Remembering 9/11: Acts of Kindness and Losing My Shoes

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Everyone who lived through Sept. 11 carries the emotional scars of the day, whether we witnessed the scenes in person or just watched on television.

I still flinch when a low plane flies overhead, and I will never forget the tragedy I witnessed that day. But I try to focus on a small act of kindness that helped me get through it.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was at my desk in The Wall Street Journal office building, across the street from the World Trade Center. After the planes hit, our building was evacuated, and the small staff that had come to work early gathered outside. We were dazed and devastated by what was happening around us, but it helped to focus on our jobs, reporting the events of the day.

My assignment was to walk toward the towers to interview people on the ground. I spoke to a woman who worked in the North Tower, who told a harrowing story of feeling the floor buckle when the plane hit her building. She said it felt like she was on a roller coaster as the entire floor rippled in waves, up and down. As she told me of her escape down more than 70 flights of stairs, I heard a strange, guttural rumble.

We were standing about a block or two from the North Tower, and we both turned around slowly toward the noise and saw the tower begin to collapse. Crowds of terrified people were running toward us. It was hard to process what was happening, but it reminded me of a scene from a Godzilla movie. The woman I’d been talking to figured it out before I did. “It’s falling!” she screamed and grabbed my hand. “Run!”

I started to run, but I was wearing heels and could only shuffle. So I kicked off my shoes and ran barefoot.

The massive debris cloud consumed us, and people started scattering, trying to get indoors at nearby buildings. A doorman at one apartment building was waving his arms, beckoning us to seek cover. Once inside, the residents welcomed us into their homes, giving us water to drink and wet towels to wipe away the ash. A woman named Phyllis noticed my bare feet and gave me a pair of Birkenstock sandals that happened to be just the right size. She was visiting from Atlanta, and told me to keep them.

It turned out I needed those shoes. Over the course of the day, as I tried to make my way home, I ended up walking nearly 10 miles. First, evacuation boats took us across the river into New Jersey, away from the dangers of Lower Manhattan. I met a man who was also trying to get home, so we walked north along the water together, trying to find a ferry or bridge that would allow us to get back to our families in the city. Everything had shut down for security reasons, but we kept walking, and finally made it to the George Washington Bridge at the top of Manhattan. It was late at night before we were allowed to cross over and head home.

When I finally walked into my Brooklyn apartment around 10 p.m., my 2-year-old was wide awake and waiting for me. “Mama got new shoes,” she exclaimed.

I didn’t know how to contact Phyllis from Atlanta, so I was never able to return the shoes, which were covered in soot and ash. But I still think about her every year at this time, and am grateful that her first instinct during a time of crisis was to help a stranger.

Listen to a related audio story from my colleague Dan Barry:
What Does It Mean to Never Forget?

This week, a reader on Twitter asked me for advice for adults or children who are exposed to someone who’s tested positive for Covid-19. The guidance changes depending on whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, or have tested positive or negative after crossing paths with an infected person.

To help you figure out what to do next, I recommend this helpful decision chart from Michigan Medicine. Even if you are vaccinated and wearing a mask at the time you’re exposed to an infected person, you may still need to be tested and take precautions.

Read the flow chart:
You’ve Been Exposed to Covid-19. Now What?

While we should all do our best to take reasonable precautions against Covid-19, I think we’ve reached a point where vaccinated people are overly anxious about the risk of a breakthrough infection.

As Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, tweeted recently: “The messaging over the last month in the U.S. has basically served to terrify the vaccinated and make unvaccinated eligible adults doubt the effectiveness of the vaccines.”

My colleague David Leonhardt recently explained the real risk of breakthrough infection. He wrote:

How small are the chances of the average vaccinated American contracting Covid? Probably about one in 5,000 per day, and even lower for people who take precautions or live in a highly vaccinated community.

The estimates here are based on statistics from three places that have reported detailed data on Covid infections by vaccination status: Utah; Virginia; and King County, which includes Seattle, in Washington State. All three are consistent with the idea that about one in 5,000 vaccinated Americans have tested positive for Covid each day in recent weeks.

The chances are surely higher in the places with the worst Covid outbreaks, like the Southeast. And in places with many fewer cases — like the Northeast, as well as the Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco areas — the chances are lower, probably less than 1 in 10,000. Here’s one way to think about a one-in-10,000 daily chance: It would take more than three months for the combined risk to reach just 1 percent.

Of course we should still take precautions even if we’re vaccinated. I wear a mask to the grocery store and to the doctor. I mask up when I’m indoors and don’t know the vaccination status of those around me. But I’m comfortable spending time indoors, unmasked, with my vaccinated friends and family. (If a vaccinated friend or family member has recently been traveling or spending time in a bar or a crowded club, I’d prefer to meet them outside or would ask them to use a rapid home test before spending unmasked time indoors with them.)

I think Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has summed it up best about the risk of the Delta variant to the vaccinated: “Risk is low enough to live life, high enough to be careful.”

Read more about breakthrough risk:
One in 5,000

Here are some stories you don’t want to miss:

Let’s keep the conversation going. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter for daily check-ins, or write to me at [email protected].

Stay well!

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