

A few days later, on the first day that airports were open again, I found myself on a plane, heading back home. The tension was high among the other passengers and the airline employees. You didn’t see the usual joyfulness of people heading out on a vacation, setting out to explore a different part of the country or a different part of the world. It all felt so different. I was happy to be heading home, but I felt like there was a large part of me that I had left behind. I knew I’d be back, but I just didn’t know when. I’ve been back twice, the first time was four years ago for a conference that my wife was attending, the second time was just this past weekend. The adventure has continued, and that will be the next part of my story.

Here we are on the Thursday evening in Times Square, just before going to see a Broadway Show (Les Miserables)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The wrong place, at the right time (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 4)

Sometimes in life, we have to wonder about the choices we make, particularly about the places we go, and the effect it has on our lives. I've wondered many times why I ended up in New York during one of the worst times of its recorded history. After much soul searching, I still don't have an answer. But maybe it ties into your personality - and that, indeed, played a big part in my day. And my potential future.

I woke up early, eager for the day to start after spending the evening with my new found traveling friend, Kamilla. I had showered, dressed, packed up my bag and was pretty much ready to go, when my friend Heike came into the room and casually asked me if I'd like to go for a run with her. She had heard from Jens already about my meeting with this girl, and that I was to meet up with her that morning, but extended the invitation anyway, mentioning that we could be gone and back and that I'd only be a little late.

The next thing I did surprised even me - I thought about it. Here I was, in New York, only a few days into my trip, and I had this outing set up with another traveler (and she was cute! In the world of travel, that I suppose is a bonus) to spend the day exploring around Manhattan before she left for the west coast. It was an absolutely beautiful September morning, crisp and clear of the clouds and rain of only the day before. I was ready to go, map and travel book in hand. So I chose to do what was only natural. I, chose to go for the run with Heike.

Even when we were out running - we had driven to a forested area along side a lake that was just beautiful, I was thinking to myself, why in the world did I make this choice?

We arrived back at the apartment, and soon after the phone rang. I can't remember if I answered or Heike answered, but we knew by the display that it was a long distance call from Winnipeg. My sister from my home town of Winnipeg was on the phone, and I had never heard her sound so happy to hear my voice. She was about to drop a bomb shell of information that set me in shock for the rest of the day. When she said that a plane had just hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, I actually didn't believe her. Or couldn't - it seemed impossible - someplace that I had just been. Plus, how much impact can an airplane make running into a building? I ran to get Heike to tell her the news, and because they didn't have a tv in their apartment, we had to go up to one of the neighbour's apartments. There we sat in disbelief, watching the towers fall, jaws open, right before our eyes.

Much of the rest of the day seemed to be a blur - I felt safe where I was, but for some reason felt like I should have been there, right at the towers. To what end though? Who in their right mind would want to be there? About 2 years ago, I was reading a collection of travel stories by American authors, and one of the stories was by one author who happened to be only a few blocks away at the time. All his article talked about was how even though he knew the right thing to do was to get as far away from the devastation as possible, he kept finding himself drawn back. And indeed, he did go and help out as much as he could. I realized while reading this, that this is what I felt too, and it was good to see that others felt the same way. I felt like I needed to be there, and it was driving me crazy being so close and not being able to help.

Once my family and friends were assured that I was indeed okay (as my sister said, why would anyone ever think that by chance I'd be at the World Trade Center so early in the morning?) my other issue was Kamilla. We were to have met around 8:45 am at the towers (the first tower I believe was hit at 8:51 am), and possibly go back up to the observation level. I had no idea where she was. I had her cell number, but could not get through no matter how many times I tried.

The day continued on. I have to note here that I will always be thankful, for the rest of my wonderful life, what running has brought to me. I've been running (mostly on, sometimes off) since I was in grade 6. On this particular day, in such a strange way, it played a big part of my life. I'm drawn to people who love the same things as I do, and on that day and being around Heike and her love of running and exercise, taking her up on her offer defined not only my life but potentially my future as well. This, on a day when so many other people in New York, the surrounding area, and in Washington found new definition in theirs, unfortunately by such massive loss of life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

September 10th, 2001 (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 3)

It was Monday, September 10th, and with both Heike and Jens working, it was a day on my own to explore the city. I decided to spent most of my time that day in lower Manhattan, and started off by wandering around the World Trade Center. It was a beautiful morning and I had thought of paying to go up to the observation tower, but decided to leave that to another day. I made my way along the water front, and eventually found a place to buy tickets to go to see the Statue of Liberty. The ferry ride out toward the island made for spectacular views of the city skyline. Getting off at the statue, I walked around but decided not to go up to the arm – I’m honestly not good with heights, and having turned around more than once on old, rickety rusting-metal staircases housed in the middle of centuries-old cathedrals, I decided to just avoid anything like that altogether. My interest was actually to get over to the Immigration Museum, which involved catching another ferry. You’ll see in one of the pictures included above, taken from the ferry, the weather was turning fast. The storm sweeping over the city was amazing, and I knew it would soon be hitting us. By the time it made it to us, I was deep into the Immigration Museum, enjoying the displays and especially admiring the old ads used to recruit potential immigrants, particularly from Europe.

A couple of hours later, the museum was closing and it was time to catch the last ferry back to Manhattan. While I was waiting for the ferry to depart, this girl came up to me and, with a distinctly Eastern European accent, asked if I’d be okay with taking a picture of her with her camera. I’ve done this hundreds of times through my travels, but this time was especially funny as she began to direct me to an infinite detail on how to take a good picture! I played along, and eventually handed back the camera. We sat and talked for the entire ride back, and once we hit land again, we just naturally walked around together, talking, not really with a destination in mind.

The weather was cool and rainy, so we decided something hot to drink would be best. It was already early evening, and for some reason we had a terrible time trying to find somewhere that was open. We went underground, poked around the side streets, but couldn’t find anything at all. We eventually found ourselves at the World Trade Center asking the security guards there, and were told there was a good place to get something to drink at the top of the tower in the observation deck. So, with tickets purchased, up we went!

I actually didn't really want to go up. It wasn’t the ideal night - the clouds were low, it was raining, and the outdoor observation deck was closed. I’d never stood outside at that height, and was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to feel what it was like outside at that height.

Once we took the elevator up, we nearly had the place to ourselves, outside of the occasional tourists like us. Even with the weather, it was an amazing view. We walked around, took pictures of each other, talked with a few people working there, and after about an hour or so, took the elevator back to the ground floor. We still didn’t have anything to sip on, but when we left the building, we came across this small restaurant and market – an Amish establishment I think, or the name had the word Amish in it. We stayed for the next couple of hours – talking and getting to know each other. Her name was Kamilla, and she had been traveling through the US for quite a while and was soon leaving New York to head to the West Coast of the US, then home. The conversation was typical of two travelers meeting – we talked about where we came from, what we did in life, where we’ve traveled, all the kinds of things that travelers have in common.

I can’t remember what time it was, but I knew it was getting late and it appeared that the restaurant was about to close. Having made a great connection as two people traveling on their own, we decided to hang out together the next day, a day that was supposed to be her last day in New York. She wrote her name and number on the only piece of paper I could find – my ticket from our entry to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. The plan was to meet up again the next day, around 8:45 am, back at the Trade Center. We also discussed the idea of going back up to the observation deck if the weather was good.

We said a quick good night, and back I went to Heike and Jen’s place. I remember that when I got off my last train and was walking to their apartment, it was still raining, but it was one of those gentle warm rains you never mind walking in. It had been a long and great day of exploration. When I arrived at the apartment, Heike was already sleeping, but Jens was up. I told him about my day, and he laughed, mostly at my chance meeting with this Eastern European girl. Quickly after, I was all wrapped up in my sleeping bag on the floor of the living room, smiling and anticipating yet another adventurous day to come.

Just a quick aside - after all of the events that were about to unfold the next day, I never watched the news or looked at any kind of publication that had anything to do with the attack - I just couldn't watch. Years later though, I was thumbing through a book that was handed to me that was full of photographs of the towers and the destruction of that day, and one picture made me absolutely freeze in my spot. It was taken in the restaurant that we had ended up in, soon after the buildings fell, nearly exactly from the point of view where I'd been sitting that night. Everything was covered in an unimaginable amount of dust and debris. I honestly couldn't believe that it was the spot that Kamilla and I had spent all that time talking and getting to know each other, literally just hours before.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The start of the journey (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 2)

So what the heck was I doing in New York City anyway?

I had always wanted to go to NYC. Seeing it in so many movies and tv shows, knowing the history and the architecture, it was just somewhere where I had to go. Being the traveler that I am, I always look for opportunities, and my good friends Heike and Jens, originally from Germany, just happened to move there. Having a place to stay, for free, is always great. Heike and I have been friends since I was in second year university, having met on a ferry going from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, both backpacking our way separately around Eastern Canada. Along with another friend of mine, having been practically thrown out of a Charlottetown Bed and Breakfast on a Sunday morning with a church service blasting on the radio in the background (now that's a completely different story!), we've been great friends since ever since.

I flew in on a Thursday evening, and the plane took the perfect route parallel to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. I couldn't believe that I'd soon be wandering the streets - smelling the smells, walking among Manhattanites, hearing that distinctive New York accent. Heike and Jens picked me up in their oldsmobile - having the word 'old' in it was appropriate as it was nearly as old as I was. It had miles and character and the softest back seats you ever sat in. They lived on the New Jersey side, and soon we settled into their one-bedroom apartment. My space was on the floor in the living room, I soon had a wonderful glass of wine in hand, and being in a distant land, I was as happy as could be.

Of course I had no idea what was to come - I just had the excitement of someone about to explore a new city. On the first day, with Jens at work, Heike and I made our way over to Manhattan. Taking the train to the ferry terminal on the Jersey side, we caught the boat which dropped us off immediately in the shadow of the twin towers. That would become the spot for the next few days where we would always start and end our journey. Heike and Jens knew the city well and showed me many of the highlights - Times Square, Central Park, and on the Sunday, they took me on a special trip all the way through the park to a self-guided walking tour of Harlem. Three tall, very white folks, each with our cameras and backpacks, we set out for about 2 hours, wandering through streets I would never have dreamed of setting foot on before. Was I nervous? Hell yes! But even with the uncomfortable feelings I had for most of the journey, it was excellent and exciting. The coolest thing was seeing a church empty right after a service, everyone dressed in their sharpest and brightest white suit or dress, smiling away.

We'd had a great day, the sun had set, my feet ached, and we made our way back to lower Manhattan, again by the towers, to catch our ferry back to Jersey. Now on this trip, there were many memorable moments, particularly after the 11th. On this night though, as we walked between the rising towers, we paused, looked up the almost unimaginable heights of each of the towers, and Heike, in carrying her slight English accent from having learned English in England, dreamily said "Could you imagine if one of these ever fell?" I can't remember for sure, but I believe neither Jens or I gave an answer.

We soon after caught the ferry then the train back to the apartment, and after some more excellent celebratory wine, headed off to bed. It was a short sleep, and led up to what I will always remember as one of the more remarkable and fun travel days in my life, September 10th, 2001.

What goes up, came down (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 1)

It’s been nearly 9 years since I took my first trip to New York. It’s been 9 years since my ‘near miss’ at the World Trade Center on that beautiful and crisp September morning. And this Thursday, I’m hoping on a plane, headed back to the centre of it all, New York.

This isn’t my first time back. I was there 4 years ago to celebrate my wife’s birthday (yes, I brought her along!), but this visit is a little different. On Friday morning, I’m meeting with the people at the offices of the 911 Memorial and Museum, both of which are currently being designed and constructed. I’m there to officially record my story from September 10 and 11th, 2001 for the museum.

A while ago I donated something that I didn’t know what to do with – my ticket (of a pair) that I used on the evening of September 10th to go up to the observation deck. They were more than happy to receive it and potentially display it, along with my story, in the museum. They’ve been encouraging me to come out and officially record my story, and so now I’m going. It’s strange – to me, it was such a dramatic and dark time, but they specifically pointed out to me what makes my story so special – mine, thankfully, has a happy ending. That’s something that took me a long time to see, and it’s so different from so many of the stories they’ve collected so far from those who lost loved ones.

I love to write, but I’ve never written about what happened to me all of those years ago. With my upcoming trip, I think it’s time. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing on this blog about what I saw, what I experienced, and how it affected my life, forever. I'll also explain what the hand writing on the actual ticket is all about. I’ll also be writing about my trip this week, the making of the recording of my story, and the tour I’m going on to show me where they’re at with the museum and memorial. Afterwards, I have some time to do some exploring, to go see some places I never got the chance to go see on my original trip. And to just breathe in the culture that drew me to New York in the first place.

Feel free to send in comments or ask questions.