First-hand witness reflects on tragedy |

Opera singer


Originally published in the Iroquois Times-Republic in Watseka, Ill., September 28, 2001

John Whitman, originally from Watseka, Ill., Worked at the Empire State Building on September 11. He wrote a first-hand account of the events of that day for his community newspaper. It took place on September 28. 2001. Today, he divides his time between Watseka and Chicago.

It had finally happened. The New York City Opera hired me to sing the role of the Queen of the Night in their production of The Magic Flute. This will be my debut at Lincoln Center. I had been in Manhattan for about three to four weeks when September 11 happened. I hadn’t got used to the hustle and bustle, noise and incredible speed of the city. I found it annoying to walk down the street with so many people rushing to their homes or work. The noise of the trucks still bothered me. Needless to say, I have wanted to visit Watseka since arriving here at the end of August. One day I had sat down and envisioned a country road outside of Watseka, west of Rte. 24, where I used to go singing on my own and watch the corn cultivation and the vast land. I missed the house.

I woke up on September 11 like most days around 9 a.m. and turned on the TV to watch the news. Television showed the first World Trade Center tower smoking and on fire. News anchors were saying something about a plane hitting the tower. I picked up the phone and called Mom to the emergency room at Watseka Hospital to let her know what had been some interesting news here in the city. We spoke briefly and then hung up.

A few minutes later, I saw the second plane sink into the second tower. I knew then that it was no accident. I sat here in my one room apartment and watched the events unfold. News broke that the Pentagon had been hit. Then I saw the second tower collapse and shortly after the first one. I was just shaking.

I tried to call family members, but the phone lines were blocked. I tried my cell phone but there were no lines available. My agent called me and told me that of course my audition today would be canceled.

Then he said something that terrified me: “If there’s anthrax on that plane, we’re all dead.

A cold sweat ran through me. I felt every fiber in my body quiver.

All I could think of was “I have to get out of here.” I thought about the possibility of never seeing my husband, my parents, my brother and his family again. I started to panic. I picked up the phone and tried to call again but no phone line.

I thought the whole town was under attack. I didn’t know which building would be next. They announced on television that all transit was stopped, that the bridges were closed. I was trapped on Manhattan Island.

Then, as my fears started to run away with me, I felt this strong presence in my room of God telling me, “I am here. I will protect you. Lean on me. Have faith. It was as if someone had put a hand on my back and told me to sit down and relax.

I continued to watch the media coverage, which was scary. I finally got a phone line and called my husband’s school where he taught in Ohio, but got an answering machine. I left a message to tell him that I was in my apartment and safe. He finally reached me around 12:30 p.m. When I heard the sound of his voice, I broke down.

At the time, all I could think of was my wedding vows, which I had promised God that I would take care of this man for the rest of my life. I desperately wanted to be with him to make sure he was safe. We were both shaken up but held on to the phone as best we could and said we would talk to each other again in a few hours. He told me he would pick me up by car if needed.

I got another call from another singer who told me the grocery stores were full of people buying water and food. I told him I didn’t have any money. She urged me to go get some just in case.

I expected the worst on my way out. But everyone was calm. I went to the ATM and got my money back with no problem. My friend David urged me to go to a cafe and have lunch with him. My stomach was in a knot and I couldn’t imagine that I would be able to eat anything.

We walked down the street and I was totally amazed. Everyone was so calm. They walked more slowly but they stopped people in the street and talked about what had happened.

There was an overwhelming feeling of kindness, love, and absolute calm. We went to the cafe, and it was the same. The traffic had slowed down to almost nothing. The trucks were gone.

Coming back from the cafe, I passed a man covered in ashes. He looked like a ghost from a movie. He must have walked two miles home. He was standing in front of his apartment building, stamping his foot to try to remove the ash. I will never forget this sight. He was so white, from head to toe, from suit to shoe.

I had tried early on to reach my longtime friend from Watseka, John Whitman, who worked at the Empire State Building. I tried to call him but couldn’t reach him. I wanted to make sure he got out of that building in case there was another target. I left him messages for his roommate, knowing he too would be trapped in Manhattan. I told his roommate to tell him to come here and he could stay all night. I finally reached John around 3:30 p.m. He was leaving with a group of volunteers to help rescue the injured or help anyone who needed a translator for Spanish. It didn’t surprise me at all, knowing John. I told him to come here as soon as he could.

After many hours, John arrived here around 10 p.m. He had waited hours to help but there was no one to help him. We did not know at the time that this would be true. We both fell asleep that night around 1am wondering if morning would really come. Before we fell asleep, we kissed and I said a prayer.

In the days to come, John and I were inseparable. We had already spent a lot of time together in New York. But John has given me the kind of comfort that everyone needs in times of crisis, the comfort of home. John reminded me of home, Watseka, high school events, Lantern’s Lane, Pictionary tournaments at Whitman’s, county fairs, the choir competition, VIPS, my parents, so many things I love about Watseka. He made me feel safe when I was with him. I am so thankful that John was there.

We went down to the many memorials together. We made our way to Union Square and saw the many candles and artwork that had already started appearing throughout the park. I heard a marching band going up the street. Everyone started to walk towards her. It was a group of students from Alabama. They walked through the square. It was the most beautiful spectacle. They looked so young to me, not much older than 20. They had full drums and cymbals and trumpets. The sound of the brass playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” made my throat tight.

We saw the Armory where family members went to register their missing person. Thousands of xerox faces on sheets of white paper with their descriptions and the floor they were working on at the World Trade Center when the disaster struck.

Face after beautiful face. Photos of people at weddings, birthday parties, happy moments captured on film now taped to a seven foot high brick wall.

The images lined the buildings for three blocks all around the Armory. There were people singing in the street.

My husband had decided to drive into town from Ohio that day and called me on my cell phone to let me know where he was.

I heard his voice and broke down on the street. “It’s just awful.” I was leaning on a parking meter. This stranger heard me and came up to me and just held me until I stop crying.

I used to think of New York as a big city, very cold and lonely.

But for the first time, I saw New York as a small city, full of people who just want to get on with their lives and love their families. They are walking slower now. They smile more. They are more patient. They look at the blue sky and breathe out.