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Kimberley Stewart: A Miracle amid Tragedy

 

I lived in Manhattan on the Upper West Side between 1990 and 2006, so I was there at the time of the 9/11 tragedy and knew the city well. The events of 9/11 are still as vivid today as the day terror struck.

In 2001, I was working for Accenture, located in midtown on 6th Avenue and 54th Street, and was not staffed on a client project in September, so my office schedule was flexible and I was able to be home in the mornings.

The day before, Sept. 10, was my birthday, and I celebrated with a few girlfriends with a dinner at a neighborhood Indian restaurant. I will never forget that evening -- it was a stormy night with rain and winds.

My friend Michelle worked in Connecticut and told me later that as she drove back to Manhattan to attend my dinner party, the weather outside of New York City was clear and lovely, but she saw a little black cloud hanging over Manhattan. She didn't think anything of it at that time, but looking back, it seems to have been a foreshadowing omen of what was to transpire just 12 hours later.

I also had a friend, Kevin (not his real name), who was traveling for work at that time. Two weeks prior to 9/11, I had a dream that he was sitting on the tarmac of an airport, at the base of an airplane, rubbing his leg. I woke up worried that my dream was a vision of him being hurt somehow, so I emailed him to make sure he was okay.

He said, "Yes, I'm fine, but I'm getting on an airplane tonight so I'd better say a prayer!" He was partly joking, but, being a religious person, I felt that this would be a good idea. So for the next two weeks, every night in my prayers I asked God to "please keep Kevin safe when he flies in airplanes." Those were the literal words of my prayer, every night, for two weeks.

After my birthday dinner, I emailed Kevin to remind him that it was my birthday, and I wanted to get together with him to tell him some news about an upcoming vacation I was planning. Kevin emailed me back at 1:30 a.m. on 9/11 and said that he'd love to get together with me, but he was flying out that morning for a business trip and would not return till the end of September. That's all he told me.

When I awoke on the morning of 9/11, the day was a gorgeous September morning in Manhattan! Contrary to the night before, the day dawned crisp and clear. I went out for a morning run along Riverside Park, then came home to shower and get ready for work. My morning ritual was to watch NBC's "Today Show" as I got ready, and I recall that that morning, Katie Couric was interviewing Jack Welch (former CEO of GE) about his new book.

The interview had just started when the local news station broke in with news that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers. The station showed images of a tower with billowing black smoke pouring from it, and the anchors tried to speculate on what had occurred -- the type of plane, big or small, and what had caused the accident. The anchors seemed to be in a bit of a stupor, trying to process exactly what had happened as they relayed the news to their viewers.

I was also in a stupor, watching the TV screen like I was watching a network "disaster of the week" movie. It just didn't register that this was live TV, a real event that had just happened. It was so foreign to anything I had ever witnessed or experienced and seemed so impossible that a plane could somehow "accidentally" crash in to the WTC that I watched the events unfolding on TV with little emotion and a strange feeling of detachment.

About 45 minutes into the breaking news, I watched as the second tower exploded in smoke. By this point, the news anchors were close to freaking out on live TV. It was all too much to handle, too confusing, too disorienting, and, running through everyone's mind, I'm sure, was a quick calculation of how many lives had just vanished ... vaporized.

At first, the anchors speculated that a bomb had exploded, or that somehow the second tower caught fire from the first tower. But then a TV viewer called in and said, "Replay the video in slow motion. I saw a plane fly into the second tower." So the station replayed the video from minutes earlier, and sure enough, in a far corner of the image, I could see a large plane zoom into the building. Now it was clear that this was a terrorist attack.

I was so stunned, and so transfixed on the TV, that I forgot to call my parents in Menlo Park to tell them that I was okay. But somehow, my mom's call made it through the phone lines (the lines went down quickly due to the massive influx of calls), and I was able to tell her that I was safe in my apartment uptown.

I suddenly remembered that Kevin had said he was getting on a plane that morning, and I had a gut feeling that his plane was United Flight 93, flying from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco. I had no reason to think this other than the facts that Kevin lived in New Jersey, so he always flew out of the Newark airport, and I remembered that someone at work had told me a few months earlier that Kevin was staffed on a project based in San Francisco. But Kevin usually flew on Continental Airlines, not United.

Still, my gut told me that this was his plane, that my dream of him being hurt in an airplane had come true, and that he had died on flight 93 when it crashed in a Pennsylvania field. But in a panic, I started emailing him to make sure he was okay, and asked him to "please tell me that my dream didn't come true!" I did not hear from him all day on 9/11.

I did learn that several of my friends who worked down near the WTC had, for various reasons, been slightly delayed getting to work, so they either had not left for work at the time of the attack, or were still down in the subway and had not entered their buildings. I attributed that to the grace of God, sparing their lives.

I did have a friend who was walking on the street near the towers when the planes crashed, and glass, debris and bodies were falling all over. He literally had to run through the streets, dodging all the debris, and was able to assist a woman who had been seriously injured, pulling her to a safe spot. My friends all had to make the 5-plus mile walk north from "Ground Zero" to their homes or another safe spot to rest and regroup.

I remember the city being still and quiet, in the midst of all this chaos and confusion. Taxi cabs stopped honking their horns, nobody was yelling, street café tables were empty, and everyone wanted to help in some way, but no city officials had any clue about what needed to be done. No one knew how many survivors there might be (none) or if blood was needed (very little, because there were virtually no survivors from the towers).

I did have a friend who volunteered to help the fire crews remove debris and search for survivors, and he has his own horror stories to tell. Folks volunteered to cook and provide food for the workers and set up large canteen areas down in TriBeCa to serve the food and provide a resting place for the rescue teams.

Overall, the generosity of the city burst forth brilliantly, the resiliency of New Yorkers triumphing over great and unimaginable tragedy.

I finally heard from Kevin the next day. He emailed me to say that his plane was in the air when the terrorists struck, so it was detoured to land in Ohio.

He told me, "I have been flying out to San Francisco and other cities in September, and each leg of my trip was booked on United. However, just last Thursday before I confirmed my ticket to San Francisco on Sept. 11, I remembered that I had an unused ticket on Continental, so I asked the travel agent if I could use it on any part of my trip. She said 'Yes,' and changed my Newark to San Francisco leg to Continental, while the rest of my trip was flown on United. I'm feeling very blessed." Yes, he was, and he was MY special 9/11 miracle that day!

When I look back on the photo from my birthday dinner on Sept. 10, that dark and stormy night, I remember that moment as America's last night of innocence.

Kimberley Stewart

Cascade Drive

Menlo Park

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