'My Normal Was Gone'
Westborough resident Kate Kelleher shares her memories from the morning of 9/11, when she was working at Ground Zero.
Editor's note: As we come to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Westborough Patch extends an invitation this week to all of our readers, writers and bloggers to share thoughts and experiences of that fateful day. Here, for the first time, Westborough resident Kate Kelleher shares her story of survival.
I remember in the summer of 2001 sitting in my apartment on the Upper East Side of NYC reading an account from a sailor who was on the USS Cole when it was attacked. She described the horror of seeing a small craft head directly into the Cole followed by a loud explosion. I remember thinking how terrifying it must have been to witness such an event. Never in a million years did I imagine that a month later I would be a witness to worst terrorist attack on US soil ever.
My 9/11 started on the evening of 9/10. I was sitting in a restaurant and received a call from my trading manager that my meeting Tuesday morning on the 87th floor of the WTC, North Tower was moved to 222 Broadway, across the street. I am forever grateful for that phone call.
My meeting that Tuesday morning ended at 8:30 a.m. Most of us can recall what a gorgeous day it was outside. The temptation to stay outside for an extra 10 minutes was there. But, as it was, I had already missed a fair amount of pre-market activity and knew it would be best to get back to my desk. I traveled through the Trade Center as I always had for the past five years. I stopped for coffee. I walked past the velvet ropes outside of the elevators that brought thousands of employees to their offices every morning in the Trade Center. It was the moment I sat down at my desk in the WFC that my life, as well as every other American’s life, changed forever.
The floor shook, the windows rattled as we all heard the most thunderous boom you could imagine. The trader I sat next to looked up and said, “That wasn’t just a bang… someone is mad and they are mad at us.” He knew. He had been there for the ’93 bombing.
I chose to ignore the statement as I could not fathom something happening again downtown. They had taken all sorts of precautions after the ’93 bombing, putting up cement barriers all around the buildings. Disguising the barriers as flower beds, but everyone who worked down there knew they were far enough apart only a person or stroller could fit through. They were made of solid concrete so never again a car bomb could drive into the buildings. I felt safe and could not imagine any other way a bomb could have exploded outside the office.
Then, the reports started coming fast and furious. “A small commuter plane hit the Trade Center.” I looked up at one of the large flat screen TVs we had on the trading floor and saw smoke coming out of the Trade Center. From our windows, we could see the reflection off of other buildings of the flames.
At first, I thought “what a terrible accident.” But then I realized the fire was below my friends’ trading floor at Cantor Fitzgerald. I could not imagine how they were ever going to get out of the building with a fire below them. Then I heard someone yell, “I just spoke to Cantor, they are heading for the roof.” It gave me a bit of hope they would be ok, but I felt so helpless staring at that fire.
I stood next to a coworker whose brother was in the South Tower working for Sandler O’Neil. He was giving us reports of what was happening in the North Tower. “Were you guys told to leave?” he asked his brother. His brother said they were told their building was safe and not to leave. He then called back a few seconds later and said, “We are leaving after all.” My coworker hung up the phone with his brother. It was the last time he would ever speak to him.
It was at that moment that I saw the second explosion on the TV. I never saw the plane come around, but I heard screams from my trading floor and people yelling to get out. I later learned this was the moment my father had called the desk. Someone picked up the phone and said “we are evacuating” and hung up the phone on him. My family would not hear from me until 3 p.m.
When I got to the street, fighter jets were swirling around our buildings. People were running from the Trade Center screaming, crying. I looked up at the buildings and saw what so many of us have seen now over and over as scenes replay from that day. Gaping holes with black smoke, flames coming from them. People choosing what seemed the lesser of two evils and jumping for their lives out of the towers. Emergency vehicles screaming down the West Side highway. People frantically trying to call home to say they were now outside and what seemed to be somewhat safe. People running for ferries to New Jersey, Staten Island. Any way to get them out of lower Manhattan. Where I spent three quarters of my daily life had turned into a war zone. But we were not soldiers. We were just civilians going to work on a beautiful Tuesday.
I still did not know there was a second plane in the South Tower. I was consumed with shock and sadness. The stories on the street added to the confusion. Some said that the South Tower was on fire due to debris shooting off the North Tower. Some said it was an emergency helicopter that was headed to the roof of the North Tower, but crashed. We were being rushed off the streets and up the West Side Highway. We all were trying to call home. Lines at payphones were 20 deep because people felt they would have a better chance with those than cell phones as so many lines were jammed. I remember a coworker saying he was going back into the parking garage to get his car, drive out of there. Thankfully, we convinced him not to.
I still have my planner from that day. In it, on Sept. 11, a list of people, some strangers, some coworkers. Next to their names a phone number and then a spouse or parent or friend’s name. “If you get to them before I do, please, tell them I am ok ,” was the message that went along with the list.
I could not get myself to leave the area. Like so many others, I wanted to help, to do something. But I was continued to be forced up the street, thankfully. It is that feeling of helplessness that still haunts me. I still had a difficult time processing what I was witnessing and the reality my friends would not get out, when I heard someone yelling the Pentagon had been hit. It was not an accident. It was evil and hatred I was staring at. What could happen next?
I never could have dreamed what would happen next. I was a safe distance from the Trade Center when I heard a scream, then multiple screams. A woman grabbed my hand and I turned back only to see the South Tower falling before my eyes. Ten years later, I still cannot find the words to describe what I saw. I was numb. I did not hear it crash, I did not feel the ground shake. I held onto to the woman so not to collapse. It was gone. How could it be gone? All I could think was there was no way that tower was empty. Who was still in it? I had friends who worked in there at KBW and Sandler O’Neil. Were they out? What about all the first responders who were running into the buildings as so many of us were running from the area?
After the second tower fell, it became more survival than shock on my walk home from downtown to the Upper East Side. As I walked with coworkers, we tried to figure out what route was safest.“Should we walk closer to the river in case we had to jump in?” I remember sprinting past Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. “They would be targets, right?” Again, “What next?”
When I finally got to the Upper East Side, I went into St. Ignatius and sat down, trying to process it all. “What now? Do I go to a bank machine and take out all my money? What about water? What is going to happen here tonight if they did this in broad daylight?” A woman came over to me and hugged me. She said, “We will get through this.” It was hard to imagine, but she was right, we had no choice.
That night and the days to follow were almost worse than the day itself. Waiting to hear who made it home, who didn’t. In my 28 years, I was fortunate to have never lost a friend. Now, it was multiple. I had to choose what funerals I could go to as some overlapped. One morning I would be on Long Island at a service, then driving to New Jersey for another one that afternoon. To even try to digest the amount of lives lost in just my world was impossible. Walking around the Upper East Side there was never a dry eye. Everyone had lost someone and that was just a sampling of the loss our country had suffered.
If the tears in the neighborhood were not enough of a reminder, you would see make shift memorials on stoops outside of apartments. They had notes, pictures. Familiar faces from the gym, restaurants, parties. They, too, were gone. A shift in the wind would cause the smell of the destruction in lower Manhattan to make its way to the neighborhood. You could not escape it.
My roommate convinced me to that we needed to help to get through the sadness. That Friday, she and I brought supplies for the workers at Ground Zero down to Chelsea Piers on the lower West Side. There were about 20 ambulances lined up to head to Ground Zero at a moment’s notice for any survivors. But the ambulances were not moving. It was there also that for first time I had seen the destroyed skyline of lower Manhattan. I could not look at it. I could not take it. I turned away only to come face to face with one of the thousands Missing Persons signs posted all over New York City. It was one of my friend. He was smiling in the picture, full of life. He was only 27 and he was not coming home. Like so many of those lost, in the prime of his life with so much ahead of him. My heart broke all over again. We were told to “try to go back to normal.” My normal was gone.
My building was still standing, but closed. When the markets reopened that Monday, my trading floor was now in New Jersey. I cried every day going there. My trips on The Path were reminders of what happened and how different life was. Periodic bomb scares had us leave our building. Rumors of potential attacks on subways were daily. This was all part of my “new” life.
Prior to officially reopening our WFC headquarters, we were taken back to lower Manhattan by ferry. It was a ghost town. Our restaurants had become morgues. The buildings that once were so full of life were now in ruins on the ground. Government vehicles and high security were everywhere. People in HAZMAT suits were walking around. I was warned to prepare myself as they were still recovering bodies from the rubble.
My desk was just how I left it. My breakfast was still there and my newspaper from Tuesday, September 11 still opened to the business section. Those were all pieces of my old life. My new life I was still trying to understand. I was reminded of the words spoken to me by the woman at St. Ignatius. “We will get through this.” And it reminded me I had to, I had no choice.
Ten years later, the memories are still so vivid in my mind. I was warned that the sadness and the feeling of helplessness would surface from time to time. It could be triggered by an event, a song, or a memory of a friend lost. It will forever live inside me. I think about that day every day. How I never felt alone on my walk from downtown to the Upper East Side. How strangers stopped to hug me. I think about how fragile life is and how quickly it all can end. I recall an email from a friend saying, “I am available next week, let’s talk.” He was killed that day. I remember to always stop and say hello as I learned the hard way it may be the last time you see that person. And I often think about the days that followed. How we as New Yorkers pulled together and how the country was so united. There were flags everywhere. I learned from that day and the days that followed what freedom really means and how fortunate we are to have it. What it really means to be an American. It is all this that I wish to pass on to my children and those who were too young to actually remember the events that day.
I was also reminded during those days that sometimes you have to hit the bottom to get back up. And like so many Americans, I did get through it. As a result of the attacks, I was transferred to Boston due to company reorganization. It was here in Massachusetts that I met my husband, Will. We have 3 children now. It is my vow to continue to pass on the memory of that day to them and to remind them as well as so many others to never forget.
Kate Kelleher told Westborough Patch, "This is the first time I have ever written my thoughts and memories down from that day. I would like to dedicate it to my niece Hannah, who will be 10-years-old on Sept. 11. She arrived into this world at a time of turmoil. She was born right between the attack on the twin towers and the pentagon."
Kate and Will Kelleher are the parents of three children. Their youngest daughter, Catherine, was born on Aug. 27. Kate is a member of the Westborough 9/11 10th Anniversary Committee.
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