Artie Van Why moved to New York City in 1977 with the goal of becoming a theater actor. For ten years he played parts here and there, but when his career started looking bleak, he decided to get a “real job,” as he says, working for a midsize law firm. In 2001, after 11 years working for the firm, they merged with another group and asked Artie if he would like to move to their new location. “I thought, ‘Do I try to go back to theater, or what should I do? Here’s a chance to change. I mean, I’m still young,’” he remembers. He ultimately decided to stay with the firm. “I often go back to that one decision… how that one decision must have altered the rest of my life,” Artie muses.
The new location of the firm was across from the World Trade Center.
On the morning of September 11th, Artie went about his normal daily routine. He woke up at his Midtown apartment, got on the subway, got off, bought a cup of coffee from a vendor and went to a newsstand to buy a paper. “And then I’d go over into the plaza area of the World Trade Center and just sit there and read the paper, drink coffee, and watch people go into work,” he says. “The thing that strikes me the most is how beautiful it was that day. Especially sitting outside there. I remember distinctly looking at the blue sky and thinking I’d never seen a color like that before. It was just so beautiful.”
Artie walked into work, took the elevator to the 23rd floor of his building, and was there for 15 minutes before he heard the first explosion. A secretary ran into the office, crying hysterically, yelling that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. “My first thought was a tiny prop plane,” he recalls, “like a personal little plane, and the man had a heart attack and crashed in. That’s what I was envisioning, and so, to be honest, I wanted to mostly go down out of curiosity to see.”
Artie took the elevator downstairs to the lobby and walked out into the street. “The first thing that hit me as soon as I hit the street was that it was covered with paper. Sheets of paper. Paper was everywhere,” he says. “It looked like blankets of snow and papers were coming down from the sky, all the office papers from the tower.”
Without thinking, Artie started walking toward the Trade Center buildings, seeing chunks of insulation and metal in the street. “Then I hit Church Street,” he stops. “I look up and see that North Tower. And I can’t even begin to describe what that felt like, because it was just something that I had never even imagined.”
By that point the buildings were evacuating and Artie was swept up in a sea of onlookers gawking at the tower, trying to figure out what had happened. “Then, as we looked more and more,” he continues, “I noticed there were people at the windows… people hanging out the windows waving shirts, articles of clothing… and during this, there’s debris just falling down the side of the North Tower… and then I noticed people getting up into the windows.” “I remember… when I saw the first person jump, a woman behind me screamed. And my reaction — I just started screaming the word ‘NO’ over and over again. I started running towards the North Tower. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do, but I know my motivation. I was thinking, ‘What if someone was still alive?’ I didn’t want them to be alone. I don’t know. It was a pressing, pressing obligation for me somehow.”
As he ran under the large awning under one of the buildings, with large chunks of debris now falling all around, Artie got caught up in a group of people being ushered away from the buildings by security guards. As he moved with the crowd, Artie heard another deafening sound. He looked up and witnessed the plane crashing into the second tower. “Everyone just started running literally for our lives. Metal was falling around us. At one point, I fell to the ground and people started running on top of me, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die,’” Artie says. But he was able to get up and keep running.
There is much more to Artie’s story of that day. Stories about helping injured people in the streets. Stories about the Towers collapsing and having to outrun a giant white wall of dust. Stories about trying to find a phone, hiding in a restaurant, walking in soundless streets until he reached his own apartment. And stories that continue to this day about Artie’s journey of recovery from the trauma of that event in September that would change his life forever.
Using writing as therapy, Artie turned his emails to friends into a one-man play, titled That Day in September, which he performed in Los Angeles and New York. He then turned the play into a memoir. He now speaks to schools, colleges, groups and other organizations across the country about his experiences on that day, as well as discussing his ongoing struggle with the PTSD that has affected his life ever since he witnessed one of America’s most tragic events firsthand.
Visit www.artievanwhy.com for speaking inquiries, to purchase his book, or to obtain rights to his play.