The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

The Long Way Home

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Walking through the World Trade Center at 8:30 AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I debated stopping at the bank. After all, I had plenty of time to catch a PATH train to my office just on the other side of the Hudson River.

But for some reason, I decided to skip the bank and instead descended the long escalator in the middle of the Trade Center to catch my train. Before proceeding through the turnstile, I stopped to buy another PATH ticket. After all, I had plenty of time.

The train came quickly and brought me and my fellow commuters to our station just on the other side of the river. I rode the elevator up to my office and looked out the picture windows that framed the beautiful Manhattan skyline. It was 8:45 AM.

In disbelief, I watched as the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM. In horror, I watched as the second plane hit.

We evacuated our building.

“Leave the area and go home!” The police officer wielding a bullhorn repeated this directive to the crowds spilling out of the office buildings on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. “Get away from this area.” The war planes flying overhead gave added urgency to his message as we were herded away from the Hudson.

I desperately wanted nothing more than to follow the policeman’s order and get home safely to my family in Westchester, New York, but all access routes from New Jersey to New York were immediately shut down. Stopping a few blocks away, stunned groups of people comforted one another. Trying to process what was happening all around us, we stared at the New York skyline in disbelief. Disbelief turned to devastation as we witnessed both the sacred and mundane evidence of human life jettisoned from the exploding twin towers.

We frantically tried to reach loved ones. Periodically turning on my cell phone to try to raise a signal, I feared losing the little battery power I had left. I tried to convince myself that it was a good thing I couldn’t reach my older son, who was away at college, since I wouldn’t want to worry him. As I would learn when he was finally able to reach me, the whole world was watching.

The neighborhood was enveloped in a “loud silence.” Because cars were no longer able to enter our immediate area, the normal background noise of daily life was gone, replaced by the wail of emergency vehicle sirens and the roar of military planes overhead. Evacuees from New York, covered in ash and missing shoes, began streaming off the ferries. If only we could wake up and discover that we were just extras in a very bad “B” movie—but no director yelled, “Cut!” We were trapped in a horrific reality no civilized human being could imagine.

A throng hungry for information gathered around a parked car and turned the radio volume up as loud as it would go. The latest update on the attack was broadcast to a stunned crowd. The Pentagon had been hit.

Still absorbing this shock, we watched the World Trade Center as the South Tower collapsed in a massive cloud of dust before our eyes. Shortly thereafter, the North Tower would suffer the same fate.

Desperate to get home, but with no idea how to do it, my coworkers and I began to head north. Making our way to Hoboken, a main transportation hub, we were hopeful that some access route to New York would open up. But the news was not encouraging. In the controlled chaos at Hoboken, everyone wanted to help, but options were limited. The tunnels were closed, the PATH trains were shut down, and no rental cars were available. We waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. I asked an overwhelmed transit worker if any buses were heading to Leonia, a New Jersey town in which my sister lived. Shaking his head, he suggested, “Why don’t you take that bus over there—it’s heading for Teaneck.”

Although I had no idea where Teaneck was, I needed to keep moving. I bid farewell to my coworkers and joined the orderly line waiting to get onto the bus. No fares were collected—many of us hadn’t been able to gather our personal belongings before evacuating. Once the last passenger was aboard, the somber group headed out onto the highway.

My seatmate was a young woman who was talking in hushed tones with her fiancé. I still had my cell phone, but the battery was dangerously low from all the futile attempts to speak with my husband and younger son. Finally able to get an outgoing signal, I was disappointed I couldn’t get through the switchboard at my husband and son’s school. I tried my home number. My seatmate must have overheard the tearful message I left on the answering machine and the promise that I would try everything possible to get home to them.

I asked this stranger if she had heard if the Tappan Zee Bridge to New York was open. She called her fiancé, who told her that he didn’t think it was, but he would keep checking. She asked if I wanted to hitch a ride with them. “My fiancé is meeting the bus in Teaneck—you can ride with us.” Thankful they were going my way, and grateful for their generosity, I eagerly accepted.

Upon reaching Teaneck, we still didn’t know if the bridge was open, but we hopped into the car and took off. Unfortunately, many of the roadways to get to the bridge were now closed. Undaunted, my new acquaintances took a series of detours. It was dark, but we finally arrived at the Tappan Zee Bridge. Happy to join the congested caravan of cars, we slowly made our way across the Hudson River, back to New York. I asked this wonderful couple to leave me on the other side of the bridge so they could continue on their way; but they insisted on taking me all the way to my home, another thirty minutes south of the bridge.

Pulling onto my street, I gave my new friends my heartfelt thanks for bringing me “Home Sweet Home.” Although eager to get inside, I questioned them to be sure they knew how to get back to the highway so they could continue on their journey to their own home.

They smiled and assured me that, yes, they knew how to get there. They would retrace their route and head back toward the Tappan Zee Bridge. But instead of heading to upstate New York, as I had assumed, they would be joining the long line of cars heading back over the bridge. Why on earth would they do that? Because my heaven-sent angels lived in a house only a few short blocks from where the bus dropped us off many hours ago—in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Pamela Hackett Hobson

More stories from our partners