8:45 a.m., September 11, 2001
Elizabeth Martin balanced the cardboard tray of specialty coffees with both hands, while adjusting the bag of bagels beneath her left arm. With her gaze focused on the precarious burden of steaming hot cups, she turned to back through the glass door that exited the coffee shop onto the bustling New York City street.
Beth stepped out into the gorgeous day, blew her bangs off her forehead and glanced down to ensure all lids were secure. She lifted her face toward the Twin Towers, specifically the South Tower, and squinted into the sun glaring off the side of the massive building. It was only a two-block walk, but seemed so much farther every time she made this trek for her boss, Andrew Thurman. The attempt to hurry down the busy sidewalk and not drop or spill anything was like wandering through a giant maze of cornstalks...blindfolded. Not that she could disagree that the best bagels in town came from Rob's Deli.
Suddenly, a piercing shriek rent through the sky.
What the hell?
A woman's scream and her outstretched arm forced Beth's gaze upward. As an enormous explosion tore a gaping hole high up on the North Tower, she released the tray she held and yanked her hands up to cover her mouth. Glued to the scene unfolding above her, she hardly noticed the burn as hot coffee splashed against her bare legs.
An onslaught of pedestrians rushed out of shops to stare up at the sky in horror, bumping into her paralyzed frame and knocking her back against the cafe's glass window.
Beth reached to rub her eyes as though the horrific sight before her was just her imagination and could easily be erased if only she could break the spell.
"Nooo," she breathed.
Her office was in the South Tower. Had her building been damaged by the concussion? Drawn instinctively toward the accident, she moved on leaded feet. One hesitant step forward, and then another, while her eyes never left the flames licking the side of the building. People scrambled past her in all directions, shell-shocked, some screaming, while others paused to gape in disbelief at the tower.
In a trance-like state, she took in the terrified faces of those jockeying to get through the city street. Cars stopped wherever they were as motorists got out of them to see what was happening. Horns blared. Evidently, not all the drivers realized the reason for the holdup. It was surreal.
I have to get to work...
The thought came from out of nowhere. When a massive plume of smoke billowed out of the side of the North Tower, rapidly increasing in size, she shook herself to regain composure. Oh God, what was she thinking? So much damage. People had to have died. People she might know.
A sense of urgency pushed her forward.
Would she even be able to get to her office? The congestion of cars and pedestrians in the streets would make the trek difficult, even though she was only a few blocks away. But her boss was waiting on the coffee--
She jerked to a halt. Slowly Beth glanced down. Like a cut you don't feel until you see the blood, red angry welts covering her ankles and shins began to throb. Then the burn across her sticky legs flared to life, stealing her breath. For a moment, she just stood there. All she could think about were the coworkers waiting on her. With no more money, she wouldn't be able to replace the coffee. Who would be more pissed at her carelessness, her husband Matthew or his cousin Andrew, her boss? Either way, she was toast.
Great. Nice way to start the day.
Sirens filled the air, ringing in her ears to mix with the increased screams and honking horns. Startled into action, she headed forward.
When a loud rumbling noise followed by another high-pitched squeal forced her gaze upward, she stop dead in her tracks. She covered her ears with her hands and watched in renewed horror as a second explosion shook the foundation beneath her feet.
Oh my God. Was that...no, it couldn't be...oh my God, a plane? A plane just crashed into the other tower. My tower.
How could two incidences like this occur in such a short time?
How far up was that? Had the explosion been as high as her office on the eighty-sixth floor? Her boss was in there. Oh my God. Hell, the entire company was in there.
What was she supposed to do?
The screams around her grew louder as more and more people emerged from the shops and stores in the area to watch the unfolding events. They stood huddled together. Some hugged one another. Unanswered questions swirled around her. What's happening? Did you see that? Was that a plane? What should we do?
She really needed to return to work. Right? How long would it take before she could get back in the building? Were fires burning in the buildings? She focused once again on her surroundings to gaze one by one into the faces of despair around her, many crying in various states of disbelief. She was numb.
Beth squeezed against the side of the nearest building, shaking. She had to grip the brick ledge below the windows to hold herself up, only vaguely aware of the sill digging into her palms. All she could do was wait. She didn't know whether to go forward or backward. To head away from her place of employment seemed...ludicrous. If she went home, how would she explain to Matthew why she wasn't at work? He wouldn't think a couple of explosions would be a sufficient reason to just ditch the office today. How could she possibly just abandon her work station? Her coworkers.
Sirens wailed louder and louder around her and emergency personnel of every variety came out of nowhere to rush in the direction of the burning buildings.
Time went by. Minutes? Hours? She had no idea.
Matthew. Her husband would assume she was at work in that tower. She needed to let him know where she was. That she was okay.
Beth reached for her cell phone, and pulled it out of the purse she had fortunately strapped over her opposite shoulder.
No signal. She held it up higher, as if that would solve everything. Nothing. A quick look around confirmed others were doing the same thing.
"Damn." She shivered. Matthew would be furious for not being able to reach her. She had to find a phone.
Policemen began to arrive. "Everyone move back. Please. Back away from the scene! Let us do our job. We need everyone to please move back."
"Miss? Ma'am? Are you all right? Are you injured?" Beth glanced up to see an officer trying to get her attention.
"Sorry. Did you say something?" Goosebumps climbed up Beth's arms.
"You need to get back. Please move farther down the street away from the buildings." The officer was waving in the direction he wanted her to retreat.
Confusion clouded her ability to think clearly. "I work in that building." Beth pointed at the smoldering tower.
"Ma'am, move away from this area. It isn't safe. You won't be able to get back into that building today. Go home. Get out of the street." The officer walked away, turning toward a group of young people angling to get a closer look at the disaster. The air was growing thicker with smoke, and dozens of cameras were flashing as spectators took shots of the destruction. Beth covered her mouth with her hand to keep from breathing in the mucky air.
As soon as she found strength in her legs, she headed in the indicated direction. She moved slowly with the crowd, glancing back over her shoulder every few seconds like everyone else. Pedestrians were bumping into each other with barely an apology. People occasionally grabbed her arm to steady themselves, strangers bonded together in tragedy. Everyone squished against each other, personal spaces forgotten. For almost an hour, she walked away from the scene, not making tremendous progress. Her legs ached and she thanked God she was wearing flats.
An astounding roar filled the air. A thundering noise so loud it pulsed through her body and forced Beth to cover her ears again. In slow motion, she turned to gaze up at the sky as the South Tower...collapsed? Like a house of cards, it folded in on itself. The gigantic skyscraper crumbled to the ground, drowning out all other sounds. It happened so fast and then it was...gone. As if it had never been there.
God almighty. That's my building. I'm supposed to be in there. Giant gulps of air filled her lungs. I would have died. My boss... Oh, God.
The air filled with smoke. Day turned to night. A giant gray funnel cloud appeared in the sky where sunshine and blue had surrounded white, puffy, cotton-ball clouds only an hour ago. Debris with no place else to go was forced between the buildings like a giant wind storm in the desert, pelting her in the arms, shoulders, head. People screamed and shoved their way into whatever building they were closest to. The crowd swept Beth up with them, pushing her into the nearest store as she continued to look over her shoulder at the sight of the majestic office building, now reduced to rubble. All that was left was a plume of smoke so large it was hard to distinguish with certainty that the South Tower was now gone.
Beth found herself smashed farther and farther back into a drugstore as the front windows imploded. Broken glass shot through the air and rained down all around them, tiny shards embedded in whatever was in their path. Thank God, her position in the back of the pack of people prevented her from being injured. The screams and shouts were so deafening her head started to throb. Soot began to fill the air around her. The world changed from colorful to completely gray. Everyone was covered with tiny pieces of pulverized cement, like ash, from head to toe. If there was anyone in the area she knew, she'd never be able to recognize them.
She began to hyperventilate. Her breaths came in short, quick pants. Too many people crammed in a small area made the room stifling. As beads of sweat trickled between her breasts, she pulled her blouse up over her mouth to both filter the air and help her breathe.
After several minutes the chaos and volume of noise reduced somewhat. Crying and sniffling could be heard all around her. She seemed to be out of body, as though watching the scene from afar. A slight shove from behind yanked Beth back to the present and she lifted her face and glanced back.
"Sorry, ma'am. Can I get by you?" The blond man could only be about twenty years old. He was nodding past her.
Beth looked forward again, toward the door. She hadn't even realized she'd been angling slowly toward the exit. How much time had passed? Was it safe to go outside? They couldn't very well stay inside the little store forever.
Beth lowered her shirt from her mouth and replied, "Of course," but instead of moving out of the way, she pushed through the heavy glass door and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
She immediately covered her face with her hand and squinted into the particles falling all around her like a war zone. She pulled her blouse back over her mouth and nose. It couldn't be good to inhale the flakey fallout. Vision almost nonexistent, she instinctively turned right with as much haste as the situation could afford.
She should get as far away as fast as possible. Away from the gray dingy soot. She wished she could get away from her gray dingy life as well...
Matthew would be pissed. He didn't tolerate excuses, even this one. Her head continued to pound. By now, he would have heard about the tragedy. There would be hell to pay for not contacting him sooner. To let him know she'd left the building to get coffee.
Her hands shook as she reached into her purse for the cell phone once again. Nothing. Lord, she was in so much trouble.
Beth stopped dead in her tracks and gazed through the throngs of people in the street as awareness dawned.
Matthew thinks I'm in that rubble. I'm...dead.
This is your chance. Run.