At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I was startled awake by a loud boom. It’s the first thing I remember from what would become the unforgettable and terrifying morning I spent with a total stranger just eight blocks away from the World Trade Center.
I had slept over at my then-girlfriend Beth’s new apartment in Tribeca the night before. It was located on Reade Street, less than a mile north of the north face of the WTC’s north tower.
Beth and I had dated since college, and she had just moved to New York to start her first job in the city. She lived with two roommates, and her bedroom window looked due south onto the lower part of Manhattan. During the initial few weeks she’d lived in the apartment, neither of us had ever noticed that the World Trade Center could be seen from her large window until the night of Sept. 10.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, maybe it was something more, but that night we realized that if you looked directly out of Beth’s 10th-floor bedroom window, you found yourself gazing at 7 World Trade Center, a nondescript rectangular office building about 50 stories tall. You needed to crane your neck and look almost straight up to see the north tower, looming twice as tall, with its antenna rising even higher. Off to the left you could see the eastern edge of the south tower — the north tower’s twin.
Also on the night of Sept. 10, I was introduced to a friend of one of Beth’s roommates. She was visiting from the D.C. area and, as I recall, was going to spend a few days apartment hunting in Manhattan. We chatted very briefly, and my hunch, as I remember back to our brief meeting, is that I forgot her name almost immediately (a flaw of mine that persists to this day).
Beth and her roommates left for work early on the morning of Sept. 11. After the loud boom I’d heard, I lay in bed alone with the blinds closed. Since I couldn’t see that day’s piercing blue sky, I assumed what I heard must have been thunder. It wasn’t until the radio alarm clock clicked on a few minutes later that I heard a morning DJ say, “It looks like a plane has flown into the World Trade Center.” I sprang to the window, pulled open the blinds, and stared up at a gaping, smoke-filled hole in the face of the north tower. The plane had flown almost directly over our building.
At first, no one knew what was unfolding. It seemed like some kind of bizarre accident had occurred, and it was almost too absurd to believe. The radio DJs sounded bemused, for lack of a better term, as they wondered out loud how the firefighters were going to put out the blaze. With no iPhones in existence, I remember wishing — now mortifyingly — that I had a camera because nobody at work was going to believe how close I was to this.
As I glanced down at the street, I noticed how calmly everyone was going about their business. Unable to see the tower from their vantage point, they were mostly oblivious to what was happening. I stared up at the fire, then still unable to grasp that a small plane could never have made a hole and fire that large. After 10 minutes, I went to take a shower so I could get ready for work.
It has always been hard to explain how I could be so close to the scene, yet be among the last to know what was going on. The second explosion happened when I was in the shower. It sounded — through the walls, and muffled by the running water — like a door slamming, and I assumed one of Beth’s roommates had come home, possibly to see what was happening. When I emerged from the shower, walking back to the bedroom window, I could now see the second plume of smoke coming from the edge of the second tower.
I cocked my head, confused as to how that was possible, or if I was even seeing it correctly. I’d missed the most vital piece of the puzzle: I hadn’t seen the second plane. While everyone else who had witnessed that second impact knew exactly what was happening — these were no accidents — I remained in the dark for what felt like forever but could have only been a few minutes.
The next sequence of events lives in my memory like a rapid-fire montage. The words “second plane” reached me from the radio still playing in the background, but I didn’t immediately understand what was being said. I finally switched on the TV that was literally right next to me and watched the footage replay over and over.
I heard the words “we’re under attack,” and a surge of panic overwhelmed me. People on the streets below were now running in all directions. A frantic guy interviewed by local news wondered whether the terrorists had placed poison on the planes, so I shut off the AC in hopes that it would keep the fumes out. But I knew that if it were true, then I was trapped. I was frozen with fear; my eyes darted between watching the TV coverage and the billowing smoke outside the window.
Libba Alberson Inlow lives near Atlanta. She’s got brown hair, brown eyes and a sweet Southern twang in her voice. She’s the mother of two boys nearly the same age as my two girls, and most recently worked in real estate. In 2001, she had just graduated from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and was about to move to New York City for a job at Ralph Lauren. She was staying with her best friend from high school, who happened to live with my then-girlfriend. Looking back, she remembers having an unmistakable feeling that moving wasn’t the right choice, despite the incredible job opportunity, and that maybe New York City life wasn’t for her.
When I recently set out to find Libba after nearly 22 years, I didn’t know any of this, not even her name. It’s odd — to say the least — considering how that morning is seared into my memory, but the mind works in curious ways.
I tracked Libba down by connecting with Beth for the first time in many years. We had broken up not long after 9/11, drifted apart as exes do, and found ourselves in other relationships, now each having families of our own. While catching up, I learned that Beth also remembered seeing the towers for the first time through her bedroom window on Sept. 10, 2001, but she said something that shocked me: Apparently I tried breaking up with her that night!
Beth said I was convinced our relationship wasn’t working, and that I was going to leave the apartment. She convinced me to at least stay the night, as I would have had to take a train back to where I was living with my parents at the time. She revealed that she’s grappled with a profound sense of guilt for over two decades for “putting me in that situation” the following morning.
I have never blamed Beth for being in that apartment on 9/11 — I don’t even remember wanting to break up the previous night or planning to leave — but we all hold on to different parts of the past.
I asked Beth if she remembered the woman who was staying at the apartment. She said she did, but only vaguely, and she didn’t know her name either. Fortunately, Beth is still in contact with the roommate who Libba was visiting, and offered to reach out to see if she could put me in touch with Libba. A day later I had her name, and soon, after a few attempts, Libba and I finally connected on the morning of Aug. 23 via Zoom.
It’s always been hard for me to believe this, but somehow, despite the two explosions, the sirens and the hysteria of those first 30 minutes in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, Libba was still sleeping. I woke her up and tried to explain what was happening. I don’t remember being subtle. I don’t think I was delicate or calm.
“My initial memory is you waking me up,” Libba told me. “You said: ‘Hey, you need to wake up. We’ve been attacked by terrorists!’ And I was in such a blur. I didn’t really know what to think.”
We went into Beth’s bedroom, where we spent the next 30 minutes switching our attention from what was being reported about the attacks on TV to the real thing burning right outside our window. I remember her being impressively calm — she sat on the bed, knees to her chest, while I paced the room — and her demeanor kept me sane. Libba remembers the exact opposite: “Without you, I don’t think I would have made it.”
We discussed trying to make it uptown to Grand Central Station to get a train out of the city, but we quickly agreed that because more planes could be headed for the city or other bombings could be in play, we were probably safer in the apartment.
But that was before the south tower — the second tower that was hit — fell. The most vivid memory I have, maybe of the whole day, is seeing a TV camera slowly zoom in on what looked like lava, but what was most likely sparks shooting out the eastern edge of the tower, while out of the corner of my eye I could see the same thing out of the window. The south tower was mostly obstructed from our view as it initially began to fall, but it tilted sideways before collapsing upon itself, and we saw and heard the whole thing happen in front of us.
The debris and gigantic plume of smoke from that tower rumbled mainly south, away from where we were. After the dust settled, we were faced with a very clear choice: run or stay put. The north tower, with its 110 stories and 362-foot antenna, seemed nightmarishly close. I now know it would have been impossible for it to fall on our building, but on that morning, amid our panic and terror, we weren’t thinking clearly enough to crunch the numbers. I decided we needed to run. Libba insisted we stay. “I think I made you stay longer than you wanted to,” she told me.
I can’t know for certain what would have happened if we left when I wanted to, but I know it wouldn’t have been good. The footage from that morning is harrowing. This video, at the 0:46 mark, gives a sense of the force with which the plume from the north tower traveled. This one, at the 1:26 mark, shows people ducking for cover. Many of those who were in the streets and survived were covered in dust and debris.
Instead of being among those people when the north tower collapsed, at Libba’s urging, we sheltered in place and watched from our window, petrified, as it eventually began to fall. The spire and top half collapsed straight down upon itself with a guttural, otherworldly sound, and the smoke rumbled toward us at full speed.
Libba described it as “the strongest blizzard you’ve ever seen.” We quickly went to a room in the back of the apartment, crouched together behind the bed, and waited as smoke engulfed the building and completely grayed out the room’s one north-facing window. The silence we experienced was so oppressive that it’s hard to put it into words. We sat there waiting for the dust to settle until finally, 15 minutes later, we could see the blue sky again.
“I’m kind of getting terrified now,” Libba told me as we shared our memories. “The thought of what happened that day was just… surreal.”
After the second tower fell, we sat in Beth’s room for hours until it was clear that all planes had been grounded and there would be no further attacks that day. Ultimately, LIbba remembers that we covered our mouths with towels, grabbed our bags, and made the long walk to midtown, stepping lightly through the ash and debris covering the streets outside. We went our separate ways in midtown; Libba was able to meet a friend, while Beth and I took a packed train out of the city with so many other shell-shocked New Yorkers.
In the years following 9/11, many people shared where they were and what they went through on that morning, and I was no exception. It was — and is — an incredible story, but mostly to me, because I was there and I lived it. Then I stopped telling it for a long time. Compared to what some people had been through, my experience felt trivial and insignificant — even exploitative. It paled so greatly, in almost every conceivable way, to the experiences of those who lost loved ones, risked their lives trying to help others, or lost their own lives in all of the incomprehensible moments that followed the first plane’s crash.
Still, the quieter and more private I became about what happened to me and the more that story became mine alone, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who shared those terrifying hours with me. Where was she? What had her life been like? Did she remember that morning the way I did? But also, did it matter? Did I really need to reach out into the universe and drag up all the trauma of that morning for her — and for myself?
I avoided looking for Libba for many years, but the feeling of not knowing who or where she was never went away, and finally I stopped brushing it aside. In the end, I didn’t gain any great revelations from my conversation with Libba — no glaring contradictions or gaps in my memory of that morning — but speaking with her felt like finally closing a book that had remained open on a nightstand in my mind for two decades.
Libba said she’s grateful that I reached out and that we were able to connect on our shared experience.We aren’t suddenly best friends, and I know we won’t be in constant contact from this point forward. Maybe, now that we’ve reconnected, we’ll drop each other a note every Sept. 11 as a reminder of how grateful we are to have had each other in those horrific hours. I know that I will never put that morning behind me, but after reconnecting with Libba, I feel less agitated by its memory. And regardless of where we go from here, I am thankful I finally got to know the stranger in that apartment with me and was able to acknowledge how she helped me that day. Not having to go through that hell alone is a gift I will never take for granted.