In some ways it’s hard to call up the emotions of that day. In others they are as alive as ever. I wrote this piece in September 2001, a week after the towers collapsed.
Woman in a Yellow Dress
by Luanne Rice
Last Wednesday, a week and a day after the World Trade towers fell, I was crossing Park Avenue South at twilight when I saw a woman in a yellow dress climb out the window of her fifth floor apartment.
On my way west from Gramercy Park, I stopped in the middle of the street. Eight days earlier the world had changed, and I was moving slowly. As the woman inched along the ledge, clinging to the sash, it took me a moment to realize what I was seeing. I don’t have a cell phone, and I couldn’t find a quarter, so I ran into the corner bodega--directly below her window.
The counterman dialed 911.
Time did a funny thing. It sped up and stopped, both at the same time. A buzz went up—all around—as a crowd began to gather outside. The store sold fresh flowers and smelled like a garden. Sirens—a constant sound all week—grew louder, came closer and stopped outside. The police cordoned off the street. More people crowded against the police tape.
I stayed inside the bodega. Five floors up, the woman was directly above me. Amid the noise, the sights and smells, everything seemed still and quiet. My own heart pounding, I imagined hers: beating hard, fear, despair. You’re alive, I thought of myself, of her.
All week the city had been burning. The air below 14th st. was smoke and ash. The wall next to Famous Ray's Pizza in the Village was still covered with posters put there by family members--photos and descriptions of fathers and mothers and daughters and sons and friends and everyone who'd been in the towers and were missing since that day. They were still missing. Sirens sounded all day long. I lived in the city. I was at Charlotte in midtown with my editors when the first plane hit. We hurried home, and when the buildings fell I felt the ground shake. Father Mychal Judge died. Another friend, FDNY Captain Patrick Brown, had gone into the North Tower to rescue people and was missing. The grief was terrible, but upon waking each day I faced one beautiful truth: other friends, working in the towers and surrounding buildings, were still alive.
I had been in the North Tower on September 10th. A friend and I had met for lunch, had had a picnic in the Trinity churchyard. It was a hot day, and we sat in the shadow of downtown buildings. From the cool green shade i looked out at the ancient graves, and said what a peaceful place it was, right in the midst of downtown New York, a respite from all that crazy Wall Street energy.
Then I’d headed down into the World Trade Subway stop to catch the E train home. My friend's building was right next to the towers, and it was rocked by the next day’s explosion. She was in shock and trauma, covered in ash as she ran away, but she was alive.
Alive. In that bodega last Wednesday, the word was a prayer. Please stay alive. Please don’t jump.
News photographs, published the day after the towers collapsed, showed people falling through the air, two people holding hands in the blue sky. That’s the image I find hardest, most heartbreaking, too wrenching and unimaginable to bear.
I felt linked to the woman above me on the ledge over Park Avenue South.
Be okay, find peace, know that you are cared for.
In those charged minutes—ten, fifteen—we blurred together. Eleven years ago I lived at 1 Gramercy Park, within sight of where she stood. The apartment was on the fourth floor; the front windows faced the park, the bedroom window looked across E. 21st Street at Calvary Church. My mother was dying, I was depressed and confused, about to leave my marriage. One midnight just before I left, when I'd become unbearable to myself, I climbed out the window, sat on the sill staring down to the street. I wanted the pain of living to stop. I wanted my mother not to die. I loved my husband but I couldn't stay with him--I felt a compulsion to run away and ruin my life a little. I felt gripped by the unbearable beauty and fragility of life, the unacceptable reality of not being able to hold on forever. I wanted the courage to jump, but I didn't have it. An hour later I climbed back inside.
The towers are gone. They were so beautiful, the way the light transformed their silver surfaces. Two nights before the attack, crossing Sixth Avenue in the Village, I happened to glance right, saw them shimmer in the summer haze, pink and weightless as their lights came on like stars, took them for granted as I always did—as I always do so many things that I think will be here forever. I loved the towers, loved going to Windows on the World, bought theater tickets at the TKTS booth there because it was downtown and always less crowded than the one in Times Square. But mostly I thought they were beautiful--not so much their near-mirror-image rectangular architechture, but in the way they caught the light. The way they reflected the clouds.
Be okay: I sent my thoughts to the woman as I waited in the bodega and time ticked by.
A psychologist told me that suicides were up in New York City last week: that for some people already in emotional trouble, close to the edge, the attack on the World Trade Center had proved to be too much to handle.
I love being a New Yorker. I’ve wanted to live here for as long as I can remember. My Hartford-based father was a typewriter man. Olympia, who made the typewriters he sold and fixed, had offices at 90 West Street, before the twin towers were built, in a Cass Gilbert magical-looking building that later would sit in their shadow. When I was very young, he’d take me to New York with him, and I would wait in the car under the West Side Highway or, if it was winter and really cold, on a cracked leather sofa in the marble lobby while he did business upstairs. My feet didn’t touch the floor.
When I was fourteen and my sisters were twelve and ten, we would take the train, by ourselves, from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to Penn Station. After hot chocolate at Rumpelmayers, we would go to the theater: Pippin, Moon for the Misbegotten, Porgy and Bess. When I was nineteen, my mentor, Brendan Gill, told me to move here. He said if I didn’t, I’d spend my life regretting it. Somehow I knew he was right.
New York has the life force running through it. It's the perfect place for the crazy, the creative, the broken, the seeking. So many of the people I love are New Yorkers. Living here I dealt with addictions, the futile ways of trying to escape pain and reality, learned to love my complicated life because it is like no other. I love the intensity here—the people, the creativity, the art, the unasked-for kindnesses, the movement, the Tourette's, the mentally ill, the genius actors, the unexpected raptors, the small neighborhood parks, the wild possibilities. To find quiet, I walk along the river or down to the harbor; I go to Central Park and look for owls.
Last Wednesday the bodega was quiet. After a long time, I walked to the plate-glass door. The woman was still up there. I could tell by the bystanders’ faces: rapt, tilted back, gripped by what was happening. Silence had fallen on this part of the city. A policeman saw me through the doorway and gestured for me to come outside. He directed me to move quickly away, along the side of the building. The September evening felt so warm, like summer; I could almost believe that everything was going to be okay.
Then the woman jumped. She fell, hit the ground at my feet with a sound that I will never forget and can’t let myself describe.
Everyone screamed. I heard voices rise, people crying, crying uncontrollably. Looking into the crowd, I saw hundreds of people reaching out, their arms outstretched up to the sky, as if they could lift the woman back up to the fifth floor. That’s how I’d felt on the 11th—wanting to lift the buildings and people and strangers holding hands back to where they’d been.
The woman lay beside me, crumpled on the sidewalk. She was broken, but her eyes looked into mine. She had dark hair. She looked about my age. Her yellow dress had tiny blue flowers printed in the cotton fabric. I saw all that, and I knelt down on the ground. I held her hand, wanting her to know she wasn’t alone as her blood ran out.
Police officers ran, tugged me away, surrounding her, doing their job. People in the crowd had pulled their arms back earthward, hugging themselves and each other, crying, no longer reaching for the sky. I was shaking and weeping, too, and I had no one to turn to.
I found myself half a block down East 21st Street, sitting in the doorway of the house where I had once lived—the red brick building, gracious and very old, at the northwest corner of Gramercy Park; I don’t remember getting there. My mother had visited me in that house. Even with her brain tumor, she had spent time with me there. She had loved New York, loved that I lived here. I’d learned about grief early, when my father died. And then my mother. Once you know grief, a part stays with you forever. Then you start to heal, and that hurts in a different way; you fear leaving them behind.
But they don’t leave you; they are with you forever. This is neither good nor bad--it just is, and the fact of them, the people you loved, exerts a tidal pull. Toward life or toward death, it's up to you.
The next morning, I woke up and thought of her: the woman in the yellow dress. That afternoon I stopped by Pat Brown’s firehouse, on East 13th Street, to leave some flowers. He had been part of Ladder 3, a rescue squad, always first into the worst fires. I wished I could tell him about the woman. He had perspective on tragedy.
On my way back home, something happened. It’s strange, but it’s part of my story, so I offer it here.
I had a vision.
A woman with peaceful eyes came to me. Her face was cloudy, and then it was clear. She was beatific and strong. Her eyes met mine with deep love and acknowledgement of what I had been through. A thread, invisible and unbreakable, had connected me to the woman. I carried the sound of her hitting the ground inside my body, and this being had come to release me. When I told my friend, a Trappist monk, he said he saw no reason not to think that she had been an angel of peace.
Today, coming out of the subway, I looked around for the towers. Like many New Yorkers, I have long used them as a compass downtown, to give me my bearings and help me figure out which way to walk, on my way to wherever I was going. Remembering they were gone, my heart caught again.
I saw a policeman. He was young, dressed in a blue uniform, standing in the sun. I walked over and asked about the woman in the yellow dress. He said she had been pronounced dead at Bellevue. He also told me the same thing the psychologist had: suicides in New York are up this week.
I don’t know the woman’s name. I don’t know her story, except that I was with her at the end. We are part of each other’s lives forever. Today the sky is blue. It is autumn, a new season. My birthday is in a few days, and a friend and I are going to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Before walking away, I thanked the policeman, who was a stranger, and said, “I’m glad you’re safe.”
And he looked at me and said, “I’m glad you are too.”