Although it’s been 10 years, Jon and Kathy Nugent remember the sight of soldiers at every corner, the sounds of military jets flying above and the smell of smoke as if it was yesterday. The couple was living in the city of New York when 9/11 happened.
Kathy, now director of the UAB Biotechnology program, remembers what a beautiful morning it was as she got ready to fly out for a day meeting in Raleigh, N.C. She and Jon both worked for a consulting firm in New York in an office across from the Empire State Building. Kathy spoke to her mom before boarding the plane and turned off her cell phone.
Jon, now a program manager in the School of Health Professions Dean’s office, headed off to work taking the subway. As he exited the subway, he noticed how smokey the sky was.
“The sky was just black at nine in the morning,” said Jon. “I just thought maybe they are filming a movie.”
He stopped at his favorite coffee shop and noticed everyone was glued to the televisions, something unusual for busy New Yorkers. At that time, everyone thought the first plane crash into the World Trade Center was just an accident.
Meanwhile, Kathy landed in Raleigh. Her client was waiting for her in the terminal which was normal back then. As soon as they left the airport, it shut down.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” said Kathy. “We just continued on to the office.”
Once Jon arrived to the office, he heard that a second plane hit the other tower. Kathy’s mom frantically called Jon saying she couldn’t get in touch with her. He calmed her down, but realized the gravity of the situation.
“This is serious,” said Jon. “We were being attacked.”
By the time Kathy made it to her client’s office, the secretary said New York is calling you, it’s urgent. She remembered she had her phone turned off and listened to her hysterical mother on her messages. She talked to her and Jon as she watched the tragedy unfold on television.
“I couldn’t believe what had happened back home,” said Kathy.
At the time, there were five planes still in the air and the Empire State Building was considered another target. Since it was across the street from Jon’s office, everybody left for the day.
“Tens of thousands of people are walking up Park Avenue,” said Jon. “No taxis, no subways. So we headed north in the opposite direction of the smoke.”
Jon had walked about 10 blocks when something caught his eye.
“I remembered a man walking by me and he’s really focused,” said Jon. “The man is covered from head to toe in white soot as he’s carrying his suitcase.”
Kathy is now stranded in Raleigh with just the clothes on her back and no laptop or phone charger. She was cut off from communicating with anybody. The malls closed for two days in fear. No one was allowed inside New York or out.
“Although I missed Kathy, I was thankful she was in North Carolina where it was safe,” said Jon.
Four days later, Kathy was able to take the train into New York loaded with Red Cross volunteers. She said you could hear a pin drop crossing the bridge into New York.
“Everyone sat silently looking out the window as you saw the smoke continue to rise in the air,” said Kathy.
For weeks, both said you could see and smell the smog and smoke as if the house next door was burning. Every flat surface had pictures of loved ones missing.
“Every apartment building had flyers of people missing and huge memorials set up everywhere,” said Kathy.
“You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing police and military with machine guns on every corner,” said Jon. “There were constant flyovers from jets and helicopters while taxis rode empty in the city. No one was riding on the train and instead packed the buses.”
They realized their city and the country had changed forever. And the reality of what happened could have been tragic for the Nugents.
“I got on a plane the exact same moment as the victims who didn’t come home,” said Kathy.
Hearing stories from families about the last time they saw their loved ones is what has stood out the most after all these years.
“When things drastically change, you remember that exact moment,” said Kathy. “I vividly remember the moment Jon walked me to our elevator to say goodbye and watched me as the door closed.”
Despite a devastating time for New York, they did see some hope.
“In just six months, New York became like a small town,” said Jon. “People became extremely friendly because we had all been through this terrible tragedy together.”
“You are bound by the city,” said Kathy. “When something like this happens, you take it to heart. New Yorkers are the most resilient people I have ever met. They are there for each other during a time like this.”
Jon and Kathy continued to live in New York for another four years before deciding to move to Birmingham where they both now work for UAB’s School of Health Professions. Kathy continues to consult for her former employer just to keep her toes in the Big Apple.
“I’ll always love New York and love to visit,” said Kathy. “But I feel much safer here in Alabama.”