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First-hand witness reflects on tragedy

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Originally published in the Iroquois Times-Republic in Watseka, Ill., on Sept. 28, 2001

John Whitman

Watseka, Illinois, native John Whitman worked at the Empire State Building on 9/11. He wrote a first-hand account of that day's events for his community newspaper. It ran on Sept. 28,. 2001. Today, he splits his time between Watseka and Chicago.

It had finally happened. New York City Opera hired me to sing the role of Queen of the Night in their production of The Magic Flute. It will be my Lincoln Center debut. I had been in Manhattan for about three – four weeks when Sept. 11 happened. I had not gotten used to the rush and bustle, the noise, and the incredible speed of the city. I found it unnerving to walk down the street with so many people rushing to their homes or jobs. The noise from the trucks would always bother me. Needless to say, I had been craving the sights of Watseka since I arrived here in late August. One day, I had actually sat down and envisioned a country road outside of Watseka, west off Rte. 24, where I used to go to sing by myself and look at the corn growing and the expansive land. I missed home.

I woke up Sept. 11 like most days around 9 a.m. and turned the TV on to catch the news. The TV showed the first tower of the World Trade Center smoking and on fire. The news anchors were saying something about a plane hitting the tower. I picked up the phone and called Mom at the Emergency Room at the hospital in Watseka to let her know what had happened as an interesting news story here in the city. We spoke briefly and then hung up.

Minutes later I saw the second plane plow into the second tower. I knew then that this was no accident. I sat here in my one room apartment and watched the events unfold. News came over that the Pentagon was hit. Then, I saw the second tower collapse and soon after the first. I was just shaking.

I tried to call family members, but the phone lines were jammed. I tried my cell phone but there were no lines available. My agent called and told me that of course, my audition for today would be canceled.

He then said something that terrified me, “If there is anthrax on that plane, we’re all dead.”

A cold sweat ran through me. I felt every fiber of my body quiver.

All I could think of was “I have to get out of here.” I thought about the possibility of never seeing my husband again, my parents, my brother and his family. I started to panic. I picked up the phone and tried to call again but no phone lines.

I thought the whole city was under attack. I didn’t know which building would be next. They announced on the TV that all transit was stopped, that the bridges were closed. I was trapped on Manhattan Island.

Then, as my fears started to run away with me, I felt this strong presence in my room of God telling me, “I am here. I will protect you. Lean on me. Have faith.” It felt as if someone had laid a hand on my back and told me to sit down and relax.

I continued to watch the news coverage, which was agonizing. I finally got a phone line through and called my husband’s school where he was teaching in Ohio but got an answering machine. I left a message to please tell him I was in my apartment and safe. He finally reached me about 12:30 p.m. When I heard the sound of his voice, I just broke down.

In that moment, all I could think of was my wedding vows, that I had promised God that I would take care of this man for the rest of my life. I desperately wanted to be with him to make sure that he was safe. We were both shaken but held each other on the phone as best we could and said we would speak again in a few hours. He said he would come and get me by car if need be.

I received another call from another singer who told me that the grocery stores were jammed full of people buying water and food. I told her that I didn’t have any cash. She urged me to go get some just in case.

I expected the worst when I went outside. But everyone was calm. I walked to the ATM and got my cash without a problem. My friend David urged me to go to a café and have lunch with him. My stomach was in knots, and I couldn’t imagine that I could eat anything.

We walked down the street and I was totally amazed. Everyone was so calm. They were walking slower but they were stopping people on the street and talking about what happened.

There was an overwhelming feeling of kindness, love and utter calmness. We went to the café, and it was the same. The traffic had slowed down to almost nothing. The trucks were gone.

As I walked back from the café, I passed a man covered in ash. He looked like a ghost out of a movie. He must have walked two miles home. He was standing in front of his apartment building stomping his feet trying to get the ash off. I’ll never forget that sight. He was so white, from head to toe, suit to shoe.

I had tried to reach my longtime Watseka friend, John Whitman, who was working in the Empire State Building, early on. I tried to call him but couldn’t reach him. I wanted to make sure that he had gotten out of that building in case it was another target. I left messages for him with his roommate, knowing that he would be trapped in Manhattan as well. I told his roommate to tell him to come here and he could stay all night. I finally reached John about 3:30 p.m. He was going with a group of volunteers to help save any injured people or help anyone who needed a translator for Spanish. This did not surprise me at all, knowing John. I told him to come here whenever he could.

After many hours, John arrived here about 10 p.m. He had waited for hours to help but there was no one to help. We didn’t know at that time that that would hold true. We both went to sleep that night about 1 a.m. wondering if the morning would indeed come. Before we went to sleep, we hugged, and I said a prayer.

In the coming days, John and I were inseparable. We had spent a lot of time together already in NYC. But John gave me the kind of comfort that everyone needs in times of crisis, the comfort of home. John reminded me of home, of Watseka, of high school events, Lantern’s Lane, Pictionary tournaments at the Whitman’s, county fairs, show choir contest, VIPS, my parents, so many things that I love about Watseka. He made me feel safe when I was with him. I am so thankful that John was here.

We went down to the many memorials together. We walked over to Union Square and saw the many candles and artwork that had already started to crop up all over the park. I heard a marching band coming up the street. Everyone started walking towards it. It was a group of college students from Alabama. They marched into the square. It was the most beautiful sight. They looked so young to me, not much older than 20. They had full drums, cymbals, and trumpets. The sound of the brass playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” put a lump in my throat.

We saw the Armory where family members went to register their missing person. Thousands of faces Xeroxed on white pieces of paper with their descriptions and the floor they had been working on at the World Trade Center when the disaster happened.

Face after beautiful face. Pictures of people at weddings, birthday parties, happy moments captured on film now taped to brick wall seven feet high.

The pictures lined the buildings for three blocks all around the Armory. There were people singing in the street.

My husband had decided to drive into the city from Ohio that day and called me on my cell phone to tell me where he was.

I heard his voice and just broke down on the street. “It’s just horrible.” I was leaning on a parking meter. This stranger heard me and came over to me and just held me until I stopped crying.

I used to think that New York City was a big city, very cold and lonely.

But for the first time, I have seen New York City as a small town, full of people who just want to pursue their lives and love their families. They walk slower now. They smile more. They are more patient. They look up at the blue sky and exhale.