Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
New York, New York
When the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, Monica Gabrielle’s world collapsed with it. Her husband, Rich, worked on the 103rd floor of the second tower and was one of the thousands who didn’t manage to escape. The couple would have celebrated their 29th anniversary this year. Monica, 50, was born in Dortmund, Germany, and today lives in New York City and Connecticut. Her daughter, Nicole, 23, also lives in New York. On the morning that forever changed her life, Monica was walking to work when she saw an unusual scene: a plane flying low and swift over Manhattan. When she arrived at her office, a co-worker came in screaming. Monica wandered the streets all night in a frantic search for her husband; Sept. 14, she learned of his tragic fate. The following was compiled Feb. 19 and was taken from notes written during the week of Sept. 11.
The morning of September 11th was like any other. As I was stumbling to get my morning coffee at 7:15 am, my husband, Rich, was on his way out the door to his office at 2WTC, 103rd floor. He liked to get in early. We touched hands as he walked by, I got my coffee, took my shower and got ready to go to work myself. I was lucky. My office was only two blocks away on West 24th Street. At approximately 8:40 am, I left the apartment to commence my long commute. It was an absolutely beautiful day. The brightest clear blue sky I’ve ever seen. The weather was unbelievably warm and balmy for September. We had just had a wonderful weekend of beach weather. This was going to be a perfect fall.
I was walking as most New Yorkers do. Fast pace, in our own world, oblivious to the sights and sounds around us as we hurry to our destination. As I got to the corner of 24th and 8th, I realized that something was unusual. The sound I was hearing did not belong. As I glanced up, I stopped and looked at this plane that was flying unbelievably low and pretty fast. It’s very unusual to see planes flying that directly over Manhattan and especially that low. I thought it very strange and wondered if they had perhaps rerouted the flights for the day. How wrong I was. The nightmare was about to begin.
By the time I got to work, strolled up the three flights, unlocked the office, put my bag down, my co-worker came running in screaming about a plane and the WTC. Nothing she was saying was making any sense. I’d forgotten all about the plane I saw. She quickly turned on the TVs and proceeded to explain that as she was getting out of the subway on 6th Avenue, she could see smoke pouring out of the downtown area. I stood stunned looking at the scene on the TV. One of the towers was burning. I couldn’t comprehend what I saw, only that my husband was down there in one of those buildings, but which one??? Oh, I remember, he’s not in the one with the antenna! I ran to the phone to call him to tell him to get the hell out of there immediately. All I got was his voicemail. I was relieved. If I got his voicemail, he is probably on his way out. Please dear God, let that be so. I didn’t want to call again. I was afraid it would delay him if he turned back to answer the phone. Meanwhile, our phones were on “night.” This means the calls automatically go into voicemail. There were calls coming in that I couldn’t get. I was beginning to panic and started screaming to turn the phones on. I didn’t want him waiting for voicemail if he decided to call. I wanted him out of that building.
Running back to the TVs. Staring in horror, another plane comes onto the screen and goes directly into the other tower. NO! This is insane! What is happening? Now there’s no question about which building Rich might be in. It doesn’t matter anymore. Either one and it’s not good. I pray, I calculate how far down he might be if he left as the first plane hit. I come to the awful conclusion that he might only have gotten about a quarter of the way down. I pray, please be out of that building. But how did he go? Did he take the stairs, did he take the elevator? No, he would take the stairs. He’s claustrophobic and nervous about the elevators. He wouldn’t get into an elevator under these conditions. Did he leave as soon as the first plane hit? Oh, I’m sure he did. He’s no fool. He wouldn’t put himself in danger, he wouldn’t take any chances. It’s only a job. If it’s nothing, you go back up. Absolutely, he would have left.
We watch, we wait, I call his cell phone, others are starting to come into the office. My co-worker whispers to them, “Rich is down there.” I get concerned looks, I get hugs, I get scared. The phones start ringing. Family is calling. “Did you hear what happened? Where is Rich? Was he at work?” I’m calm, “I’m waiting for him to call. I will call you as soon as I hear. He probably can’t get to a phone. Relax.” My daughter Nicole calls. Oh dear God. I can’t let her hear my fear. “I’m waiting for Daddy to call, honey. I will call you as soon as I hear from him. I’m sure everything is fine. You know Daddy, he’s probably looking for a phone right now.”
We wait, we watch. People are jumping from Tower 1. Dear God. This can’t be happening. More planes are missing? A plane hit the Pentagon? One of the Towers just collapsed. Which one? Which one? My God, it’s Tower 2! Rich was in there? Dear God, let him be out, please, let him be out. We watch, we wait. Shock, panic, fear. Pacing, just pacing. Can’t think, can’t concentrate, can’t talk. Crying. No don’t cry. It’s ok. He’s ok. Oh my God. A plane went down in Pennsylvania? Oh my God, what is happening? The other tower just fell. They both fell. They are gone. Oh my God. Where is Rich. Please, just let him be ok. Waiting for the phone call. Trying the cell phone. Calling, calling who? Who would know anything? What was that person’s name? Where is the other Aon office? Connecticut? Who’s in that office? Leaving messages. Please call me. I’m very concerned. I have not heard from Rich. A hotline has been set up. All employees that made it out are to call. I call the hotline. Have you heard from Rich? Has anyone seen him? He was in the office. Who talked to him? What time did you get in? Where was his office? Where was your office? Did you see him? He held the door for who? Did you see him after that? What do you mean you don’t remember?
Nicole comes to my office. She can’t take it anymore at her job. She needs to be with me. We sit vigil. Waiting for the phone to ring. If he’s going to call, he’ll call here. He’ll expect me to be at work. I can’t leave.
Lunch? Who can eat? Calling the hotline over and over again. Lines are busy, phone lines are down, circuits are overloaded. We’re all calling the same number. Whoever gets through first asks the question … Have you heard from Rich? Has he checked in yet? What do I do? Where do I go? Can I get downtown? Will they let me into that rubble to look? Panic, panic, fear, overwhelming fear. Cannot even think of any scenario other than finding Rich alive and ok. Anything else is unacceptable, unimaginable.
Nicole, you go home. Man the phone there just in case. I’ll stay here. This is where he’ll call. He won’t know to call home. He’ll expect me to be here.
3pm, 4pm, no call, no sighting, no check in. They must not be able to get through on the phones. The lines are all down. All roads are closed, the city is in total lockdown. Yeah, he can’t get through.
5pm, can’t stay at work any longer. I have to get out of here. My co-worker offers to come home with me. No, I’m ok. It’s ok. Everything is ok. She insists. We leave. We walk, we’re somber. My only thoughts are of where could he be. I get home, I pace. I can’t stay here. I’ve got to do something. I call my neighbor. Please, come with me. I’ve got to find Rich. He readily agrees. He’s missing friends. Nicole will stay by the phone. Call me if Daddy calls. I have my cell phone.
We leave … where do we start? What do we do? We start to walk. Our feet take us toward Greenwich Village. We’ll start at St. Vincent’s hospital. We’ll see what they have to say. It’s quiet. It’s eerily quiet. There is no traffic. All we see are emergency vehicles. Lights flashing, sirens going. It’s a beautiful night. Such a contrast to the horror of the day. As we cross 6th Avenue, we stop and stare. A line of ambulances coming uptown. There must be 100 of them. Sirens blaring, lights flashing. I start to scream and cry. This is a nightmare. This is a movie. This isn’t real. This isn’t real.
We continue to the hospital. We want to know if anyone from the WTC has been admitted. They’ve set up food. They have people with sad faces helping. They usher us to a volunteer to give them information. Name, address, phone number, contact person. They will cross-reference with anyone that is admitted and call. They tell us to eat. They tell us we need our strength. They know it’s going to be a long night. I want to vomit. The shock is taking hold. We are walking zombies. We go to our next destination. Where? What is best? Bellevue? Yes, that would be good. It’s getting dark. Must be 7pm. They would definitely be taken to Bellevue. We start our trek.
We see buses, school buses, hundreds of them. They are coming west on 23rd Street. Where are they going? Please, let it be true that thousands are stranded in Liberty Park and they are going to get them. We keep up the hope that all will be well. Could it be anything else? We look for anyone in uniform to find out what’s going on, what is happening. No one knows. Information is not filtering to us or anyone. We find the police precinct. We ask for information. The sergeant looks like he’s going to start to cry. They’ve lost people, too. They know nothing either. What are we all going to do? This is beginning to look grim. We are trying to keep up the hope.
We continue toward Bellevue. Coming up First Avenue we see activity. This must be where the list is. We ask, “Is there a list of people admitted here? My husband is missing.” We are told that it was a command post set up to take descriptions of the missing. Why not give them the information? We’re here. They can help.
We sit with the detectives. They are very somber. There is hysteria all around me. People are wailing. I start to hyperventilate. The questions they ask, these are not normal questions … name? age? height? weight? company? building? floor? description of clothing? description of jewelry? any distinguishing marks, scars or tattoos? name of dentist? any recent medical x-rays? I can get a photo. I’ll bring it back. No, these questions are not a good sign. I am trying to stay calm … I sob hysterically. I’m asked, “When did you last hear from your husband?”; “You haven’t heard from him since the attack?” The look, the pity, trying to reassure me all would be well. I know this is bigger than I thought. I won’t give up. We leave. The shock has now taken full hold. Our feet ache, we have blisters, but we don’t complain. We just keep walking.
“Do you mind? I want to get a photo from the apartment and bring it back right now.” We go cross-town, get the photo, bring it back to the detective. No, I won’t let it out of my hands until I see the same detective I spoke with. I want to see it attached to the form we filled out. I won’t leave until that happens. I wait until this gets done.
11pm. We head back to St. Vincent’s. The streets are empty. They’ve never been empty! This is a nightmare. We are going to wake up and all will be well. St. Vincent’s is getting updated lists. We’ll check with them again. We wonder where those stranded people are? Are they at Liberty Park? How did they get there? Why does no one know anything about this? I just know that Rich is there. They just can’t call. There’s no phone service.
We sit at St. Vincent’s with others. We are all stunned, frightened, hopeful. We share stories. Who are you looking for? Which tower were they in? What floor? Cantor who? The lists are slow in coming. There are no updates. No one has been brought in. They are coordinating with the other hospitals. We rip the lists out of the hands of the volunteers. We scan the lists. Nothing, nothing, nothing. We wait. New lists … nothing. 5am, there’s nothing else we can do. We might as well go home, try to get some rest. Tomorrow will be an even longer day. Fear and panic have taken root along with the shock as we walk home for our two hours of sleep before beginning our search again.
It will be three days before I find out that my husband perished in 2WTC on the 78th floor when the building collapsed. Those three days were spent in a fog of disbelief and hope for a miracle. My world came crashing down around me on Friday, September 14, 2001. To date, my husband’s remains have not been recovered.
The time since then has been lived in a state of shock, disbelief and horror. It is only now that the shock is slowly wearing off, leaving the reality. Every day is hard. I get up thinking about Rich, and I go to bed thinking about Rich. He is with me every moment of every day. I see on his face the pain and terror he and others must have felt that day.
Rich was just 50 years old. We were enjoying life. We had just celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary in July. We were planning our golden years. Life was good. Both Nicole and I miss him very much.
I never, ever want anyone to feel the pain that my husband and others felt nor the pain that we feel every day as we grieve. We need to make sure that this NEVER happens again.