‘The World Trade Center collapsed right before my eyes’ 2
The twin towers of the World Trade Center billow smoke after hijacked airliners crashed into them on 11 September 2001. Photo by Henry Ray Abrams AFP
Culture

‘The World Trade Center collapsed right before my eyes’

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a Filipino NYU student looks back
CYRENE DE LA ROSA as told to RHIA GRANA | Sep 11 2021

September 11, 2001 was the first day of my fall semester class at New York University (NYU). I was on my second and final year taking up my Master's Degree in Food Studies and Food Management. That day, I woke up around 8:30AM to a mind-blowing news report. “A stupid plane crashed on the Tower 1 of the World Trade Center,” my Jewish roommate told me, laughing.

“I think this is a terrorist attack,” I told my roommate as I watched the video on our TV screen. My father had worked as a security adviser for the United Nations Development Programme so I knew about such things. My roommate didn’t buy the terrorist idea and just laughed it off. The anchors of the New York TV newscast also appeared unable to wrap their heads around what was happening. And just as my roommate and I continued watching and arguing, the second plane hit the second tower. “There is no way this can be an accident,” I told myself. “What are the chances of two planes hitting the same complex in one morning?” I was stunned.

World Trade Center attack
A fiery blast rocks the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images via AFP

There was still no announcement of classes or work getting canceled so I decided to head to school. As per usual, I left the dorm at 9AM and took the subway. It would usually take me about 30 minutes to reach the campus so I was confident I could make it to my 10AM class. But after a few minutes, my train came to a halt between stations. The conductor announced that due to a fire at the World Trade Center, our train was unable to move forward. No explanation followed. We were stuck inside the train for an hour without an inkling why. 

We were eventually let out at the Union Square Station. I had to board another train that stops at the station near my school. As I was walking out of the subway, I saw people crying, women and men. There was a group of people listening to the news on the radio, tears falling from their eyes. 

Radio City Music Hall, New York
Cyrene de la Rosa with her mom in front of Radio City Music Hall during her graduation in 2002

As I was walking on 6th Avenue, I glanced at the World Trade Center’s direction and saw Tower 2 collapse. It was several blocks away from where I was standing, but it looked as if it was going to roll down towards my direction. Mushroom clouds appeared like an atomic bomb explosion.

I was in complete shock while trying to take in everything that was happening. But I still got to walk towards the campus and proceeded to our 10th floor classroom. I entered through the back and quietly sat on the first vacant chair I saw. I got a scolding for being late on my first day of class. All eyes were on me. I wanted to speak but the moment offered no words. Finally, after a few moments, I managed to say, “The World Trade Center just collapsed.”

My classmates stood up, looked out the windows and saw the wreckage for themselves. It was chaos after that. Everyone started to pick up their phones to check on family and friends. But calls couldn’t get thru. Lines were disconnected. After a while, students were sent home.

Cyrene de la Rosa
Cyrene took up her Master's Degree in Food Studies and Food Management at NYU

Outside, it was like a dead zone. There was no public transportation—no buses or taxis, only people trying to walk as fast as they can. There were long lines in the ATM machines, which were already running out of cash. Everyone looked worried, scared. 

It was already late afternoon when I got home. The phone lines only got restored in the evening. That was the only time I got to talk to my mother and brother who were living in different areas in Manhattan.

People who worked at the World Trade Center who didn’t come home that night were considered “missing,” not dead. These included my accounting professor and a Thai classmate who both worked at the Windows on the World located at the 106th and 107th floors of WTC’s Tower 1.

Cyrene de la Rosa
Cyrene with her squash buddies

The night before

The night before, I was at a career fair at the Institute of Culinary Education to get leads for my internship. I wanted to learn more about wines so I was eyeing to intern as a wine steward at Windows on the World.

At the fair, I met one of the restaurant’s HR staff. I told the lady my accounting professor at NYU, Howard Cane, worked as a controller there. She advised me to email my professor about my intention and come by the restaurant that week so we can finalize my internship. She also handed me an application form. That night, I sent an email to Mr. Cane.

Cyrene de la Rosa
Cyrene with her family outside Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in Williamsburg

I was excited at the thought of having my internship at the popular New York restaurant. It was known for having the best wine collection. The internship could lead to a career in wine trade. My Thai classmate, who graduated a semester ahead of me, was already working there, so I wanted to try my luck at Windows on the World.

On September 12, the day after the terrorist attacks, I received a reply from my professor’s son. “We cannot find our father,” the letter read, “he did not go home. Please help us find him. Please let all your classmates know.” I cried reading the letter. I remembered my Thai classmate, and the HR lady I spoke with. Many bodies were never found. Those of my teacher and classmate included. A memorial mass for my classmate could only be held months later, which was when her parents finally gave up on the idea their daughter will still be found.

I was in New York for seven years—and that whole time was a huge learning experience. The lessons came from in and outside NYU. Having my internship at the popular BR Guest Restaurant Group, then still owned Steve Hanson, allowed me to enjoy some of the finest dining establishments in the city without having to spend so much (my boss gave me tons of gift certificates!). I also got to have my externship at the test kitchen of Good Housekeeping New York, which was quite an experience, too.

World Trade Center
A view of the World Trade Center from Queens, New York City, 1997. Photo by Eric Hunt on Wikimedia Commons

After the September 11 attack, it was difficult for me to go outside NY using a student visa—the terrorists used student visas to enter the state. Eventually, I got employed in a food services and management company, which sponsored my working Visa. My work there allowed me to have a good career in Detroit, Michigan and Greenwich, Connecticut for several years, before I decided to come home to the Philippines in 2007. 

I may not have realized my dream to work in wine trade but I still had the chance to work around wines, as an intern at the International Wine Center, a prestigious wine and spirits educational center in the US. I got to enjoy some of the best wines during my stint there.

When I look back on that fateful September day in 2001, I still get teary-eyed. But I carry with me all the memories—the good and the bad.

[Cyrene Dela Rosa writes about food for ANCX and other publications. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @cyrenedelarosa]