by Bella Stahl

September 11th, 2001 is one of the most traumatic day America will ever remember. Innocent people lost their lives as firefighters and police officers tried to save as many as they could, along with the families that searched restlessly for their missing loved ones. It was one of the greatest losses that would ever be known.

And my mom was there. 

The TV isn’t on this time of year as it reruns the devastating footage of the attack. The footage is what brought overwhelming shock for her, many fears, and great heartbreak for the many that passed. This is a chapter of her life that changed her forever.

Why was my mom in NYC?

My mom’s name is Helen Todd (she kept her maiden name). She was there to perform and sing with New York City Opera as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. Here’s her story: three to four weeks before the 11th, she arrived and wasn’t used to the rush and bustle of the city. While there, a friend of hers was also in the city who reminded her of home and would later come to be there for her when the tragedy happened.

                           My mom at the Twin Towers the week before 9/11

How did she hear about the 9/11 attacks?

The morning of the attack she woke up around 9:00 am and turned on the news. When it came on, it showed the North Tower smoking with fire and the anchors were saying that a plane had hit the tower. She then briefly called her mom to tell her about it and described it to her as an “interesting news story” from the city. Then she saw the second plane hit the other tower and soon after was shaking as one tower fell to the ground and then the other. 

How did my mom respond? What was she thinking?

Her first thought was “I have to get out of here.” She was afraid she would never see her husband, her brother, parents, and family ever again. The phone lines were jammed as she tried to reach them. She got a call that her audition was cancelled but then her agent told her something that continued to build up her fears: “If there is anthrax on that plane, we’re all dead.” She thought the whole city was under attack and was afraid of which building would be next. The news announced that all transit had stopped and the bridges were closed, trapping her on Manhattan Island.

Who was with her?

In the room she felt a strong presence of God and Him telling her: “I am here. I will protect you. Lean on me. Have faith.” She felt as if someone, an angel perhaps, had put her hand on her back and had told me to relax. 

She had two other friends with her in the city at the time, but I will not expose their names in respect of privacy.

Who was my mom able to reach?

After a while, she called my dad’s school and left a message for him that she was safe in her apartment. He got back to her a half hour after noon and she was so relieved to finally hear his voice again. During the attack, all she could think of was her wedding vows. She wanted to protect and be there for him, but all they could do was hold on to each other with their voices. At the end of the call, they wouldn’t be able to speak for a few more hours because of his work, so he said he would come and pick  her if he needed to.

She also got a call to go and get food from the grocery store just in case. So many people were buying water and food because they thought they would have to hide if there were more attacks.

What was the atmosphere of NYC?

A few hours after the attack (probably after 1pm) she went outside to go shopping. Everything and everyone was calm. They were walking slower and stopping others to talk about what had happened. One of her friends suggested that they go and eat lunch at a café, but she couldn’t eat anything because she felt so knotted up inside. On the streets and everywhere, there was a great feeling of “kindness, love, and utter calmness.” “The traffic had slowed down to almost nothing.”

What is something she saw that she’ll never forget?

As she was walking back from the café, she saw a man – that must’ve walked two miles –  covered in ash. He was standing in front of his apartment trying to brush it all off. She said “he looked like a ghost out of a movie . . . I’ll never forget that sight. He was so white from head to toe, suit to shoe.”

How did you see NYC memorialize those lost on 9/11?

She and her friend walked down to see the memorials and saw many candles and artwork in Union Square. A marching band of college students (not much older than 20) from Alabama came up the street and people went towards the music of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She saw the Armory, the place where missing people were registered. For three blocks, the building was covered up to 7 feet high with posters of beautiful faces. 

The Walls of Armory

Leaning on a parking meter, she began to cry. As she did so, a stranger came and hugged her til her tears ceased. Before 9/11, she thought New York City was cold and lonely. But the tragedy showed that love was at the heart of the city. 

Photos below were taken by my mom: