Dr Tasneem Dohadwala, a member of the Dawoodi Bohras of Collin County, Texas, reflects on the tragic events of 20 years ago.
I was 19 years old and in my second year of college at NYU. It is two decades ago now, but it feels like yesterday. I left home that morning, like any other day, when my mom dropped me at the subway station. I rushed to get on, sat in my usual seat, and started reading. We were crossing the Manhattan Bridge when there was an abrupt stop. I looked around and I saw a lot of smoke coming from one of the Twin Towers. I stood up to get a closer look. I was shocked to see that one of the Twin Towers was on fire. People were screaming, “Look over there, a huge fire,” when suddenly I saw a plane crash into the second Twin Tower.
I fell into my seat. Is this real? Am I having a nightmare? Hoping this was a nightmare, I stood up and sat down. I closed my eyes and then opened them wide. I slapped my face. But the sight of those two smoking buildings with huge fires blazing was still in front of me. My heart sank and a rush of thoughts and questions came over me. How could this happen? What about all the people in the buildings and the people nearby? Were other planes coming to hit other places in New York City? Did my brother make his way to Manhattan yet – I prayed not. What if a plane struck us while we were crossing a bridge over the Hudson? I wondered if this was “it.” I tried to call my parents and brother, but there was no service.
After 15 minutes, the train started running again but with no announcements. Everyone on the train was frantic, in tears, in a state of confusion and shock. There was chaos around me on the subway, but all I heard was silence. I got off the train for school at the West 4th stop and went straight to my Organic Chemistry class. I didn’t know what to do other than what I knew to do.
I was late for class and sat in my seat. Most of my fellow classmates had not heard about the Twin Towers, and our professor began teaching the class, unaware of the tragedy. Soon after, there was an announcement that class was ending, and everyone should find shelter and a safe place. I left class to find panic in the streets and people wailing. Without cell phone service, I stood in line for a pay phone for 20 minutes and called my parents. They were safe. Luckily my brother had not left yet, and they were elated to find out that I was safe too. My parents were crying and explained to me what they saw on TV. I stopped on the street, sat on a bench, and wept. The smoke thickened and the odor was pungent. It hit me that this was real, that we were under terrorist attack. My parents told me to go get my friend Alefiyah and walk to my uncle’s house, where I would stay until it was safe to go home.
On our way to his home, we experienced awe-inspiring unity in New York City. People were handing out food and water, putting up signs that read “shelter available,” and volunteering to help anyone in need. The city, state, and nation came together in a way I had not seen before. This catastrophic event brought people of all creeds, races, and socio-economic classes together in a beautiful way.
We arrived at my uncle’s house covered in dust and soot. Our hosts hugged us, we washed off, and we watched the news in tears. The news anchors updated the death and injury tolls. It was horrible. As an aspiring physician, I wished I could have helped those people. We were all deeply saddened, while incensed that the terrorists identified themselves as Muslims. We were all Muslims in the room and knew that this deadly act would further perpetuate anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia. These cowardly terrorists portrayed Islam incorrectly. Our only path was to continue being true Muslims, acting peacefully and striving to be productive members of the greater community at all times.
I stayed in New York City for the next three days. The air was heavy, hard to breathe, and difficult to see through. The sky was filled with dust, debris and soot. It felt low, so close that you could almost touch it. The smell was intense and, even with a face covering that I wore throughout the day and night, the odor could not be masked. Each day, I was thankful to be safe and supported. When I took the subway the first time to go home it was nearly empty, but with missing person flyers posted everywhere. It was traumatic riding again, but I felt encouraged by the strength and unity of the city around me. I was so thankful to be home.
As I look back, 20 years later, as a Muslim-American mother and physician who takes care of critically ill and trauma patients, I will never forget 9/11. I will continue to work hard for myself, my children, and my community, and try to be the best person I can be. I will continue to serve those in need, to raise my kids to always strive for a better society, and to always honor and remember those who were killed that day. I will never forget.
Dr. Tasneem Dohadwala
Collin County, Texas