Sep. 11—Mandy Comer and Jill Vaughn didn't know when they stepped outside their Manhattan hotel that crisp Tuesday morning that they'd be around 30 blocks away from history.
They just assumed it was going to be another typical day in the city that never sleeps.
It was Sept. 11, 2001.
In New York City for haircare classes put on at the Redken Exchange, Comer and Vaughn — now living in Howard and Miami counties, respectively — left their hotel that morning and went to Starbucks for a quick pick-me-up before heading to their first class of the day.
But the two women were not prepared for what would happen next.
"As we walked out, everybody on the street was stopped," Vaughn remembered. "It was like people were stopping and facing the same direction. Some were gasping and touching their heads. So we stopped and turned around to look down Fifth Avenue, and you could see a skyscraper on fire. ... And I remember I just grabbed my camera and took a picture."
And though the pair was a bit perplexed at the scene, they also knew it was imperative not to be late to class, Vaughn added.
The women then made their way over to the Redken Exchange building, but both said the mood just felt "off" as they boarded the elevator that took them to the second floor.
It wasn't until those elevator doors opened back up that the women really saw just how "off" the world had become.
"You could pretty much see the TV the second we got off the elevator," Vaughn said. "It was live footage at the time, and it was the World Trade Center on fire. Pretty much a couple seconds later I feel like is when the second plane hit. And then that's when it was like, 'Oh no, this is not an accident. This is bad.'"
Comer, in a separate interview earlier this month, said she remembered that same feeling of dread.
"Everyone was pretty much in a panic," she said. "After the first tower was hit, people didn't really know what was happening. Was it an accident? Was it just a strange occurrence? But after the second tower, I think everybody knew it was much more sinister than that."
For Vaughn, a self-described "military brat," there was only one word that came to mind as she watched what was unfolding in front of her eyes.
"I instantly thought, 'That's terrorism. That was on purpose. This is bad,'" she noted. "And I burst into tears because my dad had only been retired since 1994, and I thought that I was going to get home, and he'd be called up. And I thought my boyfriend was going to get called up. I was just devastated. I thought, 'Here we go, we're going to go to war, and they're going to take my family away to fight it.'
"But then I started thinking of all of the people in that room that knew people that were down there (at the World Trade Center), and then I just thought about the actual people that were there, too. And it just all kind of hit me at that point," Vaughn added.
Another detail that caught the women's attention is how quiet Manhattan's Fifth Avenue became.
"At the Redken Exchange, all of the outside walls were windows," Comer said. "I do remember at one point seeing a few people running by with their briefcases, and some were just walking by. That was eye-opening for me because I wondered if those that were running had been down there."
Vaughn shared a similar memory of that particular scene.
"It was just weird to see how quiet it all seemed (afterward)," she said. "In the morning in New York City like that, you'd typically have 100 taxis an hour passing by just that little block. Then all of a sudden, there was really none. Or you'd typically see hundreds of people walking by, and then it just seemed like you could actually sit there and count them. It was all just an odd experience."
Later that afternoon — after the lockdown of their building was lifted — Comer and Vaughn were allowed to leave, as long as they promised to head straight back to their hotel.
Classes for the rest of the week were canceled, and that meant the pair had to figure out a way to get back home to the Hoosier state.
In the initial aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attack, all major modes of transportation — such as trains, buses and airplanes — in New York City were shut down, leaving the women no choice but to stay there until later in the week.
By then, Vaughn's boyfriend — now husband — and her sister were able to drive straight through to pick them up, and the four of them then drove straight through, again, back to Indiana.
Once back home, with a few states separating the women from Ground Zero, the pair had time to reflect on just what had happened.
"Definitely arriving home, there were lots of hugs and tears and just being thankful to be there," Comer said. "But it was also a feeling of 'I was in New York City when this happened.' I was far enough away from it that it wasn't a direct threat I guess, but it was all very humbling to know that I was actually there."
And even now, 20 years later, both women said it's still a surreal moment in time that will connect them together forever.
Life has changed for Comer and Vaughn since that Tuesday morning in September 2001.
They both have families and careers that have taken them to separate areas, and the pair admitted that they don't get together as often as they'd like.
But last year, the women were able to meet up for lunch and just reminisce about their shared experiences.
"It was just a way for us to come together and remember," Vaughn said. Sept. 11 "is kind of like our 'Thinking of you day.' We always try to reach out to each other on that day in some way."
Comer and Vaughn also said they can't believe it's already been 20 years since the attacks, saying that there are scenes they remember almost as vividly as if it happened yesterday.
"It definitely affects me, and I definitely think about it," Vaughn noted. "It's a big piece of history that I got to be a part of that I really didn't choose to be. ... Obviously everybody there had it way worse than me, though, because I basically got to leave and come home. They had to stay there and pick up the pieces. But it's still a big deal in my life and a big deal when the day comes around.
"Seeing how much the world has changed just from that single event, and to say I was there when it happened, it's a crazy feeling," she continued. "I mean, I was actually in New York City on 9/11. Being from Indiana, what a random thing to be able to say."
Kim Dunlap can be reached at 765-860-3256 or at email@example.com.