It was after 1 p.m. when we finally made it to the crowded McDonald’s on Times Square. My parents, two younger brothers, and I were caked with stinging white powder. It had worked its way into our clothing and our pores, and it burned so badly that both of my brothers were crying.

My dad asked the guy behind the counter for the key to the bathroom. He pointed to the end of a long line of people who stared at us as we took our place. Outside, the JumboTron kept projecting Flight 175 exploding into the South Tower. But inside, less than five miles from Ground Zero, people just kept ordering Big Macs and complaining about the service. The whole world seemed to have turned upside down.

My family had arrived in New York City two days before. It was the first vacation we’d ever taken together. I was a homeschooled twelve-year-old from Apple Valley, California, a small, high-desert town with more stables than stoplights. That morning we had taken a taxi from our midtown Manhattan hotel to Battery Park to catch the first Liberty Island ferry. It was September 11, 2001, my mother’s thirty-fourth birthday, and to celebrate we’d crammed our itinerary with every touristy activity she could think of.

My dad was the first to notice the smoke—an inky streak appearing on the tranquil morning sky. Within minutes, so much smoke was spewing across the skyline we left our place in line to investigate. We made our way to the park’s edge. There, beyond a high-rise construction site, we could see the farther tower, partially hidden behind its twin, but now bellowing smoke.

Soon a blare of sirens erupted. The crowd around us—professional-looking women and men toting briefcases—gaped at the towers, speechless. “It’s probably just an electrical fire,” someone said. “It was a plane,” said another, his cell phone pressed against his ear. I imagined a tiny Cessna, blown off course, and smashing into the building. But how could it make so much smoke?

The construction workers came out from the fenced-off site and joined us in the street. Traffic crept past. A fire truck, its lights and siren pulsing, got stuck behind a line of cars unable to move out of the way.

What happened next seemed unreal: a big-bellied plane hung in the sky above, zeppelin-slow and banking. United Flight 175 seemed to sail in slow motion toward the South Tower. For one long moment of helpless inevitability, the crowd held its breath. Surely the plane would bank and slip unharmed between the buildings.

The next half-hour was a disjointed jumble of images. Cascades of white paper poured out of the sky. Cars rear-ended one another; their drivers simply abandoned them and fled. My dad told us to hold hands so that we wouldn’t get swept away in the tide of people rushing past us into Battery Park. A red-haired woman with sunglasses shrieked into a pay phone. We started walking backwards, deep into the park, holding hands. I remember staring uncomprehendingly at a giant ad painted across the side of a building—Churchill brandishing his victory sign. And I remember looking up at the sky, constantly checking for more planes.

When the South Tower collapsed, a vast cloud of debris erased the distant buildings and moved toward us, blotting out the trees at the park’s edge. People turned and fled, trying to outrun it, but it rolled on inexorably, engulfing everything and all of us.

The sun vanished. We kept running, past vague shapes of kiosks and park benches. I pulled up the neck of my T-shirt and tried to breathe through its fabric, but every breath stung. As we ran, a building loomed out of the fog, Battery Gardens Restaurant. Its plate-glass windows were shattered and a mob of people was trying to push inside.

There, amid the panic and confusion, I noticed small acts of selflessness. Men pulled off their dress shirts, tore them into strips, and gave them to strangers to breathe through. Kiosk vendors passed out water bottles so that we could wet down our cloths. An Asian man appeared out of the haze, pulled the breathing mask from his face, pressed it into my crying brother’s hands, and disappeared into the darkness. When I went to look for toilet paper, I found a middle-aged woman at a bathroom sink, surrounded by crying children. “Oh, mija,” she said to me, “take this.” And she pulled the rag from her baby’s mouth, tore it in half, and gave it to me.

What did I learn that day near Ground Zero? That suffering is never far from human experience, but that neither is compassion. What I remember most ten years later are the small acts of human kindness.

Published in the 2011-09-09 issue: 

Coral Cullum is a writer and amateur musician who lives and performs in Apple Valley, California.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads