It was a beautiful September morning. I and my colleagues went to work like any other day never suspecting that we would be witness to a world-changing, life-altering event. Emily Vieyra-Haley, witnessed with me in New York to the events of 9/11, agreed to discuss what she saw, and why after being just miles away from a terrorist attack, she still travels. I also discuss my thoughts.
You were witness to the horrific events of 9/11 in New York City in 2001. What did you see?
Emily: I remember standing with all my coworkers, my friends, at the windows of the office we worked at, on the 42nd floor, in Midtown. I state the floor number to indicate we were at roughly a similar height to many of the people in the towers. We saw the towers burning, burning, and one of us had the radio on. We were transfixed. I heard one of my friends yell out, “Now they’ve got the Pentagon!” when the crash at the Pentagon was reported on the radio. And then…one of the towers collapsed – I remember both distinctly and hazily – all of us screaming as it went down. My friend Mike shrieked, “We’re watching 50,000 people die!” And it was at that moment, I think collectively as one, we all decided to leave the building. We ran as one, to the elevators, and I remember pausing to think, “We were trained to take the stairs in an emergency,” but I think, we just were all desperate to get out of that building, to get out of that sad height.
How did the events of 9/11 affect you?
Emily: I was afraid to leave my apartment in the morning to go to work; I had a ritual of locking the front door and looking at it a certain way because every day I thought this might be the last time I was ever going to be home. There was a woman in my building who worked at Windows on the World – neighbors talked about how she diligently got up at dawn every morning and headed there; so it was on 9/11, and she never came home. There was a quote from, I think the NY Times, and I am only paraphrasing it here, but it struck me – it was, “Death could come to you while sitting at your desk in the morning.” I had bad dreams for months; and trembled and my mind blanked out every time the train got delayed in the tunnel on the commute to and from work.
How did the events of 9/11 affect your view of travel?
Emily: I was afraid, like many people, to get on a plane for months after. But my sister and I went to London the next year – we swore to ourselves we would be vigilant and be loud if we saw anyone suspicious on the plane. We also took non-American owned airlines – we felt that loud, proud American named and/or themed airlines would present an attractive target to anyone wanting to make anti-American statements.
Since the events of 9/11 you have been overseas several times. Why did you go?
Emily: The first trip I made after 9/11 was to London to see a good friend; and I had to go – it wasn’t just due to the popular slogan, “if you show fear, the enemy has won”; it was more of, I need to go to prove I can do it, plus I have people I love all over the world. Since then I’ve been to Germany several times, also, Austria, Italy, Ireland, and just this past October, Argentina for the first time in 31 years to see long-lost family. I do still have the nervous alertness of looking around to see who else is on the plane; and I also take some valium with me to keep me calm as I am a bit of a nervous flyer anyway.
Do you still plan on traveling after the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium?
Emily: Yes I do; though I don’t have any travel plans yet, and I am glad I don’t right now.
What advice do you have for people who are afraid to travel because of terrorism?
Emily: I say oh I understand, but you also need to look at the whole picture and think, will I look back on my life in 30 years and have a lot of should haves and would haves? I think you should heed the travel advisements and warnings that your government gives you – i.e. Americans are targets for many reasons in the world (not just for terrorism), so I would listen to the warnings our government gives for safety, but also be aware of what is going on in the world and know if you are going to a depressed area, that you may be targeted for money scams. For your own personal comfort – bring whatever makes you feel safe – a prayer book, a little token, no matter how silly you think others may see it as. And just – always be aware of your surroundings; be looking out for suspicious behavior or packages.
On The Streets After the Towers Fell
As you can see, I was lucky to have such an extraordinary companion with me on 9/11. I remember when I saw the second tower fall, I screamed, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” I hope to never utter those words again. I, like Emily, was one of the thousands of people on the street after the events of 9/11 walking toward home or what we perceived as relative safety. When I walked out onto 42nd Street, I saw numerous bomb-sniffing dogs close to Grand Central Station; I panicked and ran and subsequently fell. I realized that I had to keep my composure and walk uptown to my boyfriend’s apartment—away from the trouble and not toward it. The walk toward my boyfriend’s apartment was like a slow-motion dream. There were people lined up at ATMs and people leaving bodegas with numerous bottles of water—no one knew what was going to happen next. When the fighter planes flew in, I and everyone else ducked uncertain of whether it was friend or foe above of us. Someone yelled, “They’re ours!” I arrived at my boyfriend’s apartment nearly uncertain of how I got there.
Lasting Effects of Terror and Why I Still Travel
Witnessing the events of 9/11 has had a lasting effect on me—not all bad. I learned that day firsthand what so much of the world has experienced—a war zone, destruction, a near police state, and the uncertainty of wondering if what and who flies over your head means you harm or is harmless. My empathy for the world’s suffering has increased, and I find myself sending up my prayers heavenward when I see a nation suffering from terrorist attacks like Istanbul, so many cities in Iraq, Paris, and Brussels. These things used to be things that affected others, and not myself. I now know better, and I am humbled and in awe of others who endure such tragedy.
What I Learned from Witnessing Terrorism
I still travel overseas, and I love it, though now, I am more curious about the suffering of the country I am going to visit. Why have some of the Greeks I have met have a certain melancholy to them? How have Italy’s artistic treasures and people endured after so many wars? Why do the Irish still sing patriotic songs about being a nation? I have learned that the trials a nation has endured are imbued into the culture and people of that nation. I travel because I am still trying to overcome my fear of that awful day. What better way to overcome fear than to face it? I travel because despite the awful things people inflict on one another, humanity also built Rome, created the Uffizi museum, and saw fit to build the Acropolis atop a hill in Athens. Outside of humanity’s accomplishments which engender hope, nature offers enduring hope everywhere just by virtue of its existence despite what we have done to it.
Advice for Others
The advice I have for others who are afraid of traveling because of terrorism is this: do it despite hate—despite the possibility of death, for don’t we face our mortality every day? Doesn’t every day we live bring us one step closer to our death anyway? Why not see more of this interesting planet before we leave it? Why not breathe in the majesty of another nation’s natural wonders, culture, victories and pain?
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Thanks to Emily Vieyra-Haley and writer Sona Schmidt-Harris - Follow her on Twitter at @Sonag2000