By Heera Kapoor
I had always been a pretty solitary person, independent and even nonchalant. I didn’t bother to tell my family all I was doing; I lived my own life. I struggled with the same issues everyone else does: money, work, the daily grind, etc. But I was doing fine, everything being said.
I worked in New York in PR for a software company, and had also just completed my emergency medical technician (EMT) training. I liked EMT work; I always wanted to do something different, learn new things, and help people.
I lived in Brooklyn, so I took the subway to work and came out between my office buildings at One Liberty Plaza and the World Trade Center. I admired the beautiful September morning as I walked into work 14 years ago.
I didn’t hear anything at first, but I felt it. The building shook, and through our window that overlooked the Hudson River, dark smoke and hundreds of loose papers flew by. All I could think of was, “What is that?” as all the alarms started going off.
My first instinct was to grab the tiny First Aid kit from my office’s kitchen and get downstairs. I took the elevator, I didn’t even think of taking the stairs.
The lobby was pure pandemonium. People were screaming and panicking. I made straight for the security desk and told the officer there, “I’m an EMT — do you need me?” He told me to stay right there, but I wasn’t about to wait around.
I rushed outside and looked up to see a smoking hole in the side of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. I thought, “We got this: it’s only a bomb, we’ll put it out no problem.” I searched around looking for other EMTs.
I had a short-sleeved white shirt on. I had to cover my face because of falling glass from the towers as I ran up Church Street, past people standing frozen at the sight of the burning buildings. Why are these people just standing there? They need to MOVE! I could hear a boom — boom — boom coming from the towers.
I stood by an ambulance by the South Tower hoping I could be of help. I heard a very calm male voice saying, “Get in the bus, get in the bus.” I looked around but everyone’s eyes were still on the burning tower — no one was talking to me. The voice repeated, and I climbed in the back of the ambulance and sat on the bench. Not five seconds later, people rush in. A cop grabs my head and pushes me down, laying his body on top of me. The ambulance shook as debris hit the roof.
Everyone was shouting and screaming as we got out of the ambulance and looked up to see the other tower on fire. I shook my head, wondering, “How on earth did they get another bomb up there?”
Someone close to me said, “I keep hearing thuds.” and another exclaimed, “oh, there goes another one.” From the broken windows of the towers, it was raining people. Gruesome doesn’t begin to cover it. For a moment all I could do was just stand there with the others, watching figures leap from the windows to their deaths. “Why are they jumping?” I asked. A paramedic replied. “They have no choice. They’d rather jump than burn. They want to control the way they die.”
Many had been climbing up that corporate ladder their whole lives — often outwitting each other — and where had it got them? Standing at the edge of a burning building, hand-in-hand with each other, secretaries and bosses alike. They jumped together, now equal in all things.
I realized that they may not have said goodbye to their families that morning. What if they’d been in an argument with a loved one the night before? Or if they just rushed out of the house to get to work? They weren’t able to say goodbye to the people they loved before they died. And I thought that if I loved someone, I was going to tell them so. Always. They need to know you love them, even if they don’t love you back. These poor souls in front of me were proof enough that no one knows what can happen in life.
When you’re standing on the ground looking up at them, you just want to run underneath them and grab them out of the air like Superman. I stepped forward but the paramedic held me back. “You can’t save them now — they’re already dead.” It was so alien to me — trained as an EMT to save lives — and to just stand there helpless.
Tomorrow may never come — the next hour might not even have come for me. I heard military jets flying over, heard the towers creek and crack as they burned, the thuds of bodies, people’s screams, and falling glass. All I could think was, “This is it. I’m dead.” With that knowledge certain, I said to myself, “You’re going to help as many people as you can today. You’re going to do whatever you possibly can with your time because you’re not going to live beyond this day.” It was almost euphoric; I was calm and centered.
I ran into a building where some EMTs had set up their medical equipment in an attempt to help, but then I heard that voice again telling me to “run” as the noise outside grew louder. I ran out a back exit, stepping out into a world that looked like it was in a nuclear winter. I had trouble breathing, my eyes burned, and everyone kept staring around, looking for something to make sense. It was like in the movies, everything so surreal, people covered in white ash and bleeding. None of us understood that the South Tower had just fallen.
I made my way over to a firefighter approaching the North Tower and asked him if he needed help, but he just wanted to go back in and help find his brothers. I wished him luck. He’d need it.
But then I heard a rumbling like an earthquake. I looked up to see the North Tower’s antenna tilt at an angle and stared as the top of the building collapsed on itself, smoke and debris billowing out at the impact.
Police barricade trucks came barreling down the street and I jumped on the side of the vehicle, screaming at them, “GO, GO, GO!” Over my shoulder I could see the tower fully collapse, producing a tsunami of dust, dirt, and debris. Everyone was running as the barricade truck sped away, and we watched helplessly as the cloud enveloped everything behind us.
At another aid station, I watched everyone try to make phone calls on a pay-phone. People lined up down the street to make a call and tell their loved ones they were alive, and that they loved them.
All of a sudden my cell phone rang! It was my sister, Priya.
I picked up the phone, “I’m alive, Priya, I’m alive!”
She then said, in a futile effort to diffuse the gravity of the situation, “Of course you are, you’re picking up the telephone.”
I cried then, and told her, “No really, I’m alive! I had to run for my life — what happened?”
She said, “They took two airplanes and flew them into the towers.”
This was the first time confusion hit me that day. “What do you mean, ‘they took two planes’?”
“They hijacked them, Heera, then crashed them into the towers.”
“On purpose?!” It was unthinkable.
Dust was up to our ankles, the surrounding buildings still on fire, the rubble that had been the two towers was giving off powerful heat and a smell I’ll never forget. Papers littered the ground, and empty shoes stood as reminders that their owners had been blown out of them in the blast. Rubble and ash were strewn over smashed fire engines and broken yellow tape.
How could I have known then how many lives had already been lost and why I still had my own? I hadn’t seen a single report, no news of what this was, only hearsay, dust, and my own witness. I wasn’t supposed to be alive. I was sure I was going to die down there, by Ground Zero. But there I was, alive, trying to find people to help. But there were very few to help at this point. People were just dead, or they were alive and able to walk away to find help further out. We could only try to recover the bodies. It was like looking at the moon after a war.
As I made my way home, I didn’t feel the horror and the confusion of the day. I felt only the dichotomy of clarity in the moment without understanding what was going on. Believing you’re dead is rather freeing in that way, the only focus is what you must do exactly in that moment. No fear, no hope, just being and doing.
I went down the next day to see if there was anything I could do. I stood on a steel eye beam 50 feet above the smoking remains looking down at it all. I wore thick boots but I could still feel the heat radiating from underneath me, like holding your hand over a hot barbecue. I watched the search dogs and firefighters dig through the pit of broken metal and concrete, worrying over the heat of their feet as they sifted through the hot rubble in search of the dead.
As the days and weeks went on I was mesmerized by the multitude of flyers that plastered every spare surface in Manhattan. The pictures of the thousands of lost loved ones saddened me. Those falling figures now had names, faces, families and lives … and the vision of them, dead or alive, will forever haunt me.
Seeing all that does change a person, though. I live in LA now, a place with a lot of lost souls, but if I can make one person smile each day, then I’m good. Living my life a day at a time, a moment at a time is now something I just do. I have to, after that.
I was always a solitary person, but I became less so after that experience. I make a point of telling my family I love them, calling it out right before leaving the room or hanging up the phone. I live close to them now, when before I didn’t think I’d ever move home again. I will never forget those people holding hands as they looked down from the towers, unable to tell their loved ones how much they cared for them — but I still can. I can still give myself permission to say “I love you.”
Heera Kapoor has worked in High Tech PR for many years, including a stint at Hill + Knowlton. After nearly ten years of running her own business in Tahiti, she returned to LA to be closer to family and have new experiences. She is currently having a lot of fun driving for Uber.
More stories like this available in the Give YourSelf Permission Anthology available on Amazon.