My Sept. 11, 2001 experience: Masks saved me then & today

As I sit here writing this, I cannot believe it has been 20 years since the unthinkable happened to our country. If I reminisce about the many times, I should have lost my life, the biggest one would be my experience of the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001. Why have I survived so many near-death instances? I have no idea and I am not about to question it. I am very thankful for every morning I wake up and say, “If God doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want me. Who am I to tempt fate?”

I still remember that gorgeous Tuesday morning like it was yesterday, of going to work in New York City. It was election day in New York, and I had a light blazer on to dress up my office attire. The weather was beautiful. It was just an ordinary day.

I got up in the morning, ready for work, ran to the train station to catch my train into Hoboken then jumped on the Path train to head into the World Trade Center. I came up from the mammoth basement where the trains pulled in and then up the longest escalators you could find (remember how long they were?) to enter the concourse for the many shops that were there.

After window shopping, I would walk across the street to my office at 120 Broadway.

Since it was a Tuesday, I should have been in work extra early to make sure I covered our large borrowers, so they had enough money to transact their deals for the day, but my son, who was only 2 at the time, begged me to stay and play.

He had never done that before and for some strange reason, I stayed to play with him. By doing so, it saved my life. I missed my normal train and took the next one. At the time, I was working on a new album and was in the studio late at night, many nights. So, in the morning, I would pass out on the train and try to catch up with my sleep.

It was a short ride, but any sleep was better than no sleep. I would put on my headphones to my Walkman and pass out until we arrived in Hoboken. Sometimes, the conductor would have to wake me up.  For reasons I can’t explain, I had woken up prior to pulling into the terminal. I looked out of the window and the view of New York was always clear as day with the mainstay of the World Trade Center’s towers touching the sky.

Sometimes it would almost look fake to me, almost like a painting. Even though I had seen it every day for 20-plus years, it always looked picturesque to me.

 

A SHOCKING SIGHT SEEN FROM HOBOKEN

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I was the first to see it and said, “Oh my god, those poor people.”

With that, everyone scrambled to the windows of my side of the train to see what was going on. We had no idea what had just happened, but we could see the black smoke and flames billowing out of the tower with several floors above it, leaving those above the flames trapped.

My heart dropped.

All I could think of was, I must get to work. I don’t want to get in trouble. Back then, my assistant vice president role was vital to the team, especially on Tuesdays. I had been given what I would like to call a very large beeper with a keyboard to always be in touch with my team at the office. It was a Blackberry. (We’re talking early technology at this time.)

At this point, we still had no idea what had happened. I messaged my boss saying, “I’m probably going to be late. There is a fire at the Trade Center. I’m sure it will delay me.”

I never heard back.

The Hoboken Terminal was a madhouse. People were scrambling and running everywhere not knowing what to do. I struggled with, do I take the train or the ferry? I went to take the train and we were turned away. We were told the trains had stopped running, so take the ferry. I’m still thankful to this day I didn’t get on the train and wind up being stuck in those tunnels or at the Trade Center itself.

I waited in a long line to get on the ferry, much longer than usual — but eventually I boarded. The ride over to the pier was eerily quiet. No one knew what to say or do. We just stared at the burning building and prayed for those who were still in it. We docked at the pier, and got off and I headed to my office.

As I got closer to the Trade Center, all I could see was people looking up, pointing and gasping at what they saw. I tried to be cool and kept walking, all the while looking up at the burning building, when suddenly, we watched in horror as another plane was coming in from the south. Everyone began to scream; we couldn’t believe what was happening once again.

 

FLIGHT 175: A MASSIVE, POWERFUL EXPLOSION

At this point, I began messaging my office to warn them all to get out — we were under attack.

No replies. (There was no phone service for anyone, the cell towers were atop the Trade Center. I couldn’t even phone home to say that I was OK.)

As I watched this plane speed in and approach the second tower, to me it looked like a tiny toy plane. I ridiculously tried swiping it away from its course and intended target, the second tower. Suddenly, the inevitable happened. It struck the South Tower.

The explosion was massive and powerful, so much so that we could feel the heat on the street. Not only were we avoiding debris from the first-hit North Tower, but we were also now running for our lives to avoid being hit by even larger debris.

When safe, we all began looking up again. We were crying, we were shocked and we were most of all, scared. Who would have thought just going to work one day could kill you? We were the innocent, collateral damage in a war against America. Average workers like you and I wound up on a battlefield on American soil, something I never thought I would witness in my lifetime or even be in the middle of, that’s for sure.

As time passed and it didn’t take long at all, we heard a rumble and with that, we began to see the South Tower begin to collapse. It almost looked like a preset implosion to deliberately take an outdated building down. Still to this day, I thank God for the buildings falling the way they did.

Had they fallen any way but in pancake formation, this all would have been even more catastrophic, taking down even more buildings in its wake. All we could do was run and once surrounding buildings, restaurants and stores saw we were under attack, they locked their doors.

I pulled on several door handles trying to get in to anywhere I could find safety. My very own office building wouldn’t let me in. I finally ran into a gap between two buildings, covered my face and hid the best I could. After the thunderous smoke-filled tornado went past me, all I could see was black and all I heard was silence.

No one said a word, no one moved. I think we all believed we were dead. After a few minutes, I finally heard cries for help. We tried to help each other as best we could. I saw things I would rather not mention, but they’ve stuck with me to this day, seared on my brain.

 

REMEMBERING HOW MASKS SAVED ME IN 2001 YES, SURGICAL MASKS

I am very lucky indeed. I have breathing and throat issues now and my health could worsen throughout my life, but the one thing that saved my life was a little thing called a surgical mask. Since we had to return to work, the smell was unbearable. I couldn’t breathe. The smell of burning flesh along with asbestos and other office/building materials is an odor I will never forget. Yes, I have breathing issues, but that little surgical mask saved my life by being overcome by the toxins. I was still affected by the toxins, but not as seriously as I could have been if I wasn’t wearing a mask every day.

I’m not sure if it is because I am a 9/11 survivor, but people not wanting to wear masks during COVID-19 is beyond me. Before Covid, masks were and still are used in hospitals to save lives. I don’t and never will understand why the pandemic wasn’t looked at as another 9/11, a time when the country should have come together and do what’s right to end the disease, illness and death.

I get it — if you don’t want to wear a mask, that is your choice; however, stay away from others. We lost almost 3,000 people 20 years ago and that was considered our biggest loss of life in one day. We are now approaching 700,000 lives lost, mostly because people won’t wear a mask or get vaccinated.

Do the right thing for you, your family, friends and for the country. We will never get out of this situation until everyone comes together. At a time when we should be one, we aren’t. I just hope this all passes very soon. Listen to your doctor, not someone on television who is just trying to get ratings. I would listen to a medical professional before anyone else and something else to keep in mind, most of the people who are fighting masks and vaccinations are vaccinated and must wear a mask at their places of business.

I am ashamed that Covid-19 has been handled the way it has. So many lives have been lost for no reason whatsoever. I was raised where America is a country that cares for each other and without doing it together, we will never win. America is the catalyst of the world. The way we react, the rest of the world reacts.

So, on this 20th anniversary of  Sept. 11, 2001, I am very grateful to still be here and it haunts me every day and probably will for the rest of my life. If there is anything we can do for those lost on this day two decades ago, in their memory, it’s to come together once again and do the right thing for our country.

Remember how everyone cared for each other and we came together to help back then? God rest the souls of those lost on this day and prayers to their families. I was one of the lucky ones. Thousands were not.

Without my mask, I don’t know where my lungs or I would be today.

Learn more about the writer ...

JoAnn Barton | Special to The Observer
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Jo-Ann Barton is a singer/songwriter and musician for the past 25+ years who contributes entertainment-related stories to The Observer. Her last CD, 'POP and CIRCUMSTANCES,' spawned a number one hit song at college radio stations throughout the United States, including Hawaii, in 2001. She is the host of the Applause Radio Show, a platform JoAnn brings to an ever-growing audience tuning into listen to their favorite celebrities.