Two Vanguardians’ Reflections on 9-11

I was speaking to a colleague a few weeks ago, and we were remarking on how long she had been with Vanguard Direct. I knew exactly how long because she started on 9/10/01. We all know what followed next.

Eleven years ago, Vanguard Direct was located at 90 West Street.

A block south of the World Trade Center, we faced the North Tower, the first building to be hit by the passenger jetliner. Rita was on her way to work, and it was her second day. She was lugging her books of paper and production samples in a shopping bag.

As she approached 90 West Street, she heard a very large bang and could not determine where the noise came from. As she passed a firehouse, she was rushed inside by a fireman. At that point, no one had any idea what was going on except that we all thought a commuter plane had hit the tower. The fireman told her to go into the basement. After spending some time in the firehouse, she left because she had to get to work.

When she left the firehouse, it looked like the world had come to an end. There was debris everywhere––plane seats, paper, and a foot in the middle of the street, etc., etc.

As she entered our building, she saw Millie, her supervisor, as we were being evacuated from the building. During the time Rita was in the firehouse, the fuel from the first plane had exploded. Everyone who was not facing the north side of the building really had no idea what had happened. It was nineteen minutes later when the fuel exploded that everyone realized something major had gone wrong.

As we evacuated the building, we were herded south away from the Trade Towers toward Battery Park. We were slowly realizing this was a major deal. At this point, Rita and I had not been formally introduced. We all broke off in groups––I was among the Midtown commuter train group bound for Penn Station and Grand Central.

We started our trek uptown. Manhattan is a very big island, and the walk took two and a half hours. This story is like many others, and it is about ordinary people stepping out of the box. As we were walking uptown and realized we were thirsty, a store owner dragged out water for sale. Now he could have charged whatever, but it was the standard $1.00. Then someone in our group mentioned she could use a restroom. All of a sudden, a doorman from a building who was standing on the street invited anyone who needed it to use his restroom (not glamorous but much needed) and also allowed us to use the phone!!! (All cell phones downtown were not working.) As we stood on line, the TV was on, and that was when we as a group realized we were under attack.

We continued our journey uptown to Grand Central. For the most part, people were calm. By the time we reached Midtown, it was almost surreal––people were working, stores were open. We stopped at a deli for lunch. But things were far from normal. A van had its doors open blasting the news. People huddled around to get the latest updates.

When we reached Grand Central, it became very apparent there were no trains leaving anytime soon. We decided to get a cab up to 125th Street, where trains were rumored to be leaving from. The subways were not running, so it was our only option. One of the people from our group managed to grab a cab. Two of our group got in the front seat, and Rita and I were headed toward the back seat when two strangers jumped in our cab. On any other day, you would have called the police, but not today. They were scared, and so off went the cab, and there we were––Rita and I standing and wondering what to do next.

I suggested we head over to the West Side, thinking maybe we would have more luck catching a cab there. Rita said, “I have an idea,” and said she would ask a passing car for a ride. We looked at the first car and thought better of it, and then there was a late-model Saab from Connecticut covered with ash. Rita gently knocked on the window. The man rolled down his window, and Rita explained we just walked up from 90 West Street and that we were just trying to get uptown. He said he was going to Connecticut, to which Rita replied, “That’s even better.” He immediately invited us into his car. He expressed feeling guilty about driving in an empty car with so many people walking uptown. Rita explained that she lived in the Bronx, and the man said he would take us home but just had to stop by his apartment in Manhattan to get his cats and his wife’s medication. He was headed to their weekend home until the dust settled, as it were. We could not believe our luck. He took us up to his West Side apartment and let us use the phone and offered us food. Then with cats in tow (I am allergic to cats but would have carried them on my lap at that point, which I practically had to do), we headed up to the Bronx. He turned out to be an attorney––I cannot remember what his wife did. Then we were driven to the Bronx, safe from the mayhem in Manhattan. We passed a church, and I asked Rita if we could stop in. Although neither of us are Catholic, we said a prayer of thanks for our safety.

Then Rita, having only just met me, invited me into her home to wait until my father came to pick me up. I sat in her home while she baked me cookies. The neighbors came over to make sure Rita was OK. She was not even sure of my name but remembered correctly it was Chuck.

We were going through our lives, spending time with family, going to work––sometimes not appreciating what we had, taking things for granted––when this happened. You would never imagine that in NYC in the USA that we would ever get caught up in a major terrorist attack. People all around us rose to the occasion. Rita and I were swept up by a perfect stranger and delivered home.

Author: Chuck MacGill, Rita Orphanos


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