Eyewitness: ‘New York became a small town after 9/11’Written by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
NEW YORK CITY — On Sept. 11, 2001, Julia Torres Barden woke up and put on a red suit.
In Manhattan for a business convention, the New York native was looking forward to catching up with family and old friends over live salsa music at the Greatest Bar on Earth near the top of the World Trade Center later that evening.
Only a few hours later, the towers would lay in ruin and New York City would be changed forever.
“Growing up in New York, being friendly was the last thing we were ever taught to be because to be friendly and open exposed you to danger, exposed you to scam, exposed you to the dark side,” Barden said. “I think a New Yorker’s way of protecting ourselves is simply to be very, very suspect at all times. You can’t let your guard down. Then 9/11 came and we had no choice but to be excruciatingly vulnerable. And people came from all over the world, so I think the city reevaluated its outlook.”
Barden, who grew up in the South Bronx, lived with her husband and sons in Richmond, Va., in 2001. They have since moved to Toledo.
The day before 9/11, Barden was feeling contemplative and decided to visit some of her favorite places.
“I took the train out to Yankee Stadium and I took the train to Spanish Harlem and I was very reflective, very pensive, because it was beautiful weather and I’d just had a day off,” Barden said. “That night I was talking to a lot of people, from my past, from my present. I said, ‘Let’s all go to the World Trade Center tomorrow, listen to salsa and just have a great night.”
Talking on the phone to her aunt the next morning, Barden found it odd how poor the cell service was.
“Service is usually pretty good, but we keep getting disconnected two, three times,” Barden said. “By the fourth time, I finally have to leave my room to be at the hotel by 9.”
Walking through Times Square to the conference center, Barden came upon a large group of people congregated under an awning in front of a TV display.
“As a typical New Yorker, my first reaction is, ‘F-ing tourists, I’m trying to get to my meeting,’” Barden said. “So I’m racing through, but the TVs are there and I see that one plane has already hit so I stop for a bit. A messenger on his bike pulls up right behind me and says, ‘Some —hole just flew into the World Trade Center.”
She was still standing there watching when the second plane hit.
“All of a sudden, we all got quiet and without thinking about it we all stepped out from under that covering to see the sky because it felt like, OK, now it’s intentional. Is this Pearl Harbor? Are there more planes coming?” Barden said. “So we’re standing there in horror digesting what’s going on, and Times Square goes silent, which is terrifying.”
A son in Virginia
Her thoughts flashed to her family at home in Virginia, her sister in Brooklyn. She suddenly felt very alone. She tried calling, but her cellphone wouldn’t work. Deciding she would rather be with co-workers than alone, she continued to the convention center, where she watched both towers collapse on a TV in the hotel bar.
It was like watching part of her childhood crumble, Barden said.
“It was the most disorienting thing. Just surreal. It was like somebody had severed my arm,” Barden said. “They were a family member to me because they started building them when I was young. Everybody in New York City would use those buildings as a compass. They were very comforting.
“Later, I realized I didn’t hear it, I didn’t feel it, and I’m only what? Three miles away, four miles tops? It just shocked me that we didn’t feel anything. Now I just go into daze mode. Because this is my city, this is my town. What the hell just happened?”
Returning to her own hotel, Barden found a barrage of frantic messages on the landline phone.
“I very frequently stayed at the World Trade Center Mariott and my sister didn’t know where I was staying, so she freaked out,” Barden said. “She’s just screaming and sobbing, ‘Where are you? Where are you?’”
Barden’s son, Jason Roundtree, now a 22-year-old college student, was in his seventh grade health class in Virginia when he learned of the attacks. He wasn’t worried about his mom at first because he had forgotten she was there.
“I remember my teacher said a plane hit the tower. It was hard to wrap my brain around what was going on,” Roundtree said. “The guidance counselor told me my mom had called and she was fine. It was a relief, but also made things worse because I remembered she was there.
“From a 12-year-old’s perspective, I knew it was big, but then when I came home and was flipping through channels and even MTV had cut to a CNN feed and every single thing on TV was that, that kind of made me understand how important everything was. We basically just sat at home and watched TV all night and tried to figure it out.”
With all roads out of the city closed and guardsmen in the streets, New York felt like a war zone, Barden said.
“I decided, I’ve got to get out of here the second this city will let me, because I’m a mom and that comes first,” Barden said. “I wanted to get home for my son’s birthday coming up. He was young and I just wanted him to have a normal birthday. But I was also upset to leave my city, because I really felt like a soldier. I wanted to stay and defend it, big time. But I left because I’m a mom.”
It took two days, but a road out finally opened.
“On Thursday morning, about 10 a.m., one lane of the Lincoln Tunnel opened and I shot out of the hotel,” Barden said. “I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I don’t think I thought about how when you come out of that tunnel, you are going to see the destruction. Because I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t even smelled it. And when I came out of the tunnel on the Jersey side, oh my God, that’s when I saw the plume, the jagged remnants and I just lost it.
“I do have to be honest, I was relieved not to live in New York City. It pains me to say that, but I do wonder how those people are doing who didn’t have the choice? How have they processed what they’ve been through? Those people who had apartments that came back to 6 inches of dust. Nobody helped them clean it. They cleaned it themselves. How could they not be physically impacted by what they inhaled? You could tell we were inhaling human remains. They continued to find fingers and toes on the roofs of the buildings around the area. So the recovery effort continues. I don’t think the rest of the country always understands that. We’re still in recovery mode, let alone rebuilding.”
Once home, Barden dove straight back into family life, doing her best to act normal for her children.
“I tried really hard to switch gears quickly and I think in hindsight that probably wasn’t such a good thing because PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms started to present two years later,” Barden said. “I didn’t appropriately grieve at the time. I just kept going on with my life.”
Barden said the experience has made her a more patriotic person.
“In New York City growing up, the FDNY, the NYPD, we just took them for granted,” Barden said. “The pictures of the FDNY climbing the stairs with all of that equipment, it’s earth-shattering, really. It changed my life in terms of how I now look at our soldiers, and our police and our fire and our EMT guys.”
Barden recently began serving on the national board of directors for the Alpha-1 Association, an organization raising awareness of a rare genetic enzyme deficiency that can leave lungs more prone to disease. She believes it’s an undiagnosed factor that plays a role in the health issues developed by some 9/11 first responders.
“It’s very cathartic and it’s very rewarding in a twisted sense to have these two issues in my life kind of mesh around the 10th anniversary,” Barden said.
Roundtree said the events of 9/11 forced his generation to rethink America’s invincibility.
“We were raised with America as a powerhouse. We invent everything that’s good in the world and nobody’s going to stop us,” Roundtree said. “[9/11] put it in perspective that people still don’t like us and are able to do things about it and we are able to take damage. But that’s the negative. On the positive side, I’d say we’re closer together.”
“New York became a small town immediately after 9/11. It was New York in a way I’d never seen it,” Barden said. “There was no more stranger danger. We all knew we better support each other or we’re screwed.”
About three weeks after 9/11, Barden brought her sons to visit Ground Zero.
“It was weird how dusty everything was, I remember that,” Roundtree said. “Like even with the doors closed, every inch of every store was covered in dust. It was really weird. It didn’t smell normal. And no one was talking, which is strange in New York. It was pretty quiet.”
It was on their way to a Mets game at Shea Stadium, near LaGuardia Airport, the next day that Barden heard on the radio the U.S. had started bombing Afghanistan.
“I swear to God, that crowd got quiet every time a plane went by the stadium,” Barden said. “We’d all watch it. You could see the heads going from the left to the right and then we’d go back to the game.”
Barden, who was already superstitious before the attacks, still has her little hang-ups.
A certain siren sound haunts her.
“There is a sound a fire truck makes that I have trouble listening to, and it’s the do-do-do, do-do-do, do-do-do. That bird thing. I don’t like that,” Barden said. “The sirens just kept going, going, going.”
She also shudders when she sees a clock at 9:11.
“It’s not debilitating, but I take it easy until 9:12,” Barden said. “I can’t start my day on 9:11 and I can’t go to bed at 9:11.”
Barden said healing is a process; she often thinks she’s gotten over something, only to have it return.
“It’s an evolutionary process,” Barden said. “Faith is a huge part of my recovery. There’s no other way to make sense of what happened. I realized how close I was to dying that day. The plane flew over me, too.”