By Madeleine Miller | Dispatch Record

I was 3 when terrorists flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center towers, too young to understand or remember the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

Not until last summer, when I came to know and love New York City, did I begin to understand the human and economic toll of the day. Wandering the city’s streets, visiting the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and listening to New Yorkers’ accounts of the attacks impressed on me the gravity and horror of the day.

Today, 19 years after the towers collapsed, I’d like to share with you a devastating story from a dear friend.

Diane Rathjen moved to New York from her home state of Florida in 1981 to study interior design. She did not plan to stay, but “fell in love with the energy and mindset of the city,” and has been there since.

Rathjen was at her apartment in Queens when the first plane crashed into the floors 93 to 99 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. She had worked late the night before at her church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle.

“I just knew I had to get to Brooklyn, because people would need help,” she said.

On her way from Queens to Brooklyn, Rathjen pulled off the highway to make way for emergency vehicles, just in time to watch the North Tower collapse. Unable to continue driving, as the New York Police Department closed the streets, she parked her car and walked.

By the time she made it to the Brooklyn Tabernacle, thousands of people were pouring over the Manhattan Bridge, desperate to get out of Manhattan.

From the roof of the church, Rathjen saw a white cloud floating toward her. As it neared, she realized it was made up of office papers from the World Trade Center, which blew across lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, and settled on the church’s roof.

“When the second plane hit, it became real that this was intentional,” Rathjen said. “People panicked to get off the streets and away from tall buildings.”

With vehicular traffic prohibited and subways shut down, people could only evacuate the island by foot or ferry.

At the church, Rathen and volunteers provided water, bathrooms, telephones and sanctuary to evacuees passing by.

One woman, she said, could barely walk, having run a couple miles to escape lower Manhattan. She had been in the South Tower, when the first plane hit the North Tower.

“She had her back to the window when the first plane went by,” Rathjen said. “She saw its shadow go across her desk and heard the boom.”

An automated alarm system told workers in the South Tower to return to their offices, but the woman “had such a feeling of fear,” Rathjen said.

“She grabbed her friend’s hand and said, ‘We’ve got to get out.’”

They ran down the stairs from the tower’s 44th floor just as the second plane hit the building and got on a bus. Soon after, the North Tower collapsed, filling the air with debris and fumes.

The bus could not go on, so the woman jumped off and continued on foot through the dust and rubble. Rathjen said she was caked from head to toe in white dust when she arrived at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, only her eyes visible.

“Because she went down, she survived,” Rathjen said. “I don’t think she’s ever been able to work again.”

Rathjen said a man in a white jacket arrived at the church asking to use a phone. He, too, was covered in soot. He worked in a restaurant on the top floor of one of the towers and happened to be out on a catering delivery when the plane hit.

“My wife thinks I’m still in the tower,” he told Rathjen.

He called his wife, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time, and found out she was in labor.

“For him, the day is forever linked to the birth of his daughter,” Rathjen said.

One man had a breakfast meeting at the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11. As he approached the North Tower, jet fuel splashed the top of his head as the first plane collided with the tower, severely burning his skull.

“If he hadn’t been late, he would have been up there, and he would have died,” Rathjen said.

Nearly 3,000 New Yorkers were not so lucky that day. Casualties include about 2,600 people trapped inside the towers and about 400 emergency personnel that responded to the scene. The plane that hit the North Tower left an impassable gash through the building, preventing people on the 18 floors above the point of impact from descending.

Some workers in the North and South towers escaped to the buildings’ roofs, but smoke and rooftop antennae prevented rescue helicopters from reaching them. Dozens jumped to their deaths, many linking arms before plummeting to their deaths together.

“You know they’re going to die, but they would rather die like that than burn up,” she said.

Rathjen said she heard their bodies hitting the pavement on recordings of the police scanner.

Onlookers hoped people could be saved from the towers, but once they fell, it was nearly impossible. Only 20 people were rescued from the rubble.

“It was a day of desperation, fear, horror,” she said. “We thought ‘Am I dreaming this is true? Am I going to wake up?’ But we didn’t wake up. It was real.”

New York City lost 10 million square feet of office space that day. Rathjen said TV screens can’t convey the scale of the World Trade Center buildings.

“They were so tall and enormous that they were landmarks. You could tell how far you were from Midtown or Downtown by looking at them, even from New Jersey. For them to be gone, you lost a sense of perspective.”

Rathjen said she is glad the new One World Trade Center, tall and beautiful, has been built in the Twin Towers’ place. Every time she looks at it, she said, she is reminded of the day of the attacks. She hopes everyone will remember that day.

“My fear is that people will forget about it,” she said. “Every year, it’s played down, gets less focus. It was an act of violence directed at New York as a symbol of the United States.

“It’s shattering to think of that much hate in the world today,” she said. “I’m grateful to live in a country that has so much that people want to come and live here. It’s absurd that, rather than emulate it, people want to destroy it.”

Rathjen said it’s imperative that we remember the destruction inflicted on the United States that day, because today, much of our country’s destruction comes from within.

“We need to remember 9/11 because people tried to destroy us, so we need to preserve us,” she said. “We need to preserve our way of life.”

MADELEINE MILLER is a staff writer for the Lampasas Dispatch Record.