When we asked people if they had ever survived a disaster while traveling, we were surprised by the amount of people who had. That’s why we decided to devote our latest episode to disasters, specifically Anita M. Mechler’s tale of living through the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
A few other were willing to share their stories with the blog. One of them was Jaime H., who sent in her disaster story of being on a business trip in NYC when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. Below she recounts her harrowing tale of her experience, and how she and her co-workers found their way back to Chicago. Kathy also realized she had gone through more catastrophic events than previously thought. She also shares another tale of disasters, this time in Zimbabwe.
On Sunday afternoon, September 9th 2001, a colleague and I flew to New York City for what should have been a 2-week audit of our Manhattan office. The biggest local news that night was the upcoming mayoral election on Tuesday. You know – boring politics stuff. On Monday morning, we met the rest of our team and began our work. It was a normal day for the five of us, and we were looking forward to the sights we’d see after work and great food we would eat that week.
On Tuesday, we took a cab from our Times Square hotel to the office around the corner from the Empire State Building. I remember what a beautiful, sunny Fall morning it was. We got our coffee and began our work. After a little while, the jokester in our group walked into the conference room and informed us that a plane had just hit a building downtown. I quickly told our new staff members not to listen to him. He was always messing with us.
Well, of course, he wasn’t.
Pretty soon, the whole office was buzzing, that a second plane hit the World Trade Center… then a plane hit the Pentagon. THE PENTAGON!! This is our Department of Defense, people! That sent a wave of panic through me. We weren’t sure what to do. I tried calling my parents, but they didn’t answer. Of course they were in the break rooms of their offices watching this play out on live TV. I tried calling my boyfriend–same story. I could only leave messages that I was okay for now.
My boss ordered us to pack up our stuff. We were leaving the office because we were just blocks from the Empire State Building, as well as Grand Central Station. We had no idea if these would be the next targets.
When we got down on the street, there were people everywhere. It was so crowded! Cars were having trouble getting through. So we started walking, slowly making our way back uptown to Times Square. Our boss kept counting us and calling for us to stay together the way a preschool teacher does on a field trip. There were long lines at all the pay phones. We stopped at one building and pressed our faces to the window to try seeing the TV at the security desk. Just then, a man went running past us screaming. In all the noise and confusion, I didn’t understand what he was saying. At 5th Avenue, people were crowding the intersection and pointing downtown, and I realized the words he had been yelling were, “It collapsed! It collapsed!” Now this beautiful blue sky was blighted by a cloud of white ash.
I still did not really comprehend what was happening. Until this point, all we had seen was some smoke in the sky.
And then we came around the corner into Times Square…and there it was on the jumbotrons. Over and over, the two-story tall video screens were replaying the jet smashing into the World Trade Center, and then it crumbling to the ground. My knees buckled and I clung to a street post to keep from falling…
By the time we walked into our hotel lobby, there was already a long line of local commuters trying to find a room for the night, since all the bridges and tunnels were closed.
After lunch, we decided that we couldn’t sit and watch the news much longer. We went for a walk and ended up sitting in Central Park, watching the military jets circling the city. It was surreal. That evening we walked to dinner. Although the restaurant was packed, it was comforting to be together with so many others that were feeling what we were – the usually bustling, energetic Times Square was a ghost town. Not a single car, bus or taxi to be seen. You could have rolled a boulder down the street and not hit a thing. It was eerie and quiet.
For the next couple of days we were basically just stuck in Manhattan. We tried to find something we could do to help. We thought maybe we could go give blood, but the hospitals had enough. We naively thought maybe we could get downtown to see the WTC site. Could we at least pass out water to the rescuers? We wanted to help somehow! When we got down there we found that all streets south of Houston were blocked off. There were lines of dump trucks waiting to be sent down to be filled with debris. The smoke had mostly cleared, but the air still stung my eyes.
We went back uptown and I found a church near my hotel. I sat in the converted theater building, and just cried and prayed. There was nothing else I could do.
On Thursday, the bridges and train lines re-opened. I wasn’t fast enough to get a rental car or a ticket to Chicago. They went fast! However, my boss found a car for us in New Jersey. The catch was we had to find a cabbie willing to drive there – there weren’t many fares coming back to the city that day. We finally talked a driver into taking us, and gave him a generous tip. My colleague and I started our long quiet drive home Thursday afternoon and got home to Chicago Friday morning.
On my 21st birthday, I was studying abroad in Harare, Zimbabwe. I awoke that morning to find that food prices had increased 40% overnight. Store shelves were bare. People began rioting in the city center, starting tire fires and setting cars ablaze. My classmates and I were instructed to stay at our campus on the outskirts of the city and not to venture downtown, so we were sheltered from the violence. At the time, I naively thought it was very exciting that I had “received” riots for my birthday. I considered myself lucky to witness a popular uprising. What I didn’t think about until later were the reasons why people were rioting. They were angry that they couldn’t feed their families. They were angry at the deteriorating conditions of their nation, once considered one of the most stable countries in Africa. They were angry that prime minister Robert Mugabe, himself a freedom fighter in the battle for independence from Britain, had betrayed them yet again. My class was the last one to complete the Zimbabwe program before it was suspended due to civil unrest, and I truly realized the tragedy of the situation. Noted despot and president-for-life Mugabe continues his tyrannical rule to this day.
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