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I took the above photo from the Staten Island Ferry on September 3rd, 2001. A week later, the Twin Towers would be gone. My parents were in New York for the first time, visiting me, and we were doing all the tourist attractions. I took the photos below from the South Tower on the 107th floor observation deck. It's incredible to think that I was one of the last people to see these views and to walk in that space that last week when the towers were still standing.

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The towers were an indelible part of the city. They were characters in movies. They were epic. I miss them every time I look at the downtown skyline of New York.

Everyone has their own story about 9/11, where they were when they heard the news, what they saw if they were in the city, how they helped. I was on a subway train that was heading south to the World Trade Center. The intercom announced the train wouldn't be stopping at the WTC and people began to murmur and talk about why. Someone heard a plane had hit it. Was it an accident? Was it a small plane? To have a subway car full of strangers chatting was so unusual. 

I got off the train at my stop, the Times Square station, and walked into work, turning on the TV immediately. What I saw was what we all saw. The north tower was on fire. As I watched, the second plane hit the south tower. Everything changed. This was no accident. My boss was on a plane that morning to Chicago and my stomach felt sick as the news just got more and more horrible.

The phone lines were so busy I couldn't get a call out to my family in Canada, but I finally was able to get in touch with them on Instant Messenger. I spent the day watching TV, calling people, tracking down my friends. I sent this email:

on 9/11/01 11:58 AM, Leslie Fandrich wrote:
In case you are wondering. I'm fine. I'm at the office and reachable by email and the office number listed below today. I'm glued to the tv for reports of what to do, but right now I am just going to stay at the office until I know more. My office is still quite far from the World Trade Center, at least 60 or so blocks. So I think I will be OK. So far I have accounted for friends that might have been in the area or on a plane and everyone else I know in the city is OK too. Thanks for your thoughts. xoxoxox

 I stayed at the office until the subways began running again late that afternoon. I was on the train heading north to meet up with my only friend in Manhattan (the rest of my friends all lived in Brooklyn and had walked across the bridge to get home) and a creepy man, using the massive crowds on the train as an excuse to get close to women, groped me. It was one of the least offensive things that happened that day.

I met my friend at a local bar a few blocks from my apartment and got embarrassingly drunk. It seemed like the only thing to do in the face of such unfathomable loss. The TV was on in the bar and we watched, along with the rest of the world, as it became clearer and clearer how many people had died. It was unfathomable. The whole day.

I woke up in the morning on my couch with the TV still on. I had such a hangover. I stayed on the couch all day watching the news, in shock. I didn't know what else to do. On Thursday, I decided to leave the apartment and head down to my office to check email and use the landline.

I lived on the Upper East Side, a long way from downtown, but I could smell the acrid smoke when I went outside. I walked passed my local firehouse on 85th street and was brought to tears at the sight of candles and flowers covering the sidewalk in front of the building. My local firehouse confirmed that they lost one firefighter, Martin McWilliams. Eight more were missing. Thomas Casoria was one of the missing. Thomas Hetzel was another. Those are just three sad stories from that day, there are thousands more. 

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When I got to work I had never seen so many emails in my Inbox before. I heard from literally everyone I knew, including my then 15 year old cousin who told me what had happened was "pritty savage." Those emails were my life line. I felt so connected. All day Thursday I just emailed with people. I couldn't work. Thursday and Friday were such weird days in the city. The subways were running erratically, my building was evacuated due a bomb threat at the New York TImes building next door, Penn station was shut down for hours and a simple walk to B&H Photo gave me a panic attack. I had to sit down on a stoop and phone a friend to talk me through it.

My 26th birthday party was planned for Friday and I considered canceling it. It wasn't right to have a party at that time, but everyone said they thought it would be good to get together so I called it a "gathering" instead. It was my best birthday to date. I made Sangria and we played New Order's album Get Ready over and over again. It was awesome to hug everyone and tell our stories from the last four days. So much love and healing happened that night.

Feeling more grounded on Saturday than I had since it happened, I decided to go downtown to see what I could see. Officially, people were not allowed past 14th Street, but I took a subway down to City Hall and I was able to get about five blocks away from ground zero. There were TV crews and military all over the place, normal life down there was at a stand still, everything was closed. The people who were around were cleaning up or moving out. It was such a strange feeling and you didn't have to look far to see evidence of the destruction, even blocks away. I saw a mangled police truck on a side street and pieces of the towers on long truck beds heading north out of the city. 

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I talked to as many people as I could. I took pictures. I said thank you. I cheered when a truck or workers would go by heading down to help clear rubble. I was lucky enough to fall into step with a fireman who was returning to his fire station after rescue efforts. He was dusty and tired but didn't mind talking to me. I showed him pictures of the fire station near my house and he was grateful to see them. Since his station was in the closed area, no one was there to say thanks and bring flowers. I said thank you to him and told him how much everyone appreciated his hard work. I wanted to give him a hug but I just patted him on the back. Dust rose into the air. Dust that used to be the World Trade Center and everything in it. 

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I left downtown and went to midtown, where I visited St Patrick's Cathedral and stood outside for the mass they held for everyone who died that day. There were people lining the streets for three blocks in every direction. They broadcast the service on loud speakers and cheers and applause erupted every time they mentioned firemen, fire department, police or EMT. At one point a fire truck drove past heading south and the crowd enthusiastically cheered their support.

After dark I found myself in Union Square Park on 14th Street. It was the furthest south you could go unless you lived in the evacuation area. It was beautiful there, like a giant, open-air cathedral. The sidewalks were covered in candles and on the fences, sheets were hung with messages of love and support. There were thousands of people just hanging out playing guitar, singing, leaving notes, talking, lighting candles. Everyone in the city seemed drawn to each other. I had never felt more like a New Yorker.

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Monday brought a return to work for me and much of the city. At ground zero though, the work would continue for 9 months. The pile of debris wouldn't be completely removed until May of 2002.

For weeks the city was covered in American flags. Each day that passed brought more calm and assurance that the threat was over. I had written a number of emails to my family and friends describing in detail what I was going through and one friend, who was a teacher, read them to her class. I got a note from an eight year old boy asking how I was doing. It was so sweet and this is what I told him:

I have been very lucky. I talk to people all the time who had experiences that were more frightening than mine, but everyone that I meet is very strong and they are doing everything they can to continue living their lives and to not be scared and sad anymore. A tragedy like this reminds us about the important things in life, like family and friends and enjoying the beautiful fall weather.

I guess it's that simple. I met my husband just weeks later. After this, my life felt sharper and I had to live a little more fearlessly. I didn't want to waste any time. I let the love in while mourning for everything that was lost that day. 9/11 took away so much from so many, but it also gave us something too. It gave us a reminder to cherish every single moment.

My thoughts and best wishes are with all the individuals and families who lived through this event in a more traumatic way or lost a loved one. I've listened to stories from so many people who were in the towers, who saw the worst of it, who lost a loved one. It's so painful, but I feel a little bit of healing each time I listen to someone's story about that day or tell my own. If you have a story to share, please do in the comments.

(edited September 11, 2013)