Remembering 9/11: A firsthand account, 15 years later

This story, of my father’s experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, was originally published in the Sept. 7, 2016 issue of The Hawk.

Around 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the phone started ringing.

The night before, Michael Christaldi had been attending acting classes at HB Studios in Greenwich Village, and had arrived back home in Cherry Hill, N.J. around 1 a.m.

Christaldi had the day off from his job as a conductor at Amtrak, where he had been working for almost three years.

After getting home so late, he had hoped to get some sleep. But the shrill ring of the phone kept breaking the silence.

One call after another came in, going to the answering machine.

“Mike, give me a call when you get this message and let me know that you’re ok.”

“Mike, give me a call when you get a chance.”

“Give me a call and let me know, I want to know if you’re going to pick Angela up with everything that’s going on in New York and Washington, D.C.”

This last message, from Christaldi’s ex-wife Sonya, prompted him to turn on the television.

“I put CNN on right away, and just as I did, the second plane hit the second tower,” Christaldi recalled.

As Christaldi watched the news, his phone continued to ring in the background. With the sun shining outside, in sharp contrast with the images on the television, the magnitude of what was happening started to rush over him. He realized that New York City was under attack. It wasn’t just a movie trailer. These scenes were real.

“I thought it was a commercial for a film that was coming out,” Christaldi said. “The absurdity of seeing an airplane go through a skyscraper was just unfathomable. It had never happened before, and you didn’t think that it would ever happen.”

With the news playing in the background, repeating the footage on a seemingly eternal loop, yet another phone call came in.

This time, it wasn’t a concerned family member on the other end of the line. It was the Amtrak dispatcher.

“Mr. Christaldi, there’s a lot of people calling out of work today, and we need people to come in. Would you mind coming in to work?”

All transportation had been running normally in New York City earlier that morning. However, following the attacks, Amtrak was the only service running in and out of New York City. The company had suspended service immediately following the attacks, but planned on resuming operation in the early afternoon.

Bridges and tunnels were closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles. Nothing was allowed in the sky, save for the aircraft broadcasting live images for the news stations. All forms of transportation were shut down.

Everyone in the city was stuck.

No one wanted to be the one working the train straight into the epicenter of the tragedy.

Christaldi called the dispatcher back, and was told that he was to ride from Philadelphia to New York, then back to Washington, D.C., and finally, on to Philadelphia.

“I’m not going to all the places they’re blowing up,” he told the dispatcher. “I’ll go to one of the places they’re blowing up, but I’m not going to all the places they’re blowing up.

He chose to go to New York.

Christaldi, along with a coworker, boarded a 2 p.m. train out of Philadelphia.

What was usually his daily routine was warped into something that he would never forget.

Prior to that day, he would always point out some of the city’s landmarks to the tourists riding his train: the World Trade Center towers, and the Empire State Building, among them.

That was never going to happen again.

“As we’re going in, and I look at where the World Trade Center used to be, all I see is two big black cylinders of smoke, going from the ground into the sky,” he recalled. “At some point in the sky, the cylinders of smoke met, and went out to the right, from New York into New Jersey. Just this huge, huge billowing smoke.”

After the train arrived at Penn Station, Christaldi immediately went up to the street level at Seventh Avenue.

Everything was deadly quiet. No cabs honking their horns, no people bustling around and chatting, no musicians playing on the street corners. Just silence.

Silence, and the smell of smoke.

Even 35 blocks from what would become known as Ground Zero, the air smelled like the burning wreckage.

“My first impression was, ‘My God, look how they devastated this city.'”

The next day, he was called into work and returned to Manhattan again.

New York City had changed drastically over the course of 24 hours. Every available, vaguely flat surface–trash cans, walls, construction barriers–was covered with signs posted by desperate relatives searching for their loved ones.

“It was devastating,” Christaldi said, “because it put a face to all the people that died in the building. Because at that point, you weren’t really putting a face to it. There was just so much confusion going on. But when you actually saw these papers… it hit you in the face at that point.”

A month later, he traveled to Ground Zero with some friends.

“There was still smoke, and things smoldering in the wreckage, still at that point,” he said.

Even years later, Christaldi is still haunted by what he saw that day: The silent, burning streets of New York City. The faces of the missing, that would eventually become the faces of the dead.

The desperation. The fear. The smoke.

“You could smell whatever was coming down in those buildings, and the fire, it was in the air. I can still remember that eerie silence, I can still remember how the air smelled,” he recalled.