Ten years later, the tears still flow from Harriett Adams’ eyes when she’s asked about 9/11.
Time’s passage hasn’t lessened the Ennis, Texas-resident’s memories of the sights and sounds she encountered in New York City that fateful day and following week.
“I still can’t think about the whole thing without being emotional,” said Adams, who was in New York City on business and staying at a friend’s loft less than three miles from where the World Trade Center fell under terrorist attack Sept. 11, 2001.
What Adams can do to try and keep her composure is to speak of her experience in vignette-form. She can speak separately of how she was awakened that morning by a friend beating on the loft’s door to alert her to the attacks and, then, of how she and her client walked blocks upon blocks to try and donate blood in a city entirely afoot except for emergency vehicles going down Second Avenue. She also can talk, separately, of the haunting silence on the streets of one of the world’s busiest cities and of having seen countless photographs of loved ones posted across the city with messages like “Have you seen this person?” as people sought to reunite with their family and friends.
If she takes it step by step and moment by moment – as she did that week in New York City – she can make her way through the memories. It’s when she tries to share her thoughts when considering the entire event, the emotions become overwhelming.
“It still makes me cry,” she said in an interview this week. “And I know some people will find it strange that 10 years later I can’t get a handle on my emotions if I’m trying to talk about the entire experience at once.”
Images from the day
After being awakened and watching some of the initial reports on television, Adams found herself compelled to get out on the street and down to the corner where she said she saw only smoke where the twin towers should have been. She recalls “huge caravans” of first responder and official vehicles responding to the scene even as people made their way out of what she described as “a curtain of smoke, out of this engulfing smoke.”
“They’re all the color of the smoke; they’re all grey,” she said, describing the glazed eyes and stunned demeanors of those she passed as she began walking from near 1st Street to 50th Street, to a hotel where her client was staying.
En route, Adams said she passed several hospitals. At each one, staff members were waiting outside with gurneys – but there was no other activity.
“I kept thinking, where are the ambulances? … It never occurred to me there wouldn’t be ambulances going to the hospitals, that they would be going to the morgues with the bodies that were found,” she said, adding, “And there were so very many that were never found, not one trace.”
After locating her client those many blocks away, the two women decided to help in the one way they felt they could: by donating blood.
Setting out again on foot – all public transportation had been shut down – the two women headed west from the East Side and walked ‘crosstown’ on 50th Street, walking all the way across Manhattan to West End Avenue.
“Every form of transportation was ordered stopped (except for emergency vehicles),” Adams said. “People had to exit buses, subways, trains, wherever they were when the order was given. Planes landed at the nearest (facilities) that could accommodate them.
“We walked ‘crosstown’ and it was so quiet,” Adams said, noting they encountered few if any people. “It was like a scene in one of those movies where everyone disappeared.”
In sharp contrast to the horror unfolding itself was the day itself, Adams recalled.
“I remember it being such a beautiful day. The temperature was so wonderful and the sky was so blue. You could hear birds singing. But it’s unheard of to hear birds singing in midtown Manhattan simply because it’s always so noisy,” she said. “I’d describe it as a surreal experience because it was so quiet.”
Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center, Fordham University, every landmark they passed was closed. The stores were all closed.
They were turned away from two West Side hospitals and directed to the American Red Cross building at 102nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Adams said it took hours to get there only to find the doors closed with lines of people surrounding the building and sitting everywhere on the block.
“They could take no more blood,” Adams said, saying people waiting in the hope the doors would reopen, just so they could do something.
“No one knew what else to do; they all wanted to help,” Adams said. “Again, no one realized yet there was no need for the blood because everyone was dead.”
As the hours passed, the news became more and more grim as the death toll ticked ever higher.
Adams recalls watching local TV broadcasts as Mayor Rudy Guiliani gave his updates.
“People were realizing that these companies of firemen had been sent to their deaths. There was no escape,” she said, pausing to regain her composure as tears welled in her eyes. “Everyone in the world was hearing these same reports – but we would hear it a little sooner (on the local broadcasts).”
Recently, she said she had an opportunity to view photos declassified by the government and forwarded to her by a friend.
“You can see how much the smoke engulfed the area,” she said.
Although much of the smoke was blown to sea, much of it was still in Manhattan, she said, saying, “You couldn’t breathe.”
There is no doubt in Adams’ mind that those who toiled in the aftermath at ground zero for months on end are now suffering from ill health effects.
“Who knows what they were working in? Week after week they were not able to put the fire out. Month after month, it continued to smolder. All of that material burning together, who can say what that would do to the body?” she said.
For Adams, there is still anger the attacks occurred at all.
“Anyone who has read and listened to 9-11 conclusions over the past 10 years should still be angry that our intelligence agencies were so selfishly ego-driven that they would not co-operate with one another even in the face of national security and previous terrorist attacks on Americans around the world for years. We are told they are now co-operating ‘more.’
“ ‘More’ is not the word I want to hear. I want to hear ‘totally cooperating.’ I don’t want the security of my country run like a typical plot in a Hollywood movie where the sheriff gets mad when the FBI arrives in his town to investigate and then the FBI gets bent out of shape and refuses to cooperate fully when the CIA is brought into the investigation,” she said. “Security is not a competitive sport. I hope the lack of cooperation has come to an end,” she said, saying that through the years she’s “thought a lot about how this could have been prevented.”
a special place
A former resident of New York City, Adams grew to love the metropolis in the seven years she lived there.
“People see New York as Fifth Avenue or the Financial District or Broadway. What they don’t see it as is lots and lots of different neighborhoods making up lots of little towns all crammed together and divided into five boroughs. These little towns still have identities as do the neighborhoods within them,” she said, speaking fondly of when she lived there and saying she never found New Yorkers to be cold, uncaring or unhelpful.
“I’ve had people chase me down to return something I’ve dropped. They’ve given me directions when I’ve been lost,” she said. “The truth is, people don’t walk around downtown Dallas or Houston or any big city chatting with everyone they meet. People are on a mission when they’re downtown in a big city.”
All that’s good about New York City manifested itself after the tragedy, she said.
“I will say this, from the moment this tragedy occurred, New York became a small town where people were talking to one another. They comforted one another. They helped one another,” Adams said.
American flags appeared throughout the city as bouquets of flowers were placed in front of New York firehouses.
“Yellow ribbons started appearing everywhere,” Adams said, recalling also the heartbreaking, innumerable posters taped up by people seeking any word of their loved ones.
Adams, her client and others joined together at the barricade into ground zero to help out by handing water and apples to first responders.
“Everyone would applaud when (the first responders) would come out; they would be hot and exhausted,” she said. “People were gathered at the barrier, just as a show of support.”
In particular, everyone felt the loss of those first responders who went to the World Trade Center in a rescue effort but ended up losing their lives.
“It weighed on us all,” she said, pausing again as the totality of the event pressed in on the moment.
Making her way home
One of Adams’ most vivid memories was of her flight home to Texas.
No planes were flying anywhere in the world until Saturday, Sept. 15, she said.
“My client and her husband were hosting a party in their home on Saturday night and booked the first flight out to Austin on Saturday morning. They were at the airport by 5 a.m. and sat there all day. They did not get home until after midnight due to the massive delays.
“I booked the last flight out on Sunday night, Sept. 16, because I thought the crush of people trying to leave and the magnitude of flights worldwide would cause a giant delay. It turned out I was right more than I could ever have imagined. The exodus from New York City was almost over by Sunday night.”
Adams called a cab to take her to La Guardia that Sunday evening.
“I am not exaggerating when I say I did not see one sign of life all the way to the airport. No other cars – no people. The driver and I had little conversation,” she said. “When my cab arrived at LaGuardia, there was no other form of transportation in sight and no people to be seen. I wondered if all planes had been canceled again and the airport was closed.”
Entering the terminal, Adams said she was met by three people who asked to see her identification and took her baggage into a room for a complete search.
“Once it was searched, I was released to walk to my gate. Except for the persons at security, I saw no one else in the entire terminal. All shops were closed,” she said. “When I approached my gate, I saw about 10 people were already sitting in chairs. No one said a word but just looked at one another as though trying to decide if the other could be a terrorist. Everyone, including myself, uneasily watched three tanned-skinned, black-haired men, who could have been from the Middle East. I kept telling myself they were Hispanic and that security was too tight for terrorists to be on board.”
It was “maybe 30” people who eventually boarded the American Airlines plane on which Adams would return to Texas.
“There were a lot of empty seats and not one word was spoken by passengers during the flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. Yet, I didn’t feel it was unfriendly, just everyone being on the same page emotionally as they departed New York,” she said, saying the crew didn’t talk either “except for the necessary comments and announcement that we were landing.”
Adams said she felt two emotions in flying home: ”Fear of the unknown and the feeling that I was running out on my fellow Americans in New York City and that I should have stayed to help.”
“There was nothing I knew to do to really help, but I still felt guilty that I wasn’t staying to do something. I felt guilty that I was flying home to safe Texas,” she said.
Adams would return to New York City the next month and again that December, each time taking care of business, but each time also visiting as close she could to ground zero to show her support. In the intervening years, she’s made other visits, returning with continued faith in the American spirit to overcome any challenge.
While there is still the pain, Adams said she has held onto the good, that of the city and the country coming together.
“We’re all one,” she said.
Contact JoAnn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 469-517-1452.