It was a perfect day for sailing, a perfect day for anything, a cool breeze, blue skies, calm waters on the Hudson River.
Patty Jafari remembers it all, though it was 20 years ago this Saturday, and even now she almost can’t believe it.
It’s like that for most of us. We remember where we were, what we were doing, how we felt before and after those moments of terror and confusion on Sept. 11, 2001, when everything changed.
But few of us were as close to the World Trade Center as Jafari that morning. Few of us still keep photos of those moments on our refrigerators, mementos of that surreal September day.
Jafari and husband Mori, both of Albuquerque, had flown to Newark, New Jersey, the day before to visit friends and go sailing. The friends kept a sailboat docked at the Liberty Landing Marina, which sits on the New Jersey side of the mouth of the Hudson, about a mile across from lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center towers.
The night before, the Jafaris and their friends stood on deck and marveled at the sparkling skyline across the water, the towers tall and stately.
“The scene of the city at night was just beautiful,” she said. “We had no idea that view would never again look the same after that night.”
The couples slept aboard the boat. Jafari was up first, awakened by a loud boom at 8:45 a.m.
“It was like a sonic boom,” she said. “My husband slept through it. I couldn’t see anything from below deck. I made some coffee, went back to bed and read a book.”
Eighteen minutes later came a second boom.
She heard sirens, but figured they were just part of the sounds of the big city.
Up on deck, she saw the smoke billowing from the towers. She thought at first it was steam rising, but it was too dark, too much.
She called her friend to have a look.
“Oh, my God,” the friend gasped.
Their husbands turned on the television. Jafari started snapping photos on her camera. Among the many she took were several of the towers collapsing, one by one, a little more than an hour after the first plane struck.
Authorities ordered Manhattan shut down, closing off roads, tunnels and bridges. Besides walking, the only way out of the choking clouds blanketing Manhattan was by boat.
The Coast Guard issued an alert for all available vessels in the area to help with the evacuation as thousands crowded into The Battery, about six blocks from the collapsed buildings.
The boats came – ferries, tug boats, sightseeing boats, catamarans, yachts, water taxis, speed boats. By day’s end, an estimated 500,000 people had been evacuated, the largest marine evacuation in U.S. history.
Many of them were brought to the Liberty Landing Marina, where a triage and a temporary morgue were set up.
“They didn’t need the morgue,” Jafari said. “They didn’t have any bodies to bring back.”
Jafari, her husband and her friends volunteered to help care for the Manhattan refugees, offering them water, juice and bagels. Jafari remembers mixing up bottles of baby formula for the many infants.
“The people coming over were covered in ash and had this empty look on their faces, like zombies,” she said. “Some of them were barefoot.”
One man heaved himself onto a bench and sobbed. Jafari held his hand, the two of them wordless in grief and in shock.
A couple of days later, the Jafaris traveled to midtown Manhattan, where people still had that empty look. Fences and walls were covered with photos of missing loved ones. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a firefighter still in his helmet and jacket sat across from the Jafaris in a pew and buried his head in his arms.
“That’s when it started to feel real,” she said.
Jafari said she has never told her story publicly before now, never publicly shared her photos. But, 20 years later, as memories fade, generations grow old and new generations grow up who never saw what she saw, never lived through what we did, it seemed the perfect time to share.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.