9/11: In Memory of a Woman I Never Met, Who I'll Never Forget
By Ken Magill
Every September for the last nine years there’s always that one day. The air is crisp, the sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky.
Every year when I walk out into that day, I think: “Islamic terrorists start crashing planes into our buildings in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
On September 11, 2001, I arrived in the basement of Tower One right after the first plane hit. Ten or so minutes earlier, I had gone underground to catch the PATH train to the World Trade Center from my then home of Jersey City.
I was wearing my best sport coat. Some colleagues and I had plans that night for dinner, martinis and cigars at Florio’s, a tobacco-friendly restaurant in Little Italy. It promised to be a great evening.
When I got off the train, I immediately smelled what I thought was diesel fuel. I worked on diesel generators in the Air Force in the early eighties. Jet fuel smells almost identical to diesel fuel.
“What the hell are they doing running diesel generators down here?” I thought. Even as someone who knows what jet fuel smells like, why would I ever think that was the source of the smell?
Then I heard the alarms.
As I arrived at the top of the first set of escalators I saw that Akbar’s deli’s doors were closed and its employees were staring up into the grill vents.
“Damn,” I thought. “Akbar’s has had another fire. Now I’m going to have to get my bagel elsewhere.”
I found out later I was on the last PATH train into the World Trade Center. The conductor let half of us off, was ordered to shut the doors and return to Jersey City and did so. But by the time that order was delivered, I was gone.
As I reached the top of the second set of escalators—this one massive—some people started to run. Officials told them to slow down and evacuate calmly. They did.
I walked out of Tower One through the doors just under the hole created by the first plane. There was some debris on the ground, some people being treated for injuries and a sea of people looking up while trying to make calls on their inoperative cell phones.
I looked up.
As I took in the smoking, jagged gash 93 stories above us, I couldn’t believe people were just standing there looking at it.
Time to get the hell out, I thought, and began working my way through the throng of people clogging the area, and up Church Street.
As I reached the corner of Church and Chambers Streets, I heard a loud, sharp, ripping explosion behind me. I turned around to see the side of Tower Two blowing out. I still was unaware the attacks were made with hijacked airliners.
Who at the time could imagine such a thing?
I was pretty sure it was a terrorist attack, though. “The sons of bitches finally got us,” I muttered to no one in particular.
As the side of Tower Two erupted and thousands of papers blew out like a ghoulish ticker-tape parade of death, people began stampeding up the street, many shrieking.
“These people are going to kill me,” I thought, and pressed my back against the building to let them stream by.
I didn’t know this at the time, but a jet engine just then was streaking through the sky on its way toward us to crash through the roof of a Burlington Coat factory a one block down and a vertical half a block over away.
We were in the debris’ radius—or just outside it—and had no idea.
As I watched the explosion, I saw what looked to be a woman in black pants and a purple blouse get blown out of the side of Tower Two.
It took her forever to fall. Photos—even videos—don’t do justice to the time it takes to fall 90 stories. Since she hadn’t jumped, but was ejected, her fall took even longer than others’ as she sailed vertically before beginning to descend.
As she fell through the thousands of fluttering papers down to earth face-up, her body bent backward, she took the shape of a purple-and-black arc.
Don’t ask me why, but I think she was African American.
I prayed she was unconscious. I watched until she disappeared behind some buildings and then started making my way up Church again toward our offices at DM News in SoHo.
The falling woman in purple and black is my most searing memory of 9/11.
When I think of her, which is whenever 9/11 is brought to mind, I envision her getting a cup of coffee, or gossiping with colleagues, or pecking away at her office keyboard with no idea an airliner hijacked by religious lunatics is bearing down on her.
She is why I think of the barbarians who attacked us every crisp, clear September day.
“Medieval savages attack us in something they couldn’t have invented on their own in a million years in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
Ten years later, the falling woman in purple and black is a reminder why I’m still really pissed. In her memory, I plan to stay really pissed.
R.I.P. falling woman in purple and black. I will never forget you.