My Journey on September 11th: Shell Shocked to She Warrior

It was a beautiful, sunny Tuesday morning and I headed into the 6 train towards downtown Manhattan to head to work. The event space that I had been working at had it’s first event the night before and I was excited to see my boss and hear how it went. As I neared Wall Street, the subway slowed and jerked a bit but finally let us off, without a warning. 

It wasn’t until I emerged from the subway that I looked up and saw the dark, black smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center towers and realized something wasn’t right. I was confused and couldn’t imagine what kind of accident could have done such damage. 

The cell towers were destroyed so I couldn’t use my phone and everyone I passed on the street was pointing up towards the ominous sight, oblivious of what was about to happen next. When I walked the three blocks to the corner of Rector and the West Side Highway, I saw a police officer staring up at the towers, sobbing. My heart sunk, and even though I still had no idea what was happening, I knew it was bad. 

I got to the building where I worked and spoke to the doorman. He told me that I couldn’t go upstairs to work, that “they” bombed the towers and that my boss wasn’t home from dropping her daughter off at school, only Jenny the dog was there. He told me the subways had now stopped running, so I asked him where would I go? He shrugged and offered to let me use the phone in the lobby. Unsure of whom I would call, I dialed my mom’s work number.

The rest of the day is kind of a blur. My mom tells me I called her and in a child’s voice I told her that there was a hole in the World Trade Center. That’s when the first tower fell and a swarm of people rushed into the lobby looking for shelter. The phone went flying out of my hands and I was pushed with the others into a utility closet with a bunch of strangers. Poor Mom just heard people screaming because the phone didn’t hang up for minutes, that, to her, seemed like hours. 

I was paralyzed with fear. I remember thinking I was absolutely going to die, in a closet with a bunch of strangers. I was crying uncontrollably and a police officer told me to be quiet. Then, a woman came over to me and put her hands on my shoulders. She asked me my name and I told her. She said, “Jennifer, I’m Nancy and you and I are going to get out of here today”. I’m pretty sure I had just met my guardian angel. 

The cop made us all evacuate; I guess he thought the building would collapse on top of us. Everyone scattered in different directions and Nancy and I headed South. The ash was covering us like snowflakes and we finally made it to 100 Broadway. There were people giving out masks and water and for a few minutes, we were ok. Shortly after, the second tower fell and we had to evacuate there as well. 

Nancy and I headed East, through Chinatown and then walked up to Soho. The martial arts school I had just started training at was there and I figured we can both go there to regroup. We walked in and must have looked like zombies, covered in ashes and completely shell shocked.  My teachers, Lena and Holly, were there and for the first time that day, I felt safe. I drank water. I took a shower. I sat in front of the giant screen TV and was able to hear from a newsperson what was actually happening in the world. 

That martial arts school, AKA dojang in Korean, became a symbol for me of safety and of building inner strength. Looking back now, I’m able to see how it changed the entire course of my life and began my journey to building the She Warrior brand and lifestyle.  

After September 11th, now with only one job bartending at night to pay the bills, all I wanted to do was spend my days training at the dojang. Wax on. Wax off. Follow the commands of the instructors. Kick, punch, sweat it all out and end with some meditation. It was the best anti-anxiety medicine, without any terrible side effects. The benefits were addictive, but in the best way. 

The more time I spent there, the more badass I felt. Physically, my body was getting stronger from all the conditioning. Mentally, I started to feel more confident as I learned ass-kicking life-saving skills. Spiritually, I started to feel more grounded and purposeful, more than I ever had in my life. 

Don’t get me wrong, I was grappling with my fair share of demons. I had a bad case of survivor’s guilt, especially seeing all of the missing person’s flyers and hearing people’s stories of losing their loved ones. I had tons of holy-shit-what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life moments because I lost my job as an event planner before I got to plan any events. And to this day, 19 years later, my body still reacts to the noise of low flying planes, firecrackers or loud, obnoxious motorcycles and I have to remind myself that I’m not actually dying. 

Training in martial arts helped me rebuild myself after the traumatic events on September 11th into a better and stronger version of myself. I kicked and punched my way out of PTSD. I went from shell shocked to She Warrior over the course of a decade by showing up and getting onto the mat, no matter what was going on in my life. It kept me grounded and gave me purpose. It helped me stick up for myself and take a stand for others.

It sounds a bit dramatic but I’m pretty sure my entire career and life’s work would not be what it is today if it weren’t for that horrible day. For that, I am grateful.

Has there been a traumatic event in your life that helped shape you into a stronger version of yourself? It can be hard to connect the dots of tragedy to triumph in your life, especially if the event and the outcome don’t seem to connect logically. In my case, it wasn’t until I was challenged to write a story like this that I was able to connect the dots and find my story.

My challenge to you is to look back at difficult times in your life and choose one that made you either pivot or recreate your career, health, relationships or wellbeing. Take some time to write it out. Going forward you can reflect on those moments and remember that you are strong, you are resilient and you are a (She) warrior.