I Was There: Fleeing New York After 9/11

Photo: Getty Images

On that fateful day, when I woke up and pulled the curtains open of my Times Square hotel room, I could see a clear blue sky devoid of clouds and the early morning sun rays glowing rather than blindingly sharp.

I could sense this morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was one of those perfectly crisp September days. What I couldn’t possibly sense was, the same beautiful clear blue sky was holding unimaginable terror for 265 people on four airplanes and in a matter of minutes would rain down holy horror on the city.

What brought me to the Big Apple in September 2001 and the day that would become known as 9-11 was Fashion Week. As the fashion editor of Flare magazine at the time, I was already there for several days, attending the runway shows of some of the top American designers. It was a particularly good Fashion Week so far and the night before I had attended one of the highlights of New York Fashion Week, the Marc Jacobs show.

A circus in itself, the usual hour or two before the show would start one could observe that particular New York moment where a diverse crowd of celebrities, club kids, artists and society matrons would come out to pay homage to the same idol. This was not just a city of searing contrasts – but also a habitat where polar opposites co-mingled, interacted and sometimes collided.

One of my colleagues from Flare magazine, Beauty Director Ying Chu, was also in New York and attending the shows to cover makeup and hair trends. In the taxi heading back to our hotel, we were pumped after the adrenaline rush from the Marc Jacobs show and were discussing our agenda for the next day. We both noticed, we didn’t have any appointments or interviews the next morning and our first major show of the day was Oscar de la Renta at noon.

Not wanting to waste this rare morning break in our schedules, we pondered what we should do for those few hours and I decided a visit to the legendary designer discount palace known as Century 21 was in order. A huge department store, the deals here were the stuff shopping legends were made of and the store was a New York retail institution that I’d heard much about but somehow never visited. It was also located in the financial district across the street from the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Ying agreed we should go but pointed out the store probably opened at 9am or 10am, which wouldn’t give us much time to cover the many floors and departments before we’d have to start making our way back to Bryant Park in Midtown for noon for the Oscar de la Renta show.

We decided we should put it off for another time. Had we checked the store’s website, we would have learnt the store actually opened at 7am and perhaps that might have enticed us to go earlier to have more time to explore the store.

To this day, I still shudder at the thought that we might have been even that much closer – and at the very hour – at what would eventually become known as Ground Zero.

As I was getting dressed on Tuesday morning to join Ying for breakfast in one of the hotel’s restaurants, I overheard on the television that a plane had crashed into one of the towers in the financial district. I immediately thought it was a small plane with an amateur pilot but thought it was odd, telling myself, “It’s such a clear day, how could he not see that building?”

This tellingly, showed my innocence. Having spent most of my life in the relative haven that is Canada, my mind was not hard-wired yet on the possibility of terrorism occurrences. Such tragedies always seemed to take place in far-off countries. As the events unfolded that day, I still couldn’t believe or comprehend that it was happening in the same city where I was.

I remember friends asking later if I was terrified but all I could remember was just being in a trance-like state but perfectly functioning and my mind was simply not absorbing the scope of the event. It was weeks later, when that sunk in.

As Ying and I sat down for breakfast, a large wall-mounted television was showing the twin towers and dark grey smoke billowing from one of them. Because this was still early moments in the event, newscasters had very little info, other than that a plane had collided with the building. I was still thinking it was a small plane but looking at the ominous smoke pouring out of the building, I thought it odd that much damage could be caused by a small plane.

But as everyone in the bustling hotel restaurant continued eating breakfast, whilst just keeping one eye on the television monitor, suddenly things went into hyper-speed as news reports began firing off one alarming message after another.

In seemingly rapid succession, we learnt it was a commercial plane that had crashed into the World Trade Centre, an unknown number of planes had been hijacked and another plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. Everyone at breakfast, including the restaurant staff was now riveted to the screen.

Then we watched on live television as another plane flew into the other tower.

Some people leaped to their feet. Then as we continued watching, we saw the first tower crumble. Then’s when panic hit the room.

Some of the waitresses started crying, guests began running to their rooms, the hotel staff sprang into action by closing the front doors.

The news reports were now saying New York was under a terrorist attack.

Perhaps it was shock but we were still glued to our seats and the television screen. I turned to Ying and said, “We have to get out of the hotel now! If New York is under attack, we’re sitting in a major target: Times Square.”

As we were rushing out of the hotel, several security staff members guarded the doors, with one holding a printout of all the hotel guests’ names. They told us to make sure we had photo ID since they were only allowing registered guests into the hotel.

As we hit the streets, we had no idea where to go other than to get away from Times Square. Walking over to 8th Avenue, we were now absorbing the surroundings and it was surreal. I had never seen New York like this. There was hardly any traffic on the streets and since the subways were now closed, people were pouring out from the underground. It was strangely quiet as there were no honking cars and the crowds were silent as they walked.

With the words ringing in our heads that New York was under attack by hijacked planes, I thought the safest place for us would be Central Park, my logic being that a wide open space would be ideal to see a plummeting plane headed your way. But how does one outrun that, I ask myself.

Turns out Central Park was not that great of an idea. Because now, the US army had dispatched fighter jets to protect Manhattan and as they soared over the city with a thunderous roar, we realized because of the trees in the park, we really couldn’t look up to see if that was plane coming our way or a fighter jet circling.

Not knowing what to do with ourselves, we wandered the streets on the Upper East Side. Some smaller independent stores were opened while all the major department stores and designer boutiques were closed.

We asked ourselves if we should try to go down to the financial district to see if there was anything we could do to help but we heard they were warning people to stay away. Whereever we walked, we could see the thick dark gray smoke from the buildings rising to the sky. And again, my mind could not accept that this was happening a few miles away.

Our cell phones couldn’t reach anyone in Canada as the lines were jammed. And no one could reach us. As we wandered around aimlessly, we truly felt lost and alone and we were both grateful that we had each other. I cannot imagine how I would have handled any of this or made any decisions if Ying was not there with me.

When we finally went back to the hotel, we didn’t want to be alone in our individual rooms, so we decided to stay together in her room. We passed the night, eating chips from the mini-bar and watching old episodes of The Golden Girls and Designing Women on television.

The Flare office finally was able to get hold of us. Our editor-in-chief at the time, Suzanne Boyd, instructed us to find any means possible to get back to Toronto regardless of the cost. And to do it as soon as possible.

Since planes, trains and buses were not leaving New York, the only option we could think of to get out of Manhattan was to hire a car and driver. I didn’t have a driver’s license and I can’t remember if Ying did but we both agreed we needed an experienced driver in case there were road blocks along the way or diversions were needed.

We each took the Yellow Pages book and began calling car services. Because the island of Manhattan was closed to incoming vehicular traffic, most of the cars were stranded in the garages which were located in the suburbs of New York.

After calling numerous companies – and I was almost ready to just get a yellow taxi to drive us to Buffalo – we found a company who had a car left overnight in Manhattan and a driver who was willing to make the trek to Toronto.

They wanted cash only payment and half of it upfront. And the car was a stretch limo. We didn’t care what kind of car it was, we were excited at the prospect that we might just actually be on our way home.

We called Suzanne to tell her our plans and she reminded us since it was a stretch limo, we should round up as many other Canadians we could find and offer them a ride home. Earlier in the week, I had encountered Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared who were in town, en route to Los Angeles. I called their room and since they couldn’t get to LA, they decided to come to their hometown, Toronto, with us.

Other fashion journalists in town for fashion week like Bernadette Morra, the fashion editor at The Toronto Star and Jeanne Beker of Fashion Television were instructed by their news outlets to start covering the catastrophe, now that Fashion Week had been cancelled.

I then got a message from Bernadette Morra, who was looking for us to see if we were okay and what plans we had for leaving. I called her at her hotel and told her we had a car with room if she wanted a ride. At this point, The Star had dispatched news reporters to New York and she wanted to come home. Another fashion writer, David Livingstone, was also at her hotel and he joined us for the ride home.

Since the driver would only take cash payment, both Ying and I went to the American Express office to withdraw $2500US on our corporate cards. They would only give us each $1000 in cash. So much for their no-limit-spending policy! But because of the 9-11 event they had enforced a cap on cash withdrawals. We would have to get the balance when we got to Toronto.

When our driver showed up at our hotel in the stretch limo, we had to put some of the luggage in the front seat since all couldn’t fit in the trunk of the car.

We all piled in the back and stretched out, each talking non-stop now about what we were doing when the world changed two days ago.

When the car left the island of Manhattan and we were on the highway heading for the border, that’s when we had a toast. The Caten twins had thoughtfully packed a bottle of liquor for the ride and made us all a martini. We raised our glasses and had a toast to the Big Apple. After the drink, we were all suddenly quiet. I don’t know what the others were thinking but going through my mind, was the question of if I would ever return to New York. And if so, how different would it be?  I knew in that very moment in the back of the car, something inside me had changed and I knew I had just grown up, just that little bit more.

Looking back now, it does feel like an different era. It might seem frivolous and decadent to be fleeing in a stretch limo at that moment. Writing this was difficult and took me awhile to get going. Despite it all happening 15 years ago, I’m surprised how vivid the memories remain of those few days in New York.

While at the time, as I mentioned earlier, I was calm and almost in a trance-like state in NYC, for me 9-11 hit me like a series of after-shocks. Days and weeks later as I read and saw images and stories from the tragedy, that’s when I felt the horror and shock of what had happened. Stories of people holding hands and jumping from the buildings or how one of the planes had a group of school children would leave me reeling in sadness.

I did return to New York months later, again for Fashion Week. I had misgivings about this and thoughts about how different things would be. The shows went on and the industry banded together to help the city of New York in various ways because in the aftermath of 9-11, the economy of the city was truly hit as tourists stayed away.

While some might look upon the fashion world as insipid, it always was and always will be a major part of New York City. And as much as I knew 9-11 changed the city, designers and the industry continued on, adapting and also changing, showing that in the face of terrible tragedy, the best thing you can do to recover is to keep moving forward.