Getting Off the X

In a compelling personal account of the 9/11 attacks, one FSO offers tactics for surviving when catastrophe strikes.


A New York City firefighter looks up at the remnants of the twin towers on Sept. 13, 2001.
U.S. Navy / Jim Watson

In September 2001 I was an industry economist attending a National Association for Business Economics conference (themed “In a New York Minute”) at the Marriott World Trade Center. The 22-story hotel was situated between the twin towers and was connected to the north tower. My boyfriend and I were also guests of the hotel, having come up from Virginia the weekend prior. We were still in our room on the 18th floor when the first plane struck the building.

The lessons I learned from this experience have served me well in the Foreign Service through subsequent terror attacks, civil unrest and evacuations.

1) HAVE AN EXIT PLAN. Just before my trip to New York, there was a fire in the high-rise condo building where I lived in Alexandria, Virginia. As a result, the first thing I did when checking into the Marriott was to locate the nearest emergency exits. When I heard the loud rumble of the first plane’s impact, I didn’t have to waste time figuring out where to go, and was able to exit my room immediately and with less panic.

2) LISTEN TO YOUR INSTINCTS. In researching the hotel prior to my trip, I came across an article about the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. That was the first time I had heard of Osama bin Laden. The night of Sept. 10, I was walking back from dinner with my boyfriend and a colleague from my office. My colleague was saying how happy he was to have come on the trip. I offhandedly commented: “Yes, everything is perfect, although three words come to mind.” I paused dramatically and joked, “Osama bin Laden.” We laughed it off and continued our walk to the hotel.

The next morning, as soon as I heard and felt the rumbling from the plane’s impact, my first thought was that we were being bombed. My boyfriend and I looked out of the window and saw the large, swirling pieces of debris sailing past. We locked eyes, didn’t say a word and immediately exited the room. I left everything behind: laptop, wallet, phone and even my shoes, thinking: “Get out now, we can always come back for our possessions later.”

Many years later in Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (FACT) training, I would hear the need to move quickly away from a danger zone or attack site, referred to as “getting off the X.”

3) BELIEVE YOUR EYES, NOT WHAT PEOPLE TELL YOU. We took the emergency stairs down the 18 flights to the lobby. Surprisingly, there were just a handful of people in the stairwell at this point. Once in the lobby, we heard people saying not to worry, it was just an explosion in the hotel kitchen. I knew from the intense rumbling and from the swirling debris that this could not be the case.

The hotel employees were trying to get us to go back to our rooms and not panic, but I knew something big was afoot. We walked out the front door to another Marriott we had spotted across the street. I used the opportunity to call my father (collect, since we had left our cell phones behind) to say: “You are going to see something on the news, just know that we are OK.”

4) KNOW WHEN TO BREAK THE RULES. In an effort to maintain order, the hotel staff requested that everyone stay in the lobby and not leave the building. However, I felt the need to put more distance between myself and whatever was happening across the street. Usually I am a rule follower extraordinaire—with not even a parking ticket to my name—but this time was different. I tugged on my boyfriend’s arm and ushered him out a back entrance. Almost immediately afterward, the second plane hit. Given the size of the buildings and how close together they were, it was impossible for us to see very far up, so we still didn’t know what was happening. We only pieced it together once we saw some of the wreckage and heard others saying they had seen planes.

5) KNOW WHEN AND WHOM TO ASK FOR HELP. We kept moving south, away from the towers, trying to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the attack. The news was starting to travel, and people on the street were beginning to panic. I realized that there would be no going back to get our possessions, and that we would need money to get back home. We stopped in a bank to ask about a wire transfer, but they started to shut down almost as soon as we walked in. We left and kept moving farther from the attacks, walking carefully and looking mostly at the street since we were both shoeless. At one point, the smoke got so bad my boyfriend took off his socks, and we used them as makeshift filters. I found a bottle of water on the sidewalk and moistened the socks so that we could breathe better.

We ended up near the Staten Island ferry office, but I was hesitant to go inside any buildings for fear of being trapped in rubble. (By now we knew there were planes involved, and the continuing explosions from the collapse of the buildings made it seem as if the attacks were ongoing and that there could be multiple planes.) For a few moments, I sat on the dock, breathing through the sock with one hand, the other firmly grasping a nearby life preserver. I felt momentarily safer. A man came up and handed my boyfriend an extra pair of sneakers from his gym bag, which he gratefully accepted even though they were several sizes too big. Then the wind shifted, and even with our makeshift filters, we could no longer breathe. We had no choice but to follow the others into the ferry office.

Something inside of me knew that if I allowed myself to cry, I would never stop and might not survive.

I will never forget walking into the ferry office: It was possibly the most terrifying moment of my life. I was still so afraid of being trapped in a collapsing building, and I couldn’t fathom that the air inside a building would be better than outside. As I walked in and saw so much dust swirling in the air around the entrance, I felt a surge of panic and almost broke down crying. Something inside of me knew that if I allowed myself to cry, I would never stop and might not survive. I pushed down on my rising panic and somehow found the strength to walk in.

The low ceiling of the dimly lit entrance immediately gave way to a spacious, bright interior, and the air was clear. A woman approached me and handed me what I later learned were her friend’s shoes. They had been shopping, and her friend had been struck by some falling debris when they stopped in the street to stare at the collapsing buildings. She likely didn’t survive. I took the shoes and numbly went into the restroom to remove my shredded pantyhose and wash my feet before putting them on. They were high-heeled evening sandals and, unlike the shoes that had been handed to my boyfriend, were exactly my size. As I put them on, I remember feeling that I was going to make it. I called my father once more, this time arranging for a wire transfer, and then we took the ferry to Staten Island.

6) EXPECT OTHERS TO ACT ERRATICALLY. As the ferry pulled away, I remember looking back incredulously at the black destruction in the distance in the middle of an otherwise beautiful, sunny day. I was still holding the sock, although I didn’t need it anymore.

Once on Staten Island, we picked up the wire transfer (via a prearranged password) and started to make a plan to head back to Virginia. I realized my boyfriend was starting to feel the effects of shock when he asked me if I would like to stop at a salon to get my hair done since we were covered in dust. I looked at him and gently told him we needed to prioritize finding shelter and getting home before worrying about getting cleaned up. We walked across the Bayonne Bridge to New Jersey, the straps from the sandals cutting into the tops of my feet, but it was still better than walking barefoot.

When we arrived on the other side, I felt a surge of hope when I met a group of businessmen traveling in a limo back to D.C. They offered us a ride, and I was thrilled … until their driver refused to take us. I even offered him the $1,000 I had just received, but he said he was afraid of getting a ticket because he wasn’t licensed to carry more than four passengers. It was now 8 p.m., nearly a full 12 hours later. As it began to get darker, I was accosted by some inebriated individuals, and I worried about how we were going to get through the night, let alone back home. I eventually spotted a police officer, told him that we were survivors from the building, and he arranged for a squad car to take us to a makeshift shelter. My boyfriend called his family in Pennsylvania; and by 1 a.m. we were in their car and headed to safety.

7) BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU CARRY WITH YOU, AND WHERE THAT INFORMATION IS BACKED UP. While I don’t regret leaving the hotel room as quickly as I did, not even just to reach for my wallet, I do regret what I had brought with me on the trip in the first place. Since I had just been to a friend’s wedding in Italy, I had my passport in my purse, as well as my driver’s license. I was also in the habit of carrying my Social Security card in my wallet. Losing all three of those documents at once made proving who I was an exceptional challenge once I returned home. In addition to my wallet and ID, I left behind my cell phone, laptop and day planner.

Essentially, all of the contact information I had for everyone in my life was gone (these were the days before cloud backups). As a result, I sadly lost contact with several of my international friends and to this day have not been able to reconnect with some of them.

Today, I keep my Social Security card locked in a safe, and I think very carefully about what I carry with me and where it is backed up. I also keep a “go bag” with cash, flashlight and first aid kit. Contact information is stored on the cloud or backed up across as many systems as possible. Finally, I also make sure to always carry a pair of easy-to-slip-on, comfortable walking shoes, keeping them close at hand.

8) MOST IMPORTANT: KNOW THAT IT’S NOT OVER WHEN IT’S OVER. Recovery may take a long time, and that’s OK. It should be no surprise that I suffered from PTSD for many years after the fact. Loud noises and planes overhead would often send me suddenly to the floor, in a “duck and cover” position. It was two years before I was willing to travel on a plane, visit a high-rise or even just be in a large city. My father, a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran, was instrumental in my recovery, as was my writing career.

I did things at my own pace, sought counsel when needed and gave myself grace with the healing process. I resumed my travels and have fulfilled my bucket list, visiting 83 countries. I joined USAID in 2010 and served in Moldova, South Sudan (from which I was evacuated in 2013), South Africa and, most recently, at the Pentagon.

Every day of my three-year tour at the Pentagon, I walked by the portraits of those they lost on Sept. 11, 2001—a perpetual reminder of how far I’ve come and why I serve.

Nancy Ostrowski is a Foreign Service officer with USAID and the author of two nonfiction books. She is married to Brian Ostrowski, a Diplomatic Security special agent. In addition to surviving 9/11, she has experienced a major earthquake and been evacuated from two civil wars. She is currently attending the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University.