Shawn Vestal: Twenty years later, indelible memories of a grim day in Manhattan

<p><p>It was an earlier-than-usual morning on a perfect bluebird day.</p></p><p><p>Constantia Red, an assistant vice president at Goldman-Sachs, was attending a technology training session with three colleagues on the 19th floor of a building in the financial district of New York City. She’d been in the training for a couple of hours when a fire alarm sounded.</p></p><p><p>“Of course, nobody moved,” Red said. “Nobody was concerned.”</p></p><p><p>Fire drills occurred all the time. No big deal. Then a security guard opened the door and told the trainees they were being evacuated and would need to take the stairs.</p></p><p><p>Was the building on fire? Was there another emergency?</p></p><p><p>As they began to head toward the stairs, the guard said, “For those who haven’t heard, two planes crashed into the Twin Towers on purpose.”</p></p><p><p>Twenty years later, the words resound for Red. She and her co-workers went down, down, down the stairs and out into streets packed with people responding to similar alarms, jamming the streets and sidewalks in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan’s southern tip.</p></p><p><p>“We stood there on the streets with this sea of people looking at the World Trade Center,” she said. “It was still standing and smoking.”</p></p><p><p>• • •</p></p><p><p>At the time, Red was working days and going to night school at Fordham University to earn her MBA. Her husband, Jon, was at home, where he was working from their basement, roughly 7 miles away on the Upper West Side.</p></p><p><p>Red had immigrated from the island nation of Cyprus to New York City in 1992 to continue her education. For her, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred in a context much different from that of most Americans.</p></p><p><p>She was 3 and living with her family in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, when Turkish soldiers invaded the northern part of the island and nearly half the city. These memories of early trauma and dislocation, vague though persistent, were a touchstone for Red on 9/11; she had grown up in a country where armed conflict came right to your home.</p></p><p><p>She remembers waking up in the middle of the night with her siblings, standing by a bedroom window.</p></p><p><p>“You could hear the bombs,” she said. “And then the bathroom window shattered.”</p></p><p><p>• • •</p></p><p><p>On the streets of lower Manhattan, with the towers still standing against the blue sky, information about what had happened was scarce. Planes had hit the towers, but there was a lack of detail about who or what had been behind it, and fears that other planes might still be coming.</p></p><p><p>Red and her colleagues walked a few blocks to their main office. From where they stood was an unobstructed view straight down the street to the World Trade Center, about six blocks away, with the now-iconic scene of the thick smoke coming from the sides of the towers. As bits of the debris fell to the earth, it reminded her of confetti.</p></p><p><p>“We just stood there with our colleagues,” she said. “From far away, you could just see little shiny pieces coming down.”</p></p><p><p>She thought of Jon at home, and her parents back in Cyprus, who had visited her offices just that summer on a visit to New York and knew they were close to the Twin Towers. But she couldn’t call anyone because the phone networks were overloaded.</p></p><p><p> She worked on the 18th floor, and the building had not been evacuated. At that moment, and as the day proceeded, Red operated in a state of shock, stunned at what was happening and proceeding mechanically.</p></p><p><p>Around 10:30, almost two hours after that initial fire alarm in the training session, one of Red’s co-workers in a neighboring cubicle told her, “They came down.”</p></p><p><p>“That’s when the beautiful blue skies disappeared,” she said.</p></p><p><p>• • •</p></p><p><p>In Cyprus, on the night of the bombing, Constantia and her family piled into the car, still in their pajamas, and drove to her grandmother’s home in the hills outside the city. Her mother and sister stayed on; the men returned to the fighting.</p></p><p><p>Over the course of the invasions in 1974, Turkish forces took control of about 40% of the island’s territory. The nation remains divided between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish invasion is considered an illegal occupation under international law, but it’s an on-the-ground reality that was a part of the country Constantia grew up in, with the nation separated by a demilitarized zone monitored by the United Nations that passes through Nicosia.</p></p><p><p>It was not, in other words, a shocking thing for her to see military troops on the streets of the city where she grew up.</p></p><p><p>• • •</p></p><p><p>The offices where Red worked at Goldman Sachs – one of five buildings the firm had in lower Manhattan – had large glass windows all around. When the towers collapsed, clouds of dust and debris turned day into night.</p></p><p><p>“It was pitch black,” she said. “You really couldn’t see outside at all … you couldn’t see anything.”</p></p><p><p>The surreal darkness persisted as people struggled to find out what had happened, to contact loved ones, to get any information at all. Because she couldn’t call her husband, Red tried to email him, but he didn’t receive it immediately because he was absorbed with watching the coverage on TV.</p></p><p><p>“It was just a day that progressively got worse and worse,” Jon Red said.</p></p><p><p>Back at their condo on the Upper West Side, he said, that there was a strange sense of near-normalcy on the streets, of life going on, in the first hours after the attacks. On the TV screen, though, what was happening seemed unimaginable.</p></p><p><p>“To me, the most heart-breaking thing was watching … people jump from the buildings because their only choice was either to burn to death or jump,” he said.</p></p><p><p>Eventually, Red was able to put in a call from Goldman Sachs to both her parents and husband.</p></p><p><p>One of her colleagues had a loved one who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm with offices right above where the hijacked airplane struck one of the towers. Constantia remembers the image of her co-worker sitting in an office at their firm.</p></p><p><p>“I wrote on her Facebook yesterday that I still see her, in the office of one of the managers, just sitting there in agony and waiting to hear,” she said.</p></p><p><p>As the dust storm outside was settling, one of the Goldman Sachs managers called people together in a conference room and led them in a moment of prayer.</p></p><p><p>“She said, ‘Let’s all pray and you each pray to the God you believe in,’ ” she said.</p></p><p><p>It was an instant of shared unity and humanity that stayed with her – Jews praying with Muslims praying with Christians like Red, who is a Greek Orthodox Christian.</p></p><p><p>That moment was powerful, she said. “It brought everyone together. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t last.”</p></p><p><p>• • •</p></p><p><p>In midafternoon, Goldman Sachs employees began to leave the office in groups, all walking toward their homes. There were no buses or cabs, of course. Constantia and several others began walking north, moving through a scene that resembled the aftermath of a gray snowstorm – or Eastern Washington after Mount St. Helens erupted.</p></p><p><p>A layer of dust blanketed everything. But the black cloud was gone.</p></p><p><p>“The blue skies were still there,” she said. “That is one of the contrasts – the blue skies, then you’re in this black cloud for a few hours … and then the skies were still blue.”</p></p><p><p>Leaving the office, the workers each took a wet cloth from a bucket that the company had provided, to protect their lungs as they made their way home.</p></p><p><p>They walked and walked. Eventually, as they were moving along on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, she came upon another surreal sight.</p></p><p><p>“Soldiers,” she said. “With guns. In the middle of Park Avenue.”</p></p><p><p>“I came from a country where you see soldiers with guns on the street. It’s normal. But I was in the U.S. for nine years, and I hadn’t seen that. You knew things had changed.”</p></p><p><p>• • •</p></p><p><p>Around Grand Central Terminal , she was able to catch a cab at last, and it took her the rest of the way home. She arrived home some 11 or 12 hours after she’d left, but she was living in a different world now.</p></p><p><p>“I was still in shock mode,” she said. “Thankful to be home but not quite sure what had happened. You know what happened, but you’re in disbelief. As the days go by, it hits you.”</p></p><p><p>The next week, they stayed home, donated supplies to various charitable efforts, watched as the recovery efforts continued. Constantia found herself dreaming of her childhood during the invasion on Cyprus – visions of planes or helicopters dropping bombs on a city.</p></p><p><p>Constantia and Jon had already decided that they would look for a new home somewhere out West, a better place to raise a family and a work culture that was not so all-consuming. The 9/11 attacks accelerated this plan.</p></p><p><p>“That was the catalyst for us to leave New York,” Jon said. “It really crystallized it for us.”</p></p><p><p>He was recruited to a position in Spokane – a city they had to look up on the map – and wound up accepting it and moving here in the summer of 2002. Constantia followed a few months later, after finishing her MBA.</p></p><p><p>Jon works in finance and Constantia became a real estate agent, and they are raising their son, JP, here.</p></p><p><p>Over the past several days, as the memorials and commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks have been everywhere, she’s found the remembrances even more affecting than usual – in part because, she said, the significance of any anniversary is less about the number of years that have passed than it is about gauging the distance we’ve come since then.</p></p><p><p>In a time marked by the pandemic, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and intense political and cultural divisions, she’s found herself more emotional about the memory than on other anniversaries.</p></p><p><p>“It’s not only my experience, or our experience, but also about all the people who were lost, so innocent,” she said. “And why? And what did we learn from it?”</p></p><p><p><em>Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Red’s age at the time of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.</em></p></p>