Locals vividly recall 9/11 morning in New York City

Published 12:59 am Sunday, September 11, 2011

Three people with connections to Washington remember all too vividly what happened in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 — they were there.

Current Washington residents Vail Stewart Rumley and Phedora Johnson and Mo Krochmal, a former Washington Daily News sports editor and New York resident, reflected on that day and the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York.

Rumley, a daughter of former Washington Mayor L. Stewart Rumley, and her husband, Chris Nappi, lived in Brooklyn Heights at the time of the attack.

“I was looking at my window, or I heard something. I heard this big ‘bang.’ I kind of went to look out the window. It was 8:48 in the morning. It wasn’t until many days later that I realized the significance of that — that I had actually heard one of the planes, the first plane, hit the tower,” Rumley said during a telephone interview Thursday as she was riding in a car to New York. “There was no indication that, really, anything was going on. I didn’t have the radio on. I didn’t have the TV on. There were sirens, but there are always sirens in New York. It didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.”

Rumley said that several minutes later, as she walked across the Brooklyn Bridge toward her office on Canal Street, she became aware that day was anything but ordinary.

As she walked westward, Rumley noticed “twin trails of smoke trailing across the sky.”

“Of course, it was an absolutely beautiful day, and I just kept thinking how weird it was.”

The next thing she saw was “this wall of people coming toward me from the city.”

“I was pretty much the only one headed into the city,” she recalled.

She recalls how she learned about the attack.

“There were two guys just kind of sitting up on the railing, looking at the towers. I went up and I asked them what happened. They said, ‘Two planes hit the twin towers.’ I said, ‘It was a terrorist attack?’ And they kind of went, ‘Yeah.’  Then I continued walking in, and there was another gentleman who was … walking out. I stopped him, and I said, ‘What’s happening in there?’ He said, ‘Everybody’s leaving. You just don’t want to go in there,’” Rumley said.

She continued walking toward her office.

“I was walking on the bridge, that downward slope, when the first of the towers fell, Rumley said.

This weekend’s trip to New York was not made because of the 9/11 anniversary, Rumley said. She’s in New York to reunite with several friends she doesn’t get to see often.

“Oh, absolutely,” Rumley said when asked if the events of 9/11 remain vivid in her mind. “Nothing’s changed. It could have happened yesterday.”

Although her memories of 9/11 remain clear 10 years later, it’s not something she dwells on.

“I try not to really think too hard about that day,” Rumley said. “I rarely ever talk about it.”

Will she commemorate the anniversary while in New York?

“I think that maybe it would be a fitting thing to do to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge,” Rumley said.

“The whole city is going to be inundated with that. I won’t be able to take two steps without being confronted with 9/11. And that’s how it should be,” Rumley said.

Bubble bursts

Krochmal recalls his 9/11 experiences in the following email.

“Ten years have gone by so darn rapidly. How did the days pass so quickly? I remember a bright Manhattan morning in my kitchen on 15th Street and 6th Avenue, in a corner apartment, six floors above the street.

“I heard a jet fly overhead, unusually low, with engines straining. I drank my coffee and went down on the street. I don’t think I had the TV on. At the corner of 6th Avenue and 14th Street, I saw a man in an MTA uniform, a bus dispatcher on the corner. I sensed something was going on, something you learn to listen to in New York, and he said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Towers. I looked down 6th Avenue and could see a hole in the building and a plume of smoke trailing in the wind.

“I couldn’t judge the size of the plane or the magnitude of the incident, but I went back up to my apartment and got my video camera and tripod out and brought it down to the street and set up on the corner and filmed for a while. I stopped filming and was looking down the street when I saw the fireball from the second plane hit, and remember, I think, that I could feel the heat two miles away. I did not hear the sound — I’m sure that would have been something that would never leave me.

“That second plane, that proved that this was no accident and, suddenly, my world was forever changed. The bubble I lived in was burst, naiveté was gone and suddenly I knew a different kind of fear — one that without a focus, the quivering in the pit of your stomach and helplessness.

“I watched TV the rest of the day, after filling the bathtub up with water and getting some cash from the ATM (something I learned in North Carolina during hurricane season). I felt so sad. Thousands of people, just like me, had gone to work that day and never came home. Why? What evil had been unleashed in this world? Evil like I had never felt or witnessed?

“The next day, I went down to the Salvation Army and volunteered and ended up at Ground Zero, giving out bottles of water and sandwiches to the folks working down there. I walked all over the area and then walked home at night, up a Broadway that had never been so quiet, so empty.

“In the years afterwards, I have always paused on September 11, whether it was in my journalism classes as a professor, or as a journalist. I remember and I always will. I cannot forget and I’m a different person because of those events. I hope I am a better one toward my fellow human beings. For a few weeks afterwards in New York, things were different. People were tender and respectful with one another and it was somewhat nice, but when horns started blowing again and people started fussing, it felt a little bit more like normality, though still the memories linger and the days pass like flipping the pages in a book.”

Shaken, not defeated

“There was no Moses,” Phedora Johnson, a Washington High School Teacher of the Year, recalled about the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack in New York.

“There was a very Old Testament quality to it. You saw droves of people, like Moses leading people out of the Red Sea, or something, but yet people were coming out of subways because subways were closed. It wasn’t safe to be underground — and there was no Moses. There were just droves of people walking aimlessly,” Johnson said Friday.

Johnson said 9/11 affected New Yorkers deeply.

“When 9/11 happened, the entire spirit, the entire core of New York City, of course, was shaken. The entire city became a graveyard. What I mean by that specifically is you saw pictures of missing people, many of whom were later discovered to have been dead, pictures everywhere — in subway stations, on poles, in restaurants, everywhere. People looking for their loved ones.”

Johnson, a Washington native, was working for Credit Suisse in New York on 9/11. Johnson said she heard a lot of commotion on the trading floor, where many TV sets were located.

“There was just a bunch of noise. Then, I saw people crying,” she said. “One of the vice presidents started crying. … I asked her ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘They’re falling down, they’re falling down.’ (I said)

‘What?’  And she said, ‘The towers. The towers are falling down.’”

Minutes later, Johnson and her co-workers gathered in an auditorium, where they were told what happened and released from work for the rest of that day.

“I remember walking along the East River — just in case I had to jump in,” Johnson recalled. “You saw the National Guard. You saw tanks on New York City streets. It looked like Palestine.”

Johnson does not view movies or much television coverage of the 9/11 attack on New York. There’s no reason for people who were there to watch movies about 9/11 because the movies cannot do justice to an event she experienced firsthand, Johnson said.

“We had no reason to want to relive that,” she said.

Johnson said she had problems in the days, weeks and months after 9/11 with people who weren’t there talking about it.

“It bothered me so badly that people talked about it as if they were there. I’d be in an airport in Nashville and you’d hear people talk about it. … People talked about 9/11 with the same cadence as you would tell a campfire story. And that really, really bothered me,” Johnson said.

Seeing New Yorkers “pack up and leave” in the aftermath of 9/11 saddened her, Johnson said.

“It never, ever, ever occurred to me to leave — ever,” she said about her state of mind 10 years ago.

While the 10th anniversary must be commemorated, Johnson said, she has concerns about excessive references to it being detrimental in some ways.

“It doesn’t help people progress. It gives people a reason to continue being fearful. It gives people a reason to hate,” she said. “It just doesn’t move you forward. … In terms of observances, those are needed. … You just don’t need to see the towers coming down over and over and over again.”

Johnson wants people to focus on the tower that’s going up where the twin towers once stood.

“I want it to be just as high. And I want another restaurant at the top,” Johnson said. “Only this time, the building will be able to withstand (burning) jet fuel.”

Johnson said she has no concerns about a possible terrorist attack today, the 10th anniversary of the first attack.

“Not at all. Not at all. I don’t live my life in fear like that. I encourage people to do the same. … You can’t live your life if you’re afraid,” Johnson said.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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