Every year this day makes me nauseous, cautious and uncomfortable.
It was 13 years ago today I was walking out of my International Studies class at Ramapo College when I walked into the “fish bowl” and saw everyone looking up, expressionless, at the TV. I stood next to one of the vice presidents and watched the news, not knowing what to make out of everything, but knowing, I needed to be there.
There was no doubt in my mind, I needed to be there telling people’s stories. So many thoughts were running through my head.
“This is historic. This is incomprehensible. This is scary. This is something that is going to change our lives forever.”
I remember not calling my parents, or my relatives, but calling the newspaper I had just finished a summer internship with and asking if they needed any extra help. They asked if I could get into Hoboken. I said, yes, and they sent me. At the time, I wasn’t 21, and I had no clue where Hoboken even was, and Siri wasn’t even a thought then.
As I raced passed my college apartment to throw on a pair of jeans and t-shirt, grab a notebook, phone charger and my keys, one of my soon-to-be sorority sisters asked where I was going. When I told her, she advised against it, but I said something to the effect of, “don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
Driving down Rt. 17 in Northern Jersey, I could see the smoke rising from the New York City skyline. My mind was going in every direction as I listened to the radio speculation about what had just happened, as well as thought to myself, “how the heck am I going to find Hoboken?”
While, I didn’t make it to Hoboken, I did make it into Jersey City. From the moment I got close to the water, people who were trying to get as far away as they could; were knocking on my car window asking if I could give them a ride out of there. Someone even asked if they could just take my car.
Instead, I forced my way into a parking lot, locked my car, said a little prayer asking that it would still be there when I got back and headed to the waterfront. I checked in briefly with my editors to see what they needed.
“Get whatever you can. Talk to people getting off the boats, buses. Get their stories. Call us back in a few hours with what you have.”
My gut told me this was not just a “big story,” but that what I was really doing, was recording history. This was not typical journalism.
Men and women, covered in ash and dust, walked as fast as they could away from the waterfront.
“Excuse me, excuse me. Could you just talk to me for one second about what’s going on over there and what you saw.”
I repeated that more times than I can remember. Of all the interviews I did, the one I remember most was an older gentleman dressed in what looked like a very expensive grey suit, which was filthy and completely coated in dust. Holding his briefcase, he told me he would talk to me if he could use my phone to call his family.
I handed it right over.
He called his wife and left a message.
For the next 20 minutes I listened to his story, which, at times, was completely not understandable. His nerves were shot. He couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
He worked in finance.
“Can I use your phone again?”
He had a wife and daughter.
“I just kept running.”
Before we parted ways, he gave me his business card.
My plan was to follow up with him in next few days. Little did we know then, that the business phone number on his card would likely never ring again.
Sitting in a Dunkin Donuts next to a wall where my phone could charge, I gathered my notes and wrote out full quotes and information before calling the office.
“Hi, It’s Michelle Maskaly, I’m here in Jersey City and I have information for you.”
After getting shuffled around to several people, I got a veteran reporter, whose work I had read for years before, on the phone
I meticulously started dictating notes to her. The person’s name, age, where they lived and where they worked, followed by what they said.
Not having GPS, and not knowing exactly where I was, I finally found familiar road signs and followed the hundreds of cars to the Turnpike. I’m not even sure how I got there, but I did. And, I headed home.
It was the first time I was able to contact my family and tell them I was OK. I knew that if I had told them what I was doing, they would have had a fit and worry. So, as far as they knew, I was safe and sound at college.
When they found out where I was, my Dad was not pleased. But, my Mom, while she wasn’t happy, just said to me, “I knew it. I knew you would be running toward it.”