New Yorkers who lived through 9-11, especially those living or working in Manhattan, have the events of that fateful day firmly imprinted in their memories.
Nelly Mendez was an office employee in midtown Manhattan in 2001. Her day had just started when the first World Trade Centre Tower was hit by a commercial jetliner on September 11, 2001. Even some distance from where the attacks took place, chaos ensued as the rush to get home and find family became the most pressing issue in a city where telecommunications had gone down, public transport had come to a standstill and where confusion reigned.
SABC News New York correspondent Sherwin Bryce-Pease first met Nelly Mendez a decade ago- to mark the ten-year anniversary of 9-11. She explained then that she had just arrived at work at 8.30 that morning just before the first tower was hit.
Bryce-Pease asked her this week if the memories were fading or remained fresh.
“Oh no, I don’t think they will ever fade, I think I remember every step and every emotion I had that day, was very poignant and very strong to stay in my mind, also my heart.”
She worked in an office block near Grand Central Station, a major transit hub in midtown Manhattan and a few kms north of the World Trade Centre. But confusion and chaos quickly found them as news of a plane crash filtered through.
“Went up, opened the office, stayed there and all of a sudden I hear this running and it is my next-door office running in to say turn on the radio, turn on the radio, there was a plane that crashed. It crashed. Effectively it was the plane that crashed, the first plane over there. The entire day, week, everything changed from then on. It was never the same and I remember there was a girl at the elevator and we were beginning to be told to get down on the stairs, not to use the elevator, we didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember this girl, she was in such panic and crying, crying – she couldn’t even talk. And I said do not wait for the elevator cause the elevator’s not going to come and she was so nervous because her boyfriend worked at the World Trade Centre.”
Mendez explained that she didn’t know the woman or if her boyfriend survived as the focus became getting home, just outside Manhattan, to her daughters who were in 6th and 11th grade at the time.
“My children were 35, 40 minutes away but to me, I didn’t have any other thing in my mind but just to get out of there and get to my children. I wanted to have them both near my wing, like the bird, near my wing I just wanted to have them here. I did make it after a lot of walking because the trains weren’t working and buses weren’t working so the only thing to just get away was to walk away which I did.”
Bryce-Pease, “I remember you talking about how cab drivers were inflating their prices to exorbitant amounts and you were thinking where is your humanity, do you remember that?”
Mendez, “Yes, of course I do. I paid 69 dollars for a cab drive that was a 25 dollar bill.”
She remembers people struggling to get money out of ATMs, many of which had been emptied in the panic, but eventually managed to get out 200 dollars that helped pay for that cab drive home, only to discover her children were not there when she arrived.
“Nobody left a note, I was so nervous because I didn’t know where they were, no telephones, they didn’t have cellphones. They were little kids and I still sometimes think of all that, how I got home and I said, note a note where are they, what happened? Everything was so uncertain for so many days.”
The distraught mother eventually discovered that the kids were out at lunch on a day that would change New York and New Yorkers forever.
“I wasn’t even right there downtown where it happened and it changed my life, I have been so aware of my surroundings all the time, that has been something that is sometimes a little bit extreme. I was very much aware and when I finally got back to grand central, back to work three days later, I was in shock. Three days later I just found grand central terminal full of soldiers with these huge guns, walls and walls and poster boards with people looking for their loving people that disappeared, they didn’t know, they didn’t realise that they were dead. They thought that they were just missing. I see the kids growing up that didn’t remember this and they are more at ease, my kids were never at ease after that.”
CNN journalist Richard Roth was in downtown New York City at the time.
He covered the unfolding events after the first commercial jetliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.
Speaking to Sherwin Bryce-Pease, Roth says he can’t believe it has been two decades since that fateful day, and he still looks up whenever a plane flies over Manhattan.
Interview with Richard Roth:
Over 2700 people perished in New York that day but millions more in this city were impacted, as the adage again rings true, that they will never forget.