Sept. 11, 2001 -- You don't expect your office building to blow up. I left my desk, went to the bookstore, and came back to find black smoke pouring out of New York's World Trade Center.
That was back in 1993, when four militant terrorists detonated a bomb in the Twin Towers' underground parking lot. Six people died and more than 1,000 people were injured.
Before then, security was a joke. You didn't need an ID badge to get into the building. I once found a homeless man sleeping in the hallway, on the 27th floor, where I worked.
And you never thought twice when firefighters ran into the building. They came at least twice a week. Once they came to snuff out a smoldering ashtray. Back then, you could smoke in some areas of the building.
A Big Boom, Then Eerie Silence
On that crisp February morning, as firefighters were rushing into the building, I was just another New York office worker trying to get back to my desk. I never worried about emergency vehicles. It was always a false alarm.
Nobody even tried to stop me when I walked into the lobby. The police lines had yet to be drawn.
I walked in, holding a bag of chips, and saw the carnage. All around, people lay on the floor. Some with blood splattered on their faces. There was an eerie silence.
I had heard the boom a few minutes earlier, as I walked up the street. But a lot of things go BOOM in Manhattan, and they rarely are bombs.
For some strange reason, I hit my elevator button, lost in a surreal fog. Everyone was trying to get out of the building, it was filling with smoke, but I wanted to get to my co-workers.
Nothing snaps you back to reality like greasy black smoke. I could still see, but my eyes were tearing up. You don't know how fast you can run until you start to choke. And I just choked a little.
Once outside, the firefighters had now secured the area. All you could do was sit and wait. The people I worked with every day were upstairs. People slowly marched out of the lower floors. I didn't recognize them.
The Waiting Game
Then came the wait. It took hours before I saw a familiar face. My colleagues had 27 floors to walk down. Many of them were old. The stairs were crowded, and the lights were out.
You could ask for information. But nobody knew anything. In the hours after the blast, you didn't know why this happened. You didn't know how bad it was. All you wanted was to see a familiar face.
The people I waited for weren't loved ones. I was friendly with a few. Mostly, they were nothing more than familiar faces. And yet, suddenly, they were like family. I stood in the cold with thousands of others, just waiting.
And then I saw them. They looked OK, and still you had to ask, "Are you OK?"
The World Trade Center we returned to six weeks later was a different place. Suddenly, you needed an ID card. Suddenly, you needed sufficient identification and someone to vouch for you if you forgot your ID card.
Suddenly, you start turning your back when you hear a large BOOM and start worrying that the worst, once again, had happened.