Kathy Rowe remembers New York on 9/11
Most of us can remember the imagery of this day, 10 years ago. But Kathy Rowe can smell and taste and see and hear it.
Rowe, the station manager of CHMR Radio at Memorial University, was in New York City that day, attending a conference. The images, smells, sounds and sensations are imprinted permanently in her memory. And the shock of that day came back to haunt Rowe, forcing her to return to ground zero to confront, head on, her post-traumatic stress.
Rowe has had a love affair with The Big Apple since first visiting the city in 1993, and travels there at least twice per year. Ten years ago today, she was in the city to attend a conference that would have started on the 12th. She was on Canal Street in downtown Manhattan, just two blocks from the World Trade Centre.
“I was on my way to the Discovery Store, in the basement of the World Trade Centre, but my co-worker, Ernst Rollmann, and I decided to stop for breakfast,” Rowe said, in an interview. “When we were eating breakfast, we heard that a small plane had hit the World Trade Centre. We looked out the window and could see it.”
At that point, Rowe’s journalistic side leaped into action.
“We started running downtown, getting as close as we could, thinking that this was much like the small airplane that hit the Empire State Building many years ago (in 1945). Tower One got hit first. It looked almost like a cartoon image; where the shape of a person is left in the wall when someone runs through it. And it didn’t look that bad as we were getting closer.”
Rowe was carrying a disposable film camera, and began snapping photos of what she was seeing, as she approached the towers. “I thought, ‘This is history,’ and I was still a reporter at that point. You can see the point when I stopped taking pictures, though I did keep walking toward the towers. It occurred to me that this was probably not a good thing to be taking pictures of.”
Then the second plane hit.
“The plane had come from behind so we didn’t see it. That big ball of fire that you see in the videos – that was in front of us, coming out. My friend said, ‘Bomb!’ And I thought ‘My god, what’s happening here?’”
She can’t explain why, on reflection, but Rowe and her co-worker continued to walk toward the scene.
“Your mind does weird things, when you aren’t really sure what’s going on. We were pretty damn close. You could smell it, you could see it. I remember stopping and saying, ‘There’s wood falling out of the building.’ But I knew the buildings weren’t made of wood – my mind was going all over the place. Then I realized: ‘Good lord, that’s not wood. That’s people.’ They were starting to jump. I didn’t have my glasses on – I’m a bit nearsighted – but I knew what I was seeing. At that point, Ernst said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here. Run!’ He actually had to say that, to order me to stop.”
At this point, Rowe’s inner journalist moved to the back seat, as her survival instincts took over.
“It’s like you get the rush for news, at first, until you realize ‘Oh, this is not good.’ I’m not sure how many other media people are like that; like ‘I gotta know, I gotta know’ and then when you start to realize what it is, you go ‘Jesus, why did I want to know that?’ We started to run as fast as we could, away from it, and stopped when we thought it was safe – we had no idea the buildings were going to come down.”
The spectacle unfolding high up in the twin towers was horrific, but Rowe’s strongest memories of that day are of the people on the street; the throngs of New Yorkers who would shortly be running for their lives.
A primary election was taking place at the time, and Rowe recalls seeing a campaign worker handing out fliers for his candidate.
“When the second jet hit the building, and he saw the ball of flame, he threw the papers up in the air and said “f**k it!’ and started running. I remember that so clearly. And there were other people shopping! Buildings were on fire and there were women looking in store windows at shoes. I thought, maybe that’s how their brain is wired, like a coping mechanism…
“I remember when we stopped for a breather, some woman grabbed me by the chest and started screaming for a cell phone. But I didn’t have one to give her. I look over and see my friend, who’s got his arms around an elderly black man, and they’re saying the Lord’s Prayer together.”
Then Tower Two collapsed in a potentially lethal wall of debris, smoke and dust.
“There were little bits of everything in the air. I even picked a little piece off me, a piece of wall material, that I kept to this day. We weren’t right down there, covered in dust, but we were in the midst of the crap that was blowing around… The dust cloud went uptown a little bit, and then to the south, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. It didn’t get as far as Canal Street, but there was debris in the air. I have a picture taken there, showing a piece of debris right on top of a car.”
Rowe said they ran more than 100 blocks, stopping only long enough to catch their breath. “All the cars were stopped in the street, with their doors open and radios on. All you could hear was news reports. There were planes flying overhead constantly… each time you’d put your hand over your head, as if that would protect you. But you didn’t know if it was friend or foe.”
At this point, Rowe’s only strategy was to keep running uptown, away from the towers, and to stay away from the tall buildings because these, too, might have been targets.
They spent the afternoon in central park, trying to call home without success because the cellular system had collapsed under its own weight.
“I had called my mother before we headed toward the tower, to tell her that a small plane had hit the tower, and we were going down for a closer look. Of course, after that I couldn’t get in touch with her… It was later in the afternoon that I was finally able to get through, and tell them I was okay.”
The photos of missing people began to appear within hours, she said. “I remember staring eventually at thousands and thousands of missing persons.”
When she returned to St. John’s, Rowe was unable to leave the horror behind. It followed her home, to work, and even to bed.
“I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder… I had nightmares. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was angry. At the university, there’s a lot of political ideas and people had their opinions about whether or not the Americans deserved it. I couldn’t handle it, but I was hearing that. And I knew of people (on campus) who applauded when the towers fell. Those people were around, and I just couldn’t look at them. I was afraid I was going to take my anger out on them.”
Rowe saw a psychologist, who offered some extremely valuable advice. “She told me to go back. Two weeks later, I hopped on a plane back to New York. I went to see what I could do to help… I went down there just to shake hands with the firemen and policemen, to show them I was really thankful for what they did. I had to go back. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have felt any better about it to this day. I still find it totally disturbing, but that was the thing actually saved me from going crazy.”
However, she has not left it all completely behind. None of us will, of course, but this is especially so for those who witnessed it firsthand.
“There are smells that still bring me back to it. There’s a smoking area here on campus, and I’ll walk by… sometimes, a cigarette butt will catch fire in the ashtray, and that smell brings me right back. And there are sounds. There’s the sound of, well, I’d liken it to a roller coaster – like a million people on a roller coaster, all making that ‘whoaaa’ sound at the same time. That’s the sound I heard when the towers fell… Even certain songs are triggers. I remember all the chefs coming out of Trump Tower, standing and singing ‘God Bless America’. I can’t listen to that anymore. It’s hard.”
The experience has also made Rowe extremely vigilant about what’s going on around her, at any given time. “I’m very aware of my surroundings ever since. That’s one thing that’s never left me. I keep an eye out. I have to sit in areas where I can see the door. I can’t be back on to doors – I need to plan my escape route. I know, it sounds a little obsessive, but I think everyone who was there (in New York) that day feels the same way – you need to be able to get out.”
Rowe was totally infatuated with New York by 9/11, and regarded the city as her second home. The terrorist attacks felt like a violation; much the way a homeowner feels when thieves ransack their home.
“It was like someone desecrated the beauty, elegance and allure of the place I loved so much. Also, there was a feeling of profound sorrow for the New Yorkers who perished, and those who had to continue on. A helpless and maddening feeling - one that I could not shake once I got back to St. John’s. I guess that’s one of the reasons I went back so quickly after. I needed to be back with the folks who felt and saw the same things that I did. Mentally, I think that's the only thing that helped during those weeks after the attacks.”
There was, however, a silver lining for New York, Rowe added. The tragedy brought New Yorkers closer together, and seemed to strengthen their sense of community – of humanity, even.
“I remember, about two days later, a cab driver pulled up. There was nobody else around. I’ve never seen New York so quiet. He rolled down his window and said, ‘This isn’t my New York.’ I said, ‘No, not mine either.’ It’s almost like everyone wanted to hug each other. And there was no looting. There was none of that. It was a wonderful thing, in one way, in that it brought everybody together.”