Monday, September 10, 2012

Witness to Tragedy - 9/11 Remembered


Editor's Note:

Our good friend Victor Ruiz of the Mars Attacks Podcast has a very vivid memory of 9-11-2001 as he was a first-hand witness to this terrible attack. As we honor those we lost and the many that worked to help out that day 11 years ago, Victor gives us a glimpse of what he went through that day to help us never forget. We thank Victor for sharing his story with us. You can check out the Mars Attacks Podcast HERE. - Chris Czynszak

My 9/11 story actually starts on 9/10.  I worked for a computer refurbishing company in western New Jersey, and one of my tasks was to pick up off lease computer equipment from American Express.  The routine used to be picking up equipment at three locations, 200 Vesey St. and 19 Pine St. in New York City, and one location across the Hudson River in Jersey City, N.J.  J

Just to give you a feel for where the two locations are in NYC, Vesey is the building with the Pyramid on top next to where the towers where located, Pine St. is right behind Wall St.

So the night before I’m waiting to leave work early, and go pick up the rental truck I would be using to make that following day’s pick up.  Initially I was supposed to be going to Vesey St., but as I was about to walk out of the door I was told by my co-worker that the pickup would only be scheduled for Pine St.  Looking back, someone was definitely looking out for me, and my brother who would be helping me complete the pickup.   So our usual routine entailed leaving home at 5:45AM to make sure we were able to beat traffic, and have a dock space at the Vesey St. dock.  Mind you, my contact at AMEX didn’t arrive till about 9AM, and the pickup wasn’t scheduled till about a half hour after.   Factoring in the traffic, and the line at the docks to get in, the security check, etc. you usually only had an hour and a half wait.  So we’d usually walk back outside, and wait underneath the towers, chit chat, stare at the passing boats, etc. just to pass the time.  Had this last minute switch not taken place, who knows what would have happened?

Pine St. was a mess as well; it was a narrow street that was often shut down to parking.  Most of the times this was due to movies being shot in the area, for example Die Hard With A Vengence was shot almost exclusively in that area.   The dock was also on the street, you had no place to park, like at the Vesey St dock, which was actually under the building.  So if you could get there early enough you could park, do the pickup, and get back to the office earlier, and thus heading home earlier.

So we’re driving in, and nothing seems out of the ordinary till we see some camera crews in front of the stock exchange on Wall St.  Again, no big deal, they film things here all of the time.  We hook around back, park, and listen to Howard Stern until we hear this loud noise followed by an even louder noise that made all of the windows on the buildings around us look like rubber.  We saw this woman on a cell phone crying, and we were thinking, that was probably just some sort of special effect, so my brother heads out to survey the area.  He comes back with two airline tickets that were slightly charred.  And mentions something to the effect that they aren’t filming anything and that there is a lot of brunt debris falling from the sky.  One quick note there was a travel agency at the twin towers which is where we suspect these tickets came from; the names did not belong to any of the passengers.  So we turn on the local news station and they mentioned that a plane had crashed into the north tower.  My brother and I aren’t the type of people to slow down and stare at an accident; we don’t get a kick out of seeing other’s misfortune.  But after hearing what had happened, what instantly came to mind was a bomber that had crashed into the Empire State Building during World War II.  So we figured, this is going to be part of history, a once and a lifetime experience.

So we started to walk over, and you could see debris flying everywhere, and hundreds if not thousands of people walking towards the towers like we were.  There were people pouring into the plaza around the World Trade Center, so much so that we were overflowing into the streets.  People parted as fire engines came by, and an empty bus that was for emergency purposes came through.  The driver was calling people crazy, and telling us all to move, and leave the area.  My brother told me to look at the tower, he mentioned it’s bending.  I looked in disbelief, as flames shot out the top, and the metal that made of the outside of the tower was indeed slowly bending out of shape.

By this time we were about 100 yards away from the Twin Towers.  While standing there for a few minutes all of a sudden you can hear what sounded like jet engines at full speed and then all of a sudden I witnessed United Airlines Flight 175 crash right into the South Tower.  I stood there like a deer in headlights, it was so surreal, all I could think of was the first Die Hard movie.  When out of the corner of my eye I see my brother start to run in the other direction, and scream, RUN, RUN, RUN!  I looked down and saw a stampede of thousands of people running towards me.  People were grabbing onto me trying to not fall down, as I turned, and stated running in the opposite direction.  I saw my brother ahead of me, so I ran towards him.  When I caught up to him we noticed that our cell phones did not work, most if not all cell communication came from the North Tower.  So we headed towards AMEX, used our security passes to get in, and call my mother to tell her everything was ok.  My brother also called my sister-in-law who worked uptown, and told her the same, and mentioned we were coming to get her.  On a side note the security guard at AMEX argued with me that it had to of been a small Cessna.  I had flown enough as a kid to know what I had seen.  Another antidote is my brother says, so should we do the pick up?  I looked at him and said, we’re getting the f**k out of here!

So we get in the truck, and start figuring out how we’re getting uptown to pick up my sister-in-law.  During our next call with her she notified us that my cousin’s husband was in the next building over from her on business.  My cousin, his wife, had given birth to a daughter the day before.  Needless to say, he would be coming along as well, that is if we could make it up to them.

By this time the police were closing down streets, and funneling traffic away from certain points of interest.  We were listening to the news the entire time, when we heard that the South Tower had fallen.  I was thinking, no way, what are they talking about?  While in the truck we had also heard about the attack on The Pentagon, and Untied Flight 93.  Mind you all of this time we’re stuck in traffic, and you’re still hearing plains overhead.  The entire time we were thinking is this one coming for us?  There was so much chaos, who knew what was next?  We found our way next to the Brooklyn Bridge; droves of people were walking over, again another surreal moment.  Someone on a Harley pulls up next to us, and the echo between the bike, our truck and the bridge sounded just like a jet.  My brother and I looked at each other, and nearly crapped our pants thinking this once again was it.  We both busted up laughing, I guess we were just trying to break the tension, but we both thought the same thing, that a jet was heading for the bridge.  We were hearing that a fourth plane had gone missing, not sure if this was a mistake, but we never heard anything else about it.  The radio started to mention that the North Tower was now coming down.  I could see it from the driver side mirror.  It seemed as if it took forever to come down, I could clearly see the communications tower come off as the building came down.  When I looked towards street level I could see a man running, who was then consumed by an enormous dust cloud that came from the fall of the tower.  Later on we’d see more people being helped by passersby that were covered in dust.  Coincidentally we had a fine coat of dust on the truck that stayed on and did not come off even after I dropped the truck off.

By this time the news reported that all of the bridges and tunnels were being closed.  I was prepared to drive north to hop on route 84, drive west over to Port Jervis, and down into New Jersey.  Wouldn’t have been the quickest way home, but in the pre-GPS boom, I was trying to shoot for things that I could put my finger on, that I recognized, and knew that I could get us home.

After about three hours we made it uptown.  There was a lot of sitting in traffic, seeing thousands of people walk by, and there was something I had never seen, long lines at pay phones.  This was due to something I mentioned previously, the fact that the attacks knocked out cell coverage, and as a result pay phones could be used for free.  We were trying to make our way north, I hopped on a road that said no trucks allowed, panicked at first but then figuring we were the least of the traffic police’s worry that day.  I honestly didn’t do it on purpose, and the thing is, once we were on the road, we couldn’t get off.  We were seeing fighter jets fly overhead, and continued to drive for a bit when we were stuck in another traffic jam.  I thought, here goes another three hours, but luckily it was just fifteen minutes.  The news reported that they were opening up the George Washington Bridge, and the jam we were in was fairly close to the bridge.  By the time we got to the bridge there were soldiers and hummers waiting to stop anyone that looked suspicious.  Thankfully a truck cabin that was jammed with four people looked harmless to them.  It was so odd to see them there, it seemed as if we were in some action movie, unfortunately we weren’t.  This was all very much real.

The drive over the bridge was one of the longest and most surreal moments I have ever experienced.  I kept thinking what next?  What will they take out next?  The bridge had to be a strategic point that I would guess was on their list of targets.  It felt like it took a year to make it across, halfway across the bridge I looked to my left and saw smoke billowing out from where the towers once stood.  Just a very surreal moment, you grow up used to seeing something there, a landmark in the skyline no less, and it’s gone.  I dropped everyone off, headed back to work, told them I was splitting, and would be back tomorrow.  That night I couldn’t sleep, hearing things about people jumping (which I thankfully didn’t see) and decided not to go into work the following day.  The only thing on tv was the terrorist attacks, this started something that I would have to live with for the next few years, which was replaying the events in my head on a daily basis.  Sirens, loud noises, people discussing what took place, etc. were among the things that would trigger all of the images of the events I experienced that day.  Initially it was almost continuous, and little by little over the years it started to go away.  It still happens from time to time, but nowhere near as bad as it did before.

Aside from reliving the events over and over again, I started to have survivor’s guilt.  Please understand I feel a lot of guilt for saying that I have survivor’s guilt, and let me explain why.  We were about 100 yards away, I did not make it into any of the buildings, nor did I know anyone that did, or anyone that died.  The contact I had at AMEX disappeared and we thought the worst, but it turns out he went into a deli to grab an extra breakfast sandwich, and didn’t make his train so nothing happened to him.  That was as close as I got to losing someone that I actually knew.  Having said this, I saw firefighters rushing into the towers, how many of them made it out?  Why did they have to die, and I get to live?  I saw the impact of United Flight 175 into the South Tower, how many people died on impact alone?  Again, why them and not me?  I was just some lowly computer tech/music geek who surely had done less with my life than a lot of the people that died so why them and not me?  This really weighed heavily on my mind for the longest time.  If all of this wasn’t enough, we had a break in while my folks and I were home a month later on October 11th!  So I was in pretty bad shape for a long time, I did what I’ve always done when faced with adversity, bury myself in music.

A week after the attacks I went to visit someone I was dating at the time, she lived in Weehawken, NJ, right across the river from NYC.  Smoke was still billowing out of the WTC, by this time there were a bunch of candle vigils on the NJ side.  The smell from that night was like nothing I had ever experienced before, a mix of charred plastic, flesh, and hair.  It is a smell that will stick with me forever.

In November of that year I went to a benefit show called NY Steel organized by Eddie Trunk and Mike Piazza.  I had grown up idolizing Eddie, and I can honestly say that thanks to him, I have become the music geek I am today.  A shame I can’t get him on my show, but that’s beside the point.   NY Steel was a benefit for the families and widows of the Firefighters, Police Officers, and Port Authority workers that were killed by the attacks.  The show included Sebastian Bach, Overkill, Anthrax, Ace Frehley, and the reunited Twisted Sister.  It was a very emotional night, and I make it a point to thank any one that I interview that played that show.  By the time Twisted Sister played The Price, I started crying, and knew that it was time to heal, time to try and move on.  Although it took me some time to do so, that was the kick in the ass that I needed.

 I’ve told this story countless times, as a result I volunteered to tell my story on a local Spanish station for the fifth year anniversary of the attacks.  I can honestly say that 9/11 was one of the reasons why I moved over here,.  I made it a point, as I always do when I discuss what I experienced that day that we not forget the people that died on that day.  If nothing else, I lived so that I could help others not forget the victims, of all races, colors or creeds that were indiscriminately killed on that day over someone’s agenda.  I also don’t subscribe to any of the conspiracy theories that have come about since then.  It is easy to sit at home, and concoct something, but I know what I and thousands, if not millions, saw with their own eyes live and in person.  I would also hope that our government wouldn’t knowingly allow something like this to happen, but our track record isn’t the greatest when it comes to motives to start or take part in a war (e.g. the Maine and the Lusitania).  Again, I want to believe that our government did not knowingly look away, and would not allow thousands to die in such a senseless fashion.

Please keep the memory of the close to 3,000 people that died that day alive, always remember them not only on September 11th of every year, but any day you can.  They were working class people like you and me, some that worked multiple jobs just to feed their family.  They did not deserve to die in that fashion, no one does.  Don’t let their memories die.

I am not 100% heeled, and never will be.  I have learned to live with what I experienced on that day, and all of the things that still affected me to a certain extent mentally.  My world changed that day, everyone’s world changed that day.  9/11 marked a before and after for almost everyone that was alive that day.  My niece was born on 9/11, she does not know what it is like to live in a pre-9/11 maybe it is for the best.  The attacks have become fodder of so many political agendas, broken promises, fear tactics, etc. that it is almost impossible not to get upset when thinking about what the world was like before the attacks.  What the world was like before the thousands of people that died that day, and have died as a result of helping with the rescue attempts.  Please don’t let any of their memories die.

-Victor M. Ruiz

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