9/11 reflections with Sarah Swersey and Jeff Wagenheim: A birthday, a wedding ring and an unforgettable day

  • Sarah Swersey and Jeff Wagenheim on their wedding day, Oct. 7, 2001. Submitted photo

Published: 9/10/2021 11:05:26 AM

Sarah: A few minutes after 8 a.m. on my birthday — Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 — my fiance and I were on the A train heading to lower Manhattan. The day before, I had seen a wedding band that I loved in a jewelry store on Broadway in the Financial District. I wanted to show it to Jeff.

Jeff: I needed to work that night back home in Boston, so I wasn’t crazy about getting up early for a shopping trip. I wanted to sleep in, then get on the road. But how could I say no? It was Sarah’s birthday.

Sarah: We were on a crowded rush hour train. “We need to get off at Fulton Street,” I told Jeff.

Jeff: During one stop, I looked out the window at the platform and saw a “Fulton Street” sign. Too late. Doors were closing. We had missed our stop.

Sarah: The next stop wasn’t until Brooklyn. We got off and waited a few minutes for a train back to Manhattan. It was during that ride we heard someone say, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” No one even flinched.

Jeff: Like everyone else, we imagined it was probably a small plane. Not an everyday incident, for sure, but stuff happens in New York and people take everything in stride.

Sarah: As we exited the Fulton Street subway station, we saw shattered glass all over the street and sidewalk. We looked up to the sky and saw one of the World Trade Center towers in flames.

Jeff: We stepped out into the street to get a better view, and saw that the other tower was on fire, too. That confused me. How could a small plane do this to both towers?

Sarah: All I could think was, “How are the firefighters going to get those flames out way up there?”

Jeff: It felt so disorienting — the fire, the glass, the sirens, the people milling about, watching. But when I turned to Sarah, she just pointed in the direction of Broadway.

Sarah: I still wanted us to go see the ring. What was happening had not set in yet.

Jeff: We started walking, and I immediately noticed that we were the only two people on the crowded sidewalk who were going in this direction.

Sarah: Just then a cop pointed at us and started waving us in the other direction. “Move uptown!” Her tone meant business, so we joined the crowd headed north.

Jeff: We were just walking, no urgency. It felt like we were just getting out of the way of rescue equipment that would have to come this way.

Sarah: We’d walked around three blocks north when we heard the excruciating, rumbling sound of the first tower falling down. It sounded like we were being bombed.

Jeff: We didn’t see it. We just heard it and felt it in the change of energy among the crowd.

Sarah: Everyone around us started screaming and running. All of a sudden a cloud of grey-black smoke came rolling toward us from where we’d just been. I thought we were going to be engulfed. My feet froze. Jeff grabbed my hand and helped me run.

Jeff: We were moving slowly, because the sidewalk was packed. Yet people behind us were running past us in a panic. I was afraid we were going to be trampled, so I pulled Sarah up against a storefront.

Sarah: As we stood there letting the frenzy of people pass us, I remember seeing a woman standing in the street and yelling, ”Don’t panic!”

Jeff: The grey-black cloud did not reach us, and after we’d waited a minute or two and it was not such a mad rush on the sidewalk anymore, we started following the crowd uptown.

Sarah: We came to a subway station, but police were blocking the entrance. So we kept walking, passing an appliance store with TVs in the windows showing news footage. Vans were blaring their radios, and we started to understand what had happened. Tower 1. Tower 2. The Pentagon. A field in Pennsylvania.

Jeff: We were several blocks farther north when the second tower fell, so we didn’t even hear the commotion. But then we came to Broadway, and I remembered that I always could see the Twin Towers if I looked south from here. I took a glance that way expecting to see just one remaining tower, but both were gone.

Sarah: Buses were running, but they were packed. So the hoard of New Yorkers moved uptown on foot. I was grateful to have chosen my Birkenstocks that morning rather than heels.

Jeff: Everyone had a cellphone to their ear, but most were not getting service. One young woman was dressed for a workday, maybe in one of the financial offices in the towers. She was red-faced and crying as she clutched her cell.

Sarah: Watching people trying to contact loved ones, I realized that no one even knew we were downtown, so no one would be wondering about us. What if Jeff had wanted to surprise me that morning with a birthday breakfast up at Windows on the World?

Jeff: Whenever Sarah mentions that, I feel vindicated for being an unromantic cheapskate. Maybe saved our lives.

Sarah: The other “what-if” that makes me wonder: What if that cop had not been there to redirect us uptown? What if we were still down there when the towers fell? I often think about that cop and wonder if she is OK.

Jeff: Somewhere around Madison Square Garden, we passed a souvenir shop and there was a crowd gathered around a display of postcards. They were grabbing all of the World Trade Center cards.

Sarah: As we walked, it suddenly occurred to me that Jeff’s car was parked in a spot that, because of alternate side of the street parking, needed to be vacated by 11 a.m. There was no way we were going to get all the way uptown by then.

Jeff: I had the exact same thought plaguing my mind — a $75 ticket! It took us both a few more blocks of walking for it to sink in that every cop in the city was downtown. No one would be issuing tickets today.

Sarah: Finally, after walking for nearly three hours, we got to my brother’s apartment, where we were staying. We hugged my sister-in-law and my niece, who had been picked up from elementary school. Soon my brother got home from his office in midtown. We tried to call the rest of our family.

Jeff: As soon as I got a signal, I called the Boston Globe, where I was working, to tell my boss in the Sports Department that I wasn’t going to make it in that night. When he heard where I was, he quickly transferred my call to the news desk. I gave them a few details about what I’d seen.

Sarah: We were hearing that bridges and tunnels were closed. Were we going to be able to get out of the city?

Jeff: We decided to leave right then and try to get home. We were the only car on the West Side Highway, and as we passed the George Washington Bridge we noticed it was empty other than police cars. It was a tense, quiet drive home.

Sarah: Less than a month later, we got married upstate on my parents’ farm. Some of our friends and family cancelled on us because they were afraid to fly. Some flew anyway, saying that terrorists wouldn’t keep them from doing what they wanted to do.

Jeff: Our wedding day was Oct. 7. During the reception, some of our guests got word that the U.S. had just invaded Afghanistan. Everyone decided not to tell us so it wouldn’t mess with our big day.

Sarah: I did not go back to lower Manhattan to buy that beautiful wedding band I fell in love with.

Jeff: While we were fleeing the destruction of Tower 1, Sarah had told me that she would just wear a Coke tab to get married in.

Sarah: Instead, I got married in my grandmother’s wedding band. And about a year later I bought a beautiful wedding band at Silverscape, right after we moved to Northampton.

Sarah Swersey and Jeff Wagenheim.


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