Ajay Kabra


The day life changed

I am used to beginning my day early. I normally leave home at 6.55 am and reach office about 50 minutes later. I always catch Train E; it is a direct ride to the World Trade Centre. I get down at the basement stop and walk out of the mall (it is a five minute walk within the WTC itself) towards my office two blocks away.

This habit saved my life.

At about 8.50 am -- I was in my office by then -- I saw a lot of paper floating in air. This is normal in New York, especially when they celebrate a baseball victory. Suddenly, a colleague rushed in to say the WTC was on fire.

I immediately logged on to the CNN web site; they were saying a plane had crashed into the tower. I knew I needed more information; I called my wife Purnima and asked her to watch television and keep me updated.

Then I dialled London for our regular 9 am Tuesday meeting but another office colleague interrupted that call; apparently, another plane had crashed into the second WTC tower. By this time, I was getting calls from many others who were concerned about my well-being.

After calling Purnima again -- I did not want her to worry -- I called a friend who works in the opposite building; we decided to walk towards the WTC and see what was actually happening. But, when we neared the WTC, we were stopped by the cops. Both the towers were in flames; it was an unforgettable sight.

After some time, my friend felt we should go back, but I was rooted to the spot. People around us were running, shouting and crying as my friend dragged me away. There were a lot of rumours: Some were saying people were shooting, others were saying the New York Stock Exchange, which is just six buildings away from my office, had been hit by a plane.

My cell phone no longer worked and the land phone lines in my office were jammed. The area outside my building was filled with smoke and dust and visibility was drastically reduced.

A fire drill was in progress; the office managers requested us to move to the lower floors. Everyone was scared. Sensing the tension in the air, I moved back to my office. Like many of my colleagues, I again tried to call home. Luckily, I got through on my second attempt.

I told Purnima I was safe and asked her to call our folks in India and let them know we were okay. I also asked her to collect our daughter Neha from school.

As I then moved towards the fifth floor, many of the faces were filled with shock and horror. We had to leave the building through the fire exit. The smoke outside was choking. All transportation was at a standstill. As I walked, I saw people completely covered with a white-coloured dust. It seemed like a bizarre kind of Holi.

I must have crossed two blocks when I heard a huge sound. People started running for their lives, so did I. It was only later that I found out that the WTC tower had come crashing to the ground.

By now, I was lost in a part of the city I did not know. Somehow, I reached an area from where I could spot the Empire State Building.

I was thirsty, but all the shops were shut. Thankfully, McDonalds was still open. I tried Purnima again, but there was no response; she must have gone to pick Neha up. I stopped at a local shop to get the latest news. There was a crowd around each television set.

I then I made my way to the Queens borough bridge near 59th street; I needed to cross over to make my way home. The crowd there was unbelievable. As I reached the centre of the bridge, I could see the famed New York skyline blurred by huge clouds of smoke. That's when reality hit me; the WTC was only a heap of rubble now.

I had been to the WTC observation deck, escorting family and friends, so many times that I was bored with it. I had spent much of my breaks from work there. What wouldn't I give to see those familiar towers once more?

Ajay Kabra believes life in the Big Apple will never be the same again.

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