Val Ackerman: 'I'll never forget that day'

On Sept. 11, 2001, Val Ackerman, then president of the WNBA, was living about a half-mile from ground zero in Manhattan. Ackerman remembers that horrific day:

For all of us, there are days that are never far from the surface of our minds: the days that bring the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a crowning professional triumph, a searing personal tragedy. For many people, myself included, Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those days.

I experienced 9/11 as an American and a New Yorker, and because I live in lower Manhattan just north of the World Trade Center site, I also felt the effects that that day had on my neighborhood and my family in the weeks, months and years that followed. While I was spared the unimaginable grief of losing a loved one, the collapse of the towers will always be indelibly imprinted on my mind.

The morning of 9/11, my husband, Charlie, and I started the day by dropping off our two daughters at their school in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood just across the East River from downtown Manhattan. The WNBA had completed its fifth season, and my family and I had returned a day earlier from a vacation to West Virginia. My younger daughter, Sally, was starting first grade that day with a shortened, two-hour session, so my plan was to wait in Brooklyn until she was finished and then bring her home.

After Charlie and I left Sally's classroom, he headed off to the subway to go to work in midtown, and I wandered over to a diner a few blocks away to while away the time. As I was approaching the restaurant, I noticed a group of people across the street gesturing wildly and pointing toward the sky in the direction of Manhattan. I walked over to see what they were looking at and immediately saw smoke coming out of the North Tower, which was plainly visible from our vantage point. I asked someone what had happened, and the response was that a small plane had accidentally crashed into the tower.

As our group stood mesmerized, we noticed smoke coming out of the South Tower, and it was soon clear to us that something was very wrong. Someone turned on the radio in a car parked nearby so we could listen to the news reports, and it was then that we became aware that the towers might have been attacked.

With maternal instincts taking over, I ran back to my daughters' school to retrieve them. For whatever reason, my obsession was to get all of us home to our apartment in Tribeca. My older daughter, Emily, then a fourth-grader, had been in an outdoor park near my earlier vantage point when the first plane hit the North Tower. She was now in the school's basement with most of the other students, the school's attempt at keeping everyone safe until they had more news.

After picking up Emily, and then Sally, who was still in her classroom in a separate building nearby, I hustled the three of us to the subway, only to learn that the trains had been suspended. The time was about 9:45 a.m. I remember that the air in Brooklyn Heights was filled with white particles, like it was snowing. I also remember hearing someone on the street say that the Pentagon had just been hit by a plane.

Beginning to panic, I tried to call my husband, but cell phone service was blocked and I couldn't reach him. Not knowing what else to do, I took the girls to the apartment of a friend who lived not far from the school; her daughter and Emily were friends, and they were happy to take us in. It was there, watching the news reports on television, that we learned what had transpired.

I eventually reached my husband. After boarding the subway in Brooklyn, he had a gone a few stops into Manhattan when, at Fulton Street, the subway doors opened and people covered with soot came pouring onto the train. At 14th Street, the train stopped for good, and my husband walked 30 blocks to his law office on 43rd Street, where he watched the South Tower collapse from his office window.

My daughters and I spent much of the day at our friend's place, waiting to hear when we could return to Manhattan. Around 6 p.m., with subways still not running, we learned that city buses had been deployed to shuttle people over the Manhattan Bridge, so we hopped on one and made our way to the eastern part of Canal Street. Charlie met us there in a tearful reunion.

The four of us then walked to our apartment on North Moore Street, which was about a half-mile north of where the North Tower had stood. Many streets around us were already barricaded, and anxious neighbors were gathered in clusters, checking up on one another and exchanging notes. Police officers seemed to be everywhere. That night I remember looking out my living room window and seeing a long procession of military trucks motoring down Varick Street, in the direction of the World Trade Center, and feeling like we were in a war. We heard the sounds of sirens well into the night.

I woke up early the next morning to complete silence. I walked outside and made my way west to Greenwich Street; looking south, I saw a huge pile of crumpled steel beams, still smoking, the remnants of 7 World Trade Center. Rescue crews had descended on the neighborhood in large numbers: I saw emergency personnel from Long Island, New Jersey, federal agencies, the Salvation Army, the National Guard. The enormity of what had happened was beginning to dawn on everyone, and it was all very surreal.

Later that day, the winds shifted, and the particle-filled air that had blown south into Brooklyn the day before began blowing north, this time in our direction. Concerned about toxicity, Charlie and I decided to leave our apartment to join relatives in New Jersey. We returned to Tribeca a few days later. In the weeks that followed, we learned to cope with the new realities: showing our drivers' licenses to gain entry past the "frozen zone" checkpoints that blockaded our neighborhood; learning to live for a while without our car, which was sequestered in a nearby garage; thinking twice whenever we descended into a subway station; hearing neighbors debate whether to move.

Other realities were much more difficult: absorbing the news of the people lost, including the son of a close family friend and several connected to our daughters' school; trying to explain to our young girls what had happened and why; feeling like a sense of security and innocence was forever lost to all of us.

Little by little, as the months and years passed, life in Tribeca and downtown gradually got back to normal. The gaping hole where the original towers stood is now a beehive of activity, as construction crews toil, office workers carry on and tourists with cameras snap away. I walk to ground zero often to reflect on what happened there, on how one day could make such a difference on our world, our country, my neighborhood. I wonder what my daughters internalized about all of those events, since they don't speak about them very often, at least not with Charlie and me. I think about the work I've done in sports and how a day like 9/11 makes sports seem trivial on one hand, and yet a salve on the other.

I'll simply never forget that day.

Related Content