For the last three years, since moving to Goodyear’s PebbleCreek community with her husband, Michael, Cynthia Schwartz has been “living the dream.”
Nineteen Septembers ago, she was living a nightmare.
It was a Tuesday morning, nothing unusual on her commute from New Jersey to Wall Street, where she worked for Goldman Sachs, until Schwartz stepped off a train at the station under the World Trade Center.
At 8:46 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001, she felt the ground beneath her shake. The world was about to change, as five hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
“I just got off the train from Hoboken—I was in the basement (train station) when the first plane hit. A fireball came down the stairwells and into the basement. We were under impression we were getting bombed,” Schwartz said.
She and her fellow commuters were thrown into a panic, thinking the World Trade Center was being bombed—as it had been seven years earlier. They could hardly imagine they were in the middle of a massive, multi-layered terrorist attack.
She ran up seven flights of stairs to reach the street level. Rather than safety, she saw the horror of the day unfolding.
“There were people killed on the ground because of the concrete flying out of the building,” she said.
“It was very confusing. You’re trying to make sense out of something you can’t understand, and there’s black smoke coming out of the building.”
Except for the smoke coming from the north tower, the sky was blue—but weird. “I remember it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, but there was so much paper coming out of the Trade Center and shimmering in the sunlight. There was paper falling on the ground and business cards, people’s pictures. People were picking up things. We didn’t quite get what was going on.”
The confusion then turned into sheer chaos: Another group of hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower
“I walked down one block and heard a huge noise—that second plane,” Schwartz said.
“My feet came off the ground—like one of those movies. I looked up all that concrete coming down on us. There were people jumping over dead bodies.”
She headed for her office “because I didn’t know what else to do,” but police officers said all the offices were closed and told the crowds to start walking north.
“At that point, people figured out it was a terrorist attack,” Schwartz said. “We didn’t have smartphones; we had little flip phones. But the cellphone towers were jammed. I hit a pay phone and called my son’s school in New Jersey. They told me the planes hit the Trade Center.”
She called her husband, who was working in Connecticut, but couldn’t hear anything with dozens of sirens wailing.
“I just started screaming I was OK,” she said.
Schwartz hung up the phone and started what would become the longest commute of her life.
Figuring walking among the crowds heading north would be tough, she ducked into a sporting goods store and bought a bike and sweatpants.
“I literally changed out of my dress in the middle of the store—I didn’t care. Then I went outside and threw my leather briefcase in the garbage, took my license and stuffed it in my bra.
“I thought, ‘If I die, they’ll know who I am.’”
She biked to a pier and lined up with a crowd trying to escape Manhattan. Finally, she got on a ferry headed to Giants Stadium (now MetLife Stadium) in New Jersey. From there, she biked to a relative’s home.
“We finally sat down and had a drink,” she said.
Hours later, she made it to her own home. What was normally a 40-minute commute lasted the entire day.
Despite the intense trauma of Sept. 11, “I went back to work the next Tuesday. One week later.
“You have to be a tough cookie to work on Wall Street, and everybody went back—just about everybody.
“That’s what we do. We survive.”
Still, the city remained on edge, Schwartz recalled.
“Somebody would slam a door in a conference room and people would hit the floor. We planned escape routes. We were on high alert for years,” she said.
Wall Street to PebbleCreek
In a pleasant retirement community, it’s hard for Schwartz to explain the events of 19 years ago.
“In the beginning, I never went to work on 9/11. We would sit in a park that rang the bells when the first plane hit and then sit in silence until the second set of bells,” she said.
“I have found this event is like any disastrous event; it’s concentric circles. The further out you are—most people don’t want to hear about 9/11. It’s very painful. I don’t talk about it a lot. It doesn’t bring back anything good in my memories,” she said.
Though she is one of the lucky ones who made it out alive, she feels Sept. 11 had a lasting impact: “I caught pneumonia from breathing in all the junk that was in the air and have respiratory issues,” she said.
Now retired, she stays in touch with the financial hub through her 30-year-old son, who, like his mother, lives in New Jersey and commutes to Wall Street.
Though her mind will drift back to the chaos and horror of the World Trade Center, especially as each Sept. 11 nears, Schwartz and her husband have left the intensity of financial careers and urban living far behind as they settle into West Valley retirement.
“We’re big pickleball players,” she said with a laugh.
“We’re living the dream.”