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Five Years After, the Memories are Still There. This is for the People Who Never Made it Home.

My name is Bob Westphal. On September 11, 2001 I lived in Clifton, NJ. I worked at an insurance company, on the 38th floor of Chase Manhattan Plaza, only 2 blocks away from the World Trade Center.

That day, the weather was beautiful. The skies, a clear deep blue, virtually cloudless. The air was warm with a hint of impending autumn. It was an almost perfect day. I was running late for work. My normal commute usually gets me to the WTC at around 8:45 but I missed the 8:00 train to Hoboken. Almost missed the 8:20. I ran for the train, got in sat down and started reading a book, oblivious to the world around me.

Around 8:50 as we arrived in Hoboken, there was a stir on the train. Something about a fire on the World Trade Center. I was paying more attention to my book, so I did not see it. As I left the train, an announcement came over the PA in the station: The PATH trains into the WTC were not running. There were no other details.

Damn, I thought. Now I'm going to be really late. Luckily, the other 33rd St. PATH train was still running. So I boarded that train with the idea that I would go up to Christopher St. and take a downtown subway to work. On the train someone mentioned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. My first thought was that one of those small tour planes or helicopters had somehow gone out of control. A murmur of disbelief. “What a horrible accident.” The man standing next to me said his daughter worked in the building. Today, I thought, was going to be an interesting day.

It was about 9:10 when I got to the Christopher Street PATH Station. The crowd trudged up the stairs, taking me with it. Outside a church bell tolled continuously. I walked to the corner, looked south, saw the Twin Towers burning. A grim, broken slice carved into one tower. Dark ugly smoke and yellow-orange flames poured out. A smoky hole punched in the side of the other. A radio announcer's voice came from a SUV parked nearby. "A second jet has hit the buildings" and "that rules out an accident, probably the work of terrorists." Sirens whined as police cars and ambulances and fire trucks flew down the avenues toward the towers. The rest of the day would be accompanied by the sound of screaming sirens.

I tried to call my office to let them know where I was and find out what was going on but I couldn't get a connection on my cell phone. Damn Verizon. On top of that, its batteries were running low. I found a pay phone and called my office's main number. The automated greeting played at me. Checked my voice mail, I heard a nervous sounding call from my sister Kathy, asking if I was OK. She forgot to leave me the number where I could reach her. So, instead, I called my parents. Not home. I left a message with them saying I wasn't hurt and wasn’t in any danger. During that time, a line of people had formed behind me, so I hung up the phone and started to make my way downtown toward work. I hoped they were all grouped somewhere close by and it wouldn't be too hard to find them. The thought that there was going to be danger just hadn't occurred to me.

As I was making my way down 7th Avenue downtown, a steady stream of police cars, fire trucks , and ambulances headed toward the disaster site. Then I remembered that I had my Palm Pilot with me so I looked up my sister's number and searched for a pay phone. Every single one I found had a line of people waiting to use it.

Finally I found a pay phone that was not being used and called my sister. She burst into tears at hearing my voice. I told her not to worry, and to let the rest of the family know that I was OK.

I kept walking downtown, working my way over to 6th Avenue. I also tried to keep the towers in view to watch the progress of the fire. I thought it didn't look so bad and even that the fire might go out. Here and there, people were clustered around cars listening to the radios. I stopped several times to listen and to try to piece together what was happening. Sometime during that walk, I learned about the attack on the Pentagon. I heard about firemen rushing into the buildings. Still more police cars were rushing toward the scene of the disaster. I did not see it, but I learned later that at about this time people were jumping from the World Trade Center through broken windows to escape the fires..

Finally, I got to Canal St. I was still determined to get to my coworkers. I was about to cross the street, when suddenly I heard shouting, screaming and crying. I looked to see one of the towers falling.

From where I was standing, it looked like the tower was a rapidly melting candle. Inside the falling debris, thousands of little flashes sparked. Either electrical connections being yanked from their sockets or shards of broken glass looked sparkled like fireflies. The dust of pulverized concrete poured out of the sides of the building and a few seconds later, all that was left was a tower of dust and fire. Then that was gone. Only one burning tower remained. A low rumbling sound reached us and it mixed with the bells, shouts, screams and sirens. The sound continued for a few long moments and then it was gone and only sirens and cries remained. I and the people around me stood stunned. Until that moment, what we had just witnessed was inconceivable. The last thought on anyone's mind was that one of the Twin Towers would collapse. I briefly thought how weird the skyline would look with just one tower.

I did not know, but at that moment, hundreds of people lost their lives. One of them a coworker who was attending a meeting in the WTC. The other was the husband of another coworker, who was a New York City firefighter. Other coworkers who had evacuated from the building where I worked were far closer than I had been. They were running for shelter in the subways, in the doorways of buildings and under cars, covered with grey dust and ash.

For some reason, I still thought I should get to my friends and coworkers. Even with one tower down, I was sure that they would all be gathered together somewhere. I needed to let them know I was ok. I looked across Canal St and started to cross. A cop who was watching, stopped me shouting something like "Go north, there may be gas leaks." I looked at him and saw he was serious. I also noticed the tears in his eyes. That was the moment, I gave up the thought of meeting up with my coworkers. But now I no longer had a goal. What was I going to do? Where was I going to go?

I started in the opposite direction and a few of us were telling people to turn around. From time to time I would see someone overcome with fear or grief just sitting on the sidewalk or a stair. I went up to a few of them and started them northward. I sat down next to one woman who was staring at the ground and asked her if she was hurt.

She sobbed, "I know people who work there."

My throat clenched shut, I finally choked out "Me too."

She leaned against me. I said "We gotta move north. The cops were saying we can't stay here" I told her what the police said about gas leaks. She looked at me, nodded. We got up and started north. I lost her in the crowd somewhere along the way.

It was beginning to remind me of scenes I had imagined from listening to the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. We were like refugees on the march. The general murmur of fear from people around me wondered would we be attacked again or was anyplace safe?

My cell phone still refused to connect, so I waited on line for a pay phone at a gas station. People were talking about terrorists, loved ones, and coworkers. When my turn to use the phone finally came, I found that, miraculously, the office phone system was still operating. I tried several numbers, but I still had no luck getting in touch with anyone from work. I decided to leave an outgoing voicemail message saying that I was OK.

Walking northward, I saw a distraught woman pushing a baby in a stroller. An ambulance pulled up and an EMS worker started talking to her. People were in tears, men, women and children. I saw people helping each other, consoling each other. In the dark horror of it all, I saw ordinary people performing little acts of heroism. The best part of New York came out that day.

Suddenly, people started screaming again, everyone stopped and turned to witness the fall of the second tower. I was further away but the effect was still the same. Another melting candle replaced by dust and smoke and finally a blackened, boiling sky. Screams and sirens hung in the air. I stood and looked at the empty space for a long time, not really knowing what to do except to keep moving.

I started northward again thinking now about getting home, or if I couldn't do that, where I was going to stay until I could. I have friends who live in the city, but I had no clue where they lived or even what their phone numbers were. Then I thought of trying to call my girlfriend, Elisabeth. She worked in NJ. But when I finally got to another phone, I had no change and my calling card's toll free number wasn't working. In frustration, I flipped open my cell phone, hoping the batteries weren't dead yet. I dialed her work number and by some miracle it rang and she answered. I tried to hold back my tears.

I asked Elisabeth to see if she could email some of our friends who lived in the city to find out if I could stay with them. I started to tell her what was going on, but I was worried about the amount of juice left in my cell phone. So I said I would wait for her to get back to me or I would call in 45 minutes. Whichever came first. We exchanged I love you's and I shut the phone hoping it's dying batteries would hold out for one more call.

I thought that it would probably be best for me to continue north. I was on Sullivan St. and noticed that the crowd was thinning a bit. While I stopped to use the phone a lot of the people had passed me. So I walked north with the rest of the stragglers. The sound of jet engines filled the air. We all stopped, looked up and watched as two jet fighters cut through the sky above us. Was it war? Nobody knew.

I came to corner and stopped when I heard the sound of organ music filtering into the street. I was outside a church on Sullivan St. and paused a moment. I thought momentarily about going in to rest and pray, but something stopped me. I felt guilty as I walked away.

I decided I was going to go to Washington Square Park. So I continued north on Sullivan. The day was getting a little warmer and I was starting to feel thirsty. I walked into a corner bodega and stood in front of a refrigerator case full of all different kinds of ice cold drinks. Trendy herbal teas with names like Memory, Health, Stress, Energy and Power stared back at me. Now I had to make a choice. It was between two flavors. "Stress?" "Energy?" "Stress?" "Energy?" Chuckling at my indecision, I finally chose Energy. I paid for the drink and went out into the street. It may not have been this way but I remember feeling like the street was suddenly deserted and I was the only one there. I opened the bottle and swallowed the green tea with exotic tropical and citrus fruits as it said on the label. Funny how I remember that, but not if there were people near me.

Then my phone started vibrating. It was Elisabeth. She told me that our friends, Ian and Shea lived on the street I was standing on, Sullivan St. And that they were waiting for me. They said that if need be I could stay there overnight. They are probably two of the coolest people I know. I thanked Elisabeth profusely and told her I was going to be OK.

Their address was south of where I was standing. So I turned around and walked back down the street. Now I noticed the crowd of people around me. I was walking against the flow. People's faces looked tired and haunted.

When I finally got to Ian and Shea's apartment they buzzed me in and I went up the stair and saw Ian coming the other way. I was so happy and relieved to see a familiar face that I finally let the tears fall. I went into their apartment and gave Shea a big hug. I sat down on their couch. The television was on. Images I had seen in real life were playing over and over. It was surreal, watching the same scene from different angles. The towers collapsed over and over again.

Ian told me that they had been near City Hall taking pictures. They saw one of the jet's engines just laying on the street. They had been only a few blocks away and ran when the first tower fell. Covered with dust, they returned home. They were still trying to get all of the stuff out of their hair when they contacted Elisabeth. We sat there, watching the TV wondering what we could do, wondering if there would be more attacks, wondering if this was war. I wondered if I would ever get home.

I asked if I could use their computer. I jumped online to check the my friends list to see if everyone who worked in the city was accounted for. Then I sent an email to my friends and I instant messaged a few others to let them know I was ok.

My phone vibrated again. It was one of my coworkers calling me from San Francisco. I didn't get to talk to him for very long before the phone died completely. I don't remember if Ian and Shea's phone worked, I don't think it did because I didn't use it.

Shea served the sandwiches she made for lunch, while we continued to watch the news. We watched the planes crash and the towers fall again and again. We saw the fires at the Pentagon and learned about the plane crash in Pennsylvania. We heard that the city was shut down tight. I worried about my friends and coworkers. The black and oily smoke plume from the fires obscured all traces of Chase Manhattan Plaza, the building where I worked.

I worried about how I would get home. Ian said I could stay with them if I wanted. I was worried about who would take care of Anime, my cat. We also wanted to do something, anything, to help. We talked about going to give blood and getting away from the apartment for a while, but then the announcement came on the TV that ferry service had started to bring people back to New Jersey. Pier 11 down by the South Street Seaport was the closest point for me. I decided that rather than stay in the city, I should go home. I could give blood another time.

So around 3:30 or so, Ian and Shea went to donate blood and I went the opposite way, back down Sullivan Street. Back downtown. Back toward the site that would be called Ground Zero. The streets were mostly deserted. No cars. except for the occasional police car or fire truck. Virtually no people. As I walked a zigzag pattern down the streets making my way southeast toward the seaport, cops stood at some of the intersections stopping cars, asking people where they were going. For some reason they didn't stop me.

I walked across one street, down the next until finally I came to Canal Street. At this particular corner there were no police. Once I crossed, I was further south than I had ever been that day. Each step took me closer to home, but each step also took me closer to the scene of the tragedy. On one block I saw teenagers playing basketball in a playground. They seemed oblivious to what was going on a short distance away.

I continued down the empty streets. There were more and more cops, mostly ignoring me, directing people to the "safe" zones. As I got closer to the City Hall area of town I heard a faint but familiar sound. It was the sound of nails being hammered into wood. It echoed off the buildings, growing louder as I moved closer. But I could not see the source of the sound. It was then that I smelled the acrid odor of burning plastic.

I turned down one block that would have taken me past the Courthouse, past a knot of police officers standing on a corner. A female officer stopped me and asked me where I was going. She told me all the streets except one were closed. I needed to backtrack a block, then continued on the designated path. The eerie sound of hammers still echoed all around, growing louder and louder.

I continued down Elk Street and came upon City Hall Park. Crowds of people were milling about. It was then I discovered the source of the sound. A crew of men with hammers were building stretchers out of wood. I stopped and watched for a few moments, wondering if they needed help. Dozens of finished stretchers were being stacked up in anticipation of carrying the wounded to hospitals. I overheard someone say that he asked to pitch in and he was told there weren't enough hammers. I decided to move on.

I walked down Park Row toward the Brooklyn Bridge entrance, still navigating toward the Seaport. A breeze was blowing and I began to notice a thin covering of gray ash and dust on everything and everybody. The smell of burning petroleum, plastic, rubber and other stuff I didn't want to think about grew stronger.

I crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge entrance ramp and started down the sloping road that ran alongside the bridge ramp. I saw people with dust masks on trying to keep from breathing in the soot that was falling from the sky and being blown about by the breeze. The breeze also brought partially burnt paper floating out of the sky. On the ground, there were pages from books, calendars and newspapers littered about. Some of the calendar pages had writing on them. A few hours ago, I thought, all these things were on peoples' desks. There were sneakers and shoes, purses and gym bags just laying on the street, looking as if they had just been dropped there. More dust blew up and I realized the air was probably toxic, so I moved on.

On Gold Street I walked past a hospital annex. Doctors and nurses waited on the sidewalk with empty stretchers. I thought it was odd that no ambulances were pulling up. The doctors looked tired and nervous. I wonder how I looked.

Down Fulton Street, the Seaport was in sight, past closed-up shops and evacuated offices. I turned on to South Street and headed to the ferry pier. I was practically under the smoke plume from the fires only a few blocks away. I looked for the building where I worked, but I still couldn't see it. Now more people were walking with me, all heading to the ferry. I passed policemen, firemen and members of the National Guard all looking grim and worried. I walked up to one fireman sitting on the front bumper of his truck, I thanked him, he said something like, “it’s my job.”

When I finally got to Pier 11, the ferry was waiting to pick us up. It was practically empty when I went and sat down on a bench seat next to the window. I just sat staring out, watching the papers falling from the sky onto the pier, into the water. It was like a macabre version of the aftermath of a ticker tape parade. It felt like it took an eternity for the boat to be filled up with passengers. But it finally was and then we pulled away from the dock.

As the boat floated out into the East River, I noticed a half dozen or so black helicopters on the heliport pier. They looked like a squadron of shiny black dragonflies resting on a giant rock. As we passed one took off followed by another. They flew out over Brooklyn and disappeared.

The fire and smoke was visible from a different angle now. The hellish red-orange-yellow-black flames obscured all traces of the where the Trade Center stood, except for an occasional glimpse of the skeleton of twisted steel. All kinds of debris floated in the water and formed a line in the water where the East River met the Hudson.

As the ferry continued on its way, we passed west of the disaster. The buildings of the World Financial Center stood against the backdrop of fire and smoke. One of the buildings had part of its facade ripped away. Pieces of the World Trade Center stuck out of the building at odd angles and the Winter Garden was full of smoke and debris.

Finally, the boat docked in Jersey City and Red Cross volunteers greeted us. One of them seemed oddly cheerful as he offered us a place to sit and something to eat or drink. I think I took a donut and some juice and started the trudge to the busses. People around me were all talking about their experiences, a lot of them were similar to mine. Rumor and speculation abounded. I ignored most of it, instead I walked with them and kept looking to see what I could see of the fire and smoke. A short walk brought us to where a line of busses were parked, waiting to take us to Hoboken.

A short while later, the bus pulled out and we got as close to the train station as we could before traffic stopped us. We asked the driver to let us out and we walked past make shift disaster relief centers where people who were cover with soot and ash were given showers and had their clothes cleaned.

Finally, I got on the train that would take me home. We waited while the train filled up and then pulled out. I felt alone in a train full of people. I wished there was someone I knew, or who knew me.

It was about 7pm when I finally got home, a second floor apartment in a two-family house. I sat on the kitchen floor, hugging Anime, my cat and let the tears fall. After a while I noticed that a half dozen messages flashed on my answering machine. The first message was from Sue Kesselman, the General Manager of my office, who wanted me to call and let her know I was all right. This was the first I heard from anyone from my office. At least someone was OK. I started making calls. First to my girlfriend, then to my family, then I went down the list I had made.

ONE YEAR LATER: Now as I finish writing this, it is exactly one year later. This account has taken me months to finish. Much has changed, to me personally and to the city I love. I'm writing this, so I remember what happened to me that day. So I can tell people what I witnessed, first hand. I wasn't a hero, I wasn't hurt, but I was there.

TWO YEARS LATER:Now two years have passed since that day. I’ve rewritten small parts of this because I remembered some small detail or found something slightly out of sequence. Since that day I married Angela Weller, the woman who makes my life complete. My grandmother has passed on. My niece, Alexandra, was born. I was laid-off from my job at Royal and was unemployed for almost 9 months. Now, however, I have a temp job in downtown New York City, only a few blocks from the site of the disaster. During one a lunch break, I went back to the site of the disaster and so much has changed. There is now a history of the World Trade Center, New York City and the downtown NYC area posted the fence surrounding the site. Construction of the new PATH station has made the site show the hope of its renewal. Plans to construct a new World Trade Center have been put in place, while the plans for a memorial are still being debated. I can’t wait to see what arises from the site. Whatever it is, I hope it’s a magnificent and fitting tribute.

THREE YEARS LATER:Three years have gone by. Still, in some ways, this seems like it just happened. I made some minor changes to the text, but now I find that I am forgetting more details than I remember. Today is the first time since the tragedy that 9/11 falls on a Saturday. Today is also the first time that I have not been in NYC on the anniversary. Looking back and find that I have much to be thankful for. Angel and I have moved to find a new life in Tampa, Florida. We now own a cute little bungalow. My niece, Jennifer, graduated from high school and started college. Although I miss my family and friends, I know that things will be better for us here. I also miss the city, but I know it will go on without me. More importantly, Angel and I have much to look forward to and I can't wait to see what the future will bring.

FOUR YEARS LATER:I made some grammatical changes to the text and took out some things that seemed redundant or unneccessary. I just celebrated my first anniversary in my job in Florida. A lot more has happened but a lot stays the same. Our renovations of the house are coming along with the living room, study and bathroom mostly restored. It's great to see the work you put into something bear fruit. We visited NYC over July 4th weekend and we went to visit the World Trade Center site. Not much has changed there over the last year that I could see. Eventually they are going to build a new tower there, but who knows when. A different tragedy has just occured. Hurricane Katrina stuck the Gulf Coast and killing many people destroying a lot of homes. On September 11, 2001, I was able to go home and sleep in my own bed. On September 11, 2005, some of the people that witnessed and were affected by Katrina can't go home for a long time. Some can never go home. So what did we learn from that day and what were we able to apply to future tragedies? I'll leave that answer for another time.

FIVE YEARS LATER: It's now two years since I moved to Tampa and two years since I started working at my current company. Last week I did my last radio show for WFDU-FM. We are so busy at my job that I barely have time to think, but the people I work with are really nice souls. I feel about as home there as I ever have in any of my former jobs. I may visit NYC again soon, I don't know. The restoration of Haus Westphal (our little bungalow in Seminole Heights, Tampa) is coming along slowly but surely.

As for the text, I made very few changes this time, mostly changed the way a phrase or two was worded.

I think this fifth anniversary of the tragedy has become an overhyped, overpoliticized event. People have already forgotten some of the lessons we should have learned. Some people have used 9/11 for political or personal gain and thereby cheapened the lives lost that day. It's a rare day when I don't have at least a fleeting thought about that day. It still concerns me that something like that could happen again. However, I am not frightened enough to give up my freedom nor am I willing to give up my rights. Sadly, five years later, the balance has yet to be found.


I'm writing this, so I remember what happened to me that day. So I can tell people what I witnessed, first hand. I wasn't a hero, I wasn't hurt, but I was there.

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Thanks for writing this Bob

thank you bob. ken works on the news and we were talking yesterday about how much he dreaded going in this morning because of how ridiculous people in the news media are acting. he didn't want to deal, and i don't blame him. thanks for bringing this back to my memory the right way, without all the hype.


Thank you for sharing this, Bob.


On my way in to work I pass the PATH station and your story came to mind. I wasn't sure if you were going to post but I am glad you did. You are right about it being overhyped and overpoliticized. Very sad but very true.

wow, powerful read...thanx

this is a fantastically well written piece. Thank you so much for sharing it.

I remember when you finished this piece and posted it, previously. I hope it's helped you to write it, and to put your perspective out there. For me, it's helped me to see it through your eyes, and not the stuffy cubicle I was in that day, sans news coverage.

Thank you.

Thank you. This is the first time I have been able to make through anyone's account of what they went through that day.

Seabhac McGinty FF/EMT-Paramedic, Oakland Co., MI

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Hey Jeremy, thanks. Feel free to link. Feel free to stay in touch. We'll be here.

thank you bob for writing your account of this. i don't think i could ever articulate that day for myself. images flash in my head, the urge to speak to megan is stronger for me on the anniversary and i can never really articulate more than a mew from the experiences i had that day.

your rememberance of today 5 years ago also helps me relive the joy through the pain of that day....finally getting through to my husband 7 hours later...the joy of seeing megan outside my store on broadway...finally making it back to queens and my apt.

being in new orleans now, this is my first year away from nyc on todays date. the only things i have heard are politial hooplas on the radio. strange to experience the anniversary of katrina when i was here the day before it hit and experience the heartache and pain of my family's losses. and then be here as well for today, and no one here really even remembers what today is. and they wonder why i'm so subdued. .... i think i'll stop now. thank you again.

Thanks again, Bob. Reading this entry has been the best part of each anniversary. Simple, eloquent, just what happened. I think remembering is important, in ways that I prob. can't describe accurately yet, but time will continue to tell us.

i came by way of batty_'s journal.

this really moved me. thanks for writing it.

Well written as always....

One of the few things about that day that I want to read....

thanks for explaining a few things I can't....

this is my 3rd anniversary of reading your account, and i'm so glad you've posted it again. thank you.

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