When a Metro North train derailed back in 2013, my dad reached out to see if I was safe. I was at home on my couch watching TV-far from the Metro North or any other danger. When a building collapsed in East Harlem after a freak gas explosion the next year, my cousin text me to make sure it wasn’t my building. I lived on the opposite side of town; I was safe and sound. Whenever something scary or violent happens in New York, people near and far check in to make sure I’m okay. The odds are slim that, out of millions of New Yorkers, the handful of residents they know would be directly impacted by an accident. But Saturday night, those check-ins were more than warranted. They were absolutely necessary.
Just a week removed from the 15th anniversary of 9/11, New Yorkers were once again impacted by domestic terror when a bomb exploded in Chelsea on 23rd Street between 6th and 7th avenues. My fiancé and I were having drinks at Le Singe Vert at 20th Street and 7th avenue-just three blocks away from the attack.
It was eerie and surreal to feel the rumble of an explosion. The sound was muted; similar to an 18-wheeler passing over a large metal plate. It was sudden and all-encompassing; then it was gone.
"The sound was muted; similar to an 18-wheeler passing over a large metal plate. It was sudden and all-encompassing; then it was gone."
There was a moment of inactivity. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was an explosion. But we all sat there glancing around at each other with inquisitive looks that asked, “Did you hear that?” We knew something was wrong as emergency vehicle after emergency vehicle started zooming uptown against southbound traffic on 7th avenue.
Slowly, the restaurant staff started walking outside to assess the scene and catch of glimpse of what was going on. My fiancé joined them. A woman sitting next to us at the bar scanned Twitter and found out about a possible gas explosion with a resulting building collapse.
I searched 'NYC explosion' on Twitter myself. There was live Periscope footage of the aftermath-sirens, chaos, crime scene tape. Multiple tweets referred to an IED as the cause. IED is an acronym for improvised explosive device. Basically, the blast was a result of a homemade bomb.
The more we all searched for answers, the more confusion we found. Was it a gas explosion? Was it a bomb? Was it phase two of an attack that started earlier that day in Seaside, New Jersey? Were we in the midst of a multi-pronged terror attack? Was New York the latest entrant in a long list of messy, violent international terror tragedies?
In our reserved moment of panic, Twitter was far more informative than any major news outlet. The first official report didn't pop up until at least an hour had passed. Local station Pix 11 gave a bare bones account of the incident that did little more than recall everything we'd learned via retweets and Periscope video.
"Seventh avenue, typically a scene of madness on a Saturday night, was nearly empty. Traffic was being rerouted around 23rd St. Sirens could be heard over the clinking of forks on plates and jazz-inflected French music."
While we waited for more detailed news, the area around us started to close off. Seventh avenue, typically a scene of madness on a Saturday night, was nearly empty. Traffic was being rerouted around 23rd St. Sirens could be heard over the clinking of forks on plates and jazz-inflected French music.
How do you react when you're blocks away from an explosion? In a city that was home to the worst terrorist attack in American history? Do you search for clues? Do you prepare to roll up your sleeves and help those in need? Or do you grab the first cab home?
No one really knew what to do. The immediate presence of emergency responders meant we needed to stay away from the crime scene. But what next? I took to Facebook to check in safe and briefly share my experience. Other people in the restaurant continued eating as though it was just a regular night. Some people at the bar even joked about still being alive after the attack. Whether it was an insatiable quest for information, a refusal to give into the pandemonium, or a reliance on humor as a defense mechanism, we all dealt with it in our own ways.
It was a scary situation like a suspense thriller. Who knew how bad the explosion was or what would happen next?
"Whether it was an insatiable quest for information, a refusal to give into the pandemonium, or a reliance on humor as a defense mechanism, we all dealt with it in our own ways."
We finished our drinks and even stopped next door for slices of pizza before taking an Uber home. People arrived to the restaurant and started dinner. All around us, people were headed out for big nights. At Elmo, dozens of patrons were seated outside laughing and dining while the lights of several emergency vehicles flashed in the background.
Was it denial? A refusal to let terrorism disrupt our lives no matter how trivial the task at hand was? Had we been desensitized to violent acts? Had we become New Yorkers who were so fucking tough that not even an earth-rattling bomb could shake us? Are we blasé to the point of parody or to our own detriment?
I knew I wanted to get home. I soon learned that 29 people weren't able to do that. They didn't die but they were hurt. And the carnage could continue. Another explosive device was discovered on 27th street. The next night, a bag containing 5 devices was found in Elizabeth, New Jersey outside of a train station. What was happening?!
For 10 years, I'd treated Manhattan as my playground. I’d stomped around the city’s filthy streets like I was invincible. Now, for the first time ever, I was scared.
Just an hour prior, I'd walked past the very spot where the bomb went off. After some early evening shopping at Macy's, we'd walked down Seventh in search of a place to grab drinks. We'd stopped at 23rd for a moment to explore our options. Had we been delayed another 45 or 50 minutes, we would've ended up in the throes of an explosion.
"For 10 years, I'd treated Manhattan as my playground. I’d stomped around the city’s filthy streets like I was invincible. Now, for the first time ever, I was scared."
But we were safe. Able to check in as such on Facebook. Able to ask questions and search for breaking news. Able to have a nervous laugh with complete strangers at the bar. Able to pretend that things weren't as bad as they seemed.
New Yorkers are tough. But we aren't immune. We aren't immortal. Terrorism is scary whether it's at the hands of a local nut or a skilled attacker. Saturday night was a reminder of the danger at home. That Manhattan isn't just some tourist playland or land of opportunity. It’s also a target.
No matter how long we live here or how tough we think we are, we have to stay vigilant. I may not have been injured by the bomb. But I was blasted into the reality of terrorism at home. I shook off my fear. But it’s an experience I’ll never forget.