"It's gone!" I had been on the phone with my acting coach Penelope Brackett, who was living in New Jersey. NY1 was on in the background.
My mom had called me at 8:30 a.m. to find out if I was OK. "What do you mean, OK?" she said. "Trae, turn on the TV. There was another crash at the World Trade Center."
What? That's impossible, nut as I turned on the television, the little hairs on the back of my neck raised up as I saw monstrous black smoke billowing out of the tower. It wasn't like before—the little plane that had flown into the side of the building. Newscasters on every channel were reporting a jet had full on rammed itself right through the building.
I immediately just started crying. I didn't even know why. It was shocking to see and hear just on the TV alone. I tried to explain to Penelope what was going on, but her not seeing what I was seeing, she simply said, "Let's just focus on what we're doing."
I could only half concentrate on the work as I kept my eyes on the monitor. Then suddenly the building began to sink into the smoke and I could hear the top floors cracking and crashing and collapsing down on one another.
It happened so quickly that all I could do was scream into the phone over and over again, "It's gone!" And then I told Penelope that I had to. My personal problems were so not important right now. "You need to turn on the television," I said.
What scared me most was a sound I had never heard in my life coming from outside—the cries of men. We are all so used to hearing women scream and sometimes men making outlandish remarks or sounds or cheers when something out of the ordinary happens. But this was a collective moaning, a cry—deep, loud, long. It struck my heart with fear.
I was scared to go outside and instead began calling everyone I knew and could actually get through to. Phone connections began to go down, intermittently, starting with my employer. I had a later shift at the office that day. At the time, I was working as a reader and assistant to a blind CEO in an investment firm located on top of Grand Central Station, in the Bear Stearns (Old Helmsley) building, which had become that morning, one of the prime red alert targets.
I remember begging one of the partners, Donna Leone, to come into work. I didn't want to be alone, die alone. Reports were blasting in about more planes, more attacks all over the Northeast. "You can't come in," Donna said. "Everyone's leaving right now. We are all evacuating. We're being told that there are missiles coming."
Missiles? My brain couldn't even take that in. I called everyone I could get through to after that. My brother Christopher, who was living in New Jersey right across the Hudson; my boyfriend, who worked in the Fashion District, on his cell phone, to make sure he was OK. He had gotten trapped in an elevator that morning in all of the panic.
I reached my grandmother, my mom, and finally my cousin Lynn in Boston, who told me that people were jumping off of the buildings and that they were showing this on TV. News venues all over the area intentionally were not showing the horrendous footage to New Yorkers, of people throwing themselves out the windows, flapping their arms like birds' wings, holding hands as they leapt to their death to escape the flesh melting inferno on the top floors.
I started to become woozy and exhausted from the anxiety and finally left the house to walk out onto 6th Avenue and West Fourth Street. I needed air and the comfort of a crowd. Thousands of people were walking up every avenue from south to north, escaping Wall Street. It was a scene out of an old TV show, "World at War," as people marched out of Poland during the Blitzkrieg, when Hitler invaded.
And then suddenly I looked up. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and there was the second tower, in center view, standing, burning, smoking, in front of my eyes. All at once, everyone turned around. In that precise moment, we all focused our gaze downtown to watch the second tower fall.
The entire avenue went completely silent. We all just stared in awe, eyes and mouths completely open. Not a sound, neither babies, nor adults, nor birds, nor dogs, nor taxi cabs, cars or anything made a bump, a clang, a cry, a bounce or a screech. Just dead silence.
I was so overcome with the shock of it. I remember murmuring to myself, "I'm hungry. I think I need a sandwich. I'm going to go to the store." I guess I needed to grab onto some sort or normal moment or activity to just make sense of what I had seen. The rest of the crowd just turned back around and started marching again. They kept moving uptown.
In the wake of one of New York City's most horrific tragedies, also occurred one of its most extraordinary and triumphant moments—the unification of an entire city in a way that not a single person had ever witnessed or known before. The heart of a people beating as one, in one mind, in one spirit and in one thought only—what can we do to help.
Everyone who hadn't been directly affected below Battery Park City blazed into action in very typical New York style. Thousands lined up at every hospital to give blood even though we were being turned away. Firemen, policemen, construction workers, teamsters, metal workers and regular civilians—anyone and everyone who was an able body—fought their way back downtown to try to volunteer, to help clear the rubble, pull people out of the area as quickly as possible, even when we were told it was dangerous.
Collections of socks, t-shirts and food were nearly instantaneously brought to checkpoints for the rescue workers, the injured and those we hoped were still alive under the buildings. Pizza deliveries were non-stop to try and feed everyone quickly, because the support continued 24 hours a day. We didn't want to sleep until people were found.
You see, New Yorkers just didn't sit around crying. They didn't fall apart. They fell mightily fell together. There was a job to do and they were going to do it, no matter what it took or what the cost. At that moment, helping your fellow men and women transcended from an ideal into a hardcore reality. And I can honestly say that I have never been so proud of my city and its people, never so proud to be called a New Yorker.
For the entire week after and several after that, I remember meeting people on the street just walking the avenues, friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in so many years. But because we were above ground and not travelling the subways for the first couple of days, you just met people, spoke, shared stories, touched, held hands, hugged, cried. It was good to be with each other. There was comfort in the exchange.
Many Manhattanites took in strangers who got trapped in on the island and couldn't get home to their families. We fed each other, we opened our doors, we cared. It was strange to have to carry around a passport and a utility bill in order to identify myself as a downtown resident living below 14th Street, in order to be allowed to go home every night.
It was eerie to see the refrigerated trucks waiting to store the bodies that were never found, lined, up and down the Henry Hudson Parkway by Chelsea Piers. It was difficult to do nothing as little by little we all realized there were no survivors and we were being turned away from offering assistance.
It was painful to watch on television the families post pictures of their mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, hoping to miraculously finds them and all of the photographs and trinkets and memorials hanging around on the fences and poles and walls of building all over the city.
It was mind-bending to hear a fireman friend reveal how many body parts he was finding down at the site and that he couldn't sleep anymore. It was excruciating for me, one night, watching the immigrant father of a young first generation Mexican man making a new life in this country try not to cry as he quietly spoke into a camera, "I'm looking for my son." I will never forget that.
I was asked if I had some photos for a collage to add to my story. I don't. I asked friends if they had any. They don't. It wasn't a picture moment. The professional news coverage has most of it. Of course, there may be some who do. I wouldn't know. I was busy that day, that week, that month, fielding mass emails and phone calls from friends and families across the country and the globe, forcing myself to get back into any resemblance of a normal routine, of going to work at the office and also putting up a show Off-Broadway.
Our producers and director had decided to go on in a spirit of hope and solidarity for the city, comforting others with whatever strength was in me and enduring the pain of others who suffered great loss. I only know that for me, it was about the people of New York City.
—Tracey Paleo, writer, producer, publicist and professional performer (dance, film, television and theater), promoting Weho artists, art and culture.