I am a 9/11 survivor

Karen Ann McDermott
14 min readSep 7, 2019

It’s been almost 18 years since that Tuesday morning in September of 2001 and, until just recently, I had never identified as a “9/11 survivor”. I carefully painted myself on the fringes of the tragedy, even though I was there.

Whenever I tell people where I live in lower Manhattan, I always get THE question, “were you there on 9/11?” I acknowledge I was — but almost every time the question is posed, the person asking proceeds to tell me where they were and how 9/11 affected them. That’s natural, in terms of how our memories of traumatic events work. Almost always, however, they were no place near downtown NYC on 9/11. I rarely share the details of that day, and I try to get beyond the topic as quickly as possible.

Battery Park City Esplanade Photo Credit: Roma Flowers

I moved to residential Battery Park City, which sits across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center (WTC), in November of 1993, months after the first terrorist attack. My first job was with American Express in the former World Financial Center (WFC) which was connected by a bridge to the WTC. I remember being in the copy room in 1993 when I heard a bang and felt the repercussion of that first attack. We all ran to the corner office and looked out onto the street below and saw the black smoke billowing out of the parking garage. We didn’t know at the time what had happened as there was no internet, no Twitter, no Facebook, no “always-on” immediate source of news information. We just waited to hear it on the news later at home. We weren’t evacuated and business did not cease.

Tragically, six innocent lives were lost and over a thousand were injured.

We all went to work the next day and carried on without much talk of the incident, and without any fear that anything like it would happen again. It was a random “one-off”.

1993 WTC attack photo credit: NY Post

Fast forward to September of 2001, I still lived in Battery Park City, but worked at JP Morgan Chase on Liberty Street — about one block east of the WTC. I had just spent the weekend with friends in Spring Lake, NJ at their sprawling Victorian home just one block from the beach. A friend had married an investment banker and his friends and their wives all hovered around the kitchen area asking the “single girls” if it was scary to live in NYC as single women. I laughed it off and thought they were being really paranoid and weird. Battery Park City was in the top safest places to live in the city — with a crime rate consisting of car theft and minor infractions, no violent crime at all.

The Deutsche Bank Building marked with the red arrow at 130 Liberty in the aftermath of 9/11; Source: NOAA

Financial Services is not for the faint of heart in terms of career disruptions. Chase and JP Morgan had just merged, and my group was facing a “reorganization” i.e. reduction in force. My friend Kate Makuen was working at Deutsche Bank at 130 Liberty Street (directly across the street from the WTC) and she quickly secured a job interview for me in her group. I scheduled the interview for mid morning on 9/11 which would give me time to have cappuccino and maybe even get a workout in at my gym in the WTC.

No matter where I would have been on 9/11, I would have always been within 1–2 blocks of the WTC. My home at the time was at 200 Rector Place, 2 blocks away. I worked at 1 Chase Plaza on Liberty Street, 1 block away. My job interview at Deutsche Bank was at 130 Liberty Street, across the street.

One of the reasons I bought my first condo was because of the view of the WTC. I was on the 22nd floor with windows wrapping around my bedroom overlooking the “Twin Towers”. At night Kate referred to the view as the “jewel box” and that always stuck with me. I would go to sleep with the shades up just gazing at the towers as I drifted off without a care in the world.

I took my time on the morning of 9/11, enjoying a homemade cappuccino with the windows open. I remember a little fly started flying around my living room. I hated the idea of killing anything, even a fly. I scooped it up in a cup and put it out the window. I closed the windows and put on the air conditioning for my two pug dogs. Little did I know what a wise decision I was making to close all of my windows. The thought of that fly and my disdain for the taking of any life — that irony and symbolism has never left me.

My interview was set for later in the morning, but as a child of the Catholic School system I was always early to my business appointments. At around 8 a.m. I began getting dressed. I didn’t like to rush so I thought I’d leave my apt early and spend some time in the WTC getting another cup of coffee and maybe a lucky interview scarf in the “Tie Rack” store before heading across the street to Deutsche Bank at 130 Liberty Street.

As I cut off the tags from my new navy blue suit, I glanced into my mirrored closet doors to put on the finishing touches, my mascara. The mirrors reflected the WTC through my wrap-around bedroom windows. It was 8:46 a.m., the time Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower (1 WTC). First I heard a bang, and my dogs (who never barked) started barking. I refocused my eyes from my eyelashes to the reflection behind me in the mirror, and all I saw was smoke coming out of the North Tower. My mind immediately rationalized what I was seeing as a possible fire in the kitchen at Windows on the World restaurant. (I want to point out that I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it is how my mind processed this outrageous event.)

Almost instantly there was chaos on the West Side Highway which separated my condo building and the WTC. Cars were stopped, crashing into each other. Cars were jammed coming out of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. I remember almost immediately seeing a fire truck trying to get through and being blocked by a bus. Still, with all of this chaos unraveling outside my apartment window, I picked up my (heavy) bag with my marketing portfolio and resumes and headed TO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER. Yes, I did.

I exited my building’s north exit along the West Side Highway and quickly made my way to cut through the Marriott World Trade Center (3 WTC ). As I approached, at 9:03 a.m. (with the door to 3 WTC in sight) Flight 175 crashed into 2 WTC, the South Tower. It’s all a blur now. The chaos, the screaming, the sound.

I quickly turned around, ran back to my building to get my dogs. My first reflex at this point was to get away from the area and protect them. I leashed up my dogs and I went to the elevator and waited in silence with my neighbors, a husband and sobbing wife. Their apartment also faced the WTC and they must have seen both planes hit. We got into the elevator and a real estate agent, Ken, who lived in the building was in the elevator. The husband said something to Ken about their apartment, which I then realized they were selling with Ken as their selling agent. Evidently, the sale was to close THAT DAY with a buyer from Argentina. Ken, who was in a state of shock, just responded, “let’s just get through the next couple of hours and then regroup”.

Once outside our building, Ken and I stood on the corner of West Thames St. and West St. two blocks south of the WTC. We were close enough to see the horrific events of that morning unfold right before us, but far enough (we thought) to be “safe”.

We stood in helpless horror as we watched people in the towers waiving what looked like white shirts/flags. People jumping out of the windows back-dropped in what I remember to be deep red flames. I remember Ken saying something like “they were built to withstand fire like this”. But I disagreed. Those flames were so red — purple at times- I knew those buildings were going to come down. I couldn’t watch any longer, completely unable to provide any assistance to those trapped.

I left Ken standing there on the corner and made my way south to the water, to the Wagner Park area on the Battery Park City esplanade. I was walking briskly with everyone else who was walking out of the surrounding buildings, in complete astonishment to what we were witnessing first hand.

Ape and cat statue in Wagner Park just south of the WTC

I was standing by a life-sized statue of an ape and a cat when what looked like a step-by -step implosion brought the South Tower down quickly and without any warning. A tornado-like plume of black smoke and debris came flying at us in the southern end where there were no TV cameras. I watched as people then began jumping into the Hudson River. I remembered that I had a boyfriend in college who was on a rowing team and they rowed in the Hudson River. He always told me that the undercurrent of the river (which meets the east river) was deadly. The chaos caused the herd mentality to kick in for a moment and I almost jumped in — but at the last minute I realized that my dogs could not survive that jump. But the fact is, neither would I, and I am certain many who did jump did not survive.

The Battery Park City waterfront pre 9/11. My condo building stands offset in between the Twin Towers.

The wind was blowing south and the only way to run was with the wind. I ripped my skirt up the side, threw my sunglasses and suit jacket in a bush with my bag (cell phone, wallet, etc.) I picked up my two dogs and ran for blocks into a building near Battery Park. We stayed there, covered in debris, through the collapse of the North Tower. A policeman was there bringing people bottles of water he had taken from a hot dog vendor cart. He told us all to stay put after the second collapse. He then left, likely heading to the scene to help people.

Eventually, I left that building and ventured further south and landed at 1 State Street. People were in the lobby in a variety of different capacities. White collar workers, pedestrians, maintenance workers.

A maintenance worker, John Sullivan, approached me with a pair of his extra pants to wear since I was exposed after ripping my skirt. Another worker brought a bowl of water for my dogs. I made friends with Eddie Dowling, who ran the visitors desk and was a calming older presence. He grew up in and lived in Red Hook Brooklyn. He had a son who was an NYPD Detective and a daughter who was a flight attendant. He was calm but concerned. He took us under his wing and we sat together in the lobby watching the endless snow-like debris falling, and the firefighters covered in that debris walking back and forth with their heads down.

It was, literally, the end of the world.

As the sun set and day turned into evening, I started to explore ways to get out of Manhattan and get to my parents house where I grew up in Queens. I was too afraid to take the subway — fearing an attack underground. The streets below 14th Street were closed and I was told the highways had also been closed due to the threat of truck bombs. I had been able to call my parents from one of the office phones to tell them I was alive. My father was ready to walk to Manhattan from Queens over the 59th Street bridge to get me — but my friend Kate had called them and told them there was no access to civilians below 14th Street. I was stuck.

Then I remembered, Kate, OMG Kate! Her office, where I was headed for my morning interview was directly next to the WTC. Kate was lucky enough to be visiting the Park Avenue office of Deutsche Bank that morning — she had not been downtown for the attack and lived on 56th and Park. Kate was safe, thank God. I later learned her office was completely trashed.

Plan B, at around midnight, was to try and go home to Battery Park City. An EMS worker had managed to resurrect an old golf cart from the WTC area and was using a battery charger at 1 State St to charge it up. It was his first day on the job. He was attempting to transport doctors to the WTC with this golf cart. He offered to take me with them — to retrace my steps and find my tossed bag — and perhaps even gain entry back into my apartment. I took him up on his offer. Nobody had any idea what we were about to enter into.

What we saw at midnight on 9/11 on the West Side highway leading to the WTC was something I will never forget. As we began to approach the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel I could see that my building, and all the buildings in Battery Park City, were without power, the entire neighborhood was black. We were surrounded on the highway with large trucks and emergency vehicles — and large pieces of the WTC everywhere, with debris still falling. There was a silent kind of chaos that I cannot fully describe. Being four people and two dogs traveling on this tiny golf cart surrounded by huge trucks and large pieces of metal was overwhelming. I asked to be taken back to 1 State Street, I could not go any further, and the doctors agreed.

Eddie Dowling was still manning the front desk back at 1 State Street and I told him what I saw on the failed attempt to return home. He told me he had tried to reach his detective son and flight attendant daughter, but was still unable to locate either of them. He was very good at masking his fear.

My last attempt at escape was approaching a group of newly arriving police officers. I knew they were new to the scene because they weren’t covered in debris, and they didn’t have that shell-shocked look on their faces like the rest of us. I approached a young female officer, dogs in tow, and explained my situation. I lived in Battery Park City — had been outside with my dogs when the towers fell — and needed to get to 56th and Park to my best friend’s apartment. She told me they had orders to only assist injured people. This was the first time I felt ashamed not to be injured or dead. I walked away with my two dogs, embarrassed and ashamed to have asked for help.

The building crew at 1 State Street set up a makeshift bed for us in the basement with an assortment of cushions from various sofas from the offices. I was able to sleep for a few hours with my dog’s leashes wrapped around each arm. They were doing o.k. considering all the drama.

On the morning of 9/12 at about 5 a.m. I ventured back up to the lobby where Eddie was still manning the ship, no one had been able to go home. The police had gotten access to a coffee shop with food they were offering to us from the day before. I had no appetite, and decided I needed a plan to get out of the city.

I crossed over to the Staten Island Ferry terminal where they had set up triage for victims of the attack. I went in where NYC Fire EMS, and EMS and firefighters from neighboring states, were all set up to help. However, there were no victims. Those who had been caught up in the attacks never made it to the triage. It was eerily calm, sad, confusing, and tense.

My one pug dog was having difficulty breathing and an EMS worker was trying to place an oxygen mask over her face. At this point, for the first time during this entire almost 24 hour event, I began to cry. The head of FDNY EMS came over and asked me what we were doing there, and I explained how I had been displaced from my home. He then directed two firefighters to drive me home to my parents in Queens on the closed highway in a bombed out fire truck covered with debris.

The firefighters were less than pleased with their assignment, and who could blame them after what they had been through? They wanted to return to the site in the hope of rescuing victims and their fellow firefighters. We didn’t say a word the entire drive to Queens on the empty highway. I felt like such an imposition to them, and rightfully so. I was not injured, I was lucky to be alive. I was not a victim. I was quite embarrassed to have landed in this situation unable to help myself out of it. Once again, I felt guilty and ashamed for having survived.

As we approached my childhood home, my father had already hung the American flag from the house(as he did every federal holiday) and was standing at the edge of the driveway. My Dad was a U.S. Marine in his youth and very much a “man’s man” who likely felt powerless in this situation. I can’t say for sure because we have never really talked about how he felt that day, and I doubt we ever will.

One of the few photos I have taken from my bedroom at 200 Rector Place after 9/11, looking into “Ground Zero”

I stayed with my parents for a week or so, but ended up returning home to Battery Park City after the area was cleared for residents. I stayed in my condo with a view of the WTC site and watched the fires continue to burn for weeks. I watched the flatbeds hauling remaining pieces of the WTC from the site for months. I lived at Ground Zero.

My parents and I went back to 1 State Street a few weeks later to thank Eddie and the guys for their hospitality on 9/11. Eddie was the only one there that day, and he told me that his son and daughter were fine. It was good to see him, but I never saw him again. I would poke my head in when I was in the area, but we never crossed paths again. I will never forget their kindness in the midst of the chaos.

I was grateful to be alive and to not have lost anyone directly connected to me in the attacks. My heart broke for anyone who did. As a tribute to those lost I listen to the entire “reading of the names” every 9/11 to honor them. The grief displayed by those representing the victims — all these years later — hits hard.

I sold my condo in August of 2007 — and bought a new one a block away. I have stayed in the area with an attachment to those lives that were lost and to the memory of what used to be before our world changed on 9/11/01.

I am eternally grateful every day.

I am a 9/11 survivor.

Yearly 9/11 Tribute in Light display outside my former bedroom window in Battery Park City on 9/4/19



Karen Ann McDermott

Financial Services Technology Marketing Leader. Rescue dog Mom and advocate. NYC resident.