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Close to 9/11’s ground zero: In post-apocalyptic Manhattan with my mom

CM 08/09/2021 2


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September 11, 2001 started like so many mornings would in the ensuing years. 
I left the house with my mother, Chen Harkov, at 6:45 a.m. to get on a purple coach bus filled with members of the Jewish community of Deal, New Jersey to Manhattan for the day. I was the only teen on the bus; the rest of the passengers were adults, almost all men, commuting to work in “the city,” as we called it.
I was 13 years old, and it was my second day of freshman year at the Ramaz Upper School. I was the only kid commuting from Deal. I had never taken the subway on my own before, and I apologetically told my mother I was still nervous. When we got off at our usual bus stop a short walk from Grand Central Station, my mother took the 6 train uptown with me, instead of downtown to work.

We had no idea what an impact that little change of plans would have.
See, the Deal community commuter bus that I took was meant to get people to work by 9 a.m. High school usually starts at 8 a.m. Ramaz made an exception for me and let me come late, because the first hour of school was dedicated to prayers, and there was a prayer service on the bus.

 A GIANT American flag flies on Flag Day on the George Washington Bridge, June 14. (credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS) A GIANT American flag flies on Flag Day on the George Washington Bridge, June 14. (credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)

When I asked my mom to ride the subway with me, she called her first meeting of the day and said she’d be late. It was supposed to be in the World Trade Center. The six people she was supposed to meet decided to go out for coffee and survived the day, though we only found that out much later.
Meanwhile, my mother and I were making our way up to the Upper East Side. We got out of the subway, and she walked me to school, where I headed into French class.
I clearly remember the announcement coming on the loudspeaker, a few minutes into class, that a plane had struck one of the twin towers. We didn’t understand it, and class continued, until a few minutes later, everyone was called to the school auditorium, where CNN was being projected onto a big screen.
Meanwhile my mother emerged from the subway at the World Trade Center station to find people frozen on the sidewalks looking up, like they were in a video that had been paused, as she described it to me. When she saw what they were looking at – the first tower smoking – and heard people wondering what was going on, she said out loud: “It’s Arab terrorists.”
“How do you know that?” strangers asked her; they still thought it was an accident.
“I’m Israeli,” she responded.
MY MOTHER remembered the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, masterminded by the “Blind Sheikh” (Omar Abdel-Rahman). Plus, this was the height of the Second Intifada. Our frequent phone calls with relatives in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv and Herzliya were often to check that they were safe after a bus or a restaurant had been blown up.
She started walking in the opposite direction from the Twin Towers to the Union Square office of the Jewish organization where she worked as a lawyer. By the time she got there, a plane hit the second tower. Her boss, a retired Israeli senior military officer, tried to calm everyone in the office, but also said they could leave.
Meanwhile, uptown, my fellow students started trying to figure out how to get home. Ramaz is a school where a lot, perhaps most, students commute from out of town, and somehow the kids going to Scarsdale or Teaneck or other concentrations managed to get out. I didn’t know many of them at that point, and I don’t remember what they did. I was the only kid from Deal. I didn’t have a yellow school bus to take me home. Mine was a commuter bus that only returned to New Jersey in the late afternoon, so I didn’t have that option. I didn’t know how to take the subway to Penn Station to get the NJ Transit train to the Jersey Shore. Cell phones weren’t working, so I couldn’t use the one my parents had bought me the week before, out of a concern for my safety at school in Manhattan.
I had made a friend on my first day of school, AJ, who ended up being one of my best friends for all four years. She was a “city kid,” of the kind who had independence at a level that my 13-year-old self could only dream of; she actually went places on her own, regularly, whereas I was always shuttled around in a minivan. She lived a short walk away from school, and invited me over until things calmed down. I considered the offer, but realized my mother would have no idea where I was, and decided to stay in school. AJ kindly stayed with me for a while.
Eventually, I was the last kid left in school. The administrators encouraged me to try to call anyone I knew from the school’s landline, but it wasn’t just my phone that didn’t have reception. My mom didn’t answer, nor did my dad or grandparents, who were all in New Jersey and couldn’t really help me anyway. So, I insisted on waiting. The only place my mother would know to look for me was at school. I sat with the principal on the steps outside.
My mother and I can’t remember how long it took for her to arrive, but it felt like hours to both of us. She walked – the subways were closed – all the way from 14th to 78th Street in a suit and high heels, while carrying an attaché case, to get me. She felt like this was a life-threatening situation, and that gave her the adrenaline boost to go and get her daughter.
We continued our journey together, walking uptown and across town. It was like a post-apocalyptic version of New York, with all the stores closed and few people on the streets. We talked about what we thought happened and how it relates to Israel, which was, frankly, how we discussed most world events in my family. We naively thought that the experience of terrorism at home would make Americans more sympathetic to what Israel was going through during the Second Intifada.
At some point during the walk, my mother got a phone call from her Aunt Tzipporah in Ramat Gan. Somehow, while we couldn’t get in touch with anyone else in the family in America, the call came through from Israel. The aunt said she would call my dad to tell him we were OK. My mother and great-aunt talked about how the tables were turned, because the family in America usually called the relatives in Israel to check if they’re safe after terrorist attacks.
We walked all the way to the George Washington Bridge, hoping to get across to my grandparents, who lived very close to the New Jersey side. They were able to see the towers from their 23rd story apartment, which normally had a beautiful Manhattan skyline view, and my grandmother, an avid photographer and former journalist with a keen sense for news, took pictures.
But when we got to the bridge, the area was packed with thousands of people trying to get across.
“Terrorists could blow up the bridge,” my mother said, and rushed us away.
AFTER WALKING around all afternoon, we showed up that evening, unannounced, at the Upper West Side apartment of one of my mother’s coworkers, a woman who lived in one of the buildings known to be home to lots of Orthodox singles. Luckily, her flatmate’s room was available because she was stuck outside Manhattan. My mother rested her swollen feet, and she and her coworker were glued to the news.
I did my biology homework, which was due the next day. My mother actually discouraged me from doing my homework – something she had never done before and would never do again – because there was no way there would be school the next day. But I did it anyway; I didn’t want to get in trouble in the first week of school! In retrospect, it was probably a coping mechanism. My mother still called me a nerd, and we laughed when we recalled it this week.
We slept in the coworker’s apartment, but didn’t have a change of clothes, a toothbrush or anything else. The next morning, we had to get back into the clothes we had worn walking for many hours in the heat.
The next day, when the subways and trains opened again, we made our way downtown to Penn Station. We sat in one of those subway cars with the yellow and orange seats, some of which are back-to-back with other passengers. A bum who looked like he had not showered in a long time sat behind us. He tapped my mother’s shoulder.
“Lady, you stink!” he told her.
My mother has an infectious laugh that is extremely loud. Once she starts, she has trouble stopping. And at that moment, she just let loose.
After walking from the World Trade Center to the Upper East Side, to the George Washington Bridge to the Upper West Side, all she felt was relief.
“I don’t care if I stink; I’m alive!” she roared. 

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CM

The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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