L ate on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I walked northeast in Manhattan from Wall Street, my sandals gritty with ash. I had just spent 45 minutes trapped on a northbound subway train that had slammed to a halt, below and two blocks east of the World Trade Center, as a sudden change in pressure made our ears pop. We had waited between stations as pulverized concrete gradually choked the air of the subway car, and then another hour, after we escaped, for the blizzard of debris to settle. As I stepped out of the bank lobby where we’d taken refuge, I held my first cellphone, a bar with a hard antenna, out in front of me with my parents’ Massachusetts phone number plugged in, and pressed the button fruitlessly: send, send, send, send.
I knew the towers had been on fire: I had come up out of the subway earlier that morning to find the towers burning, watched for a few minutes, then decided to get out of there the fastest way I could. But here are some things I did not know until I had walked two and a half miles away from the scene and calls began coming through: That passenger jets had been hijacked. (Someone had mentioned a plane, but I assumed it was a little private one, off course.) Whether my parents knew I was alive, and how to reach them or anyone else I knew, with the cell network swamped and endless lines at every pay phone. Strangest of all, as black columns of smoke behind me obscured the still unfamiliar skyline—I had just moved to New York—I had no idea what had caused that change of atmospheric pressure underground. I did not understand that the towers were gone.