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Kneeling Towards Mecca, a personal essay by Francesca Rizzo

September 7, 2010 (Updated September 11, 2018)

I know I should be over this by now,

I should be a better American, but I still can't bring myself to attend memorials, watch the specials or even be on social media on this day. I still jump out of my skin when the phone rings, I cry at the drop of a hat, I get angry at tv commercials that inexplicably depict cities under siege to sell insurance and I continue to fight isolating myself every single day. 

 

But, seventeen years later, I am functioning again - writing plays, performing, making art. Which is a feat since for the first ten years I had been in fog of sorts. Unable to plan ahead. Unable to make long-term goals. Unable to believe that there IS a future. The bad part is that it's not like "me" and the good part is - hey, I live more in the moment now. 

Yet, I always feel shocked when doctors referred to me as a 9/11 survivor or worse, a 9/11 victim. It's beyond embarrassing, really. I wasn't in the building or under the building or anywhere near the building. I was 11 blocks away, standing on the intersection of Church and Leonard Streets with dozens of other people - frozen. Transfixed. Oddly unafraid. 

 

Or so afraid, I couldn't even feel it.

Before this, I had never written about my experience there because ... ah, who the hell knows. I just never have. Now, after so much time has passed that day remains as vivid and startlingly clear as the day it happened. So I'm going to try to describe what I saw and felt for whomever wants to know. I kinda have to do this for myself. Please share with me your experience, no matter how near or far. They are all profound.

A little background. After 25 years in Manhattan, I had just moved back to NJ but relocated my minuscule video production company, Moviebaby Productions, to a minuscule office in a building crammed with other minuscule companies on Broadway, between White and Franklin Streets.

 

I had no income for three months because that's how long it took me to effect both moves on crutches (surprise ACL surgery) and it was past imperative that I get back to the business of making money or my 13-year-old company wouldn't make it through the end of the year.

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So I planned an elaborate launch party with wine, cheese and a whole slew of short films & videos my company had made to screen for my prospective clients on a brand new HUGE television that took up most of the office. The year was 2001, and the date for the launch was set for the afternoon and evening of ... September 11.

To put the finishing touches on everything, I made the fateful decision to forgo sleeping in my comfy NJ apartment, and rough it on the office futon overnight with my little Yorkie, Samantha. I worked into the night, and zonked out. Early the next morning the office phone rang. It was my friend Libby calling from Jersey.

 

"Fran. Something weird is happening at the World Trade Center. A plane flew into it."

 

"Jeez, that IS weird."

 

"No, wait, two planes flew into it?" she asked, turning to someone else at her office. Then back to me,  "TWO planes flew into it. You better get out of there. This is bad. Really bad."

 

"Um. Okay." I was still groggy. The office has no real window and it's pitch black day or night.

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I threw on some clothes, grabbed my purse and my little dog and ran down the hall to wake up the painter I knew who was illegally living in his art studio. I knocked and after awhile he groggily opened the door. (It seems creative people tend to be extra groggy in the mornings.)

 

I said, "Two planes flew into the World Trade Center, we gotta get out of here."

 

"You're kidding." he said. He turned on his ancient TV set and adjusted the tin-foiled rabbit ears until we were able to see that iconic image of the two towers afire. We stood there. "Holy shit."

 

We better get out of here.  But we both knew we weren't about to dart out the door and run uptown. Like any fire or twister or act of God, we wanted to get a closer look first.

As we opened the front door of our office building, we found ourselves awash in a stream of ashen office workers carrying briefcases, not running yet but definitely walking purposefully uptown. No one seemed scared. Just determined. It reminded me of the scene in THX 1138 when Duvall opens his cubicle door and is sucked into the stream of humanity and carried along with it. 

 

But the painter and I weren't headed to safety. We wanted to see the action. So we slowly threaded our way across the throng and hung a right onto Franklin, walking the one block to that intersection. There were a bunch of people collecting on the corner like us, looking kind of excited and kind of scared. Everybody was on their cells trying to get a connection or with radios to their ears hoping for some news, any news.

I remember getting to the corner and turning my head to look down the street and was stunned at the sight. It was SO close, like I could touch it, almost. It was an unobstructed view, right straight to the towers which loomed above us.

 

That's what's different for me when I see most of the photos of the towers. They're usually taken from above, but for us on the street corner our sight was from below, looking up.

The World Trade Center looked ... odd with two fiery planes biting into it. They stuck out at weird angles, it seemed to me. Jet planes shouldn't be in buildings. How could TWO huge planes be stuck in a building? My mind was trying to take it in. One little plane could mean a malfunction or some unfortunate pilot error - two passenger jets was just wacky.

 

Was it some MAJOR air traffic control miscalculation? 

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Over and over this image kept flashing into my mind. A woman is sitting down at her desk with a hot cup of coffee and a donut wondering if she should eat it - and suddenly a huge jet flies in her window, and kills her.

 

This image haunts me to this day. The innocence of the morning annihilated by the impossible. The inability to rely on the next moment, I suppose.

Around me were plenty of people - some from nearby office buildings and some from downtown. You could tell the downtown people because they were a little gray and dusty. The rest of us were just kind of bewildered. There was definite adrenalin pumping all around - people yelling out whatever tidbits of news they were able to get.

 

As we stood there, fire trucks, ambulances, police cars where whizzing by us, sirens blaring. It was heartening to see so many people rushing to help. It made me proud of my city. I looked up and stared at the towers until noticed something that confused me.

 

"What are all those things falling off it everywhere?" I asked those standing next to me. No one said anything.

 

"What are all those little things bouncing off the side?" I asked again. Nobody would answer me.

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 A well-dressed manager-type woman near me who'd been fiddling with her radio called out, "They got the Pentagon!"

 

It was those words that ratcheted everything up from the surreal to the possible.  "They got the Pentagon" meant there was a "they" and it meant we were under attack. A HUGE attack. When you attack the Pentagon it can only mean one thing ... World War III.

 

I looked up to see if bomber planes were flying over us. Were bombs going to start dropping on us from above? Were MORE planes going to fly into buildings?  What was next?

I think, on an emotional level, what was happening was SO big and I got SO scared - that it cancelled itself out. It's like when I fly, I never get scared. It's like - if the plane is going down - it's going down. I have no control over it so why even worry?

And there was another thing. That adrenaline was still pumping and now it had turned into a strange thrill at being a part of something sooo big. Being a part of history. We were IN it. Whatever the hell this was, we were right INSIDE it.

 

Next to me was a tall young black man, very hip, with his camouflage pants and do-rag. He was talking on his cell intently as he stared up at the towers. Was he reporting this to his friends uptown or in another part of the country? I hadn't even thought to call anyone. I hadn't thought to do anything.

 

I just stood there, holding my purse over my shoulder and my 4 pound dog in my arms, transfixed. "How horrible" was all I could think. Those people in the planes had to be dead. The people on the floors closest to the crash site. The people on the floors above the planes.

 

I knew my artist friend was next to me but I didn't connect with him at all. I don't think anyone was connecting. We were just looking.

And then, as I stared, an even stranger thing was happening. The South Tower started to look like it was wavering, you know, shimmering in the sun like you sometimes see on a steamy hot day. It seemed to undulate for a crazy second and then ... it just dropped down, disappearing into a huge mushrooming cloud of ash.

All of us on the corner screamed. I remember actually stepping behind the artist to try to block my view, like I would in the movies when a scary part was on. Except I never took my eyes off the blue sky that was there where the tower had once been.

 

My mind and heart went on overload - the horror was multiplying. I couldn't stop thinking of all the layers of people who were being killed in that very moment.

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I kept repeating, to myself, "Oh my God, on top of all the people still stuck inside, all the people who thought they got out, all the people who went in to save them, all the people in all the fire trucks and police cars that whizzed by 5 minutes before with their sirens blaring. On top of  EVERYONE."

 

People around me were screaming and sobbing. But it was the young guy next to me on the cell phone who broke me.

 

He kept screaming loudly, "NO, NO, NO, NO," over and over again into the phone as he dropped to his knees on the street.  And as he kneeled, facing the towers like Mecca, I suddenly knew who he'd been talking to. His hand with the cell phone in it now hung by his side.

I suddenly pictured his girlfriend or wife: He had been staying with her, keeping her company as she attempted to make her way down one of the smoke-filled staircases. His voice was the only way he could protect her and lead her to safety. To be on the phone with a loved one in the building at that moment in time was unfathomable to me. My heart just kept breaking again and again.

 

No matter what iconic photos have emerged since that day, it is this image of that powerful young man brought to his knees, blindly screaming "NO" that will always be September 11th to me.

As the big white cloud where the tower once stood grew bigger, it formed itself into a shape and, like a Godzilla, this greyish monster of smoke, ash and debris lumbered towards us. It was a few stories high, filling Church Street, and was gaining speed.

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 Suddenly there was a different kind of scream from the people around me - still one of horror but now mixed with fear for your life. I couldn't believe this was happening, it really did look like it does in the movies, with people running away, tripping over themselves, helping the ones who had fallen, briefcases and high heels were strewn about the street.

 

But, oddly, I wasn't afraid. I was frozen staring at it, I somehow, rightly, deduced it wouldn't reach us - it would dissipate. We were safe. 

 

But the people, oh, the people underneath.

 

I wanted so desperately to run forward through the smoke and help.  Start pulling the people out, dragging them to safety. But I felt entirely powerless. Helpless. This was too, too big and I didn't believe there was any safety anymore. I would be useless.

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Yet I couldn't run. I couldn't leave them. So I stood there stuck somewhere between fight or flight, facing the only tower left standing, clutching my little dog tightly to me, as the frightened crowd continued to stream around me.

 

I remember feeling a tug on my arm, it was my artist friend, he kept saying, "Come on, Fran, we gotta run. We gotta RUN!" But I was determined not to leave the people under the building. Even if I couldn't help, I could keep them company. I could be there for them somehow. 

 

"We're okay. It's stopping, we're fine," I calmly told him, really believing it somehow. I thought he and the other people were just being babies - c'mon, we have to stay and help. 

 

There was nothing that would get me to leave until he said the one thing that hadn't occurred to me. 

 

"We have to get away, really, Fran. It could be germ warfare."

 Germ warfare. The big angry cloud was still advancing, it was only a block or two away at this point and you mean maybe it's really filled with something that can kill us all, everyone in New York City? And I could carry it on me and infect everyone else I came in contact with? And I know this sounds sick, but that's when I thought of my little dog, and how she needed to be protected so I covered her snout with my hand and reluctantly turned around and joined the throngs making our way uptown. 

But I will tell you this. I was not proud of my decision. To this day. I felt like a coward walking away from the people. Abandoning them. I felt a portion of my heart tear away from me and stay put on the street corner. And now, seventeen years later, I cringe when anyone calls me a 9/11 victim or survivor. It disgusts me. It seems sacrilegious, in a way, to wear that mantle. I wasn't hurt or maimed. I didn't lose a loved one. I don't cough and have trouble breathing. I was merely a witness.

 

The artist and I followed the crowd like lemmings through the Village. As people ran by us, they shouted out reports. Then, the worst report came. “People are jumping, people are jumping!” 

Oh my god. 

 

That’s what no one wanted to tell me. Oh my god. I felt so stupid. How could I not have known? 

 

My throat was closing up. 

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Suddenly there was a collective scream that could be heard faintly at first then gathering volume from blocks away. The North Tower … was gone, too. The impossible had happened. Twice. Oh no. Oh no. Everything was falling apart. It was too much.

The artist had a friend whose apartment was nearby and we took refuge there. She had phone service so I was able to get through and call my sister in California. The first thing she said was, “We were SO worried. Thank God you moved to New Jersey.”

 

I hated to tell her where I was. But I was safe.

After an hour of watching news, the artist and I parted ways. I found myself drawn back to the scene of the crime, but the roadblocks were up and I wasn’t allowed back to my office. 

As I stood there on the eerily empty Canal Street, usually thick with traffic, a lone smoking car, I think it was a Corvette, crawled up the street, covered with ash. It slowed to a stop. A tall thin gentleman with long hair got out, covered in ash as well, and loped off somewhere, smoke trailing him.


It was surreal. The air felt thick and dopey. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t know where to go. What to do.

I saw some vendors selling stuff. They were snapshots of the towers on fire with planes sticking out of them. It was less than two hours later. Photos. For sale.

 

There were tourists. Buying the photos. Holding hands, sight-seeing, looking at their maps, peering, hoping to get to see this latest New York attraction.

 

I felt sick to my stomach.

 

I wanted to yell at them, “PEOPLE ARE STILL DYING. THIS IS STILL HAPPENING. THIS ISN’T HISTORY YET! THIS ISN’T DISNEYWORLD!”

 

I think this is why I cannot go to the memorial.

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I sat in a little park nearby. I heard that Penn Station had shut down. I didn’t want to leave anyway. But I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know anything. 

 

Eventually it started getting dark, and I remembered my church. The Fourth Universalist on 76th and Central Park West. I slowly walked the five miles uptown, along with many other thoroughly confused, grief-stricken folks. As always, the goodly UU congregation was providing shelter and food for those stranded, like myself. I planned to sleep on a pew that night, but, luckily, was able to hitch a ride back to Jersey with a young pregnant woman whose protective husband circled the island until he found an entrance, braving the George Washington Bridge to rescue her.

 

Once I got home, I collapsed. I lived alone and fell apart. I cried continually. Watched the news 24/7. A doctor prescribed Klonopin, I took two and fell asleep while on the phone and woke up two days later with the phone in my hand. I never took it again. 

 

For a week or so, I was afraid to go back into the city. I was convinced that the terrorists were going to blow up the tunnels. I mean, I would blow up the tunnels if I were them. If I wanted to cripple America, I would blow up the Lincoln, the Holland and the GW Bridge. And the Oscars. 

 

Then, out of nowhere, all I wanted to do was to go back into the city. 

 

Since we’d all been evacuated below Canal, the only way I could return to my office was by showing them my lease. I called the artist, who had a key I’d given him so he could use my fridge, and he met me at the border, my lease in hand.

 

We had no land-lines, no internet, no cell. The office I had spent months setting up was now an expensive black hole, a very small cubicle in which no business could be conducted. But, who wanted to conduct business?

And, for some reason, this is where I chose to hole up rather than in my comfy, suburban apartment. I slept on that hard futon night after night, washed up in the communal bathrooms down the hall, and took long nocturnal walks throughout the streets with my dog. It was just the two of us, one stubborn 24-hour deli, the trucks hauling mangled steel and the volunteers doing their holy work.

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One night, I couldn't take it any more. I decided it was time and I kept sneaking further and further downtown to finally be close to the people … but was stopped by a bunch of workers taking a break. 

 

"Really, Sweetheart, go back," they told me with sad, falling down faces. "You don't wanna go down there. Trust us, you don't wanna see."

 

I have never gone near the site.

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And throughout the weeks that followed, I haunted a four-block radius around my office. I puffed up from eating cereal and deli food night after night. I watched as most of the teeny internet companies in my building folded up and vacated in the night. Who could blame them?

 

After frantically hiring certified accountants to provide the reams of information they required, we were awarded less than a month’s rent from the 9/11 Small Business Recovery Fund and the landlord was holding everyone to their year-long leases. I knew I would soon be joining them in my own nocturnal escape. 

 

But, not just yet. Somehow, I wasn’t done.

I do recall there was a brief moment, when my heart suddenly opened up. A light was lit - the world seemed to be coming together with actual love for us and I thought, “Wait. Could this be … could these people have sacrificed their lives in order to … bring the world together? Could that be what this is?”

 

It could have been. But, it wasn’t to be. Bush delivered his “Shock and Awe” and all went black again. And again. Still.

 

Before the first anniversary of September 11, I had lost Moviebaby and I had lost … myself. It was bad. Had to declare bankruptcy. Personal and corporate. Everything was slipping away from me. My career, my confidence, my desire, my hope for humanity. And, without the downtown office, I lost my most precious identity … as a New Yorker. Which still hurts.

 

Friends helped me out. I began to just float from day to day - something I had never done in my life. I always had goals. Ten-year goals, five-year goals, one-year, monthly, weekly. I was a goal gal. 

 

But now, I couldn’t plan ahead for the afternoon. Who knows if we’ll even be alive past lunch? Some years later, the New York Psychiatric Center did a three day study and diagnosed me as having acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, survivor guilt and, specifically, a form of PTSD called “a foreshortened sense of future.” Even the diagnosis embarrasses me.

 

I imagine what the refugees all over the world endure on a daily basis. And I was majorly fucked up by a few crazy minutes.

 

I wanted to be a first responder, but I just couldn’t. I wanted to volunteer, but I just couldn’t. My people were all gone and I sensed I wouldn’t be very good company anymore anyway. I mean, it was difficult just going to the store without spontaneously dissolving into a pool of sadness. I felt bad about my inability to help until a therapist who treated many first-hand witnesses assured me that I wasn’t unusual. Most witnesses wanted to be far away and hide.

 

“Let those who weren’t there, help,’ he told me. “They’re better equipped and they need to do it. They need to be a part of it. You already were.”

 

It took me years to find real specialized PTSD guidance; discovering EMDR was a miracle and then even more years of searching to find "me" again. Creative. Funny. Useful. A different me, this time, less goal-oriented, which may just be the maturation process, but I'm now someone I can, at least, recognize.

 

I still struggle to believe that anything can be made so solid it won't turn to dust in an instant. I struggle to believe that I can make something so sturdy it won't crumble before it's even done. I struggle to believe that anything good won’t be whisked away from me when I least suspect. 

 

Vividly, I still see the briefcases and stray shoes in the street. I imagine the woman at her desk with her coffee and donut in my mind's eye. I hear the sirens, people screaming. The portrait of the young man prone on the street, praying in pain, is etched in my soul. 

 

And a huge chunk of my heart remains forever stuck on that street corner, just wanting to keep the people company.

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Much gratitude for all these images culled from the videos and photos

so graciously posted online by other witnesses.