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A birthday, a wedding ring and an unforgettable day

Sarah: A few minutes after 8 a.m. on my birthday – Tuesday, September 11, 2001 – my fiance and I were on the A train to Lower Manhattan. The day before, I had seen a wedding ring that I loved in a jewelry store on Broadway in the financial district. I wanted to show Jeff.

Jeff: I had to work at home in Boston that night, so I wasn’t crazy about getting up early to go shopping. I wanted to sleep in and then go out into the street. But how could I say no It was Sarah’s birthday.

Sarah: We were on a crowded main train. “We have to get off on Fulton Street,” I said to Jeff.

Jeff: During a stop, I looked out the window at the platform and saw a “Fulton Street” sign. Too late. Doors were closed. We missed our stop.

Sarah: The next stop wasn’t until Brooklyn. We got off and waited a few minutes for a train back to Manhattan. During this trip we heard someone say, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” Nobody even flinched.

Jeff: Like everyone else, we probably imagined a small airplane. Sure, it’s not an everyday occurrence, but things happen in New York and people take it easy.

Sarah: As we exited the Fulton Street subway station, we saw shards of glass all over the street and on the sidewalk. We looked up at the sky and saw one of the towers of the World Trade Center in flames.

Jeff: We stepped out into the street to have a better view and saw that the other tower was also on fire. That confused me. How could a small plane do this to both towers?

Sarah: All I could think was, “How are the firefighters going to put out those flames up there?”

Jeff: It felt so confusing – the fire, the glass, the sirens, the people walking around watching. But when I turned to Sarah, she only pointed in the direction of Broadway.

Sarah: I still wanted us to see the ring. What happened hadn’t happened yet.

Jeff: We started walking and I immediately noticed that we were the only two people on the crowded sidewalk walking that way.

Sarah: At that moment, a policeman pointed to us and waved us in the other direction. “Get into town!” Her tone was serious, so we joined the crowd heading north.

Jeff: We were just walking, no urgency. It felt like we were just avoiding the rescue equipment that needed to come here.

Sarah: We had been walking three blocks north when we heard the appalling, rumbling sound of the first tower collapsing. It sounded like we were being bombed.

Jeff: We didn’t see it. We only heard it and felt it among the crowd in the energy transition.

Sarah: Everyone around us started screaming and running. Suddenly a gray-black cloud of smoke rolled towards us from where we had just been. I thought we were going to be devoured. My feet are frozen. Jeff grabbed my hand and helped me run.

Jeff: We moved slowly because the sidewalk was full. But the people behind us ran past us in a panic. I was afraid we would be trampled on, so I pulled Sarah into a shop front.

Sarah: As we stood there and let the hectic pace of people pass us by, I remember seeing a woman standing on the street and screaming: “Don’t panic!”

Jeff: The gray-black cloud didn’t reach us, and after waiting a minute or two and it wasn’t so wild on the sidewalk anymore, we followed the crowd up town.

Sarah: We came to a subway station, but the police blocked the entrance. So we went on and passed an equipment store that had televisions in the windows showing the news. Vans slammed their radios and we began to understand what had happened. Tower 1. Tower 2. The Pentagon. A field in Pennsylvania.

Jeff: We were a few blocks north when the second tower collapsed so we didn’t even hear the excitement. But then we got to Broadway and I remembered that whenever I looked south from here I could see the Twin Towers. I glanced in that direction, expecting to see only one tower, but both were gone.

Sarah: Buses drove, but they were full. So the New Yorker hoard moved into town on foot. I was grateful that I had chosen my Birkenstocks rather than high heels that morning.

Jeff: Everyone had a cell phone on their ear, but most of them were not used. A young woman was dressed for a day’s work, perhaps in one of the finance offices in the towers. She was red in the face and cried when she clutched her cell phone.

Sarah: As I watched people trying to contact loved ones, I realized that no one knew we were downtown, so no one would be surprised about us. What if Jeff wanted to surprise me with a birthday breakfast at Windows on the World that morning?

Jeff: Whenever Sarah mentions this, I feel confirmed that I am an unromantic curmudgeon. Maybe we saved our lives.

Sarah: The other “what-if” makes me ask: What if this policeman hadn’t been there to direct us into town? What if we were still down there when the towers collapsed? I think about this cop a lot and wonder if she’s okay.

Jeff: Somewhere around Madison Square Garden we passed a gift shop and a crowd gathered around a postcard display. They grabbed all of the World Trade Center cards.

Sarah: As we were leaving, I suddenly remembered that Jeff’s car was parked in a place that had to be vacated by 11 a.m. due to the alternative park side of the street.

Jeff: I had exactly the same thought that preoccupied me – a $ 75 ticket! It was both a few more blocks on foot before we realized that every cop in town was downtown. Nobody would issue tickets today.

Sarah: Finally, after almost three hours of walking, we reached my brother’s apartment, where we lived. We hugged my sister-in-law and niece who had been picked up from elementary school. Soon my brother was coming home from his Midtown office. We tried calling the rest of our family.

Jeff: As soon as I got a signal, I called the Boston Globe, where I worked, to tell my boss in the sports department that I couldn’t make it that night. When he heard where I was, he quickly transferred my call to the newsroom. I gave them a few details about what I had seen.

Sarah: We heard that bridges and tunnels were being closed. Would we be able to get out of town?

Jeff: We decided to go right away and try to get home. We were the only car on the West Side Highway, and when we passed the George Washington Bridge we noticed that it was empty except for police cars. It was a tense, quiet drive home.

Sarah: Less than a month later, we got married on my parents’ farm in the backcountry. Some of our friends and family canceled us because they were scared of flying. Some flew anyway, saying terrorists wouldn’t stop them from doing what they wanted to do.

Jeff: Our wedding day was October 7th. During the reception, some of our guests learned that the US had just invaded Afghanistan. Everyone decided not to tell us so it wouldn’t mess up our big day.

Sarah: I didn’t come back to Lower Manhattan to buy this beautiful wedding ring that I fell in love with.

Jeff: While we were fleeing from the destruction of Tower 1, Sarah had told me that she would only wear a Coke tab to get married in it.

Sarah: Instead, I got married in my grandmother’s wedding ring. And about a year later, I bought a beautiful wedding ring at Silverscape right after we moved to Northampton.

Sarah Swersey and Jeff Wagenheim.

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