Twice Blessed: The Day That Changed Lives Forever (Part 1)

Shelly Genovese CalhounBy Shelly Genovese Calhoun12 Minutes

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Twice Blessed: A Journey of Hope Through 9/11 by Shelly Genovese Calhoun


Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

The next morning, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was a day no one could have ever imagined happening, much less being thrust into.

As always, Steve woke up early. He left Jacqueline and me sleeping while he got ready for work. Every morning he went in to check on Jacqueline and give his little princess a kiss. That morning, I felt Steve gently kiss me. He then reached over and turned the ringer off on the phone that was on the nightstand beside the bed. He was always considerate, not wanting anyone to wake me before Jacqueline did. And she always had a way of letting us know when she was ready to start her day. She wasn’t an early riser, which was a blessing, because everyone knew I required more sleep than most.

That morning, he got into his car and headed to the train station. Honey and Big Mama both heard him leaving. For some reason, in two separate guest rooms on opposite ends of our house, instinctively both of them looked out their window and saw Steve driving away. As Big Mama looked out, she also noticed that it was going to be an exceptionally beautiful sunny day.

It was still very early, and they both crawled back into bed.

Every day when Steve reached his office, he phoned his father, and they would talk briefly before his work day began. This day was no different. He spoke to his father just hours before unimaginable horror would unfold.

Hours later on this clear September day, I was still fast asleep. The phone began to ring, and ring, and ring—but I never heard a sound, since the phone by my nightstand was turned off, and I couldn’t hear the phone ringing from the nearby guest room. That sound had been muffled by the box fan I’d slept with since childhood.

Honey was finally awakened by the phone. It had rung repeatedly, then did so again a second time. By the third time, she got out of bed to answer it, realizing someone must have wanted to get hold of us. It was Mary Kay emphatically telling her to immediately wake me up and turn on the TV, because something had happened to Steve’s building.

With concern, Honey quickly rushed into my room and switched on the lights. She told me Mary Kay had called and that something had happened to the World Trade Center.

I jumped out of bed and turned on the TV. Still groggy, with my eyes barely open, I stared at the TV. The North Tower where Steve worked on the 104th floor, had bright orange flames coming out of the building. A cloud of black smoke billowed around the tower and filled the air. This couldn’t be real; it was something you would see in the movies, not real life.

What was going on? What happened? I’d just fallen to sleep in Steve’s arm. I had no idea what opening my eyes on this day was going to hold for my family.

By this time, Honey and Big Mama were both in the master bedroom with me. I immediately tried to call Steve, but phone circuits were inundated with calls in our region, and I couldn’t get through to him. I continued to dial his number over and over.

Then Honey remembered that the phone had been ringing that morning continuously. She thought Steve might have tried to call. I was immediately devastated to think I might had missed his call. My heart beat out of my chest as I quickly retrieved my voicemail.

What I heard was a frantic call from Steve with terror in his voice. I’d never heard him like this before. He was yelling, begging me: “Shelly, pick up the phone, wake up! Pick up the phone! I think a plane just hit my building.” It wasn’t what he said that really struck me; it was the fear and desperation in his voice, mixed with the muffled sounds of chaos in the background— then silence.

I was so mad at myself. Why didn’t I answer that call? Steve was so scared! He needed me, and I wasn’t there for him. I continued trying to get in touch with Steve, with no success.

My eyes were glued to the TV. The media was speculating that a private plane had hit the North Tower. I sat in my bed motionless, staring at the familiar building wrapped in smoke and flames, wondering what was going on inside.

About this time, Jacqueline woke up. Big Mama went in to care for her and we all quickly made our way downstairs. Other people started calling me, trying to figure out if I’d heard from Steve. With every ring, I immediately answered the phone, praying I would hear Steve’s voice. I desperately needed reassurance, to give me the comfort I didn’t receive from his first call.

No one was panicking; we were just all in shock. Everyone, like the media, thought it was a crazy freak accident. We knew Steve had called, and we immediately assumed he was okay. He must at that moment be making his way out of the building. But I knew one thing for sure: he was terrified. I had heard it in his voice.

It had been less than twenty minutes, but felt like a lifetime waiting anxiously for Steve to call again. Firefighters and police had all been dispatched from all over the city and were heading into the North Tower, helping thousands get out of the building safely.

Mary Kay was the first to arrive at my house. We were gathered in the family room with all eyes on the North Tower, when the unthinkable happened. At 9:03, before our very eyes, we watched a large jet airplane come out of nowhere and plunge into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It seemed as though this plane just disappeared into the side of the building, followed by a massive explosion and flames.

Everything changed at that very moment. I was living the worst nightmare I could ever have imagined. Paralyzed with fear, I realized this was no accident. We knew our country was under attack.

All I could think about was Steve getting out of that building. I wanted him home and knew he had to be on his way down. I began trying my best to figure out where the plane had hit the North Tower, from where the fire appeared to be located, but in 2001 we had no ability to pause the TV screen. I stood close to the TV and began to count windows starting from the top each time the TV camera focused on the North Tower. It was frustrating because the networks would shift to another image as I was trying my best to count, and I had to start over again each time the building was shown.

The news reports were stating that the North Tower had been hit somewhere around the eightieth or eighty-fifth floor (though it was actually higher—between the ninety-third and ninety-ninth). They also reported that both buildings were being evacuated. I remembered Steve telling me that after the 1993 bombing, it had taken him three hours to walk down from his office on the 104th floor. Again I thought, He’s in the stairway, making his way down once more. That’s why I can’t get in touch with him.

My phone was constantly ringing. Everyone was trying to determine what was going on inside the towers and with our country.

Within a matter of minutes, the house was filled with friends and neighbors. We were scared, but we all continued to think that if anyone could get out of that building, it was going to be Steve. I remember thinking, Things like this don’t happen to me. They happen to other people. Not me, not my husband—he was getting out of that building and coming home.

Reports soon came that another aircraft had hit the Pentagon. There were other reports and rumors of a plane heading toward Washington. The White House and U.S. Capitol building were being evacuated.

I was so anxious about what could possibly happen next. It was terrifying to think about.

In the midst of everything, all I could think about was Steve. I could only imagine how the stairways must have been filled with smoke. How much longer was it going to take him to get out?

What we saw on TV seemed so unreal. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just send a helicopter to rescue the people who appeared in the upper-story windows of the towers, waving for someone to save them. We were shocked at what the media was saying about desperate people who faced a terrible choice of burning to death or jumping.

I was praying that I would hear from Steve soon. Hoping someone had seen him, or knew something—anything.

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