Mary Steffel, New York

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

Mary Steffel is an ambitious and energetic 20-year-old who’s adored by everyone she meets. Mary was born in Carmel, Indiana, and is currently studying psychology at Columbia University in New York City. She is the daughter of Charles and Nancy and the older sister of Laura. On the morning of Sept. 11, she was in her dorm room in upper Manhattan. She watched the horror unfold through a window. The following are columns she wrote Sept. 11 to 18 for The Herald Bulletin, a newspaper in Anderson, Indiana, where she worked as an intern last summer. The columns are reprinted with permission.

Sept. 11, 2001

Dear friends,

This morning I arose to the news of a terrorist attack and I have not yet woken up. I stared at the television screen in disbelief as I saw the images of the planes crashing into the twin towers. From the window of my dorm room (located on the eighth floor on 115th and Amsterdam), I could see the smoke billowing from the towers.

Still barefoot, I ran down the hallway and up the stairs to see the tower of smoke coming from one building and the empty space where the other building should have been. I heard the sirens of emergency vehicles making their way to the scene and watched the news flash images of people running, soot falling and officials desperately trying to do something.

The phone rang, and my mother waited on the other line to know if I was all right. I was fine. But I couldn’t help thinking of the tens of thousands of people engulfed in that cloud of dark smoke that I could see from here. Half of the island was hidden by that cloud.

But after returning from a look around, a beeping was on the line in place of my mother. I could not call out from my phone, and so I relied on the Internet to make contact with outside world. I wanted her to know that I was ok.

I felt compelled to listen to the television and radio by a need to understand that this was reality, and I sat at my computer talking to friends from around the country about this tragedy that affects us all.

Yet it was all unreal. Here I am, in my uptown dorm room, removed from the death and destruction just blocks away. My four suitemates and I stared at each other wondering what we could do as the second tower came crumbling down.

Classes are canceled, subways are shut down, tunnels are closed, roadways are being cleared and phone lines are on and off. The whole city is numb.

On campus, students are somber. While some sit at the windows, still in shock, the rest of us are sitting by our televisions wondering how this chain of events will influence our future.

But sitting is not enough. Somehow it seems wrong to do anything mundane while such a catastrophic event in taking place. We are already mobilizing to see what we can do to help all those affected by this event. While some are offering counseling and support, others are assisting at memorial services, and my suitemates and I are looking for a place to donate blood.

Yet there is still a sense of helplessness – nothing can change what happened. For now, we must do our part and look to our leaders for assurance that America will be defended and that we will not allow a tragedy such as this to happen again.

Sept. 12, 2001

A cloud of smoke still looms over the place where the twin towers once stood, reminding me that the nightmarish terrorist attacks of yesterday were not just a dream.

I awoke in my boyfriend’s dorm room, where I had spent most of the night waiting with him by the phone for news of his uncle who is still missing. His uncle was working on the 98th floor of the first tower hit by a jet. Although my boyfriend seemed hopeful, it was with this news that I was hit with the full impact of the tragedy for the first time.

We watched the television newscasters interview survivors who made their way down 80, 90 flights of steps to safety and prayed that his uncle be one of them. In the meantime, his father, an officer of the New York City Police Department, works alongside the many policemen, firemen and rescue workers trying to save the lives of those still trapped inside the rubble.

My boyfriend was not the only one waiting for news. That afternoon, my freshman-year roommate received a phone call from her mother, who was in the second tower when the second jet hit, to let her know that she had made it out safely. Other friends of mine have not yet heard from their relatives and loved ones to know if they are alive.

There was a midnight candlelight vigil on campus last night, but my boyfriend did not seem up to going. I tried to ask him why not, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it anymore. His television was off and the radio silenced. Maybe he felt that if he stopped thinking about it, it would all go away.

He said he didn’t need me to come see him, but I knew he didn’t mean it. I said goodbye to his suitemates who were off to the vigil and sat next to him until he fell asleep. It was hours until I could get my heart to stop racing and the images out of my head, but eventually, I, too, fell asleep.

My wake-up call this morning came from my boyfriend’s roommate. He returned around 7 a.m. from a long walk down to the scene to see the destruction for himself – even from blocks away, he stood in ash six inches deep that covered everything. His nighttime trip left him sober and exhausted.

Upon returning to my room, I found my roommate’s bed empty and missing its mattress. I opened the door to my suitemate’s room and saw all my suitemates’ mattresses piled into the tiny room and all of them sleeping in each other’s comfort.

In the midst of this heartache and struggle, I found myself feeling closer to my friends and loved ones than I ever had before. We clung to each other in this time of need and found that no matter what the forces of destruction, the comfort and support we had in each other was stronger.

Sept. 13, 2001

Last night, the air itself smelled burnt and the smoke glowed an eerie red from the lights of the city. Yet the familiar skyline was no more – the lights of the Empire State Building were off and the towers were gone.

My boyfriend’s dad, who had just returned home for the first time, was called back into the city for a bomb threat. An Arab girl walking the campus at night was stopped by security and urged to have an escort just in case. And my friend learned that her boyfriend, who was working on the 90th floor of the first building, was dead.

By this morning, the smoke had cleared, but none of us is yet seeing clearly.

Who did this?


What’s next?

Today was supposed to be a normal day. Classes are in session, activities are back into full swing, but nothing is normal about the campus. Students walk more slowly and talk more softly as they pass by prayer vigil notices, counseling session postings and news announcements.

Even in the classroom, our thoughts could not be curbed from the events of the last few days. In Thinking and Decision Making, we discussed how someone makes a determination of guilt or innocence based on evidence. In philosophy, we discussed the difference between justice and revenge.

The steps of the library are still punctuated with drops of wax from the candles of the night before. And in the middle of campus, students crouch over a roll of brown parchment that grows with messages from us to the heroes still working to save lives.

Nearby, a booth is set up to inform students of what they can do to help – suggestions on how to donate blood, clothing or money to those in need.

I deposited a couple pairs of socks into the bin before heading out to the track for practice. But even the exercise did not provide an escape from it all. The flags at the track were all at half-mast as we jogged past, and as a jet rumbled overhead, we all stopped silently and raised our eyes to the sky.

Returning to school, we passed by the George Washington Bridge, where an American flag waved proudly and defiantly to us as we drove by.

As the time passes, the fear and helplessness I felt has turned to courage as I look for what I can do to make a positive impact on those affected. I hope that we all use this time to absorb what has happened and seek ways to right this wrong.

And as the dust settles over the city, let it not settle over our hearts. Let us never forget those who lost their lives in this tragedy nor the heroes who continue to help others to survive. And let us always remember who we are and what we stand for as Americans.

Sept. 14, 2001

I clung to my candle and let it warm me as I sat in the dim light of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine for this evening’s vigil. On this national day of prayer and remembrance, I felt comforted by the pews upon pews of faces all illuminated with hope for peace.

Some still bore their work uniforms, others just a pair of blue jeans and sneakers. People of every age, race and nationality gathered under the pillars and arches of the church, each person’s face telling a different story. Many clutched the hands of their loved ones. A few sat alone.

We reflected silently on Psalm 46 as it urged us to look for refuge and strength in a higher power, Luke, as he reminded us to love our enemies and the Prayer of Saint Francis as it asked us to be instruments of peace.

The silence was broken only by the rumbling of fighter planes flying overhead.

At the conclusion of the vigil, we processed out onto the streets with our candles. The air is colder now, but the tiny candle provided warmth.

As my boyfriend Chris and I walked back to campus, we lit the candles of a few passers-by. We then added our light to the hundreds of candles already illuminating College Walk. Students, faculty and community members came together and processed down Broadway.

Even as some of the lights started to flicker away and as the wax began to coat my fingers, a few faint voices in the crowd sang out, “Oh say can you see … ” Their voices gained strength as we all joined in singing songs of patriotism and faith.

Some find their strength in a higher power and some find it in themselves. Tonight, I found strength in our unity.

And as the crowds disbursed, I no longer noticed the chill in the air. I saida prayer for peace and blew my candle out.

Sept. 15, 2001

They say there is always calm before a storm.

This morning I woke up to the sun shining through my window. The skies were clear of smoke or clouds. Not even a fighter plane disturbed the sunrise.

My suitemates and I jogged through Riverside Park for a morning workout amid amateur soccer teams practicing and joggers training for the New York City Marathon. As we swung back toward campus, we browsed through the booths and exhibits of a street fair that sprung up on Broadway.

We looked through the postcards of New York City, but we could find none picturing the former skyline with its twin towers. Yet they were still present on our track T-shirts in our school emblem of the Columbia lion and our city.

We passed a billboard advertising a new movie. It featured soldiers scarred by battle, yet I knew it was just pretend. The soldiers were actors and the wounds were makeup that would wash off. Somehow my picture of war is more like this – a two-hour saga that I can walk home from when it’s over. Real war is something I’ve never known.

Last week, I wondered whether to party or stay in and do homework. My biggest concerns were whether I would like my professors and whether I would get a part in the school musical. I wondered whether to go into psychology or journalism.

I never had to wonder whether it was safe to go out or whether a bomb or an attack lay just a few blocks away. I never had to choose whether to fight for my country. I never had to wonder what the future will hold, or if there will be one.

Back home, my mother and sister, Laura, were making plans to pick apples at the orchard and bake apple crisp. Laura also planned to help build the float for her sophomore class at Carmel High School.

In some ways, I wish I could be with them right now, away from the city with the target mark. With the world on the brink of war, I wish I could hide in my mother’s arms, the ones that used to keep me safe and make everything better.

Yet if the United States goes to war, I can’t hide from that. I must do my part to make this country strong. I must prepare to face the storm.

Sept. 16, 2001

Escaping momentarily from the emotional roller coaster that has left me drained and exhausted, I let my suitemates drag me out to a Jell-O-shot party.

I wasn’t in the mood for partying when we left – I have spent the last week absorbing all the effects of this tragedy – but after spending much of the evening with my girls, I started to relax for the first time in days.

This morning, I let myself sleep in until noon and then spent the rest of the day lazily sipping hot chocolate and reading a book. I also got to grocery shop and do my laundry, chores I had neglected this last week.

Returning to normalcy hasn’t enabled me to forget recent events, but it has enabled me to feel more like a person again.

Going through this experience has been much like what my family went through when my sister, Laura, was diagnosed with liver cancer a year ago. First there was the shock. Then there was anger, pain and sadness. Then there was the fear of what was to come.

But then we put our heads down and fought. We learned to focus on our goal and remain positive. There were setbacks and there were disappointments, but we persevered, and we are still fighting.

For Laura, keeping up with her schoolwork between surgeries and chemotherapy was a challenge, but it also helped to keep her sane. The work and the deadlines enabled her to set her mind to math problems and English papers rather than the disease. She could be a freshman, not a sick person.

Throughout this battle, we learned to take each day as a blessing. We worked, we laughed and we cried, but we cherished each moment for what it could bring. We learned to appreciate the little things we once took for granted, and we gained a new perspective on our priorities.

It’s a shame that it takes hard times to jolt us into reality, but if we enable them to teach us, life’s challenges can help us to realign our lives toward what is truly important.

Sept. 17, 2001

When my friend Katharine answered the phone yesterday afternoon, she expected her parents to be on the other line. But the voice and accent she heard were unfamiliar.

She asked, “Who is this?” and the person on the other end answered, “It doesn’t matter.” The person went on to say that he was a Frenchman and that he wanted to let her know that France was behind us. He added that everyone in his town was calling an American to offer them encouragement and support.

Katharine hung up the phone a little puzzled, but grateful.

Ever since disaster hit last week, my friends and I have been showered with support from all sides. Friends I hadn’t seen in years e-mailed me to see if I was all right and to offer an open ear if I needed to talk. Even my ex-boyfriend, who cut off contact when things didn’t work out, broke his silence to offer his sympathy.

On the streets, even the familiar “New York” attitude has dissipated – people don’t necessarily ignore each other when they walk by. In fact, just days after the twin towers collapsed, people in the elevator or in the grocery store would ask you how you were doing and if everyone was safe.

And on the day of the disaster, people set aside their differences and befriended their neighbors in an effort to save their lives. As a couple of my acquaintances walked away from the scene, they beseeched the help of strangers to find the safest escape route.

Hospitals still are turning down potential blood donors due to the rush of people who donated the minute the call went out. On campus, volunteer positions filled so quickly, it took a new campus organization to sort through all of them.

Whether it be a helping hand or an open ear, it’s nice to know that there is someone to turn to in this time of need. And that someone could be sitting in your classroom, behind you at the checkout counter or next to you on the subway. People are coming together for this common cause.

I know I can make it on my own, but I’m glad I don’t have to. It’s in the face of adversity that we realize that we’re all in it together.

Sept. 18, 2001

While I sat on the steps of the library doing my homework, I soaked in the sun from today’s flawless skies. I took in everything around me, from the students talking to the children playing, and let it all run through me.

I absorbed everything in my environment, much as I have absorbed the events of this past week and their impact on my world.

I absorbed the images: the sight of the one tower smoking without its twin, the view of the bridges filled end to end with emergency vehicles, the news reports of heroes saving lives and of people looking for their loved ones.

I absorbed the events: the candlelight vigils, the prayer services, the volunteer efforts and the attack itself.

I absorbed the emotions: the anticipation of a phone call from loved ones to know if they are safe, the grief for those lost, the fear of what’s to come and yet the courage to go on.

Yet, just as a sponge filled to the brim must let go of some to take in more, I cannot infinitely absorb without some sort of release.

At first, writing gave me a purpose, an identity to cling to in the midst of such uncertainty and helplessness. I could do something. I could bear witness to the events going on around me and perhaps help others to understand the impact of the attack.

Then writing became my burden. I wanted to escape the immensity of the situation and find a retreat back to where everything was normal again. Yet writing was my responsibility, and I could not lose touch with the pulse of reality.

Finally, writing because my release. I let go of all the thoughts and emotions I held inside and let them fall onto the page. As the words tumbled out, so did some of the confusion. By expressing my experiences to others, we shared the burden of those experiences, and we made sense of them together.


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