September 11, 2001 by Erma Martin Yost

My first post on 9-11 this week asked for stories. One friend, artist Erma Martin Yost could not just write a comment. Her heart and mind were bursting. So she sent me an essay, which I immediately asked permission to share. As journalists search for stories of hope, I wonder how many of them have told this kind of story? Erma tells an honest story of hope and courage.

By Erma Martin Yost

Memories that touch my heart most are those of the young children fleeing nearby schools. One young child asked his teacher, “why are the birds on fire?” The “birds” were falling human bodies.

A little child. . .

Another image is the photo of two-year old Patricia Smith pictured in the NY Times leaving the stage with her father after the Police Department’s highest award was hung around her neck in honor of her mother, also a police officer. On the 5th anniversary of 9/11 she was pictured again.  I wonder if her photo will appear again this year.  As a two-year-old, she holds on to her father with one hand and sucks her fingers with another. Clearly she cannot comprehend what is happening. Her picture in The New York Times reached right out and grabbed me. It seemed to symbolize all the losses–of life, of innocence, of a sense of security within the “homeland,” that strange new word we all now speak.

Constant Code Orange

           For 27 years prior to 9/11 my photographer husband Leon and I lived in Jersey City just six blocks in from the banks of the Hudson River directly across from the World Trade Towers. Since that day we were never not under “Code Orange.” We stayed an additional seven years after, but the memories and daily reminders of that fateful day eventually became too much. We now spend most of our time living in Carlisle, PA, where rightly or wrongly there is a greater sense of safety, free from the frequent terror alerts and constant sense of fear.

My story of 9-11: A Survivor’s Tale

             On that bright beautiful Tuesday morning of 9/11/01, I went out the front door to go to a water aerobics class only to find the street and sidewalk filled with neighbors looking east towards the Hudson River. I turned to follow their gaze and saw the horrific sight of the first tower burning (lined up with the end of our block). Shortly, I witnessed the impact of the second plane which shook the ground so hard it buckled the knees of us standing there and the image of that orange fire ball burned into my memory permanently.

An index finger. . . a forearm

I knew a friend of ours worked above where that plane hit. All that was ever found of him was an index finger and forearm.

My student’s voice on 911

More friends and neighbors perished, as did a former student of mine. The only civilian 911 tape that was released to the public was that student’s call and she was on the line until she was overcome and died. Victims from the WTC towers and surrounding buildings fled to piers on our side of the river on anything that floated. Still covered with ash, they walked past our house looking for their homes, cars, and any way to get away. There were many more horrific sights that on day and in the days and weeks and months that followed.

Twisted steel and lights

The iconic twisted burning metal that everyone is so familiar with was lit with bright lights at night for three months, a beacon for rescue workers, but also a glow in our bedroom. At first the smells included that of burning flesh, and the acrid smell of burning plastics continued for months permeating bedding, clothes hanging in the closets, curtains, anything absorbent. The drone of fighter planes flying their circuit’s overhead every few minutes sounded like buzz saws inside our house. There was the constant pull of wanting to stand with friends in spontaneous meeting places and wanting to stay inside the “safety” of one’s home.

Some stayed. Some fled. We did both.

Someone said there were those who stayed and those who fled.  In the immediate days, months, and years that followed Leon and I tried to stay. We knew from the beginning of this tragedy that city life had changed forever and assumed that one day we would adjust to the changes. Eventually the decision was made to move, as did many of our friends. Within the first year of living in Carlisle, PA, we met several families that had moved there too, their hometown, having fled life in the Big Apple. I hope such people are not viewed as quitters, non resilient, or not hopeful. Our new beginnings just have to take place elsewhere.

Bio: Leon and Erma Yost bought a row house in Jersey City in 1974 where they lived and maintained their artists’ studios for 36 years. They also worked in Manhattan, going through the World Trade Center many times a week on the PATH trains. In 1993 Erma missed the bombing of the WTC by perhaps minutes. She had taken the PATH train into the towers, went outside to buy art supplies and when she returned a short time later, people were running out of Tower One. No emergency crews had even arrived yet and no one knew what had just transpired. The crater that the bomb left was on the PATH platform where she had just departed the train.

Spring Song, 2011 by Erma Martin Yost

Wow, Erma. Thank you so much for this gift. You challenge us to think about the many ways to make “new beginnings.” I hope 12-year-old Patricia Smith will somehow find this essay and know how important she is to you and to all of us.

When we help others heal, and when we tell truthful stories of how we have wrestled with the twin angels called Courage and Hope, we heal a little more of our own wounds. Shalom. Now, what are YOUR stories?



Shirley Showalter


  1. Angela on September 10, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    I have never read anything about the people who lived near the WTC. Thank you for sharing.

  2. shirleyhs on September 10, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks, Angela. So good to know you found the story a window into another life. That’s what makes memoir worthwhile, don’t you think?

  3. shirleyhs on September 10, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Here’s a wonderful set of poetic responses to add to the visual arts above:

  4. shirleyhs on September 11, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Two additional posts about 9-11. Here’s a YouTube of Martin Espada reading his powerful poem “Alabanza”–in praise of the workers in the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. It ends with an unforgettable image of two trails of smoke meeting in the air–the World Trade Center–and the smoke from the attack on Baghdad.

    I also wrote a meditation this morning on my other blog called It focuses on the children of 9-11.

  5. Madeline Sharples on September 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    I’m sorry, Shirley, that I missed your request. I posted September 11 story on my blog, Choices, yesterday:
    If you would like me to post it here as well, I’d be glad to.
    All best,

    • shirleyhs on September 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm

      Thank you so much, Madeline. I appreciate this comment, and I’m glad you included the link. What an incredible story! I encourage everyone reading this post to click on your link. For me, the story sent an extra shiver down my spine. I took off my wedding band to look at the inscription: 8-2-69. I’ll never look at my ring without thinking of the one found in Shanksville, PA. with the same date on it.

  6. shirleyhs on September 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

    I have read/heard some wonderful essays in the last few days, including a number of voices calling for an end to the huge attention paid to this anniversary. This American Life included a number of survivors who avoid the commemorations.

    Is it time to end them? What could we do instead? How could the powerful memoirs of that day be shared and transformed? I should probably write a whole new post. Maybe, with your help, I’ll do that next year.

    In the meantime, if you find a great resource, bring the URL here and say why you liked it.

  7. doradueck on September 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Thank you Erma; this brings a Canadian “far away” closer to this story and anniversary.

    • shirleyhs on September 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm

      Your comment makes me think about the role of master narratives. Erma’s story is fresh because it grows between the cracks of the well-known stories of resilence. Artists need to find those cracks. I’m glad you two artists have found each other here.

  8. Charles R. Hale on September 13, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Intensely powerful and beautifully written, Erma.
    Thanks for pointing this out to me, Shirley. Your blog is always interesting and well written. A great pleasure.

  9. Victoria Noe on September 11, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Shirley – I’ve blogged quite a bit about 9/11, though I only know one person who died. The latest book in my series, about losing friends on 9/11, came out today.

    • shirleyhs on September 11, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      Congratulations on the release of your new book, Victoria. May it bring blessing and healing into many lives. Thanks for sharing with readers of this post.

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