A New York City mother and Port Authority executive recalls the worst day of her life and the aftermath for herself, her colleagues, and her family. From a new oral history of September 11, 2001.
Photograph via Flickr by treviño
In 2001, Mary Lee Hannell was the executive adviser to the chief administrative officer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the World Trade Center. She worked on the sixty-seventh floor. In 1993, Hannell had just stepped out of the building for lunch when a terrorist bomb exploded in the World Trade Center’s parking lot.
Mary Lee Hannell: I remember it being a beautiful, crisp day. I got to work early and I had just gotten off the elevator and walked into my office. I heard a gigantic boom, one which moved the building significantly. I was thrown to one side. I remember hearing the building kind of creaking. So I came out of my office and asked if anyone had any idea what that was. A woman who was around the corner from me started screaming, because she was on the side of the building where she actually saw the plane hit the building. She was very worked up and started running around, screaming, “A plane has hit the building!” So I gathered some people. I walked to my boss’s office and when I got there I picked up the phone and dialed my husband’s number. I said, “A plane has hit the building.”
He said, “How do you know?”
I said, “One of the women here saw it. A plane’s hit the building.”
He said, “Just go down the stairs. Don’t wait. Just go down the stairs. We’ll meet outside.”
Then I said to my boss, “There’s smoke in the corridor. I think we need to go now.”
He said, “Yes, let’s just go.” We tried to calm this one woman down because she was really hysterical. But we very clearly made a decision: we need to leave now. There was another gentleman on the floor who was a retired policeman and he said, “Let’s take a quick look to make sure everyone’s out of their offices.” So we did that and got everybody together. Went out into the corridor and opened the door and held it open and made sure that everybody moved through. We waited for two women who went back to get their handbags—and if I’ve learned anything, it’s never go back to get anything because you never know how much time you have—and started downstairs. There were no public address announcements. There was nothing to say, “Go.” There was nothing to say, “Stay.” There were no fire alarms going off.
There was never, ever, for one moment, a thought that the building was going to collapse, ever.
Got on the stairs. No smoke. But a very chemical smell, a very, very intense smell that caught you in your throat. I stayed with this policeman and with one of the staff people who works for me. People were very orderly walking down the stairs but there were people who were afraid. Some had walked down the stairs in the 1993 bombing. Some were just afraid. So what we were doing is keeping up a dialogue, joking around, laughing, reassuring people. There was a woman with us who had asthma. The more upset she got the harder it got for her to breathe. Then there was this gentleman who had been burned. So a couple of us kept up a running dialogue with people to try and keep people calm. We kept saying, “Look. We’re on the forty-fifth floor. We’re making great progress.” Whatever it took to make people keep moving. We’d also say, “Don’t worry. We have a lot of time. We have as much time as it takes, because if it takes eight hours to get out of the building, it takes us eight hours to get out of the building.” There was never, ever, for one moment, a thought that the building was going to collapse, ever.
The stairway was actually very crowded but we were moving. I can’t believe it would have been as orderly or as calm had people really thought that there was a problem. We didn’t know, while we were in the building, that the second tower had been hit because you couldn’t feel it or hear it in the stairwells. My husband knew because he looked at his pager as he was going down the stairs, and he has something from one of the news services that feeds in headlines. Then he knew it was a terrorist attack as he was going down the stairs. But I did not. Oddly enough—and what he yells at me all the time about—is that he ended up getting out of the building ahead of me, even though he was above me, because I waited for a couple of people to go back and get some things. So we were continuing down, having these conversations. Everything is going fairly smoothly until we hit about the thirties. There was a very elderly woman who works for the Port Authority in our records area. She has a tremendous amount of difficulty walking and she takes one stair at a time. So everything started to back up. About the thirtieth floor we start to encounter smoke. So it’s a little harder to breathe. People who are already very tentative are even more tentative now. Some people started to cry. Some people start to worry. We’re still doing, “The lights are on. It’s fine. Don’t worry. We’re already on thirty. We’re more than halfway down. We’re going to be fine.”
People are taking handkerchiefs out, taking off jackets, and giving them to other people so you could put something in front of your mouth. One of the jokes we had, a funny joke, was one of the women had her gym bag with her. She had not yet gone to the gym. So she had a pair of shorts. She had a T-shirt. She had socks. She had a sports bra. She handed all of her clothing to people, including the sports bra, which was clean, she assured us, to people to put them over their mouth so that you had something over your mouth, so you could breathe. The woman who was asthmatic started to panic and started to breathe even more heavily. So as we were going down the stairs, as we would pass a door, we would open it where we could. If there was fresh air we’d say to her, “Come over and breathe. Just breathe the air. Close your eyes. Breathe. Don’t look.” Because some of the floors had fire alarms going off. Some had some kind of liquid. I don’t know if it was jet fuel or [if ] it was elevator hydraulic liquid. But, “Breathe, and you’re going to be fine.”
At floor twenty-seven we passed a man who was in a wheelchair, a very heavy wheelchair. He had at least one person with him and he was just sitting there. He wasn’t moving. He was one of the people we passed that did not make it out of the building because he wouldn’t let people carry him down. He wanted to take his chair with him. He had some other medical issues that the chair helped him with and he was worried. So his friend stayed with him and neither of them made it out of the building.
Did it bother you that you were going past this man?
Mary Lee Hannell: Yes, it did. But there didn’t seem to be anything I could do. There wasn’t anything I could reasonably do.
So are you with anyone you know at that point?
Mary Lee Hannell: I’m with a woman named Eileen Dalton, who works for me, and I’m with a couple of other Port Authority people that I know.
Was it crowded in these stairways?
Mary Lee Hannell: Yes, once you got to twenty-seven it was crowded enough that there were periods of time when you were no longer moving. You were stopped, and you were just waiting. Then, as you start to hit these areas where you’re waiting, people start to get a little antsy. There starts to be some yelling. “We’ve got to move. You’ve got to move. We’ve got to get out of here,” from above us. People starting to say, “Just keep moving. Just keep moving. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.”
It looked like a rag doll that someone had thrown. But my first reaction was: It’s a movie set. It’s not real. It’s a movie.
So I started to yell up the stairs, “We’ve got to wait. Don’t keep coming. Just stop where you are. There are people ahead of us but we’re moving. So just stay where you are and take a rest. As long as we’re stopped, take a rest.” Because these stairways were very hot. So by this time, after about an hour, it’s very hot. You’re sweaty. Your clothes are clinging to you. Now there’s smoke. It’s a little harder to breathe. There are women who are going down the stairs in bare feet because they had high heels on and their feet hurt so badly that they took their shoes off and held them in their hands. There’s water pouring down the stairways. A little at first, trickles, and as you go down farther, more water, more and more water. So you’re starting to say to people, “Hold on to the railings. It’s slippery. Be careful.”
Then at about twenty-two you start to see firemen and paramedics. Everyone, as far as I could hear, says the same thing to them, which is, “There’s a man in a wheelchair on twenty-seven.”
The paramedic says, “Yes, we know. We’re going to get him.”
Everyone moved to the right so that the firemen and paramedics can come up the stairs. By this time, the firemen, in particular, are huffing and puffing because now they’ve already walked up twenty-five flights of stairs with forty or more pounds of equipment on. The stairs are hot. They’re congested there. So they’re huffing and puffing but they’re going. So I felt a little better about the man in the wheelchair because I was convinced that now that the firemen knew where he was, and the paramedics, that they could help.
The next thing I remember is we get to the very last staircase and there’s an open door. We step out on what’s called the mezzanine. The mezzanine overlooks the plaza of the World Trade Center. It looked like a movie set. It was covered in debris. There were fires. The windows had blood on them. There was something that I was staring at. I stared and I stared and I stared—until I realized it was a body, unrecognizable. It looked like a rag doll that someone had thrown. But my first reaction was: It’s a movie set. It’s not real. It’s a movie.
We worked our way around the mezzanine past all of this. There were body parts everywhere and piles of burning debris. I remember thinking, “I don’t understand why there are so many bodies.” I didn’t know the second tower had been hit. I didn’t know any of those things. So the first reaction was, it’s not real. Then it’s realizing what you’re looking at. I don’t understand what happened but I know we’re in trouble and we’ve got to get out of here.
I came across the mezzanine and standing there was our chief operations officer. There was an escalator that went down. The escalator was off. He was encouraging people to move down the escalator, just trying to get people to move as quickly as possible down the escalator. Walked down the escalator and at the bottom of the escalator the last couple of steps were completely filled with water. The sprinklers were going off. There’s glass all over the floor and there was water coming down. There were people standing there telling you where to go. “Go out this way. Go out this way.”
A woman came up to me and she grabbed my hand. She said, “Are you Mary Lee Hannell?”
I said, “Yes.”
She said, “I am so-and-so.” I didn’t recognize the name. She said, “Have you seen my husband?” Her husband worked on the sixty-eighth floor and worked for my boss. She said, “Have you seen him?”
I said, “No, but I’m sure he’s okay. I’m sure he got out.” She stopped and she wouldn’t walk any further. She kept looking back and I was afraid that she’d wait for him. I said, “You know what? You can’t wait for him because he won’t find you. What if he goes out a different exit? Why don’t we just keep moving? You’re going to find him. He’s fine.”
She said, “Okay.” So I held her hand for a while and dragged her down to the retail area of the concourse, where there were people who were yelling, “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” She started running. We came around the corner and there was another Port Authority person there, who’s the director of financial services. He said, “Go up the stairs. Go back up the stairs. Just go.” Passed him, went up the stairs and came out onto Church Street, which is where Borders bookstore was. There was a fireman there yelling, “Move. Don’t look up.” So, of course, everyone stopped and looked up. “Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Keep moving. Keep moving.” So we went a little ways and turned around and looked up.
I thought, “Gee, that’s weird. How’d the fire move from one building to the other? It must have skipped over somehow.” This is what I actually thought. It must have skipped over to the building. I don’t know how that happened. So then I’m still with Eileen [my co-worker]. Crossed the street and there was my boss standing there. He hugged me and he hugged Eileen. He said, “I’m so happy to see you.”
We decided to start walking down Fulton Street but we were not in a big hurry because we figured, “We got out of the building. They’ll put the fire out. I wonder how many months it’ll be before we go back in? Let’s see, last time [after the 1993 bombing] it was February to April. Let’s see how long it’ll take this time.” Get to the corner of Fulton and Nassau streets. Which is about two blocks. We’re kind of milling around because I’m looking for my husband now. Looking, looking, looking. I don’t see anything. I hear this tremendous sound, like this low rumbling sound, but really, really loud. We turned toward the building—and the problem with being on Nassau and Fulton streets is, as close as you are to the Trade Center, and as tall as the buildings are, you can’t see them because the other buildings near you obscure the view.
But all of a sudden we see this huge cloud of gray. It puffs up and then it starts to puff toward you. I remember thinking at that moment that there’s a scene in an Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think, and there’s a large boulder that starts to come down and Harrison Ford starts to run from it. All I could think of is this huge boulder coming down at me, and thinking, this is like a Godzilla movie. This isn’t real. This can’t be happening. Godzilla’s going to step up next with a piece of the building and we’ll be done.
It’s moving very quickly, this dark gray cloud. I’m with my boss and with Eileen. We grab hands and we run across Nassau Street to the next intersection, as though that would help. We know that we can’t outrun it. So my boss tries a couple of doors to get inside and they’re locked. Then the three of us just turned our backs, held hands, and just closed our eyes, because I think we thought the building was falling on us. That was the second time where I thought I might die. You’re holding hands. You’re completely engulfed and you’re breathing whatever it is: concrete, glass, who knows what else. Just pulverized stuff but it’s everywhere. So every time you take a breath you’re inhaling it. You can’t see anything because it’s gone dark. So we just stood there. I don’t even know how long we stood there. I remember when the cloud was coming toward us hearing people scream. But when the cloud engulfed us, I kept thinking—this probably wasn’t accurate—but my impression was that it was very quiet, almost like being in a snowstorm when it’s very, very quiet and the snow’s just falling around you.
That was the first time we actually saw replaying of the plane into the building, and showing the building collapsing.
The three of us just stood there until it had subsided enough—I don’t even know how long it was—that we could see maybe a foot in front of us. My boss, who’s got a great sense of direction, said, “Let’s just keep moving. Let’s move east and then uptown. So we’ll head toward the South Street Seaport and then we’ll move uptown.” I couldn’t see anything because I wear contacts. Every time I opened my eyes I had more of this garbage [in them]. So I just hung on until we emerged from this stuff. As we were walking people had their car doors [open] and the radios turned up. People were in the street, listening and talking about what happened.
There was a woman who came up to me and she said, “Were you in the World Trade Center?”
I thought, “Gee, that’s really strange. How did she know I was in the World Trade Center?” I said, “Yes.”
She said, “God bless you. I’m so glad you’re okay,” and she hugged me. I said to my boss, “How did she know I was in the World Trade Center?”
We keep going. We get to what we find out later is the Department of Water for the city of New York. A man comes out and says, “The three of you need to come here.”
I said, “No, that’s okay. We’re just going to keep going.”
He says, “No, no. You need to come here. I have a men’s room and ladies’ room and you need to come in. I want you to take all your clothes off and shake them out. I want you to wash yourself off.”
It wasn’t until then, when you looked in the mirror, that you realized you were covered from head to toe in gray stuff. We’d been wet from going under the sprinklers and so the stuff stuck. So we went in and shook our clothes. I washed out my contacts, did all that stuff. Tried a phone but I couldn’t get through on the phone. Paged my husband. Couldn’t get to him. Left a page but nothing else. Then we kept going. We were really thirsty so we decided to stop at a bar. They had one of these huge flatscreen TVs and that’s when we saw what happened. That was the first time we actually saw replaying of the plane into the building, and showing the building collapsing. This was about twelve thirty. I remember looking at my watch and saying, “I need to call school to find out about my kids.” I don’t know where my husband is; I don’t know when I’m going to get home. Somebody’s got to take them. There was a pay phone, so I stood in line and then called school. This is, again, one of those times when I really knew that things were bad. The secretary at school, who I know very well, answered the phone. I said, “Hi. This is Mary Lee [Hannell].” She went crazy, screaming and crying. I’m going, “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” And she’s screaming. She must have screamed for five minutes.
She finally said, “I can’t believe you’re alive!”
And I thought, “What are you talking about?” Then it kind of started to seep in: Wow, maybe there are people who didn’t make it out. There are people who are not OK.
I said, “I don’t know when I’m going to get home.”
She said, “Your father called and he and your brother and your sister-in-law are on their way down [from Latham] to pick up the children.”
I said, “Great. I just need to know that they’re safe because I don’t know when I’m going to get there.”
She said, “I’ve had phone calls from other families who want to take your kids.” I guess everyone knew that we worked for the Port Authority, or worked in the World Trade Center. She said, “So they’re okay.”
I said, “What do they know?”
And she said, “We’ve not told anyone anything.”
And I said, “Okay. Are you going to tell them?”
She said, “No. We’re not going to tell them what happened. We’re going to allow people to pick their kids up early, but we’re not going to tell them what happened.”
I said, “Well, please make sure that if something happens, and they find out, please make sure that they know I’m okay.”
So she said, “All right.”
[Hannell and her two colleagues eventually caught a ferry to Weehawken, New Jersey, and later found people to drive them home.]
I arrived home at about eight o’clock to a whole houseful of people. My husband got home an hour ahead of me. So he was there, my dad was there, my brother and my sister-in-law, her two kids and then my kids, and a neighbor who came wandering out when they saw us there. So then I think I had Chinese food finally, after I had a shower. That was my day.
How did your children react to all this?
Mary Lee Hannell: The three of them are definitely at different stages. The phone call I made in the bar was to school because I knew that I wasn’t going to get home in time to get them and I didn’t know where my husband was. I chose not to think that he didn’t make it out. I chose to think he did, but that I didn’t know where he was.
[I’ve] come to find out my son has a first-year teacher this year. She’s brand-new. On that morning she received a cell phone call from her sister, in the classroom, talking about the World Trade Center. So he heard, “Terrible incident, something awful happened.” Then she took a survey of the kids whose parents worked at the World Trade Center. So he raised his hand. Then he went to the lunchroom and he overheard the lunch ladies say that the Twin Towers had collapsed. So he sat down with his food and he told his friend, “I think my parents are dead.” Then he came back to the classroom. Parents started showing up at school to take their kids out of the class. So kids were disappearing, and there he sat, and there he sat, and there he sat. He has a friend named Eric, and Eric’s grandfather came to pick him up. His grandfather said, “Eric, come on. We’re going to go home.”
He said, “I can’t leave.”
The grandfather said, “What do you mean, you can’t leave? Mom told me to bring you home.”
Eric said, “I will not leave my friend Andrés because he thinks his parents are dead, and I refuse to leave until someone comes to get him and I know he’s okay.” [Cries.]
My dad and my brother and sister-in-law got there about two thirty. The school called my son down to the office and he thought, “Oh, this is great. This is wonderful.” He ran as fast as he could because he said, “I know that my parents are going to be there.” When it was my dad Andrés said, “Now I know they’re dead.” No matter what they told him, he didn’t believe them. It wasn’t until he spoke to me on the phone, and he spoke to his father on the phone, that he finally let himself believe that we were okay. To make matters worse, since we had been told that the students [hadn’t been told] anything, it wasn’t until about three weeks later, when we were just having a really hard time with him—he was really not himself, he was angry, he was really emotional—that he finally told me this whole story. We got him a counselor and she was really wonderful. But I went back to the teacher afterward and I said, “How is it possible that all the students in school knew that this child thought his parents are dead and you didn’t?”
This experience of 9/11, I have to say, is something that grows over time, because I think that early on I was in a lot better shape than maybe I am now.
And her comment was, “Well, I thought he looked kind of distraught but I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything.”
What makes me angry is that now I’ve got a ten-year-old who went trick-or-treating, who wants to know how we can be sure we’ll be safe when we ring that person’s doorbell. What if that person takes out a gun and shoots us? He wants to know if we don’t come home one day, who do he and his brother and his sister get to go live with? And will they be safe? And will they have enough money? And will they have to leave all their friends behind?
March 4, 2003
What role has the Port Authority played in the cleaning up of the World Trade Center site?
Mary Lee Hannell: We did have a project manager who was in charge at the site and a group of people who worked with him, because it was a site that we still owned. So even though some of the cleanup was directed by the city of New York, the Port Authority still had a great role in how that was accomplished. Our own [deceased] folks were there to be recovered. So we played a fairly low-key, low-profile role, but an important one nonetheless. My role was limited to the unfortunate task of keeping an accounting of remains that were recovered and identified, and making sure that the liaisons that we had who were working with families were notified, and that the senior staff here was notified as quickly as possible. So I spent a good portion of my weekends and Monday mornings wondering who they had found over the weekend, and what family we were going to be able to go to and let them know that we had recovered the remains of their loved ones. I don’t know if it was more painful to tell people, “There’s no trace,” or to tell people that, after months and months and months, we’ve recovered someone.
I know that for me, personally, there was one person who was lost in the Trade Center. Her name was Debbie Kaplan. She worked for my husband for a number of years. Very Orthodox Jew. And there was no memorial service because her parents, who felt very strongly about this, felt that they weren’t able to carry out a memorial service until something of her was found. And so I remember my husband—this was probably four or five days before Christmas—asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I said what I wanted was for them to find her. And they did. They found her remains and the family was very, very grateful. And there’re so many people, still, who don’t have that closure.
This experience of 9/11, I have to say, is something that grows over time, because I think that early on I was in a lot better shape than maybe I am now. Even though it’s not as raw and it’s not as prevalent. I mean, at one point I think we all felt like we were swimming with our heads just barely above the water with regard to this whole World Trade Center disaster. What happens, I think, over time is you rethink so much of the what-could-have-beens and the, “Boy, I made that decision, not knowing how important that decision was.” That creeps up on you. It’s really powerful and it’s sometimes tough to manage.
Tell me about your home life. Is it changed at all as a result of the World Trade Center disaster?
Mary Lee Hannell: There was a time there where we were coming home, where every day we were heroes [to our kids] because we walked through the door. It was, put everything down, stop everything you’re doing, “Mom and Dad are home. Let’s give them hugs and kisses.” And very clingy. So that’s gone back to normal.
Are you ever stumped by their questions as to what to do or how to view things?
Mary Lee Hannell: I was certainly stumped by my daughter. We were out at an Italian restaurant one night and she said to me, “I need to ask questions. Can I ask questions?”
I said, “Absolutely, we have time for questions. Go ahead.”
And an hour and a half of questions [followed] about the World Trade Center. “How many people were there on the planes? What were their names? Can I see pictures of them?” But the question she asked me that stumped me was, “Why did people jump out of the building? Why did they jump? Didn’t they know they were going to die? Why would someone ever do that, Mommy? Why would they do that?” And I have to admit that I sidestepped it. I told her that we don’t really know why, but maybe some of them fell rather than jumped. Because I can’t explain to an eight-year-old that jumping out of a building was better than whatever it was they were facing inside the building.
How long after the event did she ask those questions?
Mary Lee Hannell: It was months. Months. I was not as aware as I probably should have been of how much she was thinking about it. I do remember her saying she never wanted to see any of it on TV. Apparently what happened [on September 11] is, when they came home with my brother and my sister-in-law and my dad, the television was on and she saw it over and over and over again. So her policy is, “I don’t want to see it anymore. I don’t want to talk about it until I’m ready to talk about it.”
[A few months later.]
I wish I could remember when it was, but it had to be before February or March of 2002, because that’s when my mother-in-law left, and I think she was still there at the time. Actually, what we had to do was we went and found the New York Times, and there happened to be a spread in the New York Times, and it had all the photographs and the names.
My husband brought her home and we found the paper and we sat her down. She sat on his lap and she would point to the picture and she’d say, “Who’s that, and what’s his name? Who’s that, and what’s his name?”
These are the portraits of grief that the Times ran?
Mary Lee Hannell: No. This was an article about the hijackers. This was about the hijackers she wanted to know, the nineteen. She will occasionally ask me about [people we knew who died]—because she recognizes names of people that we work with, so she’ll say, “Daddy, is Greg okay?”
And he’ll say, “Yes.”
“Mommy, is Lou okay?”
“Yes, he’s fine.” And she did stumble upon Neil Levin [the deceased executive director of the Port Authority], and I had to say, “No. He’s not okay.” So she really took a long time with that.
June 22, 2005
How long have you worked for the Port Authority?
Mary Lee Hannell: Eighteen years. I can’t believe it’s eighteen years. I had actually intended on only staying for ten but then I had a great opportunity at the Port Authority, so I stayed. After 9/11, I decided I would stay until the dust settled. And it’s not quite settled yet.
What have been the physical after-effects for you and your colleagues?
Mary Lee Hannell: One was that, because I wore contacts and was engulfed in that cloud, I developed a fairly severe eye infection. The other thing that happened to me was this cough. It took about six months to get rid of the cough. I would cough all the time. The other thing that happened, and it periodically comes back, is I would be asleep—and either it really happened or I would dream it would happen—but I would feel as though I had stopped breathing. I would sit bolt upright in bed, to get a breath, because I couldn’t breathe. But not like in asthma, like where you’re wheezing to catch your breath. Just, I’d stop breathing. It happened to me a couple of times on the PATH train. Where I would fall asleep and I’d be woken up because I had stopped breathing.
Certainly the psychological aspects of 9/11 are the most difficult, I think, and they’re the hardest to get a grip on. People at work were doing simple things like pouring your coffee, pouring your milk into your coffee, putting the milk on a hotplate, putting the coffee in the refrigerator, having a meeting, and then something would trigger a name and people would fall apart and just cry.
You still work for the Port Authority and the Port Authority’s still in charge of those buildings, so there’s not really a way you can separate from all of that.
Mary Lee Hannell: No, there’s not. It’s pretty much with you all the time. And then there are just silly things—I think a week before the most recent 9/11 anniversary we were riding [the] PATH, and you’re a little antsy anyway. We get on the PATH train and there is a bag sitting on the floor. It’s a Victoria’s Secret pink-striped bag and there’s a man, kind of standing near it. The next stop he gets off and the bag is just sitting there. So I say to my husband, “Go check out the bag.”
He says, “Somebody left their bag.”
I said, “No. I’m not staying on this car, unless you go check out the bag.” So he goes over, and he comes back.
And he says, “Somebody left their lunch.”
I said, “How do you know it’s their lunch?”
He said, “There’s a banana on top.”
I said, “What’s under the banana?”
He said, “It’s a napkin.”
I said, “Did you pick up the napkin?”
He says, “No. What do you think? It’s an atomic banana? Give me a break. It’s somebody’s lunch!”
I said, “I’m moving out of this car.”
You’re left with a bunch of silly things—in the best light, silly things. In a bad light, really serious things that you have to deal with all the time.
In terms of the lingering effects, in terms of your own family and your sense of your future, how would you describe that, aside from work?
Mary Lee Hannell: In some cases—and glamour is the wrong word for it—but that’s how some people come at me with questions, like, “Ooh, you were in the World Trade Center? Wow! Can you tell me about it?” And the answer’s always, “No.” Because there’s nothing glamorous about it. I keep saying to people, there aren’t words big enough, or deep enough, or sad enough to really express to you what it was like. You don’t want me to be able to give that to you. You don’t want me to be able to kind of put that burden on you. And it is a burden.
Is it lonely?
Mary Lee Hannell: You know, it’s something that a lot of my friends talk about, that it is lonely. I think the difference for me is that my husband also went through it. And so the two of us can talk about it and kind of be on the same wavelength about it, and have an understanding about it. It’s definitely a club.
It’s not a club you can join, it’s not a club you want to join, but it’s a club you’re in, or you’re not. If you’re not in the club, people don’t want you asking questions and pretending to be in the club. You’re not in the club.
Do you ever miss the buildings?
Mary Lee Hannell: Yes, I do. And my husband definitely misses them. He keeps saying that he thinks the buildings are actually just out for cleaning and that they’ll be returned to the spot soon. He looks forward to that happening every day. That’s the only building that I ever worked in, my entire Port Authority career.
You really just want to go back to September 10. You just want everything to be the same. One of the things I remember about that morning was how blue the sky was. It was brilliantly blue, no clouds. It just had that little chill in the air that you get in the fall. It was absolutely perfect out. And now, every time I see that kind of sky, that’s what I remember. I remember September 11.
This excerpt originally appeared in After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years that Followed.
Copyright © 2011 by The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York
Published by The New Press, Inc.
Reprinted here with permission.
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