Elissa worked in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. A lifelong New Yorker, she describes what it was like evacuating the city and how she eventually made it back home to Brooklyn later that evening. She also discusses how the attack affected the city and the people around her. She continues to work in lower Manhattan.
Interview conducted on June 16, 2015 in Manhattan, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Elissa DiSanti
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Elissa DiSanti: Elissa DiSanti.
RH: Where are you from originally?
ED: Brooklyn, New York.
RH: Have you lived in New York most of your life?
ED: All my life.
RH: Do you remember when they were building the World Trade Center?
ED: Vaguely. Not too much. My dad actually used to have an office in the World Trade Center a bazillion years ago.
RH: Were you there very much before September 11th?
ED: No. Not much. A few times for meetings but not very much.
RH: Do you remember anything about the towers themselves while you were there?
ED: Just the way they looked. I do remember when they had the incident in the garage when the van blew up in the garage. I remember watching it on TV and how upsetting it was. I think there was a class of kindergarteners there that day. But just passing it and seeing it on the city line of New York.
RH: On the day of September 11th where were you working?
ED: I was working at 161 William Street. It was a little bit outside of South Street Seaport.
RH: When you woke up that morning, what was your morning like?
ED: You know, I think like so many people you noted what a clear, beautiful day it was. It was also my dad’s birthday, actually. But what a clear, beautiful day it was. Gee. What a shame. We have go to work. I went to the office and probably got to the office around eight thirty or so. My office was similar to this where I had windows along the side [motions around the office that we are sitting in] and the World Trade Center is probably was where the expressway is [points to the expressway about one hundred feet outside the window]. Maybe a little further. Want me to tell you what happened?
RH: Yes. What happened?
ED: So I was sitting at my desk. We were on William Street and maybe a block up was Fulton Street. It’s a bumpy, cobble-y road so you used to hear trucks all the time, “boom boom boom!” I was sitting at my desk and the director of compensation was next door to me in his office and my boss was in his office and I heard “thump thump” a few times. I was just working, thinking it was trucks. I didn’t even think about it. This was before a quarter to nine. And all of a sudden, this man Dave came and said, “I’m listening to my radio. They said something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center.” I’m like, “that’s so weird.” So we went to my boss and my boss is like, “you’re kidding.” He put on his radio and he was like, “I don’t know. Let’s see what happens.”
I went back to my office – my office was between the two of theirs – and I’m looking at stuff just saying it’s weird and I was getting ready to do stuff and I get a phone call and it’s someone that worked for me. He was on his way down from Westchester and he says to me, “I’m calling you because they made us get off the trains. They said a plane hit the World Trade Center.” So I got up and went by my office window to look at the towers and I said, “yes. That’s what they told me. I think I see smoke,” and as I’m looking at the towers talking to him, the second tower exploded. I didn’t see a plane hit it but I did see all of this. I said to him, “oh my God! Matt! There’s flames. Something’s happened now.” He said to me, “get the hell away from the window. Why are you by the window?” [laughs] So I close the window.
We all gathered in the office, those of us that were there. That was about a quarter to nine and there were still people that hadn’t yet come in. My boss was like, “OK. Let’s gather everybody and figure out what we’re going to do.” What ultimately happened is we had one person, the Director of Employment, who was on her way to work and she came in and she was very pale and crying. She said, “I saw people flying out the windows of the World Trade Center.” She said, “I saw bodies flying.” She was so in shock. And then we started putting on the radio and we started hearing everything that was going on so we decided everybody needs to evacuate the building. We were only on the fourth floor but let’s evacuate the building and everybody should meet at the Starbucks which maybe was a block away by Park Row.
When we went downstairs there were masses of people. That’s when they were evacuating the city and, I have to say, you can say a lot about Giuliani but he had one extraordinarily well-ordered evacuation considering it was Manhattan. So when we got down, you couldn’t even see the Brooklyn Bridge. You couldn’t see it. It was just a mass of dust. They were saying, “you can’t go to the bridge anymore. You have to go to the Manhattan Bridge.” So we all decided – we’re all together in front of the building – we’re all going to go our separate ways and who’s buddying up. The executive’s assistant also lived in Brooklyn so she and I said, “let’s head to the bridge.”
Honest to God, what was horrifying is that you were walking down the street, there were tons of people, and all of sudden you heard what sounded like planes. It was like BOOM! It was very, very loud. I turned around and there were just masses of people like a stampede running towards us. I just grabbed her and pulled her between two parked cars and let them pass us by. Then we started walking when that was over, when everybody passed by, and went to the Manhattan Bridge. We walked across the bridge. By the time we got onto Brooklyn, we hailed a cab which was interesting because it was a Middle Eastern driver. That was really interesting. We were just covered in ash. It was just horrible.
And then we couldn’t go back to our offices because we weren’t that far from the site and the smell was disgusting down there. There was ash all over everything so we went temporarily to Hudson Street, to the offices on Hudson Street and stayed. And then periodically when they would allow vehicles we would maybe, once a week, go back down to our old office to take records out and stuff for about a month. All the phone lines were blown out. Everything was just a mess. And when we finally, about a month or so later, went back to our offices, we used to go to another client by – what the heck was the name of it? It was NYANA. It was not too far from here. We used to walk and when we had to walk to that client we had to pass the site. You just saw tons of wreckage. You saw the trucks pulling out pieces of the building. The stench was horrible. It was really awful. And it just went on and on. It never stopped.
People were just totally blown apart by the whole thing. They were really blown apart. So it was strange.
RH: As you were walking over the Manhattan Bridge, what was the atmosphere like? How did everybody feel?
ED: It looked like the night of the walking dead. Everybody shell shocked. It was interesting because the next couple of months or whatever it was that we had a blackout. It was kind of the same thing. We had to walk over the bridge but it was so different because there everybody was running and kind of in a rush. The day of 9/11, everybody was just walking totally shell shocked. They had police all over the place guiding you. They had everything closed off. They really made sure that there was maybe one main road out of Manhattan which was really smart. But people were just walking. It was very weird. Everybody was very, very kind of calm and just sort of like, “did this really happen?”
RH: While you were walking across the bridge, did you look at Manhattan at all? Were you able to see?
ED: I really didn’t. I just focused on what was ahead of me. It was hard to see because there was just so much dust in the air. You couldn’t see that clearly so it was a little difficult.
RH: When were you able to communicate with your family?
ED: Not until, actually, I got home. I don’t recall communicating. It was interesting because my daughter was in grammar school. I do not agree with what they did. They called all the children into the auditorium and they put a TV on and let them watch which I thought was horrifying. Some of these kids subsequently did lose family in the towers.
My daughter went to a very small private school and they then called the family contact which was my mother and said, “if you want, you can come pick up the kids.” Of course my mother went and I remember when I got home, I went upstairs to my apartment – my mom was downstairs with my daughter – and my daughter heard I was home and she ran upstairs. I was in the bathroom trying to clean the ash off and she was banging on the door and she just started sobbing. She said, “I was so scared.” I felt so bad and I was like, “well, how did you know?” and she told me they put the TV on. I was like, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” They should have been shielding the kids from this and just said, “go home and let your parents explain this to you.” So I was really horrified.
It was very difficult. From what I understand there was no cell service. It was really difficult to get in touch with anybody. I remember my brother and sister-in-law worked in Midtown and then, later on in the day, as soon as you could communicate, people started looking for people. You know, where are you? Did you get out of the city? That kind of thing. I probably tried but I don’t think I really got through to anyone. So a lot of people were frantic waiting.
RH: In the week that followed, what happened?
ED: I was totally freaked out about the whole thing. I remember that the people that I worked for had offices throughout New York in three hundred and fifty different locations. They had an office on Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn. The first day after we were all just kind of out of it and then they started making phone calls saying, “you need to report to work and you can report to a different office.” They wanted me to go to Jay Street. They also had an office on Kings Highway in Brooklyn which was literally walking distance from my house and that’s where I wanted to go but they said, “no. You go to Jay Street.” And I was totally freaked. I did not want to get on a train. I was totally freaked and I said, “no.” I took a couple of days and worked as best I could from home and I just, honest to God, did not want to get back on a train. I did not even care. I was like, “I am not getting on a train. I don’t know what’s going on in the city. They still don’t know what’s going on. They still haven’t sorted all this out.” Eventually I did and I took a car service a little bit and then I went back onto the trains but I was a wreck.
What happened is that, with the trains, taking them was ridiculous. They were constantly rerouting them. You would be on a train and especially, God forbid you were stopped in a tunnel, everybody kind of freaked and looked at each other. Things that normally happened at the MTA that you never think about as a New Yorker, everything freaked you out. If I was getting on a train and I saw somebody that looked weird, I would not get on the train. I hate to say it but there were a lot of people that at that time I saw with Muslim headdresses and I would not get on the train because you don’t know.
And then people started talking. Especially when the weather got colder and people were wearing coats, a lot of people were saying, “you don’t know if someone is wearing a bomb under something.” So I was very freaked out about taking public transportation more than anything else. I didn’t want to be trapped in the subway system. The train that I took went into the Fulton Street station and that’s when there was like nine different lines going in there and the news kept saying if they’re looking, they’re looking to get as many people as possible at these big stations so that totally freaked me out.
RH: In the year that followed, did they eventually open the Manhattan office again?
ED: They opened the Manhattan office. I think it was a month or six weeks. They did. It was horrible down there. The lines were still not great but they did open it up and bring us back.
RH: How has New York changed since September 11th?
ED: You know, I think initially people got a wakeup call realizing you’re not omnipotent and things happen and things can happen here. I think people got very vigilant and very freaky. I think some people got a little bit over the top freaky. Other people started really paying attention to what was going on and if you see something, you’re more cautious. I think that lasted for a couple of years. In all honesty, I think we’re right back to where we were thinking that nothing is really going to happen again, that we can do anything we want in New York, and I think we didn’t sustain the lesson unfortunately and I don’t think we do, ever, about anything.
RH: Have you been to the memorial site and, if so, what do you think about it?
ED: I have not been to the memorial site. I watched the ceremonies but I have not been to the memorial site. Luckily I didn’t know anyone personally that was lost. I know a lot of people who did but myself personally, it didn’t touch that close to home. But I didn’t go there.
I remember talking to somebody and they kept saying to me, “you keep focusing on,” when I was freaking out, “you keep focusing on what happened and will it happen again and stuff.” And I remember for the first couple of years on September 11th I did not want to go to work because I was afraid they would do something on the anniversary. I always tried to take off that day. So for a few years I kind of was a little weird about it but then I was just like, “this is ridiculous. I have to go.” I remember this person saying to me, “what you never focused on is the people that did survive in the towers.” Right after you hear all the horrible stories and then you heard from people, “I had a cousin that was coming out of the train station and they see bodies.” You just heard this horror and it really continued to freak you out and I think that the media really played on that a lot too – not that it wasn’t horrible in and of itself. So I think that, unfortunately, we’re right back to where we were.
RH: Did it affect your daughter over the long term?
ED: Yes. It definitely did. Before that, I had worked in Brooklyn most of her life. I had just started that job in Manhattan, actually. I started the job in, I think, January I started there so she was having an adjustment issue with me being far from home because I had always worked fifteen minutes from the house and I used to go to school every day. So she was kind of in an adjustment.
But she wasn’t fearful. She used to hop trains with her friends much to my despair. [RH laughs] She had flown a few times on trips with me so she wasn’t fearful. After 9/11 she would not get on a plane again for years. She would not. She would absolutely not. Anywhere she wanted to go, if you had to fly it was a no-no. She stopped taking subways. She has not taken public transportation since 9/11. My daughter drives everywhere. It doesn’t matter where it is, she will not step onto a train. She’ll say, “it’s because people bother me, bla bla bla.” But I think 9/11 has a lot to do with it. And she did. She was very, very anxious and very insecure. She didn’t want to go into malls for a while. Unfortunately that didn’t last. So she definitely had a bit of a reaction to the whole thing.
RH: What was the reaction of your fellow New Yorkers?
ED: It’s so weird. It’s mixed. I had people that were kind of where I was – a little bit freaked by it. But I have to say I also saw a lot of people, including in my family – of course none of these people use public transportation or a lot of them lived in New Jersey and drive and stuff – but I had a lot people say, “it’s horrible, it’s horrifying, but as far as a fear goes, what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen and it doesn’t really matter.”
I have a cousin who I am very, very close to who was in Canada when it happened and he couldn’t get a flight. He was stuck there. He was arguing and screaming to get on the first plane out and when I talked to him I was like, “I would probably stay in Canada for a month or I’d drive down!” I would never get back on a plane. He was like, “listen, what’s gonna happen is gonna happen. What are you gonna do?” He just got on a plane as soon as he could and I was like, “oh my God!” So I had a lot of people in my family who were like that. When you’re born my grandmother used to say that they write your name on the tablet. They write your death date and nothing changes that. I did see a lot of people that were very nervous about strangers and suspicious and uncomfortable in crowded situations as well. I think it did traumatize a lot of people.
RH: You talked a little bit about Giuliani. How do you feel about the response of the city government? How was their response?
ED: I think they were phenomenal. Aside from the total horror of this ever happening again, I think we would be in deep water without somebody. Giuliani is a megalomaniac and you could say a lot of things about him but I think that in a situation like this, that is what you need. You need somebody who is a power hungry crazy person to maintain that because two things stood out the most. Aside from the initial horror of what happened, two other things that always stood out and still stand out to me the most is, one, when I turned around and saw all of those people heading towards us in the mist. There was so much dust and you looked up into the sky and you couldn’t tell if that sound was a plane. What it really was was the stomping of all of the people running. That was very scary because I really felt like we were going to get stampeded.
So there was that and I was totally struck by a place like New York City, in such a horrible period and everybody freaked, how orderly and controlled the evacuation was. There were cops everywhere. In the streets there were barricades and I was like, “how the hell did he get all this together so fast?” I think he did a phenomenal, phenomenal job getting people safely out of the city, especially from the stampede. So many more people could have been so much more hurt just trying to evacuate the city. So say what you will about him, that always stood out in my mind and I think the government really responded phenomenally.
I do know that there were a lot of first responders that I know through people and what they’ve done and I know one or two personally and I think it’s been phenomenal the way they’ve responded. They just went nonstop, day and night, to the site and just kept going and going trying to help and I think it’s incredible what they did.
RH: Now that we are fourteen years out, in the grand scheme how has it affected your life?
ED: I think I probably was like everyone else thinking you live in the United States and you live in New York and, not that you’re omnipotent, but the United States protects you. No one touches the United States. I think I had a little bit of that arrogance which I don’t have now. I think in all honesty it makes me a little more fearful than I have been. I think it’s like anybody else. You hear about horrible things happening but it doesn’t happen to me and then it does. So I am cautious when I take transportation still. I won’t freak out. If I see a Middle Easterner I’m not going to run but, you know, I kind of still look around and I think that overall it has made me more aware and a little bit more fearful than I ever was.
RH: Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
ED: Not that I can think of. I mean, to me, parts of it are so surreal. I think that was it too when it was happening. It was just so surreal. It was like, “is this really happening?” I do remember right after when we had the blackout. We were in the city. Again, I was at the same office and my daughter was in with a couple of school friends and they were going to South Street Seaport. I was in my office and they had gone to leave to take the A Train actually and we had the blackout. I was horrified because everybody in the office thought it was another attack immediately because your cell phones went down. Everything went down so everybody thought that was it.
Someone that worked for me who is a first responder was there and I said to him, “my daughter is in the city. She’s supposed to go to the Seaport.” He goes, “hold on,” and he ran to his car and got all his equipment and he said to me, “let’s go look for her.” He got his flashlight and stuff and when we were going out the emergency exit of the building, we open the door and she was there with her friends crying. She said, “we were about to get on the train and this happened mom.” I remember when the cell phones went down, I remembered 9/11 and I said, “we have to go back. We have to get out of here,” because I thought that something else was happening. So even then, she was so like “oh My God it’s happening again!” And they were borderline hysterical, the kids. And again, we had to walk over the bridge and stuff but everybody’s first thought was, “here it comes again.”
RH: Alright. Anything else?
[After the interview ended, Elissa and I continued talking and a few things came up in the conversation. I decided to turn the recorder back on.]
ED: There was such a feeling of death because it was all over. You saw the wreckage. It was all over the media and you’re right. There were pictures everywhere. The news, the buildings in Manhattan, the poles. Everywhere you looked. Everything around you was just so sad and bleak and it was a constant reminder of this horror. There was no escaping it. There really wasn’t. And then you started talking to people and everybody you knew, knew somebody that was lost. Even if you personally didn’t, everyone you knew. Even my daughter in school, several children lost aunts or uncles. My cousin lived with – what’s the name of that firm that lost all those people, the law firm? It’s blocking my brain.
RH: Oh! There were a few. Not Deloitte and Touche. One of them. We’ll have to look it up.
ED: The one in New Jersey, the one that had tons of people. She lived in the neighborhood and she kept saying, “my neighbors are dead. They’re dead. They’re gone.” Her husband’s an attorney but he was working in New Jersey. Oh! Fitzgerald Cantor.
RH: Ah! OK. Yes.
ED: Everybody knew somebody. Everybody had a story and everything was so bleak. And in all honesty, I felt like the United States was so weak and I was angry. I’ll tell you why I was angry too. It was because I felt that it happened because we were arrogant. We allowed it to happen because we were so lax with everything. Someone was telling me, this person who was a first responder has a brother who is a Marshall and has been. I think, maybe the two of them are Marshalls now.
RH: An Air Marshall?
ED: Federal Marshalls. They may be Air Marshalls now. As a matter of fact, I saw on his facebook one of them got a medal for something. So he was saying that the first time, with the car bomb in the garage and when they caught the person who did it, his brother was one of the people that was taking him to the federal prison or wherever they were taking him. He said to the people around him and the Marshalls and the FBI, he said, “we’ll be back. We’re not done.” Everybody thought, “ha ha! We’re the USA. We foiled you. Pat yourself on the back.” And then when it all happened, I was angry because this country is so arrogant and thinks that nothing can touch it and it allowed this to happen and nobody checks anything.
Then you started hearing stories about this and that and who was suspicious and who was on a no-fly list and who was flying and I just thought, “wow. Our arrogance has just gotten all these people slaughtered.” I was really ticked off about it. But there was no escaping it. There was just no escaping it for a while. It was almost smothering. And it’s hard to deal with children. What do you tell children?
RH: The one thing I did notice that was interesting is that, for the first month or so, everybody treated everybody a little bit nicer.
ED: Nicer. Yes.
RH: Sort of, for lack of a better word, the assholeness of New York just kind of lifted and everybody was just more cordial and much warmer. And also a little more sensitive because once everybody started to realize that a lot of different people had lost people in this, everybody was a little more understanding.
ED: Well you know what it is? It’s like anything else where people unite against a common enemy. I think that’s true. You’re right. People were nicer and more considerate. I think people realized the fragility of life because now it hit you here. And when you see all these countries and things on the news before that in the world you say, “oh my God. Thank God we’re in the United States.” Well you know what? Look at what just happened.
And as bad as the war is, and I think it is – there was a time several years ago when I was talking to this guy and we were saying something about bombing Afghanistan, and I said, “is there anything left to bomb in Afghanistan? You can’t be serious. We’re still bombing things?” I think it’s gone on, it’s beyond ridiculous. The war did what all wars do which is go too far but I have to say that, when we started, a lot of us including me were vindicated. We were like, “you don’t do that. You can’t come here and do this. As much as you didn’t want see people sacrificed – Americans sacrifice their life and go there – you almost said you have no choice but to respond to something like this. You can’t ever say somebody comes in and attacks the United States and goes, “oh. OK. We’ll try to forgive you,” or something.
So in the beginning it was like, “yes. Good. That’s it. This has to stop.” But then anything else it’s like [sighs]. I remember when they said about the innocent people but it’s like, “what about the innocent people that were slaughtered here?” It is a war and this started and this is a culture that is born on hatred and you have to consider that. But it just cost too many lives and I think it gets caught up, like any other war, in the politics of the war. Cooler heads do not prevail unfortunately. But people were nicer to each other for a while, for sure.
RH: I remember the first, I didn’t really realize it but I woke up one day and it might have even been February or March of the next year and I was thinking about September 11th. I was like, “every day for the last six months, the first thing I thought about when I woke up was September 11th.” Do you know what I mean?
ED: Because, you know, you also thought that the more they investigated and uncovering – and it was a very elaborate plan, there’s no question. This was years in the making and it was elaborate. It kills me that they were in this country getting the training to turn against us in this country. So you do. You start wondering, what else is happening? Who else is here? And then they discovered terror cells and all this stuff so every time you turned on the news you kind of held your breath because it was like oh my God. And then a lot of times the subways were stopped. A lot of times they were checking people. I remember going into subway stations and seeing the National Guard with machine guns and this was so foreign to us. If we were in Israel this would be like, OK, a comfort. I remember saying, “one thing you’ve got to say about Israel is that they know how to take care of themselves.”
And then I used to get upset because there were long lines when they were checking bags and stuff and people were complaining and I was like, “are you kidding me? I’d rather wait on line for an hour than get blown up in a subway.” This is ridiculous. And then it became the American came back – the spoiled American who has to be in a rush and do what they want. That became very annoying to me. But yeah, I think that everybody kind of held their breath when they watched the news because we were all just waiting for the next big thing. And people that knew people, because you talked so much about it, I talked with people that were involved with police or security or things like that, they would say, “you have no idea how many things have been uncovered and stopped. If you ever knew you would never get on another subway train.” Because there’s a lot of stuff going on. Again, you’ve got to be alert. The Red Alert, the this alert. So it was all a lot of anxiety. There was constant anxiety.
For a while there when I first moved to Staten Island, which I think was 2007, and I started taking the ferry. And every once in a while you still do see it. You’ll see the National Guard and the Coast Guard and they’re walking around but you see them walking in combat gear and machine guns. I used to always say to myself, “oh God. Do we have another threat?” Because you don’t normally see them like that or they bring the bomb-sniffing dogs in the terminal and it’s like, “oh God.” That used to make me a little nervous. If they put a bomb in the ferry, what are you going to do? Because then you get crazy. I didn’t want to take a bridge. You start to get to the point where you can’t live like that. I think there was just, for years, tons of anxiety around it and people did. You woke up and thought about it each morning. You really did. And then the memorials every year. It’s just so sad, you know? I always think about the kids that were born afterwards that never had their parent and never knew their parent. It’s really horrible but people are still going about their business and there’s really nothing else you can do.
RH: That is a nice note to leave it on.