September 11th is one of the worst days in American History. It was a horrifying day to live through, as the country was under attack. I can still recall being in High School and them making an announcement that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I lived in a town where many families commuted to the city for work, some of whom were employees of companies in The World Trade Center. 

I can still remember the payphone outside of the main office with students desperately trying to reach their family members who worked in the city. I also recall being invited into the auditorium so we could watch what was going on as the news was unfolding real time. 

While these memories are ones that never seem to fade, everyone who lived through that day- especially those of us in close proximity to New York City- have a story to tell and the mere mention of “9/11” evokes the day to rush back as if it was only yesterday. 

One of my closest friends, Cindy Merlino, was a young employee of Lehman Brothers, a financial firm in the first building of The Twin Towers. On the nineteenth anniversary of 9/11, I am honored- and humbled- to share her story. 

‘Instinctually, I Had To Get Out’

“Everyone says September 11th is a day they will never forget,” Merlino began by sharing. “And that’s true. But it rings even more true for those of us who lost somebody in the horrific incidents that occurred that day… and just as much so for those of us who happened to be involved in one of the incidents that day.”

“I worked at Lehman Brothers,” Merlin continued, “a financial firm, on the 38th floor. Our firm occupied the 38th floor and the 40th floor. I went into work that day like any other day and was doing my job as usual. I was in the first tower when the first plane hit. Knowing there had been a bombing at the World Trade Center in the past, we weren’t really sure what was going on. The building shook when the plane hit and I saw paper and debris falling from outside. It was relatively early in the morning and there wasn’t direction on what to do or where to go or how to handle the situation at hand, as no one really knew anything about it.”

Merlino went on to explain that “I wasn’t even at my desk when this was happening. I was at my friend’s cubicle talking, as I was getting ready to go get breakfast. All I had on me was my wallet, and instinctually I decided I needed to head to the stairs and get out.”

A Coworker Dropped To Their Death

Merlino went on to explain that “Aside from this being an emergency, another reason we had to take the stairs was because once the first plane hit, the elevator service was cut off. In fact, one of my co-workers had been in the elevator when the plane hit, which caused the chord to cut and him to horrifically drop to the bottom of the building and die. This elevator was a central elevator that went from the bottom of the building to the top.”

9/11

“As we were going down the stairs exiting,” Merlino added, “we still weren’t sure what had happened. Because of the number of companies in the World Trade Center, there were tons of people in the stairwell walking down. It was also confusing because there was conflicting information floating around, with some companies telling their employees to go back to work and others telling them to evacuate.”

There is another distinct memory Merlino shared of her time going down the stairs- the faces of young firemen going up the stairs to try to combat the emergency at hand. 

“As I was going down the stairs,” Merlino explained, “there were slowly firemen coming up the stairs. And I’m sure that they did not make it out. It should be noted that while I was in the stairwell was when the second plane hit the other building.”

“We didn’t find out any details until we got outside,” Merlino added. “Think about that- as a horrifying tragedy was unfolding, those of us in the midst of the tragedy had no clue what was going on. At that point, we learned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. From a distance, we were able to see a hole in the buildings, the buildings on fire, and that planes had hit both of them.”

‘Burned In My Brain’

Understandably, Merlino went on to state that “There are so many memories burned in my brain from that day and, even though 19 years have passed, there is never a day the events I experienced don’t go through my brain. When we got out of the stairwell, we were told to just run and not look back. Of course, I couldn’t help but look in order to see what was going on. The worst things I still recall are watching people jump out of windows to their death, knowing that it was either jump or collapse with the tower. I also recall people holding hands and jumping. I cannot possibly express to you what that is like to see, how horrific it is to watch, and how an image like that will never be one you can possibly forget.”

“As the towers were beginning to fall, we just kept running/walking to get away,” Merlino continued. “I was far enough away to not get hit with dust, but I still remember seeing the towers collapse from where I was. I also remember seeing all of these firetrucks and ambulances going towards that area from all parts of the city. I also remember the weather being so perfect. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was truly the most beautiful day where the most horrific thing was happening.”

Merlino addd that “As I mentioned, I had left my cell phone at my desk, so I didn’t have it. Even if I had it, there was no service regardless. My Grandmother lived in China Town and I tried going over to her house, but she didn’t hear me knocking. I ended up finding some friends to stay with that night, as there was no way to get back to New Jersey where I lived.”

A Double Edged Sword

Looking back and reflecting on the horrific day, Merlino stated that “Living through a tragedy is a double-edged sword. Obviously, I am beyond fortunate to have made it out alive and to have survived. But there is, understandably, a level of guilt that goes along with that. I feel awful about all the people- both ones that I knew and did not know- that lost their lives that day. Families who lost parents, spouses who lost one another, parents who lost children… the list goes on and on. As painful as it is to share the experiences of that day, it’s also important to keep telling this story so that people never forget what we went through and we work hard to ensure our intelligence is listened to and that this is a pain we hopefully never have to endure again.”

Merlino wrapped with saying that “Living through 9/11 also taught me to live each day to the fullest. There is never a night (pre-pandemic) I say no to a dinner with friends, no to a concert, no to a movie, no to an experience with my husband and children… sadly, you just never know what tomorrow is going to bring.”

“It’s trite,” Merlino added, “but please hug your loved ones tonight, tell them how much you love them, show them… you never know when a moment may be your last.”

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